Toronto’s Deputy Mayor, Doug Holyday, evoked political controversy this summer when he objected to the requirement that 10% of the units in a new condo development be 3-bedroom, family-friendly units. Mr. Holyday referred to the requirement as “social engineering.” He expressed reluctance to dictate that the developer build 3-bedroom units when there “may or may not be a market for it,” and alienated his urban colleagues and parents when he said the downtown core was “not an ideal place to raise children.”
Toronto currently has a record number of new condo developments, outpacing both Mexico City and New York City by more than 40 projects. Toronto’s downtown core is full of new condo developments, many of which are investment properties rather than owner-occupied homes for the city’s inhabitants. Many real estate agents share the Deputy Mayor’s concern that in an investor-driven market, there is little demand for larger condo units. According to one expert, larger condos are more difficult to rent and to flip, making them a greater risk and less profitable.
But while the commoditization of housing is itself deeply worrisome and a worthy blog topic for another day, the Deputy Mayor’s reluctance to support the creation of spaces for families is disappointing. If the city is not a place to raise children, why not? And if it is not a place to raise children, what is it a place to do?
If urban development is such that there is no room for families, our cities risk becoming little more than commercial and economic hubs rather than genuine communities. They become places we go to consume and produce and move on, rather than to establish roots and diverse community networks and a sense of belonging.
In this scenario, singles and couples may move into the urban core to study or start their careers but many of them will move out to the suburbs when they trade in their transit passes, compact cars, and nights out at local restaurants for minivans, children’s music lessons, and soccer practices. Their own children may follow similar patterns when they grow up, attend college or university, and start to have families of their own.
This transient dimension of city life makes it difficult to build strong networks of families, sports associations, or faith communities. And it risks dismantling them once established. Bifurcating our living areas into “working cities” and “living suburbs” thrreatens to turn the former into what David Koyzis referred to as “clusters of adjacent buildings,” where occupants have little long-term commitment to their neighbourhood or to each other. It also turns high-traffic areas such as Toronto’s “restaurant row” or my neighbourhood St. Lawrence Market into dumping grounds for consumers and tourists, who literally discard their waste on streets and green spaces as they pass through.
If this is the kind of city we want, then let the developers, investors, and Deputy Mayor have their way. If it is not, then what the Deputy Mayor refers to as “social engineering” may be nothing more than prudent urban planning.