Archive for urban families

Kids Books and the Absence of Walking to School

My youngest started kindergarten last week. To help her with some anxieties I took her to libraries and bookstores to find some good children’s books about going to school so she could feel more at ease with the concept.

Every single book that I looked at involved either a school bus ride, or a mini-van ride to reach school.  Nobody walked!

Now I better understand why my older child keeps wondering why we can’t drive to school sometimes (it’s 3 blocks!  But 6 blocks to drive because of traffic calming).  Being driven is the norm in what he reads and what I read to him and his sister.

Walkable neighbourhoods are great for building a sense of community. When you walk places (rather than drive) you say hello to your neighbours, sometimes even walking with them a few blocks when you’re going the same way.

Children and their parents walking to school similarly builds community. I meet so many neighbourhood parents as we’re walking our kids to school. If we all drove and just let the kids hop out of the car, when would we meet?

So, can anyone recommend a children’s book, suitable for ages 5-7, that takes place in a metropolitan area in recent times, in which the children walk to school?


Has low density hampered America’s educational achievement?

For decades, American high school students’ ranking in global achievement testing have been falling.  Is it possible that the very suburban communities that parents sought to help their children have actually hindered their performances, at least in aggregate?

I have a theory, and only a little circumstantial evidence.  But would welcome tips on actual studies or obtaining access to data to examine this question properly.  Here’s how the theory works:

First, there is a correlation between higher density cities and innovation (as measured by patents). It’s also widely accepted urban theory that this is because higher density places, like cities, force people to be exposed to and interact with new people, ideas and things constantly.  This makes them smarter, so the theory goes.

Second, there is a correlation between higher density cities and economic productivity. Doubling density increases productivity between 10 and 20 percent according to one study.

Third, earlier this week, Ryan Avent, pondering Ed Glaeser’s work, suggested that relocating high tech jobs from high density places like Silicon Valley to lower density locales like Raleigh may have hurt America’s economic productivity.

…is it really so strange to imagine that two decades of migration from productive cities with high average wages to less productive cities with low average wages would have a significant impact on national average labor productivity, on national wages, and on national employment and output growth? Raleigh is innovative, but one of the key’s to Raleigh’s success is the fact that its land is dirt cheap relative to the home base of many of the technology companies that have opened offices there: Silicon Valley.

So, if most American students live in lower density places than their peers in Europe and Asia, could it be possible that this–in part–is a reason for lower performance on science and math tests, which are basically a series of challenges or problems to solve.

Do children in higher density areas encounter informal problem-solving challenges far more frequently than their suburban counterparts and therefore have had more practice, more opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills?  The urban challenge may be how to communicate with someone from another country, or how to navigate a Razor scooter down a busy sidewalk, but it’s still a problem to solve. In one recent series of tests, students from rapidly growing and changing Shanghai were tops in the world. Coincidence?

If density matters for economic productivity and innovation productivity, surely it matters for education productivity.

Certainly, there are other compounding reasons why America has some catching up to do in the global education race.  But maybe a shift toward higher density living could help.  If nothing else, the college-educated, middle-class parents, who previously would have moved to suburbia in search of good schools,  might instead support new schools–or work hard to improve the existing ones–in their newer transit-oriented, higher density communities. This might benefit all children in the area, rich and poor.

Women’s decisions shape cities

The choices and experiences of women are shaping 21st century cities–in fact, they also did so in the past, an often-overlooked phenomenon.

First, consider the choice to have fewer children.  In 1959 women in the US and Canada had on average 3.7 to 3.9 children in their lifetimes.  To look after this larger household, one person needed to make this their full-time job and the family needed the space offered in the suburbs.  The division of labour in the household and separation of residential from industrial and commercial spaces fit society.

Today, women in Canada have 1.6 children in their lifetime, on average.  In the US, although the national average fertility rate is 2.1, among college-educated women the number is closer to that of Canada.

This allows for a different urban development pattern, motivated in part by the choices of working women.  You can raise one or two kids in an apartment, condo, or urban townhouse much easier than four of them. Moreover, fewer children allows for the potential for more women to maintain careers while also being dedicated mothers.

