Archive for urban families

Does suburbia reinforce 1950s gender roles?

Over at Creative Class today I blogged about how women have become the majority in Canada’s labour force.

The shift toward a majority female workforce is probably also further evidence that the current economic downturn has accelerated the shift toward a creative economy.

After all, jobs that have traditionally employed women are creative, or have become so in recent years. In addition to the female majority in problem-solving fields like health care and teaching, what were previously more rote occupations now require tremendous creativity and smarts. …

Richard Florida has often touched on the role gender has played in shaping what we choose to do. Men (like Richard’s father) have often drifted into manufacturing jobs because it was the “masculine” thing to do, rather than doing something more creative that they might have enjoyed better.

Andrea Learned commented that the recession and the myriad job losses in the manufacturing and construction sectors may be accelerating an ongoing redefinition of what it is to be masculine (or feminine.)

[I] think that the definition of masculinity (more than that of femininity) is changing quite rapidly & somewhat suddenly. Some men are open to it and responding well to the freedom/flexibility of not having to worry about the traditional definition of masculinity (more ease in parenthood or more ease with taking care of themselves). Others are really nervous and so re-trenching in all that is the worst of that traditional viewpoint.

This made me wonder the extent to which suburban lifestyles have also tended to reinforce 1950s gender roles of a woman staying at home raising the children and the man commuting to work.    Taking the time to commute one hour each way to “the office” or “the factory” removes time a dad can spend helping to raise and nurture his kids.  Having a home distant from most employment centres also makes it hard for many women to continue their careers once they have kids — commuting one hour each way, plus spending 8 hours at the office, means 10 hours away from the children.

By contrast, living closer to employment centres might offer both parents the opportunity to commute in just a few minutes.

Moreover, living in townhomes, apartments or smaller single-family homes also tends to require less time spent doing household maintenance such as yardwork including lawn mowing, also freeing time for both children and careers (or career and an active social life).

So, it may not only be the economy that is accelerating some re-thinking of gender roles and stereotypes, but the shift to urban living as well.


Urban families after the great reset

As energy becomes expensive and major cities increase their status as economic drivers, families who live in them will inhabit smaller spaces than many do today. Some are already there, and from their lifestyles we can glimpse into the future.

Melanie, her husband and two children live in their 950 square foot condominium in Vancouver’s Yaletown district, adjacent to downtown.  She also runs a pre-and-post-natal fitness (Fit4Two) business from home (although she gives classes and does personal training at local rec centres or outside).  Here are some perspectives on the future, based on their experiences.

Idea #1 – Families of the future valuing time more than space

One main reason Melanie’s family lives in the urban core is to avoid commuting.  If they lived in a suburb, her husband — who works long hours in the film industry — would rarely see the kids between commuting and the job’s hours.  Melanie’s business requires she be near many pending and new moms, and being in Yaletown puts thousands of potential clients within an easy distance to make with a stroller.

Saving time and valuing time as much or more than money or space is becoming a new feature of 21st century life for many young adults.  Although commuting between distant suburban locations and urban cores where the jobs are packed will in the future continue to be possible using various transit and shared options that will emerge, many families will reject this option preferring to focus on the housing option that allows for more quality time together.

Idea #2 – Two bedroom apartments or condos can accommodate a family of four (although some modifications would help)

In the future, although some families will manage to afford single family homes in close proximity to jobs and other needed amenities, more will live in duplexes, triplexes, townhomes and apartment buildings in the bigger, more dynamic cities.

Many families of three of four will live in 2 bedroom condos — so what will that be like?  and what lessons could the architects and developers of future buildings need?

For Melanie’s family, the bedrooms are just that — places to sleep and store your clothes.  They selected their unit in part because the suite maximized space in a well-layed out kitchen-dining-living area.  With Ikea organizing technology in place, the living space offers room for children’s toys; entertaining space for having a few friends over and a vertically-organized home office that partially folds away when not in use.

What isn’t working quite so well for them is the small size of the second bedroom, which must accommodate two children in separate beds.  Bunk beds are not appropriate for children under age 10.  So Melanie is looking into “trundle beds” where one bed pulls out from under the other and tucks away during the day.  A better designed unit for the future family home might offer a second bedroom big enough to accommodate two twin beds.  Maybe furniture makers can get creative as well — how about twin murphy beds?

 Idea # 3 – Families will use creative strategies to avoid over-accumulation of stuff that won’t fit.

