A baby boom’s coming to Toronto’s high-rise communities, but are they built for healthy family life?
As a child in the ’70s, Berenice Villagomez grew up in an urban village: a suite of residential towers surrounding a central green space. In her hometown, Mexico City, only the super-rich owned houses. For everybody else, condo life was the norm. When not at school, Villagomez spent her days in the courtyard, while the local adults supervised from the balconies above. She didn’t distinguish between friends and neighbours or between her parents and other authority figures. “There was a sense of community,” she says. “Any mom could tell you off if you were misbehaving.” For birthday parties, the neighbourhood kids would get together outdoors, perhaps for soccer at the local pitch. Then, they’d cram into the birthday boy’s or girl’s apartment, where there’d be cake for the kids — and medias noches and beer for the adults.
In 2001 Villagomez and her husband, Eduardo Rivera, immigrated to Canada, where she hoped to raise children in an environment similar to where she grew up. The first stop was Waterloo, Ontario, where Rivera completed a master’s in actuarial sciences. A year later, Villagomez commenced graduate studies in Latin American literature at the University of Toronto, so the couple relocated to student housing near Bay and Bloor. Each month, they put money aside — the difference between their subsidized rent and market rate — to buy an apartment and start a family of their own.
In 2009, after a year of hunting, they found a flat that seemed if not quite big enough then at least workable: a 750-square-foot, two-bedroom unit near Queen and Church. In 2013, the couple had their first daughter; their second came two years later. Rivera is now an actuary, and Villagomez has an administrative job at the university, where she also teaches. They have generous smiles, dark hair, and faces dotted with freckles (in her case) and stubble (in his).Both work downtown, and neither relishes the thought of a long commute from the suburbs. Working close to home, says Villagomez, gives her more time with her kids.
An increasing number of Torontonians feel the same way — and are willing to live small if it means staying in the city. In 2016, there were 10,500 more families in Toronto high-rises than there were in 2011, and those figures will continue to rise as millennials get older but find themselves priced out of the detached and semi-detached housing market. In theory, a city like Toronto — a cultural hub with a booming economy and low crime rate — should be an ideal place to raise children. But families today find themselves up against systemic problems, including cramped quarters, insufficient green space, and spotty access to pediatric care. To maintain their children’s health, parents must work against an environment not built for them. Villagomez is determined, however, to tough it out. “When I was pregnant with my second child, people were like, ‘So when are you moving to the suburbs?’” she says. “I was like, ‘Never.’ Suburban life is not for me.”
The history of condos in Toronto is a bit like the history of rabbits in Australia. At first, they were scarce; then, suddenly, they were everywhere. The city’s first high-rise boom happened in the ’50s and ’60s, as developers built brick or concrete structures to accommodate the postwar rental market. It was only in 1967 that condos (apartment units that individuals could buy) became legal in Toronto. Since then, the region has added over 300,000 such units, of which two thirds were built during the second high-rise boom, in the early 21st century.
Toronto’s postwar apartment blocks were designed in the modernist tower-in-a-park style, with buildings adjacent to green spaces big enough for picnics, softball games, and winter skating. Today’s condos, by contrast, are often sited on tight properties between pre-existing structures and designed mainly for young, childless professionals or downsizing retirees. According to a recent Ryerson University study, 67 percent of Toronto condos built in the ’90s had at least two bedrooms, but that model has since been phased out to make room for studios or bedroom-plus-dens, which constitute the overwhelming majority of post-2000 units.
These built forms determine who can and cannot live downtown. Villagomez’s neighbourhood, the Church-Yonge Corridor — which includes Ryerson University and the Church-Wellesley Village — has a population of over 31,000. Youth under 15 comprise only 4 percent of those residents, compared with 15 percent of the city at large. Villagomez is only blocks away from the Waterfront–Island neighbourhood, which, thanks to the sprawling City Place development, now has a population density comparable to Cairo. The city expects apartment units to grow by 100 to 160 percent once all developments in the pipeline are built. In the Waterfront–Island area, people under 15 are also a minority — they make up 6 percent of 66,000 residents — but they’re a growing one: between 2011 and 2016, their ranks nearly doubled. And there are close to 500 births in the neighbourhood every year, more than any other in the Toronto Central LHIN. Downtown, condo families aren’t yet the norm, but they might be someday.
