23 January 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Urban Versus Suburban. Where To Raise Kids?


Often I am brought into this conversation with my clients about selling their starter urban home, condo or loft for a larger “family” home in the suburbs.

Although I am mainly an urban Realtor doing the majority of my selling and buying on my clients behalf  in much of Toronto proper,  for clients looking to relocate outside the city I have bought and sold homes in the suburban neighbourhoods of Markham, Stouffville, Mississauga, Richmond Hill and Newmarket.

I was born downtown and raised in Toronto’s east end and have witnessed first hand the many benefits of being a kid raised in the city. Walking access to everything is often talked about as one of the best advantages to such a lifestyle but for me personally it’s the feeling of community I have felt and can attest to both as a kid and now as a Realtor working in these neighbourhoods.

Tamsin McMahon of the National Post newspaper wrote an article recently titled Baby & Hood: Studies suggest urban areas are less risky for children. I have attached the article for your reading and would love to hear your comments.

When their first son was born, Veronika Roux-Vlachova and Jean-Christophe Roux did what so many young families had done before: They traded their downtown Toronto apartment for a gorgeous six-bedroom family home in Markham, a popular suburb north of the city.

A year later, they raised eyebrows among their suburban friends and family when they packed up and headed back to the city to raise their growing family of three in a two-bedroom condo steps from the city’s bustling entertainment district.

The couple preferred the downtown lifestyle because of its culture, diversity and convenient transit, Ms. Roux-Vlachova says, but also because they felt it was safer than their old suburban neighbourhood.

“It was a beautiful house, but we just ended up living in our car,” she says. “We lived by [a busy road]. If anything happened, if we left the fence open, my child was literally on a road where traffic was like 80 kilometres an hour.”

Families like Ms. Roux-Vlachova’s say they find safety in their tightly packed urban communities, where tiny lots mean neighbours keep a watchful eye, where condominiums are staffed with security guards and parents can walk to most stores, schools and playgrounds.

Their arguments are bolstered by a growing body of research showing that the traditional family dream home — a large house on a big lot in a quiet suburb — may actually be more dangerous for children than many inner-city neighbourhoods.

While many parents worry that city living could mean their children will be abducted or caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting, it is exceedingly rare for children to be harmed or murdered by strangers, says William Lucy, a University of Virginia urban planning professor whose studies on safe communities are most often quoted by parents arguing for city living.

Perceptions about urban safety are still “lagging well behind reality,” Mr. Lucy says.

In reality, the greatest risk to children is car crashes, which are more likely to occur in the suburbs, where children spend more time in cars or playing next to busy roads.

“In terms of traffic fatalities versus homicides by strangers, it’s almost a 13-to-one ratio,” he says.

His 2009 study analyzing Virginia’s major cities, suburbs and rural areas found that lower-density areas were the most dangerous, while the safest communities, for the most part, were high-density cities. Not only did low-density communities have more traffic fatalities, but they were also the most dangerous places for stranger homicides.

Mr. Lucy also focused on mass school shootings and found that these too had most often occurred in the suburbs, where the student population was less diverse, making it harder for some to fit in.

“In suburban settings, especially outer suburbs, it’s much more of you’re either in or you’re out, with much less variety of groups to find a home with,” he says. “It’s the loner child who is typically the one who has been picked on and retaliates.”

Car crashes and schoolyard bullies, both of which usually involve older children, are not things parents often think of when they are first looking for a safe place to raise their young families, he says.

“When they move in, the kids are in preschool or elementary school,” Mr. Lucy says. “Ten years later, they’re teenagers in school and they’re driving and drinking. But parents don’t think about that at the point they buy the house.”

Attitudes toward the suburbs are changing quickly in the United States, where the collapse of the housing market hit hardest in outer suburbs, forcing young parents to reconsider new developments as safe financial investments.

Meanwhile, house prices in many city centres stayed stable, he says, thanks to downtown revivals driven mostly by a condominium boom. Those developments mostly cater to empty-nesters and young professionals, but they’re also starting to attract families, albeit slowly, as perceptions about city living change, Mr. Lucy says. “I think parents with children will be the last ones to follow,” he says. “But they will.”

That trend has pushed into Canada, where city councillors in Toronto have pressured developers to build more “family-friendly” three-bedroom units in their downtown condominiums.

