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?


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  2. Melanie says:

    Oh, man, you stopped before you discussed the impact of telecommuting and working from home!

    I suspect, but have no evidence, that such arrangements are often preferred by women, and companies that offer these options can more readily attract that 9-3 labor pool. But if more workers (of any gender) opt to work from home, doesn’t that reduce the need to redesign the suburbs?

  3. GEM says:

    Melanie, you commented on exactly what I was thinking. I started telecommuting 10 years ago. The flexibility is key — especially my parents are hitting their 80s and I’m becoming more and more responsible for them.

  4. Andrea Coutu says:

    Yeah, but the 9 to 3 labour pool is really 9:30 to 2:30, givent the need to drop off and pick up kids. That being said, they could fit in 25 hours a week. It would be nice if some companies would accommodate that.

    But, while we are at it, why not redesign the school day? Most people actually need childcare from 8:30 to 5:30. Why not create more options around that, too? If kids don’t need to be home to help with farm chores, does school need to finish at 3? If we transferred the money people pay to childcare back into the school system, could we not offer music, art, dance, sports and even just playtime?

    That being said, are most educated and talented people out in the suburbs? Or are they actually living closer to the downtown core, where they can get out to business meetings or tap into services at Kinko’s and Staples and so on…and hang out with people with more urban ideas? In saying that, I am NOT saying that these people do NOT live in the suburbs…I’m asking if perhaps they already live closer to the city and so we’ll draw these people from there and not the suburbs. Or maybe housing prices dictate that you have to be in suburbia to manage this situation.

  5. Jonathan says:

    I am confused. The data point that you mention is that family size is shrinking, making it easier for families (including women) to choose to live in smaller, urban apartments instead of larger suburban houses.

    So why should firms locate satellite offices in suburban office parks, when more women are finding it easier to live downtown?

  6. Wendy Waters says:

    Good question Jonathan. It’s because some women and families don’t choose to live downtown. They prefer a larger home, and more yard space in the suburbs, for the same money.

  7. [...] define the world in which we live in, too.  In an interesting article I read recently called “Women’s decisions shape cities”, the authoress talks about how mothers in the US who decided to go out to work but needed to be [...]

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