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Cities need families

There’s a condo development down the street from my urban Ottawa community, about four kilometres from Parliament Hill. When they were selling units, the developer advertised “hotel-style living.” For those who travel a lot for work, truly, can you think of anything worse? Hotel-style living – you mean I can have a very small space, where no one knows me and I know no one, where the food doesn’t suit me and everything costs more than it should? Wow! Where do I sign up?

There are some children next door and some down the street who wait for a school bus in the mornings. Yet I can count the families on our street on one hand. There is no critical mass of kids. And if the new glassy condo down the street indicates anything, and it does, the proportion of children in the neighbourhood is about to go down, not up.

What makes a good city for families?
There are likely different answers for everyone, but some constants. Back in 2010 the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada a grading of 33 Canadian cities for family friendliness (see sidebar). For this report, we measured the following concerns, among others:

  • community feel
  • education choice
  • economic strength

“Community feel” included green space and bike paths as well as charitable filings and neighbourhood stability. Here, we also included crime – we used the homicide rate as a proxy for other crimes, like gang activity, robbery and drug use.

Economic strength got at notions of economic security. To what extent would families be able to find work and make a living in a particular city? What is the average family income and what is the average family tax take? How do stable families also contribute to the economy?

Under the umbrella of economic strength we included population growth rate. An expanding population means more services, more stores and more opportunities in general. This can happen in a number of different ways, and Canada is fortunate to have a high number of immigrants who come here and contribute.

Increasing population, however, is not only a matter of immigration. Even high rates of immigration have not necessarily shown that we get a higher number of children. Increasing population also refers to the Canadian fertility rate, which currently hovers below replacement. Replacement fertility is 2.1 and we sit somewhere around 1.6 children per woman of childbearing age.  

This is the trend for all wealthy nations. As a result, some scholars indicate we are living in a “post-familial” age. What post-familialism means is that where previously family was considered the bedrock of community and society, today this is no longer true. In Canada it was announced with Census 2011 that “there were more one-person households than couple households with children for the first time.”

Creating healthy communities
If city planners and condo developers are to consider what is useful to the people around them, they currently are seeing far more single individuals than families. People do buy those “hotel style condos” that fit one, maximum two people.  

If we don’t like what those developments represent, which is the atomization and individualization of society, then we need to consider why builders keep building them. The obvious answer is that there is a demand. Large families are not in vogue.

This leads into a bit of a chicken and egg discussion – can we attract families to urban centres with just the right combination of green space and parks, a low crime rate and economic opportunities? Or do we need more families such that they make cities from the ground up regardless of any enticements? Do enticements work for people to have families in the first place? If our fertility statistics over the past decades are any indication, the answer is no. Benefits for having children have never been so high, while the total fertility rate has never been so low.

I started by discussing our lovely street in urban Ottawa. I can see the developments – both demographically and by developers – and in due course it will only be “Little Italy” in a historic sense. Many more of the single family dwellings will be bought up to make more condos. Families bring great good to cities. Now we just need to figure out how to encourage more people to have families of their own. 

  • Andrea Mrozek is program director of Cardus Family (cardus.ca/family).

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