From Roncesvalles to Leslieville, this town is crawling with tykes. How the hell is Toronto going to find room for them all?
Every year, in the biting pre-dawn of late winter, the city’s own March Madness occurs. Just before 7 a.m., with the playbook studied and laptops and cell phones arranged, tens of thousands of Torontonians crack their knuckles a final time before bending into position. Then the hour turns and the frenzy begins: a tornado of refreshed browsers, redialled numbers, and profanity, as parents compete to access the Toronto Fun registration system and claim for their kids some of the city’s 70,000 summer-camp spots.
The programs are specialized and relatively inexpensive, topping out at $171 for a week’s worth of canoe lessons, hip-hop dance classes, or pottery workshops. Nabbing a place requires ruthless single-mindedness—do not make Amy Stuart’s mistake. The March before last, she decided to send her older sons, then aged six and four, to soccer camp at nearby Trinity-Bellwoods Park. She emailed half a dozen friends with kids, suggesting they put them together. She even provided the Toronto Fun–guide codes.
On registration morning, Stuart and her husband divvied up five electronic devices and attempted to log in. “After a few minutes, I started to panic,” she says. “And then I started getting text messages. Every one of my friends: ‘We’re in!’ ‘Signed up!’ ‘Awesome!’” By 7:07 a.m., all the spots were taken, and none by either of Stuart’s kids.
“I was so disproportionately upset. I honestly had this feeling that one of my friends should cancel so my sons could get the spot, because I told them about it,” she says. “But, of course, they’re not going to do that.” When registration rolled around this year, Stuart stayed silent until her kids’ swimming lessons were secured.
The demand for private camps can be equally ferocious, and even more absurd. Heidi Pyper recalls walking through Trinity-Bellwoods one summer, years ago, with her baby strapped to her chest, as campers from Art in the Park chased each other across the grass. “They were under the trees and making big paper-mâché heads and it looked really perfect,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to sign my daughter up for that.’” Now that she’s seven, the time had come.
The program does not allow electronic registration: If you want in, you have to show up. Having heard stories of eager parents arriving before the doors opened at 9 a.m., Pyper’s friend, who owns a bar on Ossington, agreed to head over after last call; Pyper would relieve him at 6 a.m. When the friend got to the community centre, he was greeted by a crush of parents, their folding chairs shoved into the April snow. It was three in the morning, and he was 121st in line.
Everyone in Toronto is jostling for limited space. We sharpen our elbows for an inch of standing room on the streetcar every morning, or race to outbid each other on a crumbling west-side semi with a garbage bin–sized backyard. If it seems as though the city has become ridiculously crowded, that’s because the city has, well, become ridiculously crowded. In five years, the rate of downtown population growth more than tripled compared with the three previous census periods, surging past 16 per cent. The downtown core also outpaced growth in the suburbs for the first time since the early ’70s.
Echo boomers—the generation born between 1972 and 1992—have been responsible for 70 per cent of that rise. While the median age in Ontario hovers around 40 years old, in Toronto’s core, it’s lodged in the mid-30s. Not surprisingly, then, birth rates have gone up in neighbourhoods particularly attractive to (and still comparatively affordable for) thirtysomething urbanites. In Danforth East, for example, the number of children under four climbed nearly 49 per cent between 2008 and 2011. Over that same period in the Waterfront, the increase was more than 60 per cent.
Growing up with the luxury of less density, many echo boomers played catch in the street or rollerbladed without helmets to the local school. Now that they’re parents themselves, they have rejected the snoozy suburbs—instead, they want to live, work, bike, eat, and see the odd Raptors game all in the same place. The city has responded with nearly 12,000 floors of residential construction built or under consideration in the past decade.
If only it were as easy to break ground on a new community centre or a public park. Urban families are intimately acquainted with crowded drop-in classes, daycare waitlists, and bottom-heavy elementary schools. It hasn’t turned them off of the downtown core yet. But this generation of parents isn’t just after the convenience of living near the hot-yoga studio and the cool new ramen spot. They also want a full roster of activities for their kids—French immersion, hockey lessons, cooking classes, and circus camp. And if this pace and cultural shift continue, it’s going to demand a dramatic reimagining of childhood in Toronto.
