School Troubles in a Booming Metropolis: Part 4 – Changing Expectations

This is the final installment in a four-part series about the demographic, housing and land use contexts of troubled public schools. Here are links to parts one, two and three.

North Americans are culturally attached to the single-family house, especially for families with children. Thanks to Barrie Sutcliffe for this great photos of houses on the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta.

In many core cities, insufficient affordable and suitable housing for families provides a push for young families to leave urban neighbourhoods for the suburbs.

The pull of suburban environments is the other side of the coin. 55% of Canadians live in a house, and many believe that young children have the best outcomes in a single-family house with a private yard. Cultural attachment to the single-family home fuels the market for sprawling suburban and exurban developments.

However, in Metro Vancouver and elsewhere with limited land availability for greenfield development, it has become difficult for the market to provide much new single-family housing. Accordingly, expectations about what kinds of housing are appropriate for kids are slowly changing among both families and planners. Cities are starting to plan for higher-density neighbourhoods that include young children.

In Vancouver, the False Creek North megaproject was developed  in the 1990s as the city’s first high-rise downtown neighbourhood to intentionally include families with young children. A quarter of housing units were required to be “family suitable”: located no higher than the eighth storey and of a minimum size.

Thanks to Payton Chung on Flickr for this great Creative Commons photo of a child-friendly, transit-oriented development in Vauban, Germany.

While a 2007 post-occupancy survey found False Creek North to be a well-functioning intergenerational and intercultural neighbourhood, it also found lessons for future projects. For instance, units lack sufficient storage space, and buildings’ outdoor common areas are too formal, disallowing active uses.

Perhaps the most innovative examples of child-friendly urban and suburban housing projects come from Europe, where transit-oriented developments (TODs) are specifically designed to appeal to families with children. In a great Planning Magazine article (unfortunately gated for viewing by APA members only), Robert Cervero and Cathleen Sullivan describe three features of child-friendly TODs like Amsterdam’s GWL-Terrein project or Freiburg’s Rieselfeld:

- Deemphasizing the car allows for emphasis of pedestrian convenience and safety
- A mix of uses creates a safe and active street life
- Excellent transit service reduces car dependence and allows increased independence for older children

The authors note that, in the USA, attempts to replicate these successes meet with major barriers such as zoning ordinances requiring high levels of parking and a tendency to include playgrounds and cycling infrastructure as an afterthought. Canadian as well as American planners have much to learn about planning for intergenerational neighbourhoods.

Given that the percentage of the population represented by school-aged children has declined faster in the City of Vancouver than in the rest of the region, the corrollary statistic for pre-school aged children may be surprising. Between 1986 and 2006, the percentage of the population represented by pre-school-aged children (ages 0-4) actually declined more slowly in the City of Vancouver (from 5.1% to 4.3%) than in the surrounding suburbs (where it fell from 7.1% to 5.2%).

To maximize the sustainability of Vancouver’s social infrastructure, and to promote generational diversity within its neighbourhoods, planners and housing providers face the challenge of facilitating the creation of enough suitable and affordable family housing so that the city’s very young children can remain in the city as they grow up and go to school.

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