Extreme Seattle

New demographic figures make clear what a statistical outlier Seattle is, with few families, few kids, high education, and rapid gentrification. Only San Francisco can compare.

The magic number is 2.08. This is the average number of persons per Seattle household in 2006, according to the American Community Survey. This is amazing and extreme! Our closest rivals among big cities are Portland and San Francisco at 2.24, and the national average is 2.61. Why is it so low?

A related statistic is the share of households that are families with children; the Seattle share is 19 percent, San Francisco 18 (lowest in the country), and Portland 24. (The U.S. average is 31 percent share of families with children.) Conversely, the share of non-family households (singles, unmarried partners) is 55 percent (33 for the U.S.). Seattle is only slightly behind the winner, San Francisco, in the share of adults never married (51 percent to 52 percent, 30 for the U.S.). Lastly, the proportion of the population under 15 is 13 percent in Seattle and San Francisco, 18 percent in Portland, and 20 percent nationally.

Those amazing demographic facts are only part of the story. Also remarkable is our share of adults with a college degree or higher, at 53 percent, the highest in the nation for a large city (U.S. is 27 percent), and we are tied with San Francisco for the highest share of professional and managerial workers, at 52 percent (U.S. average is 33 percent). And, fellow townsfolk, our share of SOV commuters is unusually low at 54 percent, compared to 76 percent nationally, and (ahem) a higher 61 percent for our rival new urbanist city, Portland. Over the period 1990-2006, according to the U.S. Census, median household incomes rose 100 percent in Seattle compared to 61 for the nation, and median family incomes 109 percent compared to 66 percent for the U.S. Finally, during that same 16 years, median housing values increased 3.3 times in Seattle compared to 2.3 times for the U.S.

These characteristics and changes are not a result of growth management, or the new urbanist vision underlying Seattle planning, or the mayor or City Council. Rather, the story is one of gentrification — that is, the partial replacement/displacement of the less affluent by more affluent (and professional and educated) households, as demonstrated by the data on income and home values. Planning has certainly encouraged this process, but already in 1990 the city had become a statistical outlier city by many of these measures. Planning reinforced market forces; but those singles, partners, professionals, and empty nesters recognized the inherent attractiveness of the city.

As to why Seattle is so unusual, I speculate that the number one reason is the presence of the University of Washington — its sheer size, its collosal research funding, its high-tech spinoffs. And to what do we owe its power? The key person was Sen. Warren Magnuson, who made possible the transformation of the UW into a great university through the development of the health sciences complex.

As for the rest of the greater Seattle metropolitan area (5/6 of it), it is by contrast to Seattle quite "normal" by national standards, which is why it absorbs over 90 percent of net job and population growth over the last 20 years. The city is what it is — neither good nor bad, a place characterized by a kind of intellectual class, created by self-selection and reinforced by idealist planning. Its outlier character makes Seattle a fabulous place for its advocates and probably the majority of its residents; but it is not the "right place" for the large majority of the metropolitan population and jobs. Fortunately the Seattle model depends on the character of its residents, noted above, and is not exportable to the rest of the urban region (however much Seattle idealists might believe).

The upside of the Seattle life is excitement, creativity, tolerance, and achieving a degree of "greenness"; the downside is housing and rent unaffordability, excess regulation/nanniness, and surprisingly, considering the rhetoric of urban village community building, a lack of sense of community, because of the high transiency of a non-family population. Sidewalk cafes may be symbolic, but PTAs and soccer leagues are real.

Richard Morrill is an urban demographer and taught for many years at the University of Washington's Department of Geography. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Aug 27, 8:43 a.m. Inappropriate

The key to Seattle is Redmond: As to why Seattle is so unusual, I speculate that the number one reason is the presence of the University of Washington

Are you kidding? The reason Seattle is so unusual is obvious - Microsoft. Microsoft stock options, salaries, and the percolation of that money to other industries (real estate, restaurant, automobile, tech startups, UW endowments, etc.) account for pretty much all of the money in this town. That place once cranked out millionaires like Oscar Meyer cranks out hot dogs.

