Do we really need families living in our Centre City?

A hot topic of debate for urban planners and politicians these days is how to get more families living downtown, especially in higher density condo neighbourhoods.  Many urban living advocates think the more families living in a neighbourhood the healthier it is. I am not so sure about that.

Some Calgary urban advocates think our Centre City communities (Downtown core, West End, Eau Claire, Chinatown, East Village, Beltline) suffer from a lack of families living in them.  Some have even gone so far as to suggest the City should mandate developers to build more three-bedroom condos and apartments to attract more families to live downtown in the belief “that if you build them, families will come.”  

Calgary isn’t alone. Planners, politicians and developers in Vancouver and Toronto have also been debating for the past 10 years or more, how to create attractive, affordable housing for families in urban communities.  In fact, back in 2009, Toronto’s City Council contemplated requiring condos with 100+ dwelling units to have at least 10% of the units be three-bedrooms (or at least the ability to easily be converted to 3- bedrooms units). The changes to their Official Plan (city’s master plan to manage growth and development) have never been approved and the debate continues.

Recently, the Globe & Mail reported on a family of 7 (two adults and kids ranging from 2 to 8 years of age) happily living in a 1,023 square foot condo in Vancouver. The family pays $2,150 to rent the highrise condo in Yaletown.  The story goes on to say that rumour has it, another 60 kids live in the building which suggests more families in Vancouver are choosing urban living.  Some are thinking (perhaps praying is a better word), that this will be the 21st century model for family living – urban and minimal.  Could there be  a segment of the modern family housing market who don’t want big houses, with double vanity sinks, spa-like bathrooms, walk-in closets, massive kitchens, media rooms and oversized double garages to park their two SUVs? Time will tell.  

Major Flaw

There is a flaw in the theory that if you build 3-bedroom condos, families will happily live downtown. A Toronto media story recently profiled how a large 3-bedroom downtown condo made a perfect bachelor pad for three young male professionals.  I see a 3-bedroom condo also being ideal for Ruppies  (retired urban professionals) who want a downtown pad with room for a couple of offices that can be converted into bedrooms when kids or grandkids comes to visits. To me, it’s no coincidence that in Calgary, some of the largest condos are in the Eau Claire area, which also happens to also be our retirement village – 21% of residents are 65+ years of age, twice the city average of 10%.

In a free market system, just because you build 3-bedroom condos doesn’t mean you can guarantee young families will live in them.  For families in Calgary wanting to enjoy urban living, they see many better options than highrise condo in higher density neighbourhoods.

Families Love Infills Communities

A little digging found Calgary actually has as many children living in its greater downtown communities, as does Vancouver (thought by many planners to be a leader in urban family living).  In Calgary’s Downtown Core, 10% of residents are under the age of 19 with 6% being under the age of 4, very close to the City average of 7%.  The Beltline is a bit lower with 8% under 19, half of those under the age of 4.  In Vancouver’s downtown communities, the number of children under 19 also hovers just under the 10% level.

The Haultain Park playground in the Beltline Calgary's highest density community is popular with young families. In Calgary, condo living is great for young families, but that soon changes as they grow up and need more space. 

The playground a Cliff Bungalow School provides an idyllic place for young families to hang out. 

I also checked out the communities near downtown. Though Mission/Cliff Bungalow was also under the 10% threshold, cross the Bow and Elbow Rivers and it is a totally different story. 

In Hillhurst and West Hillhurst (lower density single-family home neighbourhoods) a whopping 21% of residents are under the age of 19 - close to the city average of 25%.  Inglewood has 19% of its population under 19; Ramsay 17% and Bridgeland 15%.

Go a step or two further and you find 25% of Rosedale’s residents under the age of 19 (the same as the city average), Roxboro has 24% (with a whopping 16% in the 5 to 14-age bracket, twice the city average), Mount Royal and Scarboro are not far behind at 23%.

Obviously, Calgary has several family-friendly neighbourhoods (read single family homes) within just a few kilometers of the downtown office core.

