There’s a condo development down the street from my urban Ottawa community, about 4 km from Parliament Hill. When they were selling units, the developer advertised “hotel-style living.” For those who travel a lot for work, truly, can you think of anything worse? Hotel-style living—you mean I can have a very small space, where no one knows me and I know no one, where the food doesn’t suit me and everything costs more than it should? Wow! Where do I sign up?
This condo development looms over a small public park in a neighbourhood otherwise filled with older single family homes. There’s play equipment that, as far as I can tell, goes unused. Adults play basketball and bike polo on the basketball court. There’s a spot for bocce ball (this is Little Italy after all). All this is situated two streets in from a very popular strip filled with restaurants, bars, one comedy club. Plus there are employers nearby: Government, plus private enterprise. Across the street, our neighbourhood Italian grandma sits in good weather and watches the street from her front porch—handing out small glasses of cherry liquor when you come to say hello.
To round out a picture of our city street, on Good Friday this year, we were awakened by loud banging—it was the police busting down some doors for a drug bust. That unit is still doing penance, empty and boarded up today.
Certainly, there are some children next door and some down the street who wait for a school bus in the mornings. Yet I can count the families on our street on one hand. There is no critical mass of kids. And if the new glassy condo down the street indicates anything, and it does, the proportion of children in the neighbourhood is about to go down, not up.
As I considered what makes a good city for families, I was drawn to an alternate question, which is how do families make the city good?
These are not the same question, but both are worth pondering.
What makes a good city for families?
There are likely different answers for everyone, but some constants. Back in 2010 we did a grading of 33 Canadian cities for family friendliness. For this report, we measured the following concerns, among others:
- Community feel
- Education choice
- Economic strength
Each broad category had sub-categories. For example, “community feel” included green space and bike paths as well as charitable filings and neighbourhood stability. We found census data on who had lived in the area for at least five years. We used charitable giving as a proxy for care and concern for those around us—the kind of virtue that makes a community into a real community. Here, we also included crime—we used the homicide rate as a proxy for other crimes, like gang activity, robbery and drug use.
Two of the other important categories included the ability of a family to get by financially. Cost of living tapped into the consumer price index as well as rental costs and the rate and cost of home ownership—a growing concern for families in urban centres. Economic strength got at notions of economic security. To what extent would families be able to find work and make a living in a particular city? What is the average family income and what is the average family tax take? How do stable families also contribute to the economy?
Under the umbrella of economic strength we included population growth rate. An expanding population means more services, more stores and more opportunities in general. This can happen in a number of different ways, and Canada is fortunate to have a high number of immigrants who come here and contribute.
Increasing population, however, is not only a matter of immigration. Even high rates of immigration have not necessarily shown that we get a higher number of children. Increasing population also refers to the Canadian fertility rate, which currently hovers below replacement. Replacement fertility is 2.1 and we sit somewhere around 1.6 children per woman of childbearing age.
This is the trend for all wealthy nations. As a result, some scholars indicate we are living in a "post-familial" age. What post-familialism means is that where previously family was considered the bedrock of community and society, today, this is no longer true. In Canada it was announced with Census 2011 that “there were more one-person households than couple households with children for the first time.”
How do stable families make the city good?
If we think in terms of stakeholder groups—and I understand families writ-large aren’t one—but work with me for a second. If city planners and condo developers are to consider what is useful to the people around them, they currently are seeing far more single individuals than families. People do buy those “hotel style condos” that fit one, maximum two people, for the most part.
If we don’t like what those developments represent, which is the atomization and individualization of society, then we need to consider why builders keep building them.
This leads into a bit of a chicken and egg discussion—can we attract families to urban centres with just the right combination of green space and parks, a low crime rate and economic opportunities? Or do we need more families such that they make cities from the ground up regardless of any enticements?
I started by discussing our lovely street in urban Ottawa. I can see the developments—both demographically and by developers—and in due course it will only be “Little Italy” in a historic sense. Many more of the single family dwellings will be bought up to make more condos. If I were to conclude with a hypothesis, it would be this: Be it resolved that stable families bring more good to cities than cities can bring good to families. For what is a city without people?