In Vancouver, where soaring house prices have forced families into condominiums, the local public school board has struggled to find spaces for young children in schools in trendy areas such as Yaletown. Last year, the school board scrapped plans to close five low-enrolment schools, mostly on the city’s rough-and-tumble east side, after parents argued that urban renewal projects and condo developments in those neighbourhoods would eventually drive up the number of children.

“I do think it’s overstated a little bit in terms of how dangerous it is in certain areas of the city,” says Christine Pilkington, who moved her family of three young children into an east-end home not far from Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. “It’s not like it’s completely safe and I don’t want to be naive about it, but I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about how dangerous it is as well.”

In Canada, statistics are slowly starting to emerge that could shed light on what environments are safest for children.

Police in Ontario reported in 2009 that both violent crime and fatal collision rates were lower in Toronto than in neighbouring suburban Peel and York regions.

A series of reports from the Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre showed that compared to its suburban neighbours, Toronto had the lowest rates of emergency room visits for motor vehicle collisions among the province’s seven health districts, along with the lowest rates of ER visits for cycling accidents involving children and the second-lowest rates of emergency room visits for violent crimes against children.

A 2005 report from the Ontario College of Family Physicians warned of the “growing body of evidence [that] suggests there are significant public-health costs of spread-out urban development.” Its research is based mainly on a 2003 study from Rutgers University of 450 American cities that found people were five times more likely to die in car crashes in a sprawling community compared to a tightly packed one. The researchers determined that a 1% increase in urban density translated into a 1.5% decrease in traffic deaths and a nearly 3.5% decrease in pedestrian fatalities.

A 2009 report by Andrew Howard, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, found poverty was the factor that poses the greatest risk to children. Beyond that, falls were the leading cause of injury. And among toddlers who fell from windows, most had fallen from two-and three-storey buildings rather than high-rises, which have become increasingly safer for children after being targeted by safety programs and legislation requiring window guards.

Among drownings involving young children, the majority were in backyard swimming pools so often found in the suburbs, but rare in cities where space is at a premium. Dr. Howard warned the number of children drowning in home swimming pools was on the rise with the increasing popularity of cheap inflatable pools.

While the number of children getting hit by cars has declined in most communities, it’s mainly because they are walking less than before, he says. More walkable environments were safest for children, he found. “Modifying our built surroundings makes walking safe and encourages children to walk more,” he wrote. “It prevents childhood deaths from falls and drowning and reduces injuries. It allows children more physical play that is also safer.”

Less is known about abductions and murders of children in cities, although in 2008 in Canada five times as many children were killed in traffic accident as were victims of homicide. Two-thirds of those killed were at the hands of their parents, and most were infants.

A 2003 report by the RCMP, the first to examine childhood abductions in Canada, found police had reported an alarming 90 stranger abductions in just two years. But when researchers delved into the statistics, they found police had classified abductions by friends, neighbours, aunts, boyfriends, babysitters and grandparents as stranger abductions. Of the 90 cases reported, just two were true stranger abductions, the report found. But the huge attention paid to those few real stranger abductions had a profound effect on parents’ lifestyle choices.

“The stereotypical view held by the public of countless strangers in the community abducting children is usually fuelled by media releases that meticulously describe a tragic kidnapping,” the authors wrote.

“Most often, media report the stereotypical abductions, which are rare and yet they create the greatest concern nationwide. Consequently, the knowledge of these cases increase paranoia from coast to coast and affects parenting styles and supervision.”

Leigh Chapman says she faced criticism from friends and family when she and her husband decided to raise their eight-month-old son in a downtown neighbourhood of east Toronto populated by several rooming houses. She recently got a police notice warning that a known child predator had been frequenting an Internet cafe around the corner from her home.

“It just made me pause and think about his exposure and I think that wherever you’re raising your children, it demands the same sort of vigilance,” she says. “There’s a sort of artificial sense of safety in the suburbs. I don’t know of any place where you can leave your door open like perhaps you did 30 years ago. You could have your child going to piano lessons at somebody’s house in the suburbs and have them be in trouble.”

Most neighbourhoods, whether urban or suburban, are safe for children, says Lenore Skenazy, who published Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry. She was called “America’s worst mom” for letting her nine-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone in 2008. Crime rates have been steadily dropping in most communities since the 1970s and ’80s, so all of today’s parents grew up in more dangerous times than their children, she says.

“It’s like we’re only able to look around this vast room which is padded and safe and see all the pins,” she says. “Kids are more competent than we think. They can walk to school. They can take a bus to school. They’re safer than we think.”

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