Archive for demographic stats

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?

Amenities or work proximity?

What’s more important when selecting the location of your home, nearby amenities or proximity to work?

As more people are chosing to live in denser, urban areas (whether downtown or another high density part of a metro region), different location choices and dilemmas emerge.

What struck me in a recent (outsourced, scientific) poll I ran through work of Canadian apartment renters was that more people selected nearby amenities as a key criteria in selecting their building than mentioned commute distance (approximately 67% vs 47%).

That said, the Canadian census shows that most apartment dwellers live closer to work than single-family-house occupants.  So, it may be simply through the act of choosing apartment living, near great amenities, many people automatically end up with a shorter commute time to where the jobs typically are.  Therefore, they don’t really need to think about it when choosing one building over another.

Thinking about how cities are likely to evolve over the next 10 to 20 years, I’m wondering if *the* places to live will be near to where the jobs are, but not too near.  A 15-20 minute walk, for example, or 5-10 minutes on a metro, might be the perfect commute.  If you can live in an interesting neighbourhood full of shops, restaurants, cafes, etc. and still be at work in 20 minutes — would that be the best possible world?  What if it meant apartment or townhouse living rather than owning your own single family house?

What motivates your housing choices?

Blaming fast food outlet proximity for obesity

According to a UCLA study (found via Planetizen):

Higher rates of diabetes and obesity occur in neighborhoods — regardless of the residents’ income, race or ethnicity — where fast-food restaurants and convenience stores greatly outnumber grocery stores and produce vendors, according to a statewide study released today.

But is this correlation the same thing as saying that fast food outlet proximity causes obesity?

Or, could we say instead that communities with high numbers of obese people attract fast food restaurants?

Actually the study offers two intriguing countermeasures regardless of causality.  Requiring fast food restaurants to post calorie and fat content information is one, which is fairly obvious and not directly about cities.

The other suggestion is for cities to look at zoning restrictions.  That is, use city bylaws to limit the spread of fast food.

While I’m not sure this is that feasible, the broader point is worth pondering.  I would ask: In what ways do city development guidelines and urban infrastructure support fast food outlets at the expense of green grocery stores and other types of food vending.

For example, consider the size of commercial spaces.  In some older urban neighborhoods, store fronts are small and each 25 foot space (or less) is often separately owned by a different family.  This structure tends to support small family run cafes, delis, grocery stores etc.  In newer neighborhoods the average retail space is huge — the only business that can afford it is a big chain grocery store (meaning a neighborhood would only have one grocer instead of many) or a fast food chain.

Also, the study did not examine walkability, which is also related to urban structure.  Are there sidewalks?  Does the city allow and support commercial zones within walking distance to most people?   From this study’s results, one could surmise that the neighborhoods with more grocery stores than fast food outlets are also more walkable than the others.

New playground as community anchor

Like many public spaces in East Vancouver, the park by our house used to look tired — exhausted, in fact.  Some playground equipment became so dilapidated, it posed a hazard and neighbors asked the city to remove it.  Other plastic slides had more endurance (does plastic ever break down?), and children belonging to families living right near the park enjoyed it as a quick playground fix when there was not time to go elsewhere.  The entrance sign and bathroom were covered in graffiti.  Drunks and drug dealers could be found under the larger trees.

Then, a renaissance.

After 5 years of lobbying, a small group of neighbors got a full park renovation into the city capital budget.  Half a million dollars later, there’s a new park — and spectacular modern playground.

Suddenly, the park and playground are packed — all day long — unless it’s raining.  Daycares, families, children with nannies are there, enjoying the six slides, multiple climbing aparatus, sand box, mosaic stones and natural boulders and logs to jump and climb.  Picnic tables abound, offering spots for a snack or to sip a juice box.

There’s a stroller jam along the edge of the playground as everyone walks here.   A few trikes and bikes-with-training wheels are there too.

Where did all these children and families come from, I wonder.  Certainly, there are some familiar faces from other toddler activities nearby.  But the majority of these people I’ve never seen before.  From chatting, I learn that most live within 6-8 blocks, some even closer having moved in recently.  Most kids playing are under age 5, while the parents seem to range in age from early 20s to early 40s — part of the urban baby boom that seems to be happening.

Suddenly this playground has become “the” neighborhood spot.  It allows parents to meet and chat informally while the kids play — share parenting tips, discuss pre-school options or daycare possibilities.

Dozens of laughing, shreking children have pushed the last of the drunks and drug dealers somewhere else.

A new playground in a tired park won’t revitalize or anchor every neighborhood — but in one with lots of children and a baby boom, it might.  It certainly helps to reinforce and build community — and allows the community to take back public spaces from less desirable elements.

Is divorce good for the urban economy?

Is divorce good for the urban economy?

A recent article by Kerry Gold in the Globe and Mail suggests that it is.

