The Pros and Cons of Downtown Family Living

By Jessica Engelmann

When I moved to Portland five years ago, I moved because I was looking to put down roots.  At the time, I lived in Washington DC, but I was contemplating a move to Chicago.  I had spent a decade hopping from city to city, and it was time to sit still, at least for a little while. 

In 2007, I visited a friend who was living in Portland.  What I found blew me away. It felt urban, yet human.  It was amazingly green.  Walking, biking, and taking public transportation seemed effortless.  There were farmer’s markets, kids, dogs, and trees everywhere!  There were so many people walking around.  It felt sort of European, with an American twist.  I fell in love.

Fast forward to today.   I live in Portland, with my husband and one-year-old daughter.   We own a modest, 830 square ft., two-bedroom condo, in the heart of the city, just a few minutes walk from Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland State University, and Waterfront Park.  

As a single, twenty something I would have looked at this life with envy.  And, it’s true.  In many ways, downtown Portland is everything my husband and I could ever want.   It’s walkable , convenient, and vibrant.  It’s a fun place to live. 

But we aren’t in our twenties anymore. We’ve hit our mid/late thirties and have a child. We can’t help asking ourselves, “Is fun all that matters?  Is the center of the city the right place to be raising a family?”

I’m an urban planner by training, so the context in which I live is immensely important.  Personally, I know where I live can make or break my mood, my health, and even my bank account.  There are always tradeoffs when deciding where to live.   What can I afford?  What is nearby?  Is a yard important?  How much living space do I need? What kind of commute am I willing to endure?  No place is perfect, and as we move through life, the weighing of these tradeoffs change.

As my husband and I consider whether we should stay downtown and raise a family our calculus has shifted. It’s not just that we’re making these decisions for ourselves anymore.  They are also for our daughter. 

To get a general sense of some of things we contemplate, here is our list of pros and cons of living downtown as a family:

Pros

  • We can easily walk most places for our daily needs. I shop for most everything downtown, with the exception of some things I buy at big box stores.  I am hopeful a new City Target, opening this summer, will help fill this gap.
  • We particularly like that we can do our grocery shopping more frequently, walking to the store (3 short blocks), and only buying what we need for a few days.  This allows/encourages us to eat healthier.  Proximity to a grocery store is critical for us.
  •  It's an easy, short, stress free commute to work.  My husband walks 15 minutes to work.  This saves us precious time.  Time is always valuable, but even more so now.
  • Generally, there is good pedestrian infrastructure downtown - sidewalks, curb ramps, wide sidewalks, attractive streetscaping, etc.  There are certainly places where it could be better, but generally it's pretty good.  
  • There is exceptionally easy access to transit and car sharing.  Because of  this, we only own one car, which helps us save money.
  • I love being near cultural and community attractions, like museums, the zoo, waterfront, farmers markets, and parks with fountains to play in. This is what makes the city fun.  The zoo is roughly 25 minutes by public transportation.  We can reach everything else, on foot, within 10 minutes. 
  • I enjoy living in a building where neighbor interactions come regularly and naturally with a wide array of people.   It makes us feel we are part of a larger community.

Cons

  • There are no public schools within walking distance.   The school district we live in is ranked very highly, but the elementary school is far away, so far away that the kids in the neighborhood are bussed to school. Like grocery stores, we place a high premium on having my daughter be able to walk to school.
  • Noise and air pollution from traffic.  The noise from auto traffic is annoying. The air pollution is just worrisome. We are concerned we’re doing long-term harm to our daughter by subjecting her to so much exhaust. 
  • Lack of high quality daycare facilities and preschools downtown.  There are some very good ones, but they are difficult to get into, particularly if you're not affiliated with the university or a government agency.
  • There needs to be more grocery stores downtown to support more residents.  We are fortunate to live near a Safeway.  There are still some pockets of downtown where it would be incredibly inconvenient to go grocery shopping.
  • By forfeiting a private yard, families need even more courtyards, public playgrounds, parks, and open spaces.  I plan to use the expansive lawns, in the car-free area of Portland State University’s campus as a front yard, but again there are few areas like this downtown.
  • Sense of safety.  A large number of people are living on the streets, often showing signs of untreated mental illness.  We’ve lived in cities long enough that we feel we can handle this, but it doesn't always make us feel safe.  
  • Large, auto-dominated roadways can be difficult and unsafe to cross.  We do it almost daily.  I cringe every time.
  • Lack of affordable housing with floor plans that are suitable for a family.  For example, places with 3 bedroom floor plans, etc. near schools, daycare, groceries, parks, etc. 

Despite the challenges, we still enjoy living downtown.  It makes us feel connected.  For now, I think we’ll stay.  The pros still outweigh the cons.  We have a few more years before our daughter goes to school.  At that point, we can reevaluate.  I’m hopeful we can continue to make it work.

 

Jessica Engelmann is an urban planner, living in Portland, Oregon.  She currently serves on the board of Oregon Walks, a non-profit, dedicated to promoting walking and making the conditions for walking safe, convenient, and attractive for everyone.