Melanie’s general rule: When something new comes home, something else has to go.  This applies to clothes, toys, sports equipment, etc.  Melanie thinks this rule helps kids appreciate what they have and learn that they can’t have everything they want — there are trade offs in life (if you want this, then you won’t be able to have that).  Birthdays and Christmas are focused around receiving one big gift, and one set of (out-of-town) grandparents contributes to a plane ticket fund instead of giving gifts, allowing the whole family to visit at least once per year.

In the future, with fewer families having a basement, garage or spare room into which to dump excess stuff, websites like craigslist and eBay could be even busier as families seek to unload one set of belongings and find others.

#3B – the experience economy rises out of condos

As the children get older, Melanie hopes to shift from giving the kids toys to giving them experiences.

Indeed, many individuals and families are already trying to consume in the experience economy rather than the non-durable goods one, regardless of whether they have kids or live in a condo.  They spend their money on experiences (whether a trip to the spa, having nails done, a fancy dinner, enjoying a $5 latte with a friend, etc.) rather than on lavish belongings if they have to choose.

Families in condos might become a dominant consumer of “experience” rather than what can be purchased at Toys ‘r Us.  (And there might be some great business opportunities in catering to these future families).  I know, or have known, many families who use strategies like this — many young children can understand the choice between receiving lots of toys or getting to go to Hawaii or Disneyland for Christmas.


Do you live in a condo? what insight does this give you into future North American families?

What about participating in the experience economy over the non-durable goods one?

Thanks Melanie, for sharing.

Halloween visit and walkability score

After we ran out of candy Halloween night (after about 100 pint-sized visitors), I was pondering Richard Florida’s “Trick-or-treater” index.  Essentially, Florida argues that a “rule of thumb” measure of the child-friendliness of a neighbourhood can be based on the number of trick-or-treaters.

But, the thought occurred to me that the number of trick-or-treaters might also be correlated to a neighbourhood’s “Walk Score(a measure of how easy it is to walk rather than drive for daily errands). Parents are probably more likely to feel comfortable strolling from house to house at night with their kids if they are accustomed to walking in the area generally.

So, if you can remember 8 days back, how many trick-or-treaters did you have, and what’s your Walk Score?

As mentioned, we had about 100 small goblins visit, and our Walk Score score is 100.

Unintended consequences of a new bylaw

In Vancouver a new bylaw came into effect last week banning cigarette smoking on restaurant patios and within 6 meters (about 20 feet) of doorways. Smoking has been banned at indoor public places for a long time.

I had a positive and a negative experience with this new bylaw this week. The positive experience was visiting a favorite local coffee house with my kids. My son likes to ride his trike in the door and down the ramp to order banana loaf for himself; I typically add an expensive but tasty coffee drink to the order. In the past, we’ve had to enter through a cloud of smoke and then go elsewhere to consume our snack outside. But now, we can sit on the patio, watching the world go by. This is nice.

The negative experience was the next day at the small local park with a large, new playground. Every table and bench in other parts of the park was filled with people smoking, and enjoying a take-out coffee from one of the local haunts. This meant that overflow smokers ended up sitting around the playground smoking, both cigarettes and another substance that this region is well known for. I’m quite allergic to both, so it’s now hard to enjoy the playground with the kids. More importantly, neither the example nor the smoke is good for children.

Having smokers take over parks and playgrounds seems to be an unintended consequence of the new patio and doorway smoking restrictions.  I’m pondering writing a letter to the politicians who sponsored the bills that created the restrictions to suggest they also ban smoking within 15 meters of a playground (dogs are banned from being within 15 meters, so why not cigarettes?).

But, I’m also worried about what the unintended consequences of that bylaw might be.

(Oh, and I know many smokers — likely the majority — wouldn’t dream of lighting up around children.  But unfortunately, not everyone is so considerate, hence our problem).

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.

Lessons from my own relationship with Vancouver

Many urban policies now focus on attracting talented citizens. But they often focus on appealing to those in their twenties — people often without children who spend time at night clubs, cafes, restaurants. However, a successful city will find a way to embrace those 20-somethings as their lifestyles change — and to attract more experienced people who are at different stages in their lives.

Here’s how things have changed for me, as an example.

One key reason I moved back to Vancouver after grad school in the US was for the international feel and focus of the city. I also missed being able to travel by transit and foot to my favorite destinations. This seems like a more human pace to me than driving in my own car.

As I settled down more (got a little older), my routine involved walking and taking the skytrain downtown to work, cycling to destinations occasionally on weekends. Restaurants, grocery stores, specialty stores and cafes were (are) all easy walks from home. I rarely drove my old Honda Civic Hatchback — a tank of gasoline would last a couple months.

My ecological footprint was quite modest.

