[Holiday Leftovers] Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict: Speed Humps on the Road to Recovery

[Originally run Sept. 17, 2010] Hi. I’m Hazel and I was a Sprawlaholic.

If you’ve been reading awhile you may recall that, with the loving help of my friends and family, I went cold turkey, dumping life in a Florida subdivision for the intense urban charms of downtown Winnipeg. It was a life-changing move with no regrets. Yet, as good as it’s been, I’m finding that puritanical denial of guilty pleasures is sometimes out of sync with life’s reality.

And by reality, I mean kids.

McDermot Ave in the Exchange

Simply put, T5 may have enormous benefits to offer but, in most cities, the needs of children — especially as they relate to education — are not among them. That’s why I’m turning to a temporary life in T3, the urbanist’s equivalent of controlled drinking. Yes, I’m imbibing somewhat on the intoxicating, have-it-all promise of suburban delights, but I’m doing it in a way that still honors my commitment to urbanism and placemaking.

I can stop any time. And, by any time, I mean when my son graduates high school.

Bannatyne Ave in the Exchange

While both offer amenity-rich single family dwellings, the big difference between our life in Winnipeg’s historic T3 neighborhood versus in a sprawling Florida subdivision is that here our complete community greatly reduces our ecological footprint while providing a satisfying quality of life. That’s because we’re moving to a compact (6 du/a), highly walkable T3 “sub-urban” (not to be confused with auto-centric “suburban”) neighbourhood, within one ped shed of three mixed use corridors. And we can remain a 1-car family, a block away from school, and a short bike or bus ride to downtown. So we’re still getting the annual benefits over the ‘burbs of 90% less carbon emissions, $17,206 car savings, $30,000 house savings, 700 hours, 10 pounds, and real community. These numbers aren’t counting the emmissions differential of the dwellings themselves, although the un-airconditioned century homes and complete streets do satisfy many Original Green requirements, per Miami architect, Steve Mouzon.

Still, what would make someone want to move from a Walk Score of 92 in the fabulous Exchange District to a Walk Score of 68?

A typical street in Crescentwood

For the reasons that most families in North America live in T2 and T3: schools and square footage. In order for us to remain a 1-car family, we can’t stay where we are as our son starts first grade this month. Not in the school that we feel is best suited for him. That, coupled with the higher prices in the urban core for family-sized accommodations, are the reasons families with children aged 6 to 18 are the demographic missing from city dwellers. In our 20-unit condo building alone, 3 families just left for these reasons, emptying the building of all 4 of its children.

What creative maneuvers are cities doing to try to keep an age-diverse population in their downtowns?

Kingsway in Crescentwood

“You can’t rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there,” according to Jane Jacobs in her 1958 essay, Downtown is for People. Easier said than done. And even in this seminal article, Jacobs is looking for how to make the city “two-shift,” not 24-hour.

Toronto downtown population has grown by 20%, but a 3-bedroom condo in the core averages over $600,000. To prevent inner city schools from closing down and encourage economic diversity, steps are being considered to require affordable housing. However, how do we achieve this without meddling with markets in a downward cycle?

Corydon in Crescentwood

Vancouver made this critical decision in the ’80’s, with their “Living First” strategy, in which 8 million square feet of excess commercial was rezoned to mixed use, with heavy incentives for housing intensity and diversity within walkable, mixed-use, civic-minded neighbourhoods. Including schools! Developers are generally asked to pay for most of their own infrastructure cost, but without a form-based code to articulate the collective community vision, the question is still being asked, densify the core, or extend out?

Even in very livable downtowns like Seattle, only 2% of core households have children. Seattle Planning Director John Rahaim argues that families don’t need a particular kind of home, they need a community around it. “It’s having a school nearby and having kid-friendly open space nearby.”

Lilac St in Crescentwood

Edmonton is thinking that the biggest issue is that cities typically bankroll sprawling development by paying for infrastructure to the suburbs. Reversing this would bring family-friendly housing and schools back in the money.

Would we have stayed downtown if our Montessori school went through grade 6? Most definitely! Just as with a certain number of rooftops bringing in a full service grocer, school options will follow. Or perhaps we should start thinking in the opposite direction, and tap into the unfilled needs of the parents among the 72,000 people who work downtown.

Until then, see you 5.6 km away in T3, where there are 13 kids on our block alone, under 12 years of age.


  1. How come there’s no snow in any of the pictures?

  2. Because that’s how everyone thinks of Winnipeg already. And our summers are satisfying, so I’d like you to see them. Besides, it’s harder to see how the buildings meet the street with snow. John, come see for yourself! –Tried to tackle parenting in NYC, by the way, but the subject needs its own post.