On a recent Saturday walkabout in West Hilllhurst I encountered two street hockey games. 

The Queen Elizabeth School complex (elementary, junior high and high school) playground makes Hillhurst and West Hillhurst a haven for families. 

Westmount Charter Elementary School makes Parkdale a very attractive place for young families to live. From Parkdale you can walk or cycle to to downtown, University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children's Hospital. 

What’s The Problem

Is it really important we have families living in the highrises in the Beltline, East Village or Eau Claire? (Note: 7% of the Eau Claire population is under 4 years of age, same as city average, but only 1% in the 5-14 years bracket and none in the 15-19 group). 

So what if many young families “start” in the City Centre and then move out as their families grow larger or as the kids get bigger and they need and/or want more space? Some planners think that a measure of a neighbourhood’s health is the number of families living in the community. I am not so sure it is!

There was much media attention last fall for the Halloween Index, a supposed measure of the health of a community, based on the number of trick & treaters coming to the door.  Again, a cute idea but really not important in the big scheme of city building.      

And yes, it may be a “warm fuzzy” thing to say that lots of families live downtown, but really, does it make any significant difference if a community is made up mostly of YUPPIES AND RUPPIES? Does it really matter if the sidewalks are full of patios and pedestrians?  Do all communities have to look the same?  Do they all have to have the same mix of people?  As long as the streets and public spaces are safe (day and night) and people like their community, isn’t that enough?

Yuppies and Ruppies are attracted to the maintenance free condo lifestyle in Calgary's West End neighbourhood. 

On the north side of the Bow River less than 2 kilometres from downtown families can enjoy a modern new single family home with streets that encourage family activities and a school that is just a block away. 

  Here is the other street hockey game I encountered on my walk home from yoga recently. 

Here is the other street hockey game I encountered on my walk home from yoga recently. 

Cost vs Space

In Vancouver and Toronto the cost of a three-bedroom inner city condo in a concrete building is significantly less than an inner city wood-framed home with about the same square footage - if you can find one. So it is no surprise there is a stronger market in those two cities for three bedroom condos than in Calgary where the opposite is true. 

Here, the cost of new wood frame infill home near downtown is significantly less than a similar sized concrete condo. For example, along Kensington Road in Hillhurst, there are 1,900 square foot town homes for $610,000 and Brookfield Residential offered couple of 2,000 square foot side-by-sides with full basements and two car garages that were 2,000 square feet for $800,000 last year.

Compare that to a 1,200 square foot concrete condo (probably the minimum square footage for a family of four these days) at a cost of about $720,000 ($780,000 if you want two parking stalls). So, for about the same price or less, a family can purchase a new infill house, five minutes from downtown.  

When push comes to shove, most (not all) Calgary families would (and do) opt for the conveniences a new home with backyard, basement, two-car garage and three bathrooms.

Condo living is popular for young urban families especially on the west side of the Beltline where there is a school and two grocery stores.  

New infill homes are a common site on almost every block in Calgary's  inner city communities. Calgary has probably one of the most diverse infill home building programs in inner-city neighbourhoods in North America.   Most of these homes will be occupied by young families. 

Last Word

The Calgary Foundation’s Vital Signs survey (2014) found 87% of respondents describing themselves as happy and 91% feel they are surrounded by loving family, companions and friends.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

Planners and politicians have – or should have - bigger and better things to worry about than whether or not Calgary developers are building enough 3-bedroom condos.  If the demand is there, developers will build them.  Let’s not get into mico-managing condo size and design.

Rather, let’s build upon the fact Calgary’s urban centre is already an attractive place to live for Calgarians of all ages AND has been improving every year for the past decade by providing a diversity of housing options. Let’s focus on investing in things like new and improved urban parks, pathways, underpasses, sidewalks, bike lanes, arts, entertainment and recreational amenities that will enhance the attractiveness for both current and future residents.

 If you like this blog, you might like:

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary 

Intelligent Infilling or Living in a bubble?

The Suburbs Move to City Centre in Calgary