Is it better to raise kids in the suburbs or downtown? Neither — and that’s a problem for all of us

Is it better to raise kids in the suburbs or downtown? Neither — and that’s a problem for all of us

As Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cut council almost in half reignites talk of the urban-suburban divide, the Star finds the old differences aren’t what they used to be. In an occasional series, One Toronto, we take a look at what divides us and what we share, no matter where the ward lines fall.

On a chilly October afternoon, Nicole Engelmann-Fuller is pushing her 9-month-old son Eero on a swing in Corktown Common, an east-end park built on old industrial land that opened in 2013.

The pair often come to the West Don Lands park, nestled where the Gardiner Exwy. meets the Don Valley Pkwy., enjoying the playground with a sweeping view of downtown’s skyscrapers and the CN Tower in the background.

Having a kid has made the new mom appreciate open spaces more. But she said she’s not tempted by the idea of the suburbs.

“You have to drive everywhere, and we’re not white picket fence people, which is why we live downtown,” Engelmann-Fuller said, as a GoTrain rumbled by on the nearby tracks.

“In lots of cities in the world they do it, kids in New York grow up in apartments.”

The adage is that it’s better to raise kids in the suburbs, with its big backyards and sleepy streets. But aside from schools and safe neighbourhoods, experts say walkable streets, parks, green spaces and other amenities that encourage physical activity such as pools and arenas are the things that children want and need, and make them healthier.

The suburbs, with its car-centric sprawl, aren’t exactly walkable and their green spaces sometimes don’t have the amenities kids need. But downtown isn’t perfect either — it has walkable neighbourhoods, but its parks and green spaces are often overused, as park advocates say the city hasn’t prioritized parks for the growing population.

That makes neither place the ideal location to raise a kid in Toronto — and that’s bad for all of us.

“It’s important not to create a completely adult-centric city. Or even a city where the kids come in for a few hours and then leave,” said Shauna Brail, director of the University of Toronto’s urban studies program.

“From the perspective of exposure and tolerance and sort of whimsy and fun, it’s important to have kids around.”

Of the six former preamalgamation municipalities, unsurprisingly, the city of old Toronto has the lowest percentage of the population that’s under 18, according to Statistics Canada data, at just 13.7 per cent.

Scarborough is almost on track with Canada (20 per cent) at 19.5 per cent, and East York is slightly above with 21.8. Etobicoke is 18.5, York is 19, and North York 18.8.

In all areas except East York (where it went up 1.7 percentage points), the percentage dropped by between 3.3 and 4.1 percentage points from 1996, following a similar trend across Canada as the population ages.

An older population can tip the scales at City Hall — since seniors vote — leading to the issues that matter to that segment of the population dominating discussion. While those that affect younger people, and the amenities they want for their kids, can get shut out, said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in the politics department at Ryerson University who has studied voting patterns.

It’s a clash exemplified this spring when Cabbagetown residents blocked a daycare over worries about noise, traffic and jungle gyms.

Younger voters don’t necessarily see themselves in issues or politicians and it becomes “a bit of a vicious cycle,” while politicians pitch to older adults and tailor policies to them, Siemiatycki said.

But amenities such as parks, that get kids outside and moving, pay off down the road with a healthier population — both physically and mentally, said Jake Tobin Garrett of the park advocacy non-profit Park People.

He said the city has underinvested in parkland across the board and has “fallen very far behind” in maintenance funding, which plays out differently in different areas.

“In the downtown people generally live pretty near some sort of park, but when they get there it’s often extremely packed and not well maintained because there’s too many people using it,” he said.

“Whereas in the outer areas of the city, parks are often a lot larger and don’t really sometimes contain the amenities that people are looking for.”

Parks seem fairly equitably distributed across Toronto on a map on the city’s website. But there’s actually less parkland per person in the old city of Toronto and East York (21 m2), compared to Scarborough (45 m2), Etobicoke and York (36 m2) and North York (29 m2).

Across the city, there’s 28 m2 per person of parkland, which is comparable to Vancouver, higher than San Francisco and lower than Los Angeles.

But in the densest part of the core, Toronto has less parkland per person than New York, Chicago and Houston, according to information compiled in a November 2017 city staff report.

As for the suburbs, there are plenty of playgrounds in Scarborough on the city’s own map, but playgrounds with washrooms are much more sparse.

Wading pools are more concentrated in the old city of Toronto, while splash pads were more equally distributed. Indoor pools are more concentrated in the downtown core, and there are fewer outdoor pools in Scarborough.

