Lessons Learned in Meeting the Demand for Family-Friendly Urban Living

Jennifer Griffin is a Strong Towns member, architect, urban designer and mom based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This story is part two in a series on the future of families in cities. Read part 1 here, and look for the final installment of the series next Wednesday.

As the demand for family-friendly urban living continues to grow, cities that want to succeed must actively work toward providing for this lifestyle choice.  What this means is offering the “complete package” of amenities, institutions, and infrastructure that urban families with kids require.

What does it look like when a city actively works toward incorporating these items into their downtown urban neighborhoods?  And, what are the results?  Fortunately, we have an example of this in action.

Toward a Family-Friendly Vancouver

Forty or so years ago, when most other cities were decimating their downtowns with freeways and producing urban housing for families that looked like this, Vancouver began a radical initiative to actively make their downtown attractive and accommodating for families across a diverse socio-economic spectrum.

According to Ann McAfee, former Co-Director of Planning of the City of Vancouver, it all began in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.  During this time, the city was considering proposals for an inner-city freeway system that would cut through a number of historic downtown neighborhoods.  Fortunately, at the same time, a number of new forward-thinking city councilors were elected that voted down the freeway.

To justify their decision — one that many said would detract from businesses downtown because it would make it more difficult for people living in the suburbs to get to downtown jobs — the council directed the city’s planning department to investigate how they could get more people living downtown in close proximity to the jobs.  Furthermore, they wanted this new influx of people to reflect city-wide demographics, which meant they needed to provide for all ages across the socio-economic spectrum.

Downtown Vancouver with False Creek highlighted in red.

Downtown Vancouver with False Creek highlighted in red.

Consequently, it was evident that Vancouver needed to provide for families downtown, including the various amenities, institutions, and infrastructure that they require.  In order to do so, the planning department began conducting an impressive effort of evidence-based policy, planning, and design.

As their primary and initial testing ground, the city used the redevelopment of a number of large waterfront industrial sites, such as False Creek, located both within and on the edges of their downtown.  As Vancouver began having success on these sites, they started to extend these policies to other areas of the city as well.

As a part of their strategy, the city utilized the rezoning process — which increased the allowable density of these properties — to put in place a detailed set of policies and design guidelines to ensure that both housing and community amenities for families were included.  For example, the city required 25% of a development’s market-rate residential units to be designed for families, which meant that these units must have at least two bedrooms as well as conform to Vancouver’s newly developed “High Density Housing for Families with Children Guidelines” (the first version of which was adopted in 1978).

These guidelines required everything from a minimum amount of outdoor communal play space to extra storage space for things like strollers, toys, and kids’ bicycles.  Moreover, the planning department was very thorough in their implementation of these guidelines, in part to assuage concerns from private developers.  For example, the planning department studied the cost implications of the requirements while developing the guidelines.  What they found was that if the developer knew of these requirements ahead of time, many of them did not add significant cost to the project.

In addition to requirements for family-sized housing, Vancouver also required either 20% or 55% of a development’s residential units (depending on whether it was privately-owned or city-owned property) to be affordable, which was typically facilitated through non-profit housing co-ops.

Furthermore, in terms of family-friendly amenities and infrastructure such as parks, schools, daycares, etc., the city required that developers benefitting from upzoning not only pay for these amenities but also have them in place before any building permits were issued.  For example, within the North False Creek development, the city required the developer to complete the construction of the public parks, seawall, and community center as well as lay out and allocate specific sites for schools, daycare, and affordable housing.

At first, developers grumbled at these mandates.  However, once the community amenities were built, developers found that they were able to pre-sell their market rate units at a faster rate and buyers were willing to make greater down payments.  Moreover, the family-sized units were incredibly desirable.

In addition, from this process and the public-private collaboration it facilitated, a new Vancouver building type was developed — one that could provide both the increased density that was needed to offset the additional development costs as well as the human-scaled housing that families with kids desired.

The Vancouver “podium & tower” building type.  Left: residential version.  Right: mixed-use version (Image source:  Residencity ).

The Vancouver “podium & tower” building type.  Left: residential version.  Right: mixed-use version (Image source: Residencity).

The iconic Vancouver “podium & tower” building type combines the density of a high- or mid-rise tower (typically comprised of smaller units for singles and couples) with the domesticity, pedestrian-scale, and street life of ground-oriented townhouses that surround the tower and meet the street.  The latter was typically comprised of the large, family-sized market-rate units, though many of these buildings also incorporate a mix of uses along the street at the podium level.

The Results

The transformation of downtown Vancouver over the past 40+ years begins to illustrate the potential return for cities that work in earnest to make their downtown and in-town neighborhoods conducive for families with kids.  For Vancouver, the results speak for themselves.

From 1997 to 2012, the City of Vancouver experienced a 75% increase in population, a 26% increase in jobs, and a 20% decrease in vehicles entering downtown. With respect to growth of families, from 2001 to 2011, the population of children under 15 grew by 68.6% in downtown Vancouver, compared to decreases of 1.4% citywide and 4.1% within British Columbia.

In terms of its overall success, Vancouver has received all sorts of accolades in recent years, such as being named the #1 North American city for quality of living, the #1 North American city for millennials, and the #3 most livable city in the world.

On the flip side, Vancouver has also been a victim of its own success, as it has been named the #3 least affordable housing market in the world in recent years. This illustrates the “catch-22” of great family-friendly urban neighborhoods today: as a neighborhood becomes more livable for families with kids, it becomes more livable for everyone; and as more people desire to live there, those who are able are willing to pay a premium in order to do so.  There are simply not enough of these kinds of urban neighborhoods today to provide for the current and fast-growing demand.

In our next article, we will discuss in more detail some of the challenges facing young urban families today as well as highlight what some forward-thinking parents are doing to affect change more quickly in their own cities.

Read the next article in this series, "Parents Paving the Way for Family-Friendly Urban Living."

(Top image source:  Re-Imagine Downtown Vancouver)

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Jennifer Griffin is a practicing design professional and founding principal of J Griffin Design, LLC. She has worked in the US, UK, and Central America on a variety of projects, from small-scale renovations and additions of historic structures, to mixed-use urban infill projects, to master plans at both the neighborhood and regional scales. Her work has received multiple Congress for the New Urbanism Charter Awards. Jennifer was educated at the University of Notre Dame, from which she received both her Bachelor of Architecture and her Master of Architectural Design and Urbanism degrees. She also has served on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, where she has taught urban and architectural design courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level while conducting research on the relationship between the built environment and human flourishing.