School Troubles in a Booming Metropolis: Part 3 of 4 – Intergenerational Neighbourhoods and Housing Diversity

105-year-old Sir William MacDonald Elementary School was one of 11 Vancouver schools threatened with closure in 2010. Thanks to Sqeaky Marmot on Flickr for this great Creative Commons photo.

Wrestling with the conundrum of why growing cities like Vancouver face declining public school enrolments, the first two posts in this series suggest links between municipal and regional populations of school-aged children and the affordability and suitability of family housing. Today’s post explores the value of intergenerational communities in both urban and suburban contexts, and considers how housing diversity may influence demographics at the neighbourhood scale.

Urban Context
Researching the dispersal of children across local neighbourhoods, the Curious Dad newspaper column found that Vancouver’s east-side communities house the most young children, while west-side communities (where housing is generally more expensive) house more teenagers. Reporter Chad Skelton posits that “the city has become increasingly less affordable, so people starting families tend to be further and further east as time passes.” This pattern could have dire implications for schools and other social infrastructure. In the absence of new affordable west-side family housing, what facility closures might become necessary when today’s west-side teenagers grow up?

Suburban Context
20 km east of Vancouver, the suburban City of Port Moody (pop. 27,000) saw a 15% increase in population between 2001 and 2006. Nonetheless, two Port Moody elementary schools were closed indefinitely in 2007. While school closures are always contentious and political, the case of Coronation Park illustrates the vulnerability of a neighbourhood with uniform housing stock.

A 1972 class photo from Coronation Park School, reproduced with kind permission of the Port Moody Station Museum.

The Coronation Park neighbourhood was developed in the early 1960s according to the neighbourhood unit concept, with the school and playing field at its heart. (You can explore Coronation Park’s layout in the Google Maps window below this post.) When Coronation Park Elementary opened in 1964, the new houses lining local cul-de-sacs were home to plenty of young children. By 2007, however, when declining enrolment precipitated the school’s closure, a local planner explained to me that nearby residents were largely of retirement age.

While we can’t be sure why school-aged children were not well represented in Coronation Park in 2007, it is not because Port Moody lacked children. New tracts of greenfield housing developments were climbing the mountainsides, with resident children attending newer schools nearby. At least in part, the need to close Coronation Park Elementary arose as part of a long-range urban planning problem.

Intergenerational Communities and Housing Diversity
To serve a community sustainably, elementary schools require relatively stable populations of children within their catchment areas. Similar principles apply to other types of social infrastructure that represent significant community investment, such as childcare facilities, recreation centres, health care facilities and seniors’ centres.

Jane Jacobs’s prescription for economically vibrant districts was diversity of habitat for businesses. A mix of type, quality and age of buildings allows enterprises of all sizes and stages to thrive. Neighbourhood planning that follows the related principle of providing habitat for a diversity of households could allow both urban and suburban neighbourhoods to foster more stable and resilient intergenerational communities that are able to make efficient use of social infrastructure over multiple generations.

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This series on the demographic, housing and land use contexts of troubled public schools will conclude next week, with a look at housing alternatives for generational diversity.
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