Apartment living and women’s empowerment

Back when North American metropolitan areas were laid out, in suburbs connected by freeways, women typically stayed home to raise the 3.9 children that was typical for a woman to have in 1961.

The entire metro area design evolved interconnected with this dominant idea about womanhood as motherhood.  Suburbs detached from work areas; malls and shopping detached from home, such that it was a full time job to drive around to provision a home and get kids to and from activities.

Today, suburban living requires almost the same commitment — one parent must devote herself (or himself) to keeping up a suburban home, even if there are no longer 3.9 children there.  It is still, at minimum a significant part time or full time job.  Leaving one child in extended daycare or with a nanny in order to commute 1 hour each way and then work an 8.5 hour day is not most parents’ preferred option and thus suburban living creates stress for families where both parents enjoy their jobs and want to remain in the workforce.  Although working from home is sometimes possible with today’s technology, for many people it’s just not as satisfying as with face-to-face interaction.

Indeed the suburban style of metropolitan organization seems anachronistic and out of place with today’s realities, which creates a lot of stress on families.   61.9% of families with children have both parents working, in Canada.  Yet the housing stock and our housing assumptions — that we need to live in a house with a yard if we have children — evolved from a time when many fewer mothers and fathers both worked.

Moreover, today, a woman in Canada typically has only 1.6 children in her lifetime.  Having a house in the ‘burbs is hardly necessary as a “space” issue.  How much room does a family of 3 need?

Female labour force participation has grown steadily in recent years, and it’s no accident that so has apartment and condominium living in Canada’s larger cities.  Given women now earn the majority of university degrees, and the economy is increasingly knowledge based, I expect that urban living close to workplaces will grow in the coming decades.  Look for demand for apartments and condominiums to grow.

Living and working in close proximity saves time, allowing time for work and for children, particularly if an employer is somewhat flexible (an increasing pattern as well) — or if the woman or parents create their own businesses.  High density areas close to business districts offer lots of potential customers.

Your comments welcome .. are you seeing apartment living as a force that is supporting women in professional careers?  does it support you?

What about in the USA where the fertility rate is 2.1 children per woman (much higher than Canada) — is this a cause or an effect of continued suburban lifestyles?

6 comments

  1. Andrea Coutu says:

    Back in university, I decided that I wanted to live and work in an urban environment — and raise my family there, too. I believed and continue to believe that living in suburbs isolates people and makes the job of raising a family even harder.

    I live in just more than 1000 sq ft with my husband, two kids, and a business. We live in downtown Vancouver. My husband works 3 or 4 blocks away. My kids go to preschool a few blocks past there, so we often drop off Daddy on our walk. Right now, I’m working at the wireless coffee shop across from the preschool. We’ll stop at the library and grocery store on the way home and say hello to all the other kids and their moms and dads. Depending on my husband’s schedule, we’ll all walk home together for lunch.

    I admit that I have a housecleaner at my condo right now. But my childcare costs are very low and we just have one 10yo car that we drive about 3,000 km a year. Hiring a cleaner to look after major cleaning means that I can work in the evenings while my husband looks after the kids — or we can all enjoy family time. It’s pretty quick to clean up the condo the rest of the time.

    I’ve worked from home for 12 years. It can be socially isolating. Actually, since I’ve had kids, I’ve never felt so connected to my community, though! I see people I know wherever I go. And both moms and dads are out and about with the kids, since the downtown lifestyle means either parent can quickly zip home or to school to attend to their kids.

    Our weekends are spent doing errands, going on family “field trips”, working out, playing, walking and so on. We don’t spend much time in the car and we don’t find ourselves racing all over. A trip to Sears can involve a stop at the drug store, park, grocery store and hardware store…while we all get some much needed family time and exercise, since we’re walking. My husband leaves for work at 8 and gets home just after 5 — no time spent commuting, serving the car or racing home. It’s a pretty nice life, really, and I can’t imagine the suburbs.

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    Thanks for the insights from your life, Andrea.

    I’m rethinking this angle to perhaps the role of apartment living in “family empowerment” or more balanced gender roles. The suburban style of living coincided with the rapid rise in the the divorce rate in the 20th century. Maybe apartment/condo dwelling will help reverse it.

  3. thelady says:

    I’m single but when I lived in a suburb I felt very isolated. There were no sidewalks so I had to drive everywhere. When you live closer to the urban core you are centrally located to friends/family/work and can have a walkable neighborhood.

  4. Andrea Coutu says:

    Oh, trust me…gender equality is very much part of this woman’s empowerment. LOL

  5. Patti Murphy says:

    I think that condos are a good way of containing sprawl and the situation that Andrea describes is ideal.

    Here comes the “but”. I work in the high-tech industry in Ottawa and as much as people talk about telecommuting, f2f time is prized more highly. Plus, I find I get better information from people in person than over the phone or in e-mail. So, I work on site. But the company is very understanding when kids get sick and that’s when I work from home.

    I’ve both consulted and worked as a full-time employee in many places; consequently, I’ve worked in the east, south and west. Not really possible to live all that close to work because I never know where I’ll be working. That being said, I’m not been much farther than about 20 km from the office (at the most) in the last 10-12 years. But the transit system here isn’t all that great unless you’re heading downtown. So, a car is really the way to go if you want to get home to your kids quickly.

    I’ve been on a couple of condo tours with my mother and have been very impressed with what I’ve seen in terms of amenities and lifestyle. But that’s a lot of shared living. What about unreasonable neighbours? I used to live in a semi-d and based on that experience, am VERY reluctant to live in another situation that involves shared walls. And I often wonder about problems like cockroaches and bed bugs. I know single family dwellings are far from immune from these scourges, but these problems can easily “jump” (or crawl) unit to unit.

  6. Patti Murphy says:

    P.S. I saw your comment on Penelope’s blog today and thought I’d check out your post. Very interesting.

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