Second, the expanding knowledge economy requires clusters of educated, innovative people.  Women earn 55% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the US and Canada. Knowledge-based companies (which could be anything from engineering firms to accounting, computer programing, or advertising) need to attract and retain talent.  They need women, as well as men, in order to keep their positions filled.

These big, structural changes in society and the economy require changes in the urban environment to accommodate them.

One change that is happening is a shift toward higher-density living closer to employment nodes such as downtowns and town centers.  Living in condominiums or (luxury) apartment rentals, are two more visible housing choices that many individuals and families are making in order to balance career and family or in the absence of children other lifestyle choices. There is also stealth density happening in the formerly-single-family neighbourhoods whereby duplexes, triplexes, and extra suites in houses are adding homes closer to employment nodes.

In larger metros (think Toronto, Chicago, etc.), where much of the housing is in the suburbs, and a long commute to downtown, we may see companies specifically locating satellite offices in the suburbs in order to hire the hidden talent pool of educated women who are available while their kids are in school.  Rather than being motivated by less expensive real estate prices in certain suburban business parks (as they were in the past), one Toronto-based commercial real estate broker told me that attracting the “9 to 3 labour pool” is motivating some of his clients’ decisions.

If women won’t or can’t come to them downtown, they’ll go to where the women are.  Not all women like (or will be able to afford) high-density urban living, but they’re still educated and talented.

What I expect to change in the suburbs, in response, is the type of office space in demand.  Isolated business parks may not be as attractive as office space in closer proximity to residential areas, perhaps attached to the community shopping centre or in a suburban “town center.”

Certainly, the types of jobs and careers available to the woman who chooses close-to-downtown, or downtown living for her family may be different than those in the suburbs.  The suburbs have traditionally offered more service-oriented “back office” type positions that are frequently lower paying.  However, this could change.

To some extent these isolated examples (so far) of moves to where the women are go against other urban workplace trends I’m seeing.  In particular, some major Canadian corporations have been or are in the process of consolidating their operations into a single downtown location (rather than have offices scattered throughout the metro areas).  Or maybe the motivator is the same: going where the people you want to hire live.

The location of job space is perhaps at a cross roads.  But it will be women’s choices that shape where new office space will be, as it always has been.

What do you see happening?

An overlooked technology in shaping the city

The birth control pill turns 50 this week.  This technology has arguably been a key ingredient in shaping 21st century North American and European economic and urban life.  And yet, I don’t ever recall hearing urban theorists mention it.  So here’s the argument for the Pill as a key technology in shaping the new urban geography emerging today.

Since coming into widespread use in the 1970s, the Pill has allowed women to choose when or whether to have children, and how many.  This in turn has allowed women to imagine themselves in professional careers–and to fulfill those dreams.

Here are four ways the Pill has been re-shaping urban life.1. The fertility rate has dropped from 4 children per woman in her lifetime in Canada in the late 1950s to 1.6 children per women in Canada (and likely similar in urban areas of the US).    Women working in all variety of professions (not just nursing and teaching), is one of the drivers reshaping North America’s cities.

2. The knowledge economy built on collaboration and communication; psychologists will readily tell you that more women than men tend to excel in these areas.  Can you imagine a knowledge economy company with no women working there?  Women now earn more than half of all Bachelor’s and Masters degrees, which has been key to many knowledge occupations.

3. Experience economy–increasingly people have become more interested in consuming experiences rather than goods.  People from most income backgrounds today will spend money on fine dining, the spa, travel, a concert, etc.  Having the spare money and time to indulge in these is a direct consequence of having children later in life and/or having fewer of them. This allows both women and men some disposable income and time with which to have experiences.

4. Apartment and condominium living in dense, walkable and amenity-rich areas has been growing in popularity.  Living in small spaces suits a family of 3 much better than it would suit 6 people.  Suburbia made sense when having 4 or more children was normal.  Plus, living in an apartment near where both parents work, allows for more family time instead of commuting.

In his book The Great Reset, Richard Florida describes a new urban geography emerging in response to the growing “creative” economy (just as suburbia emerged in response to the industrial age).  Unless I missed it in reading the book, he doesn’t mention the Pill as perhaps the greatest labour saving technology for women (pun intended)–having fewer children to mother means more time and energy for contributing to the knowledge economy and makes dense urban living work much better.