City staff have been working on a 20-year Parkland Strategy, a plan to guide decision-making about new parks and expand ones the city already has, recognizing the need to reinvest in green space as the city grows. But the final plan has not yet been approved by council.

And Toronto’s park operations budget rose by $8 million since 2015 to $155.2 million in 2018, which Garrett calls “a drop in the bucket” considering the population growth, inflation and new parks in the city that need to be maintained.

“I think in order for us to have an equitable city, we need to make sure that people have the things that they need to live their lives, wherever they are in the city, whether that’s inside the downtown or outside the downtown,” he said.

Back at Corktown Common, almost 6-year-old Charlie Grant whips down the slide as his grandfather David Mitchell looks on.

They find the park is one of the better ones in the city.

“Some parks are just wastelands with play structures,” Mitchell says, but adds the Common does sometimes get “absolutely” crowded at “certain times of the day.”

Charlie and his little brother get lots of exercise, not just from visiting parks around “North York, East York and the city,” but from walking as a way to get around.

“He loves to run. We’re walking, he’s running,” said Mitchell with a laugh. “They manage to wear me out.”

It’s not just the green space that leads to healthier kids — the walkable streets around Corktown Common can also make a huge difference when it comes to keeping kids healthy, said Leigh Vanderloo, an exercise scientist with national healthy living non-profit ParticipACTION.

Children who grow up in areas with “gridlike” streets, like those found in the downtown core, tend to have higher levels of physical activity, than those in suburban “loops and lollipops,” she said.

Although they don’t have Toronto-specific numbers, ParticipACTION’s 2018 report card on physical activity found Canadian kids are not getting enough exercise and are spending too much time in cars.

The report found only 20 per cent of 5 to 11-year-olds spend more than two hours a day doing an unorganized activity, according to their parents. Only 21 per cent of 5 to 19-year-olds use active modes of transportation, such as walking and biking, to get to school.

In more suburban neighbourhoods, where distances are farther, kids end up being chauffeured from school to activities to home. That’s now much more the reality, instead of the old idea of playing outside until dark, Vanderloo said.

“Given that kids are spending so little time outside and are actually indoors much more and in front of screens, I don’t know if that trend (of playing outside in the suburbs) still rings true,” she said.

As for downtown, those walkable streets and amenities are only advantageous if kids have the freedom to use them.

Kids that have “independent mobility,” such as being able to walk to a friend’s house or school, tend to be more active than the ones that don’t and are “bubble wrapped” by their parents, Vanderloo said.

She said “stranger danger,” one of the excuses for keeping kids inside, doesn’t add up, as the likelihood of a child being the victim of random crime on the streets is very low.

“We actually know that those occurrences actually happen so infrequently and that we’re actually doing so much more harm to them, not only physically, but mentally and psychologically by taking away those opportunities, and keeping them more indoors,” Vanderloo said.

But even for families who want to be downtown and let their kids roam, the high costs of housing makes it tough.

That’s another area where the city needs to step up, says Gil Penalosa, founder and chair of 8 80 Cities, a non-profit which works to improve cities for all ages.

He said it can be hard for families to live downtown because there’s not enough family-friendly housing, too many one-bedroom condos and not enough bigger, affordable units being built.

“(The city) really needs to work on making sure that there is enough supply of family condos and not just for single millennials or boomers,” Penalosa said.

And voters should remember that what’s good for kids ends up benefiting everyone else, he said.

Those green spaces and safer, walkable streets that kids need are the same things that seniors enjoy. And a world without children can actually make the rest of us less tolerant, he said.

“If the city is not good for children, then it’s not good, period.”

May Warren’s One Toronto series

Part 1: Are Toronto’s elites really downtown? It’s not so simple

Part 2: People used to move to the suburbs to save money. Now, nearly every corner of Toronto has downtown rent

Part 3: Toronto is more diverse than ever, but downtown is falling behind

Part 4: Meet Toronto’s ‘reverse commuters,’ the people going the other way while you’re stuck in traffic

Part 5: All of Toronto is getting older, but it’s tougher to age in the suburbs

Part 6: Downtown Toronto is becoming like ‘Downton Abbey’ as service workers get pushed farther from the core

Part 7: Toronto’s political divide is real, but it can change — especially in the suburbs

Part 8: More development means more money, thanks to Section 37. Is it an unfair perk for downtown or compensation for endless construction?

May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11

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