Divorce generates real estate transactions and housing demand. Quoting real estate agent Brad Lamb:

“But for real estate agents, we do really well because we sell them the apartments they both lived in before they get together, then they get married and buy a bigger apartment or house, and we sell them that. Then when they split up, inevitably, five years later, we sell the house or condo, and they buy two more.

“In a matter of five years, you are doing six or seven transactions, as opposed to 20 years ago, [when] you’d be doing just one.”

If we extrapolate from the article, there are further implications for the urban economy:

First, every time people move (whether as renters or buyers) they tend to need some new furniture and other miscellaneous household things.

Second, when people buy a new place, they often do major or minor renovations to make it their own — whether painting the walls or remodeling the kitchen.

So, tongue in cheek, perhaps cities with struggling economies and housing markets need more divorces?

More seriously, it might be interesting to examine whether cities with continued strong housing markets have higher rates of divorce or common law couples splitting up.

Comparing cities through surnames

The last names of individuals in a metro area or a country can be surprising. Until today I never knew the most common last name in Canada is Li. Not Smith, as it is in the USA. Smith is number two in Canada.

The USA-Canada contrast is interesting: Looking down the top ten list of Canadian surnames, two are usually of Chinese origin (Li and Lam – #1 and #3 incidentally), three are English, three are French, and two are more ambiguous — Martin is both a French and English last name, and Lee can be English or Chinese or Korean. The USA’s top ten list are all English names — however in some individual states such as Florida and New Mexico hispanic names are frequent in the top ten list, as would be expected from the history of settlement in what is now the USA. The multi-lingual Canadian surnames arguably reflects a more multi-lingual and multi-cultural heritage in Canada. But Canada today is a very urban nation, and each major city is quite different in its heritage.

Taking a look at cities across Canada, there are some contrasts.

The top ten names in Metro Vancouver, according to the Vancouver Sun, are primarily Chinese and Asian:

  1. LEE
  2. WONG
  3. SMITH
  4. CHAN
  5. BROWN
  6. KIM
  7. CHEN
  10. GILL

Given Vancouver’s Pacific Rim location, this is not surprising. I should add, that in Metro Vancouver people of European descent still outnumber people of Chinese origin (the latter representing about 17% of the population), however there are fewer dominant European last names, perhaps reflecting origins among many non-English European countries as well as the frequency in China and Korea of certain surnames. Looking at last names is just one lens through which to view a city and it doesn’t reveal everything, we should note. Yet contrasting this list with other cities does reflect differences.

Here are Toronto’s top ten surnames, taken from a different source:

  1. Lee
  2. Smith
  3. Wong
  4. Chan
  5. Brown
  6. Patel
  7. Li
  8. Chen
  9. Kim
  10. Williams

Toronto’s list is similar to Vancouver’s. Gill (which is common in India and #10 in Metro Vancouver) doesn’t appear, but Patel, another Indian name does on the Toronto list. Otherwise, the two are quite similar.

For a contrast, look at Calgary:

  1. Smith
  2. Brown
  3. Lee
  4. Anderson
  5. Johnson
  6. Wong
  7. Wilson
  8. Jones
  9. Taylor
  10. Miller

The only non-anglo name here, Wong, doesn’t show up until the sixth position (edit to add that the name Lee in third place likely contains people of both European and Asian decentthanks MA for spotting this). From this list one could (correctly) conclude that Calgary’s heritage is less international and more anglo-Canadian.

For the United States I searched via Google for the common surnames in a variety of cities, but could not find similar lists. They do exist at the state level if you follow the instructions here.

What would be really interesting, would be to see the same lists 10, 20, and 50 years ago, but I couldn’t find any. Some cities have changed a lot. Indeed in the United States, a survey of the surnames of home buyers in various states changed dramatically between 2000 and 2005.

In California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida, 20 percent of home buyers last year were new to this country. The top five surnames of home buyers in 2000 were: Smith, Johnson, Brown, Williams, and Miller. Five years later, Smith, Johnson, and Williams were still in the top five, joined by Garcia and Rodriguez. In California, in 2005, the top five surnames among home buyers were all Latino….In Nebraska, the fourth most common surname of home buyers is Nguyen.

While this doesn’t tell us about cities, per se, it does show the way examining surnames can offer an intriguing snap shot of what is happening in a region, or even an activity like home buying within it.

Women out-earning men in US hub cities

Young women in their 20s and 30s in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis make more than young men. In New York, they earn 117% of men, in Dallas 120%. Women in these age categories nation wide only make 89% the wages of their male counterparts.

This is according to Andrew A. Beveridge, a demographer from Queen’s College (As reported in the New York Times). And posted today by Kevin Stolarick at the Creativity Exchange in a short review.

Assuming that the statistical sample is large enough for these results to be meaningful, that’s a really interesting study for several reasons:

First, it shows how you can’t paint the entire USA with one brush.

Second, it reflects how different certain large “hub cities” are becoming from the rest of the nation (and not just in the USA, think Canada, England, etc.) in terms of opportunity, demographics, etc.