Some 20 strollers are parallel-parked outside the Harbourfront Community Centre’s free drop-in class on this spring afternoon. Inside, under a mural of The Cat in the Hat, a diverse group of mothers and a pair of fathers jiggle babies on their laps. While they sing their way through “The Wheels on the Bus,” a two-year-old in a strawberry-printed dress gnaws on a neon-yellow plastic bowling pin. When she loses interest, an orange-haired boy in denim overalls, who had been planted between his grandmother’s knees, makes a beeline for it.
As the buildings have grown in the Waterfront, so, too, has the population—first by 28 per cent between 2001 and 2006, then 75 per cent in the following five years. Seven out of 10 residents are echo boomers; the rest, it can feel, are their kids. Five years ago, the community centre’s baby drop-in program might attract 10 parents, but now, 40 of them appear, with the Wednesday class so popular it had to be split into two. Drifting away from the singalong for a chat, half a dozen parents give some variation on the refrain that these classes are as crucial for them as for their offspring. “They save my sanity!” says Shivani Nene, 30, who lives across the street, noting that the drop-in was a particular refuge during this brutal, relentless winter.
Parenthood is a culture shock under the best of circumstances, and city life can become mighty inconvenient with kids in tow. It’s hard to pacify a howling baby while you’re waiting two hours for a table at Bar Isabel. And minivan-friendly surburban parking lots seem very appealing when you’re wrangling toddlers on the jammed streetcar headed to the AGO. By the water, navigating chewed-up streets and condo construction with a stroller can be a nightmare—Nene’s family is from India, and she’s inclined to feel the roads are better there.
Still, no one appears to be in any hurry to escape downtown. Twenty-nine-year-old Stephanie Greffe grew up in the suburbs; now, her family of four lives in a condo at Simcoe and Queens Quay. “We think about whether we should get a house elsewhere, but we love being in the city,” she says. “We’re always out doing stuff. We plan on staying.”
Parent drop-in programs serve an especially important function for newcomers, who often don’t have access to the support of their extended or even immediate family. In Thorncliffe Park, most of the 20,000 residents have recently arrived in Canada. The neighbourhood also has more kids under 14 than any other Toronto census tract, with a full 10 per cent of the area’s population under four years old. “We open our drop-in class at 9:30 in the morning, and by 9:45, all 28 spaces for families are full,” says Nawal Al-Busaidi, manager of family-support services at the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office. “It’s the same with the 1:15 p.m. class.” In addition to supporting child development, staff help newcomer mothers untangle the immigration and education systems and lead discussions on women’s safety and health. Both pediatricians and gynecologists make regular visits. “The place is not labelled anything other than a child centre,” Al-Busaidi says. “So women can ask for any help they need without stigma or fear.”
“Newcomers are even more vulnerable to social isolation, and they really do rely on the consistency of having a place to go,” says Carrie Youdell, manager of early years at the Davenport Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre, just north of Wallace-Emerson, another immigrant-rich neighbourhood. There, classes and sports for parents and young children are offered in languages such as Tamil, Bengali, Mandarin, and Portuguese. “That’s one of the goals of the programs: make people feel connected,” Youdell says. This year, the staff introduced a specialized program for new parents, in order to cater to the growing volume of babies. Since November, 62 women have signed up.
Babies have a quirky habit of turning into toddlers, and parents returning to work need to find a place for those toddlers to go. Every Torontonian has experienced—or has heard described in vivid detail—the extraordinary trial of accessing daycare in this city, where there is a licensed spot for just one in every five children. And good luck if you need help paying for care: The waitlist for fee subsidies last year approached 19,000 children, about 5,000 fewer than the number who actually receive financial help.
