Mike Klassen at City Causus riffs on Chad Skelton’s blogging about where kids live in Vancouver, and tip-toes gingerly into an issue that sometimes seems to make people go stark-raving insane — the horrors of raising kids in high-density neighbourhoods:

Density (the D-word), which single-family neighbourhoods especially on Vancouver’s Westside seem to abhor, is one way we can preserve the vitality of our neighbourhoods. Creating lots more housing choice, and tax incentives for purpose-built rental, will spark some life in our greying communities.

Klassen’s right.  Increased density–at least, the right kinds of increased density–can be one way to keep Vancouver affordable for families.  But that way of putting the point papers over what people really care about.  It’s a genteel way of saying, “One way to keep Vancouver affordable for families is for people to make do with a lot less space.”  Or, “One way to keep Vancouver affordable for families is for people to give up the ideal of a single-family detached house they were raised to believe in.”  Here’s where earnest land-use wonkery runs head-on into people’s most concrete conceptions of the good life, about the ideals they want to realize in their own lives.  The resulting collision isn’t always pretty.

I don’t want minimize what parents give up to raise their kids in smaller homes in denser neighbourhoods.  It really is a bad thing not have a back yard for kids to play in.  Even if the park is only a few blocks away, kids can’t, say, start digging a huge hole in the park for an underground fort.  And underground forts are awesome.

But as always, I do want to emphasize the upsides of living in denser neighbourhoods.  It’s a good thing for kids to be able to walk to school with their friends.  It’s a good thing for them to be able to walk to soccer practice, violin lessons, and youth group.  It’s a good thing for families to be able to walk to a restaurant together.  It’s a very good thing–especially for lower income families–if teenagers can get around wherever they want to go without needing their own car.

That last one’s a doozy, and worth thinking about hard.  Even if, on balance, denser neigbourhoods and less space are a disadvantage for families with young kids, low-density sprawl is tough for families with teenagers.  Once kids get old enough to want to do their own thing–even if it’s just on weekend nights before midnight–families in car-dependent neighbourhoods face a tough set of choices.  Parents can commit to chauffeur duty whenever and no matter how often it’s needed, or the family can take on the financial burden of buying and insuring a car for every driving-age member of the family.  People are smart, and they can often find compromises that sort of work for them, but that’s the basic dynamic they’re facing.

But living in a higher-density neighbourhood with good public transit means that teenagers can get around without needing cars.  And that can save parents a lot of time and a lot of money.  It’s a good thing.

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