To serve a community sustainably, elementary schools require relatively stable populations of children within their catchment areas. Seniors’ centres require relatively stable populations of seniors. Similar principles apply to other types of social infrastructure that represent significant community investment, such as childcare centres, recreation centres, and health care facilities.
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.
Unfortunately, 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 when raised in a single-family house with a private yard. Cultural attachment to the single-family home fuels markets for sprawling suburban and exurban developments.
However, in Metro Vancouver and other growing regions with limited land availability for greenfield development, the market is unable to provide much new single-family housing. Accordingly, expectations about what kinds of housing and neighbourhoods are appropriate for kids are slowly changing among both families and planners. Cities are starting to plan for higher-density communities 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.
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 exclusive viewing by members of the American Planning Association), Robert Cervero and Cathleen Sullivan describe three features of child-friendly TODs such as 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 attempts to replicate these successes in the USA meet with major barriers. Zoning ordinances require high levels of parking and the culture of planning and development tends to include playgrounds and cycling infrastructure as an afterthought. Canadian as well as American planners still 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 Metro Vancouver region, the corollary 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 urgent 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.