Meanwhile, the twin effects of all-day kindergarten, which rolled out in 2010, and the city’s mini–baby boom have conspired to make elementary schools enormously bottom-heavy. At Danforth East’s Earl Beatty Public School, for instance, there were 11 classes for kindergarten through grade two this year, while only a single class in grade seven and in grade eight. In September, there will likely be an extra pair of grade-two classes, because of the grade-one French immersion programs added last year.
The school is so overwhelmed that, in April, administrators sent a letter asking if parents could please pick up their kids for lunch. “The lunch room can technically hold 200 people, but that’s not realistic when you have grade ones through eight eating together,” says Cameron Gunn, a parent of three who sits on the board of Beatty Buddies, the not-for-profit daycare housed in the school. “Beatty Buddies had one room beside the lunch room as an exclusive daycare space, but it became a shared space at the start of this year, which means that the school had priority use of it. During lunch, it’s now used as an overflow room for the older grades.”
After-school care for older kids is also at a premium. Not far from Earl Beatty, local businesses like Bomb Fitness, which opened at Danforth and Coxwell in January 2012, have stepped in. Victoria Wickett and her husband, Kevin Bennett, planned a slate of pilates and Essentrics classes for locals in the newly gentrified neighbourhood—not kids’ programming. Then one mom began parking her stroller with a sleeping baby to the side of her boot-camp class, and others followed suit. Now Wickett and Bennett offer $2 childcare during their morning classes, and, when they moved to a new space two blocks away in October, built a studio exclusively for kids in the basement. “Kids programming helps us keep our members and drives other people in,” Wickett says. “It’s the only reason we were able to move to this location, which is double the size.” When they opened an additional after-school fitness program this year, all 18 spaces were filled within 24 hours.
There has even been a run on that historic saviour of date nights: the teenage babysitter. Sara Ferguson, who lives at Danforth and Greenwood, called seven teens trying to find a Thursday sitter for her two children, to no avail. “It’s a good racket to be in right now,” she says, joking—at least, mostly joking—that she’s considered taking it up herself. “If there’s a block function, people race to the teenagers on the street to get the babysitters,” Gunn says. A conscientious 14-year-old is every bit as coveted as one of those Art in the Park summer-camp spots.
It will astonish no one that downtown density is only projected to rise. That carries implications for everything from Toronto’s housing to health-care services to transit lines. But the distinct needs of new parents and growing families should be part of this conversation, as well.
When it comes to planning neighbourhoods on public land—neighbourhoods that are as functional for eight-year-olds as for those in their 80s—Toronto performs pretty well. Areas like St. Lawrence, Regent Park, and Lawrence Heights have a nice mix of buildings and public spaces; when it’s completed, the West Don Lands will balance denser buildings along Front Street with lower-scale housing running north and south. A series of smaller green spaces will also complement the spacious Don River Park.
The challenge, though, is where we’re building most of the city, which is smack dab in the middle of the existing city. “We don’t really know how to do that,” says Mark Sterling, founder of Acronym Urban Design and Planning and a former director of architecture and urban design for the City of Toronto. “It’s one big, continuous experiment, and the planning documents are running way behind what’s going on. One wonders if we shouldn’t just embrace the chaos rather than trying to play catch-up all the time.”
It may take more than that: The problem requires a considerable shift in the way we think. Toronto is growing up, not out. But even as families chase the excitement of downtown living, they can’t quite abandon the fantasy of the three-bedroom house with an expansive backyard, down the street from a single-storey school, around the corner from a shady park with a good tobogganing hill. That’s a seductive image for parents. It’s also a very suburban one. Our commitment to urbanism doesn’t just transform our demographics, then; it necessitates a transformation in our notion of childhood.
That might begin with a change in where we take our kids to play. A condo under construction at Wellesley and Bay originally permitted a lower development with a larger footprint and small open space. When the hoarding went up, block letters scrawled on it declared, “We want a public park.” Renegotiations ensued, and now the proposal is for a 60-storey tower enveloped by a 1.6-acre park. “That’s the kind of rebalancing we’re going to have to look for,” Sterling says. “The density that’s coming anyway will have to be gathered up into more intense, taller clusters.” At least this density brings with it flower meadows and grassy hills.