“If Toronto’s population growth continues at pace, condo living will become the new norm, even for families. The dream of a detached home with a yard will seem hopelessly antiquated.”
For couples looking to raise children in the city centre, the first challenge is finding sufficient space. Jennifer Pastore, a pharmacist in her mid 30s, had to delay getting pregnant with her second child because of a grueling three-year-long apartment hunt. “The newer downtown buildings didn’t have enough space to accommodate a family,” she says. “My husband and I decided that if we wanted a large enough unit, we’d have to go into an older building.” The couple finally bought an ’80s flat that, despite being in terrible shape, seemed large enough for four people. After closing the deal, they moved in with their in-laws to allow for a year-long down-to-the-studs renovation. Pastore has friends who, upon realizing they’d never find a suitably large apartment, bought and combined two adjacent units, an ordeal every bit as expensive as a house in the suburbs.
Like Pastore, Villagomez worries about the size of her home. “We call it the submarine,” she jokes. “If we bring in a can of tuna, we take something else out to make space.” She likes living small, but wants to give her daughters separate rooms when they become teenagers. She doubts she’ll make good on this plan. “My building developer has four condo towers in construction in a four-block radius,” she says. “I went to the presales, but not one of them had a three-bedroom apartment.”
Articles about Toronto’s condo explosion are often framed as urban-planning stories, but with any massive change there are unexpected health consequences, too. Condo dwelling is as much about private space as it is about shared facilities — including fitness and wellness amenities — but these are often oriented toward childless adults. A standard-issue downtown high rise will likely have a gym, a sauna, and a party room with pool tables. Comparatively few buildings, however, have rumpus rooms or play spaces with Lego and building blocks.
Suitable green space is also scarce. A recent map prepared by the City of Toronto’s planning department showed that, while the Waterfront neighbourhood is dotted with pocket parks, playgrounds are scarce: Condo dwellers must sometimes walk 3 or 4 kilometres to the nearest jungle gym. Yet outdoor playtime is essential. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology advises that children get at least 3 hours of daily physical activity, the best defence against childhood obesity. Unstructured outdoor play can also improve problem solving, creative thinking, emotional wellbeing, and peer relationships.
Villagomez and her husband try their best to keep their children active. In summer, they make regular trips to Allan Gardens or Grange Park. In winter, they splurge on cab rides to the Distillery District, where they have a family membership at the YMCA. What they need most, though, is a nearby greenspace where their daughters can have a quick, pre-dinner runaround. On a few occasions, Villagomez took them to the pocket park behind their home. “It has a tiny playground that’s fenced in,” she says, “and the rest of it is for dogs.” The space reeks of urine, and the sandbox is a repository for cigarette butts. The experience was so unpleasant that Villagomez decided her kids would be better off indoors.
In her building, residents under 12 are forbidden from entering the gym, but during her second maternity leave, she took her daughters there anyway, reasoning that neighbours wouldn’t object to some low-intensity, supervised play during off-peak hours. “They’re tiny kids,” she says. “It’s not like they were on the treadmill or the stationary bicycle.” Mostly, they just sat on a matt and rolled a ball between them. On the third such visit, a resident entered the gym and glared at Villagomez. “As soon as she came in, I said, ‘Okay guys, let’s go,’” Villagomez recalls. The next day, she received an angry note from the condo board reminding her of the rule she’d broken. She tried petitioning for leniency. “I said, ‘Just give me one hour where I can come in. I’ll sign an affidavit or whatever the heck you want.” The board was unmoved. “They said, ‘Sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.’”
Children may be scarce in the hallways, lobbies, and parkettes of condoland, but there’s one place where they’re over-represented: hospital emergency rooms. In the Church-Yonge Corridor, children aged zero to four appear in the emergency department in staggeringly high numbers: 817 visits for every 1,000 residents, the highest rate of the 72 neighbourhoods in the Toronto Central LHIN. The figures in the Waterfront-Island neighbourhood — 796 per 1,000 — aren’t much lower, ranking third in the city. Almost half these emergency department visits, however, are for low-urgency ailments, the kind doctors shunt to the bottom of their priority lists. The data make sense when combined with another finding: people downtown have low continuity of primary care — that is, they don’t often have a regular primary care provider to turn to when they need it.