When I had a baby, some of that changed. First, we sold the Civic and invested in a mini-van, which doesn’t exactly “sip ” gasoline (but otherwise is quite a practical vehicle). Second, when I returned to work, the only daycare I could find was in a distant neighbourhood. This meant driving to work so that I could pick my son up afterwards (my husband did the drop off). Third, even when a subsequent child care option opened near our home, I continued to drive to work. Driving takes 10 minutes versus 30-35 by walking and transit. Although parking costs $10/day, and I missed the more relaxed pace of a walk and 10 minute metro ride, driving offered me 40-45 very valuable minutes in my long, flex-working hours day that started at 6:30 AM and ended at 11 PM.

Even now with two kids, we have no intention of moving to the suburbs; we enjoy the community-focused and walkable neighbourhood in which we live. When we do have a babysitter, it’s nice to be able to hit a great restaurant or pub only a few blocks from home (if the baby needs me, I can easily walk home). And, there are so many young families (as well as empty nesters, childless couples of all ages, and others) that it’s easy to connect with others with whom we have lots in common (our tribe). We all visit the cafes, parks and playgrounds.

Lessons: If we can generalize from my experience, here are some thoughts:

1. Great neighborhoods tend to keep people at all stages of their lives. Walkability along with amenities for people of all ages from birth to retirement are important.

2. Family ecological footprints would be lower if cities did more to encourage (rather than discourage) a variety of quality child care options in all neighbourhoods.

3. More frequent bus service to downtown or to the nearest metro station combined with neighborhood childcare would allow more people to take transit.

There are probably a few more…

“The Missing Class”

Review by guest blogger David Atkins

The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America by Princeton University sociologist Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen offers a glimpse into the lives of many urban, working Americans who live above the official poverty line, but are not quite middle class.

This book is based on surveys and interviews between 1994-2002 and tells the stories of nine families in the New York City area, organizing those stories around these key issues:

  • gentrification of neighborhoods – some are being priced out of their neighborhoods, but life is safer in the Brooklyn, NY neighborhoods of Sunset Park, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill. It’s an evolving story that is not all good and not all bad.
  • credit card debt – why and how it gets out of control so quickly. For some, the desperation to escape privation has been a costly temptation.
  • childcare challenges – do welfare moms make better parents and community members than moms who commute hours to a factory job leaving their kids in improvised daycare?
  • health care – one accident can be a ticket back to poverty
  • relationships – the complex web of male/female and extended family arrangments is necessary, practical, and often dysfunctional
  • bureaucracy – near poor people hate welfare as much as the rest of us and would do almost anything to avoid going back.

This is a detailed book; I found it difficult to keep track of who was whom. We meet at least 50 different people in the course of describing the lives of 9 families. I had to draft an outline of the people involved to keep the names and places straight. But what emerges from this book — most relevant to cities– are the following three key recurrent themes:

1. “Near poor” is not a transitional state. Nationally, the “near poor” represent 57 million Americans. We tend to think that poor people who work hard will eventually get ahead and achieve at least some degree of security. But the reality is that those who escape poverty often remain in an economic condition where they are working hard, but cannot advance. In any urban setting, a significant underclass is not on any track to participate in community life beyond working as hard as they can to stay above water. Urban planning these days is often about attracting talent, making cities “cool” to live in for the “creative class” or knowledge workers.

The service class and working class are the people who keep the city running. Understanding, through the anecdotal stories of these families, should help to inform planners why the urban poor and near poor are not just a problem to be dealt with, but human beings who need to be a part of the engine of progress.

2. Child care is a constant problem. The welfare reform efforts of the 1990s succeeded in getting many Americans back to work. Laziness is not a problem among the working poor. Exhaustion is. And their children are constantly in danger of falling back into poverty because of the lack of supervision and involvement from parents who are too busy working to keep the rent paid and food on the table. The near poor are not choosing to let strangers raise their kids in order to pursue a career. There is no choice, only consequence.

3. We need practical, situational solutions, not value-based policies. The stories of how people get into trouble are seldom without some blame. Credit card debt? Why do you have that plasma TV? Single mom with 2 kids and husband deported? Why did you get pregnant again? This book describes with humility and empathy how the real stories of people living and working on the edge are doing their best to survive. The policies of welfare reform in the 1990 succeeded in creating a strong incentive system to get poor people working, but people make mistakes often through lack of information and misinformation. When wealthy people make mistakes, we see it as a learning process. When the near poor make bad decisions, we are quick to judge and apply our own standards about what they should have done and accept their difficulty as the cost of their bad decisions. But a few mistakes can lead to total disaster, especially in the context of children. What is the pregnant, single mom supposed to do to support her family? Take a course in web page design? When? Who takes care of the kids? Life is not fair, OK, we all get that. So what can we do about it?

