Uncovering JAPA

Parents in Vancouver's Dense Family-Oriented Urbanism

Can high-density areas also represent good "family-oriented design"? In "Committed and 'Won Over' Parents in Vancouver's Dense Family-Oriented Urbanism" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 87, No. 2) Louis L. Thomas shows how densification policies can overcome their neglect of families. Using Vancouver, British Columbia, as a case study, Thomas builds upon two pieces of literature, "The Child in the City" and "Back to the City" by analyzing the perceptions of Vancouver parents who raised families within a high-density context.

Vancouver Densification Analyzed Through Parental Lens

Home to over 680,000 residents within 44 square miles, Vancouver is well-positioned as a case study for parenting in urban environments. As early as 1978, the city prioritized denser family-oriented policies by adopting a 120-page resource document on subsidized housing. A significant revision in 1989 applied these guidelines to both subsidized and market-rate developments, increased applicable density, and required that 25 percent of the leasable area be allocated to 2+ bedroom units. As the first major North American city policy with these defined standards, Vancouverism is evidenced in the typical post-1990s construction type seen in Figure 1. Community amenity contributions (CACs), development cost levies (DCLs), and density bonus zoning help Vancouver acquire, on average, $220 million annually in fees for public amenities. Even as the city suffered a slight decline in children under 15 between 1996-2016, these initiatives fostered a 171 percent increase in the population of children living in the downtown peninsula.

Figure 1: Vancouver skyline across False Creek, 2005. Credit: (CC BY 2.0) Thom Quine

Figure 1: Vancouver skyline across False Creek, 2005. Credit: (CC BY 2.0) Thom Quine

Figure 2. Central Vancouver Study Area Neighborhoods. Credit: Adapted by author from (CC) Juanico, Manila Map, snazzymaps.com.

Figure 2. Central Vancouver Study Area Neighborhoods. Credit: Adapted by the author from (CC) Juanico, Manila Map, snazzymaps.com.

Viewing Urban Parenting Through the Vancouver Perspective

Thomas centers his research on personal interviews of 39 families living in subsidized, co-operative, or market-rate multifamily developments. The Social Condominium, one of the buildings studied by Thomas, incorporates a blend of children's play and adult social gathering space — an example of what Thomas coins "family-oriented design." The interviewed parents express how urban environments create not just a spatial ideal for their children, but a social support network that prevents the loneliness of suburban child-rearing. Thomas's research highlights two prevailing types of urban parents: "Those that are won over" and "those that are committed." The former initially imagines raising a family in the suburbs, whereas the latter, in contrast, espouses strong anti-suburbanite rhetoric, believing that urban environments with children are more livable. Nonetheless, most of the objections mentioned by either category were not grievances against high-density urban living, but rather a lack of family-oriented design within specific developments.

When successful, family-oriented design and urban parenting enable an earlier and more socially diverse exploration of children's independence as well as access to better infrastructure and educational opportunities. Thomas concludes that policy, family-oriented design, and programming ultimately do have the ability to influence parents' locational choice in where to raise their children. As such, provided policymakers and planners can account for the differences in the built environments and social fabric, the successes in Vancouver can be transferred to cities within the United States.

Top Image: Alex Potemkin/E+/gettyimages.com.

About the AUthor
Ellie Sheild is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

December 2, 2021

By Elizabeth Sheild