  3. Hazel — I loved this blog. Many of us have chosen good T3 for various reasons. My T3 (Byrnes Downs in Charleston) even rates a book by Arcadia Publishing. It is compact, the houses are small (mine is 875 sf; built in 1942) with narrow streets, sidewalks, beautiful street trees, a greenway connection (10.5 miles long), a magnet school, and myriad excellent choices at the edge of our pedshed/bikeshed for shopping, dining, banking, worshiping, etc. I agree, living in T5 is not for everyone. That’s why we have appropriate choices across the transects.

  4. hazel – just joshin

  5. Specifically, what are the educational benefits of your new neighborhood that were not found in your downtown location? Are they related to academic standards? Classroom milieu? Safe passage? Just curious.

  6. Andrew von Maur says

    Liked this article – good, important, and mostly underrated topic. This is the problem with much of our current T6 and T5, and why an emphasis on downtowns for primarily young hipsters, empty-nesters, the retired, singles, etc. can get us into trouble. A city that cannot raise its citizens within its center is not sustainable.

  7. Thanks! — Bill, Byrnes Downs is a lovely version of T3! You’re right, the choice of the Transect is the key point. — David, the deciding factor was safe passage. Academic standards and classroom milieu are strong in our nearest inner city school, but it’s outside of our ped shed across a 6-lane Main Street. Definitely doesn’t score high on http://smartgrowthschools.org/. Particularly in a winter city for a 1 car family. If it had been in the Exchange instead of the next neighbourhood, we would have stayed. There are no primary schools in the Exchange. — Fully agree, Andrew, essential for those who work in T5. Plus the experience of downtown streets is irreplaceable. As Billy Collins says about growing up in New York, “If you walk down one block in Manhattan, it’s like going to the opera.”

  8. A response to Bill Eubanks – Well Bill it is nice you are happy in a tiny old energy inefficient 875 sf house but I would go crazy in a house the size of a 2 1/2 car garage. I also don’t react well to the fact that you are in the most racist state in the nation with the most embarrassing politicians and judges and Confederate flag flyers who wish the south had won the war to protect “states rights” (i.e. slavery). Until they take that Confederate flag off your state capital and the Ten Commandments out of your judge’s offices I will never even travel through S. Carolina as a matter of principle. I know principles of equality and fairness are not valued in S. Carolina but I hold to them. I am afraid even your magnet schools only seem to perpetuate the worst traditional southern values that come to light from the mouths of your public office holders. I cannot praise Charleston for having old narrow streets and trees (along with oppressive humidity and flies) while the culture and civic discourse is abhorrent. Until we can see that the majority of S. Carolinians can be respectful of the dignity of all their fellow citizens as reflected by their choices in the voting booth, then I don’t think Charleston has anything to brag about. There are many words spoken in the public forum which embarrass me and shame me as an American, and there are no clearly recognizable sources of that vile and ignorance which exceed the output from S. Carolina. I think all new urbanists and other greenies need to open their eyes to the realities and politics of the communities they consult in and praise…I hear too often that Charleston is praiseworthy for its physical attributes, but lets remember who is living in the homes there and what they persist in teaching their children for generation after generation.

  9. I am just reading this very nice article, Hazel. Thanks for sharing this experience as it puts a more “searching” light on our urbanist efforts. I agree with Andrew von Maur, in that the more “complete” a city can be, the more sustainable it will be. Richard W, is that a “chip on the shoulder”? No, I think it is more like a log! Chill!

    I would like to comment about where I live. Many of you know that Steve and I live in the middle of South Beach and I feel it is a prime example of a truly sustainable place. In this small 20 block long by 11 block wide space, we have three schools, all within a walk or bike ride of anywhere you could live on the beach. I love looking out of the window of my 747 sq ft T5 condo in the mornings and seeing mothers riding their children on the back of the bike, to school. (sometimes the child is sitting on the handlebars while Mom peddles!) We live a couple of blocks away from the football stadium where Beach High plays and I love hearing the marching band and cheering crowds on Friday nights in the Fall of the year. We are empty-nesters, but it is cool to see all stages of life existing very nicely together in the same very dense, walkable mixed-use community.

  10. Wanda, thanks for that view into SoBe school children, which sounds great! When I read Steve’s post about your Web of Life* I googled the schools in SoBe, and was delighted to find the full range, walkably organized. Fun!

    After having lived in a very walkable, mixed-use, compact, sustainable T3 for a month now, I must say, it’s decidedly growing on me. We’re starting to establish our own web, and are finding the diversity delightful and eclectic. The people are welcoming and exceptionally connected, thanks in part to the highly functioning urbanism, which coaxes us into the Third Place** on a daily basis.

    * http://bit.ly/cfixxa
    ** http://bit.ly/9W5O8C

  11. what about T4?.

Leave a Reply to John Massengale Cancel reply