The central thesis of this book is that we ignore the near poor. They exist in a gap between those in poverty, who we feel an obligation to assist, and those who are “on track” to greater economic stability and prosperity.

Newman identifies some key policy recommendations (and note the forward by Senator John Edwards–this book is intended to provoke political change):

Perhaps most importantly,

“…we must replace this patchwork child-care “system” — a term it barely merits — with a comprehensive, public-supported network of day care (for kids aged six months to three years) and kindergarten (starting at four). We know that the majority of mothers of children under one are in the labor force; no amount of wishful thinking is going to change that fact.”

The most successful and effective policies identified are more projects than policies. There is no magic solution; no single national policy that should be adopted. But by getting into the details of these families, Newman helps us leap over the simplifications and notice the near poor who are a huge segment of our population that is not looking for a handout, but needs some help up.


This review was contributed by guest blogger, Dave Atkinsa technologist and metro parent who blogs about issues affecting the creative class and their city lifestyle choices, often focusing on Boston where he now lives (after doing some time in the Bay Area and Seattle).

Density, family business and “mompreneurs”

In the dense neighborhoods and suburbs of Mexico City (such as Ciudad Neza or Coacalcos) I’ve often been intrigued by the variety of home based businesses that families — often the mother — operate. Some make paletas — ice creams and popsicles — to sell on the street or from a door in front of their house. Others roast chickens or grill hot dogs. Some sell school supplies, or sodas, or cel phone usage, or baby clothes.

Their entrepreneurial imagination is almost limitless. The large numbers of people living nearby creates a steady market. This is often the primary income for a family, or a reliable second income.

In US and Canadian cities and suburbs, opportunities for home based businesses have generally been fewer. Try opening an ice cream stall in your suburban home — there is not enough of a market. Selling Tupperware or Avon products exists, but generally requires the entrepreneur to visit houses.

The internet age has opened new employment opportunities for suburbanites, city dwellers, and rural residents alike. For parents — particularly women — wanting to spend more time with the kids while also earning some income and maintaining a professional identity, it has been a revolution in many ways.

However, there are limits to internet-based employment. Only certain types of work lend themselves to being done by one person in relative isolation. Some freelance writing and web site design, for example, can work from home. Contracted out data entry or information processing offers other options and many women sell hand-made products on e-Bay. But many of these businesses would benefit from face-to-face meetings with clients as well.

And what if these are not your areas of expertise?

The combination of higher density living and the internet results in much broader opportunities for home based businesses. And the internet can be valuable as a supportive medium. Here are some examples.

  • The fit4two pre- and post-natal fitness company’s founder, Melanie Osmack, started the business offering fitness classes for moms to be, new moms (and new parents) in downtown Vancouver where 100,000 people live in close proximity. Word of the classes helped to generate demand throughout the metro area and Melanie soon franchised to other moms with fitness instructor designations in other neighborhoods. She was a recent runner up in a contest for Mompreneur of the year. Fit4two uses the internet to promote their programs, but is based on access to lots of people living in close proximity.
  • Children’s clothing stores and family-oriented cafes are retail style businesses that some women have opened just blocks from their homes. Being the boss at these retail business allows a parent to set their own hours and in some cases it works to have a young child in the store with you while you work.
  • The makers of the Baby Buddha wraps and Milk Factory quick wick clothing and blankets initially sold their first products locally, through word of mouth and at “baby fairs” and swap meets. They now sell nationwide and internationally using the internet.

A great way to have access to a large number of customers or people with whom to do business is to live in a higher density area. You can always use the internet as well. But people like to do business with others whom they know.

Women in the US and Canada are starting businesses in large numbers (as Penelope Trunk often tells us), often to bring flexibility to their lives. Whether the intend to use the internet or not, those living in higher density areas with a supportive community will often have an advantage in making their venture a success.

New styles of work and older urban designs

Penelope Trunk recently provided seven predictions on the future of work. Many will require changes to how people live in cities.  Old style sprawl will not allow for new styles of working.   Here I’ll address her first two predictions:

The end of gender disparity
Pay is equal for men and women until there are kids. This inequality will change when Generation Y starts having kids because the men are committed to being equal partners in child rearing. We see already that among Generation X men and women are willing to give up pay and prestige in order to get time with their families. Generation Y’s demographic power will provide critical mass for big change.