And Microsoft has drawn legions of young and single people to Seattle, many from San Francisco, and many of whom lack the time, social skills, or desire to settle down and start a family.
Sean

Posted Wed, Aug 27, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd be interested to hear more about Seattle's supposed "tolerance": Of things that traditionally fall under the rubric of multiculturalism, certainly. Of divergent viewpoints, especially political and religious? I'm not so sure.

Posted Wed, Aug 27, 4:51 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: The key to Seattle is Redmond: of course Microsoft has become as important a force, but the UW was instrumental in the late 70s in getting the gentrification process under way - before Microsoft became so important.

DMorrill

Posted Wed, Aug 27, 4:59 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: The key to Seattle is Redmond: In spite of Statement's by Bill G - father and son, Microsoft's success has not at all been dependent on the brain factor of the UW. They have imported talent with real world resume's - the overall 'quality' of which is certainly open to debate.

One related question I have is how much real estate money have we imported into Seattle from those relocating here seeking to be part of the MS boom, directly or indirectly. I don't know the answer to that question, but I'd not be surprised if it dwarfed the amount of money imported into the region by Microsoft's service exports.

All the more likely it dwarfs that on any value created by the UW.

-Douglas Tooley

Posted Wed, Aug 27, 5:02 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: The key to Seattle is Redmond: And of those gold diggers that moved here seeking MS Money, how many took more than they left at their previous corporations and/or communities....?

Posted Thu, Aug 28, 6:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Excess regulation compared to...?: I'm interested in hearing more about your offhand comment that Seattle supposedly has an excess of regulation. Compared to what? By what measure?

I've lived in several places across the country and abroad and I haven't seen that Seattle has more regulation. Maybe the reality is we have more people whinging about that regulation, working from a sense of the fabled free West?

Posted Thu, Aug 28, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: I'd be interested to hear more about Seattle's supposed "tolerance": You're right. Seattle's tolerance is limited! We certainly like telling others how to live!

DMorrill

Posted Thu, Aug 28, 12:37 p.m. Inappropriate

UW Graduate Salaries: Although I'm a fan of Morrill's this piece is not entirely consistent, logically, and economically.

Morrill is a great advocate of that 5/6 slice of reality pie, but yet here he seems to be advocating for the salaries of UW graduates who are seeking to serve their 1/6 slice and not the rest of the region, let alone State.

This same argument is also made by Morrill's former boss, Bill Beyers, best known for doing the Kingdome Mariners economic benefit study.

Perhaps Dr. Morrill would like to address the Universities performance in this area?

For more related on the topic see my blog, here.

Posted Fri, Aug 29, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: I'd be interested to hear more about Seattle's supposed "tolerance": Seattle has all the tolerance of a country club. As long as you fit in, you're tolerated. Seattle just employs what many would consider a rather eccentric list of attributes for the membership committee to take into consideration when weeding out undesirables.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Sep 3, 11:23 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: UW Graduate Salaries: No comment from Morrill as of 9/3, go figure.

Posted Mon, Sep 8, 1:37 a.m. Inappropriate

california dui: The reason Seattle is so unusual is obvious - Microsoft. Microsoft stock options, salaries, and the percolation of that money to other industries (real estate, restaurant, automobile, tech start ups,UW endowments, etc.) account for pretty much all of the money in this town. That place once cranked out millionaires like Oscar Meyer cranks out hot dogs.

california dui

Posted Tue, Jan 5, 3:47 p.m. Inappropriate

You've all missed it. Seattle is unusual because it is beautiful.

mikemcc

Posted Mon, Aug 30, 1:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting.

I wonder if the mix of housing, particularly for a city of Seattle's size could be a factor in Seattle's outlierness. It would also be interesting to compare a Seattle metro that included cities directly south and north and see if some of the outlierness goes away.

What someone with experience of the East Coast finds strange (to this day, 17 years since I moved here) is how quick locals are to describe areas of the city as sketchy, which is Northwest code for ghetto, which would not warrant that description on other side of the Mississippi.

RobCrowe

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