Keeping Kids Downtown - A Philadelphia Approach


As children return to classes in Philadelphia this week, more than half of the kindergarteners attending three downtown public elementary schools will come from their immediate middle-income neighborhoods. Three private schools that also serve this area, drawing over 70 percent of their enrollment from downtown families, are bursting at the seams. Having doubled and tripled pre-school programs over the last half decade, each is now physically expanding to accommodate the 11,200 children, born to downtown parents between 2000 and 2005. But you don’t need birth or enrollment numbers to see what’s happening; just look for strollers, new toy and book stores, and parents and babysitters in the playgrounds.

For almost two decades, journalists and academics have been heralding the return of the middle class to the downtown of American cities and their transformative effect on housing, retail and the use of public spaces. But there haven’t been many stories on children because, until recently, there haven’t been many kids downtown. Downtown markets have largely been driven by young, childless professionals and empty-nesters.

In a detailed look at downtown demographics, Eugenie L. Birch’s “Who Lives Downtown” (The Brookings Institution, November 2005) also noted that the number of new housing units and residents downtown may be welcome, but still represent a quite small phenomena both in absolute and relative regional terms. As with any new product, most downtowns started with what’s easiest: catering to those who value proximity to work and have more interest in theaters and cafes than schools and playgrounds.

In a typology of 45 central cities, Birch also highlighted five fully-developed downtowns - Boston, Midtown and Lower Manhattan, Chicago, and Philadelphia - which were relatively large (averaging 43,623 households), densely settled (averaging 23 households per acre) and were home to almost half of the nation’s downtown households. These cities share several characteristics: strong downtown employment, well-developed middle class neighborhoods with diverse housing options, and the fact that they’ve been at it awhile - adding households each decade since 1970. Terms like pioneers and early settlers went out of vogue in these cities more than thirty years ago.

For mayors, business and civic leaders in places just beginning to repopulate downtown, these more developed places suggest an agenda for the coming decade. As cities got cleaner and safer in the 1990s, as employers sought more tech-savvy workers, downtown populations got larger and younger. In 2000, nearly a third of dwellers in the five fully-developed downtowns were between the ages of 25 and 34. It’s become a cliché to note how television programs like “Seinfield” and “Friends” reflected and influenced the attitude about cities among the generation that came of age in the 1990s. Well here’s another truism: when downtowns fill with young professionals who all have been watching “Sex and the City,” someone’s bound to get pregnant.

The experience in Philadelphia is illustrative. Since the 1960s, the downtown population has been steadily growing. But as families had children, most moved to the suburbs. Some remained for pre-school, but the 2000 census counted 26 percent fewer 5-9 year olds downtown than the number of children under age five. But a citywide, ten-year tax abatement passed in 1997 altered the trend, prompting over 10,000 new units of city center housing and pushing downtown’s population over 90,000. Between 1970 and 2000 the number of 25-34 year-olds also doubled from 15 to 30 percent of downtown’s population.

While young professionals and empty nesters initially defined the market, a 2006 survey of downtown residents found that 21.6 percent of 35-44 year olds and 22.3 percent of 45-54 year olds had children living with them. After deferring child-rearing for careers in downtown office buildings, hospitals and universities, a growing number were staying in town as they had children. A 2005 survey of 37 downtown day-care centers documented a 43 percent increase in enrollment.

The state takeover of the Philadelphia school district in 2001 created an opening to capitalize on this trend. Like many big city school districts, the majority of Philadelphia public school students come from disadvantaged families. Underfunded schools were plagued by poor performance, inflexible bureaucracies and union rules. But the new School Reform Commission (SRC) was empowered and funded by the state to make dramatic change. A dynamic new superintendent, Paul Vallas, aggressively pushed diversified management, operating some schools as public, some as charter, contracting others out privately. But all schools were given new resources; principals were empowered to make change; and teachers and students were held equally accountable for improved performance.

With school test-scores and public image rising, the Center City District (CCD), a business-supported improvement district, partnered with the Philadelphia School District on a downtown schools initiative. Recognizing that the primary mission of the public schools was to provide quality options for families with limited means and limited choice, both the SRC and the CCD saw advantages if public schools could capture a growing share of families who traditionally selected private schools or simply left the city.

Working with school principals and parent groups, the CCD built websites for the first time for 13 elementary public schools in and adjacent to downtown. A master website,, highlights all public, private, charter and parochial schools that serve downtown and “the opportunity to be more involved in your child’s life through the unique shared experiences that come from working, playing, living and learning right here.” Ads placed in parent-oriented newspapers and civic association newsletters promote the website and school events. The CCD, school district and nearly all the private, parochial and charter schools participated in two well-attended school fairs in the fall of 2005 and 2006 that showcased the educational options available for parents.

Five years on, the leadership of the school district has changed. But the momentum continues to build as energized parent groups this fall continue to reshape their schools, pushing for improvements to curriculum, arts programs and playgrounds. Demographic trends have provided an opportunity for Philadelphia and for all center cities to reinvent themselves again: this time as places for families and children.

Paul R. Levy is President and CEO of the Center City District in Philadelphia. Information about the organization and reports on demographic and housing trends can be found on the website

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Real Improvement

Dear Mr. Levy,
Thank you for turning Center City around. I believe that your work has played a key role in catalyzing Philadelphia's revitalization.
Your accomplishments have inspired me to go into urban planning. I hope to contribute to Philly's development and help continue the progress you have started, allowing the next generation to enjoy a clean and safe(r) city.
Thank you again.

What about some more health

What about some more health administration schools in this area? I know that lots of people would choose such a career if they had this in close proximity to their home.