The end of the stay-at-home parent
Women have already widely rejected the idea of sacrificing their time with children to a relentless, high-powered, long-houred job, and men are following suit. Women have also found that staying at home with kids all day is boring. Institutions are responding – finally — to these trends. Parents will choose some form of shared care. Each parent will work part-time and take care of kids part time.

These predictions and observations will require many families to abandon suburban life for a more urban existence. The suburbs evolved when one parent working outside the home was the norm. The other parent could then dedicate herself (or occasionally “himself) to getting the kids to schools and other activities, as well as looking after them at home. If the working parent had to commute 60 minutes each way, that was considered acceptable to have a large back yard and a white picket fence.

In order for both parents to share care and have careers, they’ll need to live in proximity to their employer or clients (for the self employed). Although the internet and mobile technology allows for some types of work to be done anywhere, face to face communication is usually essential some of the time. It builds trust, is part of networking, and is required at least occasionally for effective collaboration.

Having a home in a distant suburb makes it harder for two parents to blend work and family life. If you live 10 minutes from downtown (or a major employment area) — or live downtown — it’s easier to get away for a one hour meeting, which will only cost you 1 hour 20 minutes of time. If you live 60 minutes from downtown, a one hour meeting will cost you 3 hours, two of which will be fairly unproductive if you’re driving in traffic.

For those who need to make regular appearances at an “office” (or the equivalent there of), living close to work and the kids schools means that you can zip home in a few minutes if there is a problem or dash to the school to attend a concert for an hour. It also means less time wasted commuting and therefore more time with your kids. Plus, when it comes to negotiating flexibility — such as an option to work from home occasionally, or to work in the evening in return for having a shorter day at the office — it’s more workable (and an easier sell to employers) if you can get back quickly in an emergency.

So, the future of work and the future of cities are interconnected. Of course, living in higher density areas will usually mean living in a smaller place — maybe a condo or townhouse and playing at the park rather than in a big backyard.

Moving away from the car-tropolis

How might cities change over the next 20 years?

Here’s one theory for North America generally: they will switch from evolving to facilitate, primarily, automotive travel to allowing citizens more time for leisure, which intriguingly will mean less automotive travel on a daily basis.  This shift will also re-make who, socio-economically speaking, lives where within the metro area.
People are increasingly valuing time more than money.  Workers of all generations (although stereotypically generation y – the millennials) are now foregoing promotions and other career advancement opportunities in order to have more leisure time to share with family and friends. 

Younger creative and professional workers in particular are often choosing to live in downtowns and other higher-density urban areas near their jobs and near entertainment and recreation opportunities.  Moreover, in some cities, families are now making the choice to live in smaller residences, close to where household members work.  In these cases, they are avoiding distant commutes, giving themselves more disposable time.

Over time, neighborhoods close to major employment centres for creative and professional types (often downtowns and town centers) are becoming more popular.  Gentrification is taking place in some districts as families and individuals with some financial resources move in and often renovate older houses.  Elsewhere condo towers going up, commanding high prices.  Density is proving to be a safe, enriching environment for families in some cities and the example will catch on — especially when governments stop subsidizing suburban living, pushing more families to try higher density living closer to work.

Subsidized automobile-based transportation options have been the basis of urban evolution in North America for at least 60 years.  All tax payers pay for the roads and highways that allow for suburban sprawl, something that will become less palatable to many citizens who are spending the extra money for housing closer to their jobs.  Citizen concern over global warming will make it more politically possible to start charging users to travel on these roads that are becoming more costly to build and maintain as the price of oil rises.  The costs of commuting vast distances in single occupant vehicles will also become more expensive.

So, within a decade, I expect that suburban living will be very costly financially and in terms of time, which is increasingly valued more than money.  These twin forces will pull people toward higher density communities.  And with higher density comes better, more frequent public transit options such as metros.  People who need to commute will not do it in a single occupant vehicle, instead traveling faster and less expensively on a transit system — that is, if they can afford to live in a higher density area.  Note: I’m not saying everyone will live in the urban core, but that they will choose higher density areas with more amenities and good transit options to (other) major employment areas.

Ironically, the result of a shift to a “chronopolis” or a city based around resident desire to save time (or make time for their own preferred pursuits) will be pushing those without significant financial means to less dense suburban areas.   The spacious cookie-cutter middle class suburban homes of today, may be the ghetto of tomorrow.  Living in these areas will mean longer waits for buses (residents won’t be able to afford private auto travel) to take people to metro stations from which they’ll travel to work or school.

That’s my prediction.  It might take 50 years to happen (after all, the car-tropolis has been evolving for longer than that), but in larger metro areas, it’s a likely future.

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