Households as both renters and owners

Several friends of mine own a condominium unit but don’t live there.  Instead, they are renters when it comes to their family home (a larger condo, a townhouse, or the main floor of a small house).

Is this a uniquely Vancouver experience, or the start of a broader urban trend in North America?

Here’s how it has happened in Vancouver.  A young couple together buys a condo in the downtown area (Yaletown, Coal Harbour, etc.), maybe a 1 bedroom unit.   They love living and working in close proximity and in the walkable, amenity-rich milieu that higher density neighbourhoods can offer.

A few years later they decide to have a child or children, and quickly the 1 bedroom unit is too small.  Suburbia and long commutes offer no appeal and really nor does having that suburban house (with lawns to mow, gutters to clean and other time and money sinks).  They like being able to get to-and-from work quickly, allowing for more family time.  Plus, they have lots of friends with children downtown–this is their community.

But, if they want another, larger, downtown unit, the costs of selling the one bedroom and buying a larger condo or a townhouse is quite high (in part because of market lift since they first bought in).  By contrast, the cost of renting that larger condo or townhouse is much less, especially when offset by the rental income they can achieve from leasing their owned 1 bedroom unit.  (For example, rent out the well-located 1 bedroom for $1700 and then rent a larger place for $2200/month; by contrast buying the larger place might cost $3200/month–or more–in mortgage and condo fees; if they moved to a slightly less expensive neighbourhood still near downtown, they might be able to rent a large 2 bedroom place for the $1700).

They keep owning the 1 bedroom unit, as an investment.  The rent covers most of the mortgage and carrying costs initially, and over time as they pay down more of the principle, the rent fully–or more than–compensates for the carrying costs.

This scenario allows the family the benefits of old fashioned home ownership where they have a nest-egg at the end of 25 years, or equity should circumstances change and they wish to buy a different home.  It also allows them the flexibility of renting in terms of being able to move should employment needs change or if they need to relocate for children’s schooling.

Owning the 1 bedroom is also an investment in the city, to which they are also contributing as citizens who work and play there.

So what do you think? Is this a bizarre Vancouver anomaly? A once-in-a-market-cycle phenomenon? Or something that is happening or could happen in many other cities going forward?

(P.S. I’m now on Twitter)

Higher fuel, living green and a new normal for home prices?

Over the past few years, many urban residents have become increasingly interested in more sustainable as well as more time efficient lifestyles.  Thousands (even millions worldwide) are choosing to live closer to work, even if it means a smaller home–whether to save money, spare the environment or save time (or all three).

Simultaneous with the above there has been a significant escalation in housing prices in the older, urban cores of Toronto and especially Vancouver (much more than in their auto-centric suburbs).  (I’m still working on finding electronic stats showing the price shifts–post some links if you have them.)

Some argue this is a bubble.  Maybe.  But at least in my neighbourhood I don’t see one sign of bubble froth–speculation.  Families are buying these houses to live in, themselves, and to raise their children.  Flippers and speculators are rare.

Prices are quite possibly at a cyclical high (different from a bubble) and will ease off as mortgage rates start to rise.  But it’s also possible that Toronto and Vancouver have become New York and San Francisco North.  These US cities are places where geographic constraint combined with strong desires by millions to live there have pushed housing prices well above the national average and outside “normal metrics” of affordability.

As a result people live in smaller homes, rent out rooms or suites in larger homes, and accept the fact that more salary goes into housing than it would elsewhere resulting in other “sacrifices” like foregoing car ownership (or 2nd car ownership), or certain material expectations.

Worldwide, cities are good for women

In honour of International Women’s Day this week, I offer the following argument:

The global shift toward cities and more urban based economies has benefited women — and the status of women — in at least three ways.

First, urban women and girls typically need to spend fewer hours doing household chores, including ensuring basic survival, than their rural counterparts.  For example, spending half a day hauling water, is not required — even in poorer cities or neighbourhoods where not all homes have running water, a pump is usually close to home.  Doing laundry is another chore that urban women can leave to a machine (even if she cannot afford her own, the laundry mat makes this task much easier and faster).

Additionally, as I’ve previously argued apartment and condominium living close to one’s work also benefits women and families with dual careers, removing tasks like commuting from the suburbs.  Higher density living also provides a wider audience of potential customers for often small scale female entrepreneurship. Whether making and selling choco-bananas from the house in Quito or teaching fitness classes.