Parents bring their children to the emergency department when they feel they have nowhere else to go. “The Waterfront tends to be a transient area for professionals,” says Manisha Verma, a physician (and parent) who lives and works in Liberty Village, a condo development in the adjacent Niagara neighbourhood. “People see a high rate of turnover of family doctors. So, they don’t have consistent care and are not sure where to take their children when they become unwell.”
Thea Chatterjee, a mother of two, who, until recently, lived in a Waterfront condo, recalls several weekend hospital visits that, in retrospect, didn’t require emergency services. “It’s one of those things you do when you don’t have another option,” she says. When infants get sick, the stakes are high. The onset of symptoms can be rapid, and the severity can be difficult to ascertain without professional input. Often, parents won’t realize a child is unwell until school ends, at which point it’s too late to visit a family doctor. For a child, a high temperature at 6 p.m. can be a full-blown emergency at midnight. Chatterjee remembers spending a Saturday in the hospital with her two-month-old son who had a bad cough and a fever. She later found out that he was suffering from an ear infection. “Had we been able to see our doctor that night, she would’ve eased our minds quite quickly.”
“Downtown health care must adapt to the rhythms of family life.”
Downtown health care, says Verma, must adapt to the rhythms of family life. At her Liberty Village clinic, she works with a family health team, which includes physicians, like her, as well as nurses, a nurse practitioner, a social worker, and a dietician. There are currently 184 such teams across Ontario, each offering comprehensive services, flexible hours, and daily urgent care. The model gives parents the kind of inclusive coverage they’re unlikely to get through a traditional GP, but only if they’re lucky enough to get a placement. “There are quite a few family health teams, but not as many as we need,” says Verma. “And many in downtown Toronto aren’t taking new patients.”
Continuity-of-care isn’t just about emergency services, however; it’s also about familiarity and trust. “I had the same pediatrician throughout my childhood,” Villagomez says. “He called me on my birthdays. It was that kind of close relationship.” When she was a teenager, he gave her “the talk” and offered to put her on birth control. She was mortified, she says, but hopes her daughters’ physician will do the same for them. “I consider doctors to be allies, not only when your kid is sick but in general management of health.”
In 2011, Villagomez registered with Health Care Connect, an Ontario government service that matches people to doctors in their areas. She waited two years. “I kept going and checking and asking. Nothing opened up,” she says. Finally, in 2013, a friend gave her a lead on a pediatrician, which meant she had the green light to plan her first pregnancy. Today, she wonders how long she would’ve held out. “I was desperate,” she says, “and wanted to start a family.”
In the next decade, other would-be parents will experience the same frustrations. If Toronto’s population growth continues at pace, condo living will become the new norm, even for families. The dream of a detached home with a yard will seem hopelessly antiquated, as it already does in Manhattan, London, and Mexico City. Clearly, infrastructure and amenities haven’t caught up to reality.
Verma argues that the Province of Ontario should double down on its investments in inter-disciplinary primary care models and offer greater financial incentives to doctors who work evenings or weekends. What’s more, condo bylaws must encourage — or, if necessary, compel — developers to build for families. In 2017, the City of Toronto published “Growing Up,” a set of guidelines to make residential towers family friendly. The document called for a minimum number of two- and three-bedroom units, ideally on low floors that don’t require elevator access. It recommended amenities, from splash pads, to rooftop green spaces, to all-purpose rooms where parents and kids can paint together or fix bikes. And it argued that developers should market to families, thereby challenging attitudes that the downtown is an adults-only domain.
Until these changes happen, parents in condos will find themselves seeking imperfect solutions to problems they shouldn’t have to face. Villagomez is no stranger to such strategizing. Last November, she had an experience to which any parent can relate: it was bedtime, but her daughters were too hyper to sleep. “I ended up just opening the door and saying, ‘Okay, guys, run five laps from here to the end of the hallway,’” she says. “They were giggling and laughing, and it warmed my heart. But I had to tell them to be quiet.” Ten minutes later, she put them to bed, all the while worrying that she may have angered her neighbours. “I kept thinking, ‘Am I going to get another note on my door?’” Her daughters, however, nodded off quickly and slept through the night.
Simon Lewsen writes for The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Azure, Precedent, and enRoute. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.
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