Third, I wonder if large hub cities have different pulls for men and women, depending upon their education. Here’s my theory:

Educated women see hub cities as a land of opportunity — full of interesting career possibilities and a large, diverse population that is generally open minded toward women succeeding (as well as gays, immigrants, etc. succeeding). They feel they’ll be judged for their brains in a hub city.

Educated men can find great opportunity in any city. In fact, they might do better in a smaller city with significant gender biases. So there is no reason for them to move to New York or LA or Dallas.

Men with less education who are also drawn toward places like New York and Los Angeles may be “impatient” and “eager” to strike out on their own, not wanting to spend time earning a degree. They want life in the fast lane — now –and go looking
for it in hub cities. Women with less education may be more inclined to head toward a regional city closer to home.

So the result is we have less-educated men heading for hub cities along with more educated women.

There also may be some interesting further evidence on how hub cities function in a national economy.

Does bottom up work to attract and retain families?

For core cities in large metropolitan areas “family flight” has long been a concern — especially if housing is expensive. San Francisco, New York, Boston, Vancouver are all examples of cities that have struggled to keep families with children within their boundaries. The suburbs have lured many people raising kids with their cheaper housing and (sometimes) lower crime rates.

According to a San Francisco Chronicle article, there are new initiatives in that city to attract and especially retain families. Based on information provided in the article, it seems that most policies are oriented toward families in the lower income brackets.

The mayor spent most of his speech discussing family-friendly initiatives he has championed since taking office in 2004, including a working-families tax credit, an agreement between the city and the school district to coordinate services and a plan to provide health care to the city’s uninsured residents.

Ensuring that lower income families have the resources they need to raise their children is good and necessary. But cities need to embrace all economic groups if you want there to be lots of kids –and, if you want those children to grow into productive and caring citizens.

This news article is brief, and focuses on critiques from those who work with the poor — so maybe there is more to the San Francisco plan. However, ensuring that middle and upper income families feel welcome and secure in raising their children in San Francisco would also have to be a priority. In any new, higher density housing developments, are developers required to build a certain number of 2 and 3 bedroom units? Does the city either take a levy or insist that larger developers allocate space for community amenities like playgrounds, recreation centres and daycares in new market housing?

If you can provide family friendly amenities from safe parks and recreation centres, to schools and children-friendly attractions, families of all income brackets will want to live in the city. If these features are missing, then those who can afford it will go elsewhere — either where some of the amenities exist, or where their home will be big enough that they don’ t need as much community space.

Making sense of the census: Core versus sprawl growth

Statistics Canada released preliminary results from the June 2006 national census this week. There were many intriguing findings. One that I found interesting was that the major metropolitan areas grew more in the suburbs than in the urban core — although the latter did grow.

The national media has written this up as a preference issue — that Canadians prefer the suburbs and a commute to living in more densely populated neighbourhoods. However, I haven’t seen anyone polling individuals and families on the move.

What if people are choosing suburbs because of an absence of options in the urban core? The municipality of Toronto’s population grew 0.9% between 2001 and 2006, not as fast as many of its suburbs. Places like Brampton grew at a 33% in 5 years.

But many more homes have been constructed in the suburbs — and of all varieties: condominiums in town centres, row houses, and single family dwellings. Rental vacancy rates throughout the Toronto region are all around 2-3% so rental availability is not likely a factor here.

While I’m sure some people chose a large family home in suburbia versus a smaller place in the core, I’m not convinced that everyone did — I’d like to see some surveys.

What would happen if a larger variety of housing options were available in the inner core? Because the area is mostly developed, this might mean infill housing (such as coach houses), splitting large old mansions into multiple-dwelling units, and when an old house is torn down for redevelopment, allowing a mutli-family structure to go up in its place, whether a duplex or a townhouse, or something else creative. If more housing were made available, more people could choose it. Some zoning regulations (or deregulation) could be useful here. Vancouver’s city council is proposing a new eco-density platform to encourage more infill housing (see future blogs).

What’s also interesting for Toronto is that the largest growth in the Greater Toronto Area was alongside new or enhanced freeways (including a toll road). By building these freeways, the government seems to have encouraged single-family-automobile-using sprawl.

Perhaps the government needs to rethink freeway building — yes the Toronto area needs freeways for trucking and commerce. But does that mean it needs to be a city of single-occupant car users?

Relationship between neighborhood and health

A new study by the Canadian Population Health Inititiave reveals that:

health differences between neighbourhoods can bejust as big as – or sometimes bigger than – differences between Canada’s cities or even between countries.

While the methodology has limitations, many of the findings are intriguing.

  • As might be expected, more affluent neighbourhoods tended to have healthier people — what’s interesting is that the health benefits extended even to the less-wealthy in that community.
  • The closer a neighbourhood was to downtown, the less likely the inhabitants were obese (presumably because they walked more and drove cars less).

The study even mapped neighbourhoods by health. If you live in the Toronto area (or are thinking of moving there), click here for the links and software to view a map and see how your community fared.

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