Second, in part by reducing time spent on household chores, living in cities allow more girls and women to attend school (boys also benefit here too).  Moreover, cities often offer a woman a wide range of choices to utilize her education from “traditional female paths” like nursing or teaching to the new common female occupations such as accounting.

Third, city life for families and women is removing the economic bias in favor of sons, which world wide may be responsible for many fewer women being born — what the Economist called the missing 100 million women in the world’s population today due to abortion and infantside of female offspring (or gendercide as they call it).  Although the historical cultural bias remains in many countries, urban women have the opportunities to earn as good of a living as men.  Urban jobs tend to not favor brute strength as some rural occupations.  Moreover, land inheritances are less of an issue if one purchases food at the supermarket with money earned as a computer programmer, rather than needs to grow it for oneself.  Give the world’s population a generation to adjust to urban living, and baby girls may achieve equal status with their brothers in many more cultures.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that cities are perfect or some sort of heaven for the world’s women.  Violence and exploitation takes place in cities just as it does in rural areas (although one could argue that an urban oppressed women may have more resources and options to escape the abuse).   My argument is that on balance, the growth of cities and of more urban based, knowledge and service economies has been a step forward for the status and well being of the planet’s female population.

Your thoughts?  Are there other ways cities benefit women?  Or feel free to argue these points.

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?

Trick or Treat for a Community

Zillow released a “Trick or Treat” Housing Index last week for Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.  Their goal was to assess where a child could score the most candy with the least amount of walking and in a safe place. As they explained:

 [We used] four equally weighted data variables: Zillow Home Value Index, population density, Walk Score, and local crime data. Based on those variables, this Index represents neighborhoods that will provide the most candy, with the least walking, and minimum safety risks.

Pricey, wealtheir neighbourhoods generally didn’t score that high because of the amount of walking involved between houses and up lengthy drive ways.  By contrast, higher density neighbourhoods with older housing stock tended to do better.  For Seattle:

Wallingford offers the most bang-for-the-knock on Halloween night. The quirky neighborhood full of old Craftsman bungalows is home to residents of all ages, from retirees and college students, to young families with children. Wallingford has easy access to many restaurants, grocery stores, and theaters along 45th street. The ‘hood scored in the top ten percent for both walkability and density.

Would the Trick-or-Treat index be a great measure of “community” as well.  A safe place that contains a wide swath of the population that is highly walkable sounds like a great urban neighbourhood.

Maybe the Trick or Treat index, more than just walkability, could become something house hunters look for.

Rio 2016

Being chosen to host the Olympic Games is a complicated process.  Without delving into that issue too much, here’s a take on what becoming an Olympic City typically signifies — that a city somewhere in the world has passed a threshold and become a “world city”  at least in the eyes of the voting delegates.  With so many Olympic delegate votes coming from outside North America and Europe, cities that win tend to have connections to these other (non-western if you like) places and people.

  • London (like Vancouver for the winter games) played the multi-cultural, city-of-immigrants-from-everywhere card in it’s successful bid.
  • Beijing is the capital city of one of the most influential and powerful countries on earth.
  • Sydney’s chance to host concluded a multi-decade process in Australia of placing the country within the Asia-Pacific region, as part of Asia, moving away from the isolationist “White Australia” policy of the mid 20th century.

Rio de Janeiro’s opportunity — somewhat like that of Beijing — recognizes how far Brazil has come politically and economically since the end of military dictatorship in the mid 1980s.  The faces of Rio are also the faces of the world.  Anyone and everyone can blend in (and with the skimpy bikini culture offering somewhat of a leveling mechanism).

To be sure, Rio has poverty and crime problems — but its hard to find a big world city with the resources to host the Summer Olympics that doesn’t have some detracting issue.  Such is the nature of dynamic cities – growth brings tension; tension breeds creative solutions as well as strife.  Hosting the Games in a Ghost Town isn’t an option.

Plus, the Games tend to bring investment, jobs, and opportunities — a chance for individuals, businesses and a city to move forward.  Although economic activity is never equally distributed in a city, everyone benefits from there being more economic activity and more jobs rather than fewer.

So congratulations (bom trabalho) to everyone in Brazil who worked hard on the bid books.

Should be a great world party.

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