Sterling is working on a condo project in Yorkville that proposes a rooftop terrace with close to an acre of publicly accessible green space. “We have to redefine what counts as a park,” he says. Parents may balk now at the idea of their kids kicking a soccer ball in the sky, but it beats kicking one on a strip of concrete by the Lakeshore.
As this downtown cohort of babies grows, high-rise life will have to extend from their condo homes to their park spaces and daycare centres to their schools. Vancouver is in the midst of its own downtown baby boom, with the number of children under five having doubled between 2006 and 2011. In order to accommodate them, the city’s school board approved the construction of a new elementary school slipped between a condo tower and the Canucks’ Rogers Arena. The slim building, which is due to open in 2015, will be four storeys high, with a deck on the roof for outdoor activities. The city is looking into similar designs for another downtown elementary school and a high school, as well.
Taking an elevator to French class or a neighbourhood soccer game might not be what echo boomers envisioned for their kids. It almost certainly doesn’t resemble the experience they had growing up. But there’s an opportunity here to reframe what it means to be young in the city. The collision of so many cultures and so much talent has made downtown Toronto fertile ground for innovations in technology, food, art, and design. So while we can’t replicate our own suburban childhoods, we can create a new, modern, urban childhood in their place.
Where the wild things cluster
By Denise Balkissoon
The stroller mafia has an iron grip on the east end, making it an excellent place to hang with your babe.
Great for: Daytime activities, both indoor and out, including Jimmie Simpson park and rec centre, Sprouts play space, Lil Bean n’ Green coffee shop, and several drop-in centres.
Good for: Restaurant servers are tolerant of noisy toddlers, but supply cannot keep up with demand. Standing in line while hungry makes kids even grouchier than it makes grown-ups.
Needs more: Stroller-accessible essentials—artisanal bakeries and craft butchery are gorgeous, but finding affordable fruit and veg can be difficult.
Business owners along leafy Roncy know that catering to families is a smart move for their bottom line.
Great for: All-ages access—many shops and restaurants have ramps at the door, or signs in the windows offering help with strollers. La Cubana is just one of the restos with a kids’ menu, and accommodating staff make space for high chairs.
Good for: Things to do on a rainy day, like techy crafts at Maker Kids, arty pursuits at the Artful Child, or song circles at Smock.
Needs more: Little parks to run around in for half an hour. High Park is awesome, of course, but sometimes the trek just isn’t worth it.
Both public and private services are having a hard time keeping up with the number of young families popping up along the lake.
Great for: Green space, especially the waterfront trail and the Toronto Islands. A few more playgrounds for really little kids would be nice.
Good for: Family-centred programming at Harbourfront Community Centre—little ones get access to music and arts all year long.
Needs more: Indoor activities—play spaces, coffee shops, and even one decent sit-down restaurant would make condo life less claustrophobic in the winter.
Urban Baby Etiquette
“Make sure the kids are rested. Their attention spans can be pretty short, so have an activity for them to do, like a colouring book.”—an employee (who asked to remain anonymous) at Leslieville’s The Roy pub, where a sign in the window bans “SUV strollers.”
“Don’t be afraid. Take your kids out early and often—they’ll learn decorum. If they start acting up, take them outside. That’s the worst case scenario, but honestly, it rarely happens.”—David Neinstein, co-owner of Roncesvalles’ Barque Smokehouse, which has high chairs, a change table, and even a Diaper Genie.
“The key is that the kids aren’t bored, which is the biggest challenge in shopping with children. There are play stations throughout the store, but we encourage parents to drop the kids off in the play room for an hour—there are toys and videos and the ball pit—so that they can have some quiet time to sit on sofas and talk to sales consultants.”—Madeleine Lowenborg-Frick, spokesperson for Ikea Canada.