“Everybody talks about children being our future,” said Norman Yee, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. “If you have no children around, what’s our future?”
As an urban renaissance has swept through major American cities in recent decades, San Francisco’s population has risen to historical highs and a forest of skyscraping condominiums has replaced tumbledown warehouses and abandoned wharves. At the same time, the share of children in San Francisco fell to 13 percent, low even compared with another expensive city, New York, with 21 percent. In Chicago, 23 percent of the population is under 18 years old, which is also the overall average across the United States.
California, which has one of the world’s 10 largest economies, recently released data showing the lowest birthrate since the Great Depression.
As San Francisco moves toward a one-industry town with soaring costs, the dearth of children is one more change that raises questions about its character. Are fewer children making San Francisco more one-dimensional and less vibrant? The answer is subjective and part of an impassioned debate over whether a new, wealthier San Francisco can retain the allure of the city it is replacing.
Many immigrant and other residential areas of San Francisco still have their share of the very young and the very old. The sidewalks of some wealthy enclaves even have stroller gridlock on weekends. But when you walk through the growing number of neighborhoods where employees of Google, Twitter and so many other technology companies live or work, the sidewalks display a narrow band of humanity, as if life started at 22 and ended somewhere around 40.
“Sometimes I’ll be walking through the city and I’ll see a child and think, ‘Hey, wait a second. What are you doing here?’” said Courtney Nam, who works downtown at a tech start-up. “You don’t really see that many kids.”
There is one statistic that the city’s natives have heard too many times. San Francisco, population 865,000, has roughly the same number of dogs as children: 120,000. In many areas of the city, pet grooming shops seem more common than schools.
In an interview last year, Peter Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley investor and a co-founder of PayPal, described San Francisco as “structurally hostile to families.”
Prohibitive housing costs are not the only reason there are relatively few children. A public school system of uneven quality, the attractiveness of the less-foggy suburbs to families, and the large number of gay men and women, many of them childless, have all played roles in the decline in the number of children, which began with white flight from the city in the 1970s. The tech boom now reinforces the notion that San Francisco is a place for the young, single and rich.
“If you get to the age that you’re going to have kids in San Francisco and you haven’t made your million — or more — you probably begin to think you have to leave,” said Richard Florida, an expert in urban demographics and author of “The Rise of the Creative Class.”
Mr. Florida sees a larger national trend. Jobs in America have become more specialized and the country’s demography has become more segmented, he says. Technology workers who move to San Francisco and Silicon Valley anticipate long hours and know they may have to put off having families.
“It’s a statement on our age that in order to make it in our more advanced, best and most-skilled industries you really have to sacrifice,” Mr. Florida said. “And the sacrifice may be your family.”
In 1970, a quarter of San Francisco’s residents were children, nearly twice the level of today. The overall demographic picture of San Francisco is a city with more men than women — 103 for every 100 women — and with no ethnic majority. Whites make up slightly less than half the population, Asians about one-third and Latinos 15 percent. The black population has markedly declined and stands around 6 percent.
A report released on Tuesday by the San Francisco Planning Department said the building boom in the city, which for the most part has introduced more studios and one-bedroom apartments, was unlikely to bring in more families. For every 100 apartments in the city sold at market rates, the San Francisco school district expects to enroll only one additional student, the report said.
Mr. Yee, the supervisor, is urging his colleagues to hold hearings next month on the issue of children.
“For me it’s part of the fabric of what a city should have,” he said. “It makes us all care more.”
A few recent initiatives have sought to make the city friendlier to families. San Francisco is the first city in the United States to require employers to offer six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents, a law that came into effect this month.
The city has also invested millions in upgrading parks, according to Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department.
“We are trying to do our part to send a very strong message that San Francisco is an awesome place for kids,” Mr. Ginsburg said. The city has increased its offerings for summer programs, many of which were fully enrolled last summer.
Yet even those with the means to stay find themselves looking elsewhere when children come along.
Liz Devlin, a senior manager at Twitter, which like other technology companies offers generous parental leave, took 20 weeks off at full pay when her second child, Jack, was born in 2014.
Living in a three-bedroom apartment in the Marina district, Ms. Devlin said, she considered San Francisco a “phenomenal place to raise kids.”
But last July when the energetic Jack turned 2, she and her husband decided it was time to leave.
“In terms of cost of living, space and schools I think it’s definitely attractive for people to look outside the city,” said Ms. Devlin, who moved across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County.
Those who make it work in San Francisco speak of the compromises.
Jean Covington, a San Francisco resident who works as a public defender in Contra Costa County, said she noticed a “pilgrimage” of her friends out of the city when children reached school age. When she decided to stick it out, she was confronted with what she described as a bewildering public school selection system governed by an algorithm that determines where children in the city are placed — sometimes miles from home.
When her daughter turned 5, Ms. Covington applied to 14 public kindergartens, but her child ended up being placed in another. She chose a private school instead, along with the strain on the family budget that it entailed.
“Everyone starts off with the same dreams: ‘I’m going to make it work in the city, and I’m going to be the family that sticks it out,’” Ms. Covington said of her friends. “And suddenly the one bathroom in their flat becomes two or three too few. And the school system is too daunting.”
San Francisco’s public school system has around 53,000 students, a sharp drop from 90,000 in 1970.
The decline is a reflection both of families leaving the city and wealthier parents sending their children to private schools. Around 30 percent of San Francisco children attend private school, the highest rate among large American cities.
More than 10 private schools have opened in San Francisco since 2009, according to a tally by Elizabeth Weise, a journalist who writes a blog on the subject.
Opinion is divided on whether having fewer children in the city is something San Francisco should worry about.
Mr. Florida, the expert in urban demographics, said a lack of children made a city “a little bit more of a colder or harder place.”
Mr. Lee, the software engineer, said he loved San Francisco — the weather, the food, the friends he has made. But the city, he said, feels somewhat detached from the life cycle.
“It’s similar to when you go to college and you are surrounded by people who are in the same life stage or who have the same attitude about what their priorities are,” Mr. Lee said. “That’s all you see: people who are exactly like you.”