Yesterday morning, I got into an argument with a stranger while riding with my wife and kids on the subway. I’d been standing for several stops with my two-year-old in my arms, when an empty seat became available. As I lunged for it, another (young, male) passenger started to sit down. I was, I admit, not polite in asking if we could sit instead of him. I reasoned that our need should be obvious, and our presence unmissable. It turned out I was wrong about that; he really didn’t see us.
But I guess I should be less surprised that I went unnoticed and unregarded; my kids are often the only people their age on transit when we head to and from their daycare in the heart of Toronto. They’re also most definitely in the minority when we walk along Yonge Street at 8:30am, or duck into a restaurant after school instead of scurrying to our east-end home to make dinner. We’re invisible, my brood and I, because we have few comrades, and we’re not remarkable enough in our appearance to cause a stir.
This encounter reminded me of Etobicoke Councillor Doug Holyday’s recent proclamation that King and Spadina is no place to raise children, as well as the many passionate rebuttals to that claim by downtown parents. And it also got me thinking about the Pembina Institute study released shortly after Holyday’s gaffe, and the eloquent analysis of that study by the Star’s Christopher Hume.
With respect to everyone who wrote open letters to Holyday about the joys of being an urban parent, I must concede that Holyday inadvertently made a good point: downtown Toronto is inhospitable in many ways to people with children. Parks are few and far between, accessibility challenges are common in buildings, and the TTC can quickly become a veritable battleground. More advocates challenging these inadequacies would make a huge difference, but that’s unlikely to materialize anytime soon; there are virtually no affordable places in the core in which people like my family and I could live. It’s this point that forms the core of Hume’s column about the Pembina study.
“More families than ever do want to live downtown,” Hume writes, “and most of those who live in suburbs want their neighbourhoods to be more walkable, better connected to transit, more mixed-use, in short, more urban.” The rub, of course, is that downtown Toronto is prohibitively expensive, which is why policies like making three-bedroom units mandatory in new developments (which is what got Holyday all worked up in the first place) are absolutely essential.
The Pembina Institute agrees. “Government needs to do more to make it more attractive for developers to build compact, family-friendly homes,” Cherise Burda, the Ontario policy director at Pembina, said to Hume. “A lot of politicians are still encouraging developers to build sprawl.”
Despite well-intentioned efforts like the proposed family-unit condo rule, we’re veering dangerously close to — as The Arcade Fire song goes — living in a city with no children in it. And while it’s true that there are places downtown where kids probably don’t belong (I’m in the camp who believes that fine dining establishments are the province of adults, and if my wife and I go out to eat somewhere nice, it’s because we’re seeking respite from children for the evening), city-building with families in mind benefits everyone. As Hume points out, parents want things like walkability, green spaces, safe streets, shops and buildings with accessibility features, and easy access to amenities.
On transit, our needs are simple: fare media that make sense; and a place to sit. I dream of a day when I can show a Child Metropass and then find a reserved seat, not one that someone has to give up for me. If we can build parking lots with designated spaces and roads with HOV lanes, surely we can adjust the language and etiquette on the TTC in a similar fashion. This, too, has universal appeal — many transit riders with a need for a seat can’t find and aren’t offered one, and are unwilling or unable to beg for it every time they board. It’s a situation as inhospitable as the lack of affordable downtown housing for families, and is a big reason why so many Toronto parents give up on transit — and, often, urban living itself — altogether. Personally, I’m hoping I’ll never concede defeat on either front, but I would definitely love to stop fighting.