Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat joined City staff, industry representatives, and interested residents on April 24 at City Hall to host another installment of the Chief Planner Roundtable series. The Roundtable encourages engagement between Torontonians, the City, and industry professionals in finding solutions to city-building and planning issues. At this the first Chief Planner Roundtable of 2014, the discussion focused on ‘Planning Cities for Families’.

The recent building boom in Toronto has proven there is a demand for living downtown. Easy access to the workplace, transit and cultural attractions are desired by many people. Amenities like affordable housing, parks and walkable streets are desired by the people of all ages in all types of situations, yet there are concerns that most new units are not large enough to accommodate families. Examining how a more family-friendly environment can be created, the roundtable posed the following questions:

  • Are city builders aware of the special needs of families with young children?
  • What barriers currently exist to the creation of family-friendly cities, neighbourhoods and buildings, and what can city builders do to change this?
  • Does Toronto have the amenities, services, affordability and infrastructure to satisfy the needs of families and retain residents across their whole life cycle?
  • How can community services and facilities that are unique to children and to the needs of families with young children be integrated and delivered in the planning process?
  • How can we ensure new communities accommodate a broader mix of incomes?

Jennifer Keesmaat hosts Chief Planner Roundtable. Image by Marcus Mitanis. Jennifer Keesmaat and City staff meet to host the Chief Planner Roundtable. Image by Marcus Mitanis, 04/24/2014.

Roundtable participants had ten minutes to present information about their designated topic. The first presenter, City of Toronto Community Planning Manager Lynda MacDonald, discussed the clash between the suburban dream and the wish to be close to family-friendly amenities like parks and schools. She highlighted many of the new developments Downtown, like CityPlace, that are undergoing a mini baby-boom, noting the abundance of strollers that can be spotted in Canoe Landing Park. “Families want complete services. They want libraries, community centres and parks. They want places for their children to play and places where they can meet other families”, she said. Macdonald also expressed that families are generally willing to sacrifice space in favour of culture, but that larger unit sizes are needed. She encouraged developers to market towards families by promoting services in the area and noted that a significant cultural change is needed to show how attractive living Downtown can be.

Following MacDonald’s presentation, Steve Diamond of Diamond Corp. emphasized the need to take the economic realities of the marketplace into account. Single-family home prices are skyrocketing due to high demand as prices of high-rise units remain steady. Larger units are seeing a sharp increase in the price per square foot, making it unaffordable for many families. Diamond said that “the way our tax structure has worked, there is a great encouragement for the developer to build smaller units.” He suggested this structure could be altered so that the taxes on larger units are lower than those on smaller units, thus giving the developer an incentive to build larger units. Also, developers often hear that their units are inflexible, meaning they cannot adapt to changing household size. In response, some new units include “knock-out” panels which add space to the room. Diamond also highlighted new developments such as 210 Simcoe Street which includes affordable housing in the lower floors. He ended the presentation by putting forward the possibility that incentives for developers could be created to promote the construction of larger units.

Jennifer Keesmaat Hosts Chief Planner Roundtable. Image by Marcus Mitanis.Jennifer Keesmaat hosts the Chief Planner Roundtable. Image by Marcus Mitanis, 04/24/2014.

Sybil Wa of Diamond Schmitt Architects presented data showing that there are 500,000 children in Toronto, many of whom are located downtown. Herself a mother living downtown, she stated that while children feel connected in the core, there are too many gaps between services. Children can take advantage of the many festivals and events in the city but parks and playgrounds are often not within walking distance. Wa encouraged the creation of spaces that can be used throughout the year. These spaces should also be attractive enough to want to visit again. She said that spaces for children “should be safe, be a meeting place, provide a high play value all season round, be attractive for repeat visits and be satisfying for different ages.” She explained how current spaces like Berczy Park could be temporarily transformed into meeting places with buskers and children’s activities. Also, with many construction sites around the city that can act as barriers for children, hoarding can be redesigned to mask construction activity and engage children. The presentation emphasized the importance of using current space to its full potential, including by building playgrounds on condominium rooftops.

Patricia Walcott of Toronto Employment and Social Services presented revealing poverty statistics in Toronto. One in three children live in low-income households that often lack proper access to childcare and transit. Walcott said it is important to improve and simplify access to services in a period where full-time jobs are being replaced by precarious employment. She noted that poverty is becoming more concentrated over time, leading to long-term problems that will be more difficult to provide solutions for. She stated that the City must do a better job at ensuring equity and providing affordable housing to its residents. Walcott outlined the Investing in Families program which connects participating Ontario Works families with employment support, recreation activities and health services. The Welcome Policy also provides low-income individuals access to recreation programs by providing them with a fee subsidy. Programs like these reduce dependence on social assistance and decrease financial barriers for low-income households.

Panelists Sybil Wa, Donna Quan and Patricia Walcott. Image by Marcus Mitanis. Councillor Michael Thompson, Sybil Wa, Donna Quan and Patricia Walcott. Image by Marcus Mitanis, 04/24/2014.

Donna Quan, the Director of Education and Secretary-Treasurer at the Toronto District School Board, explained the rapid growth in elementary school enrolment in recent years. In the future, these schools will be over the recommended 80% capacity. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on the TDSB to try to accommodate this growth. She noted that high enrolment is partially driven by the programming offered at these schools, like student nutrition and after school programs. She asked, “what role can each of us, as partners in supporting the residents of Toronto, play in creating a strong education system?”

Elaine Baxter-Trahair of Toronto Children’s Services described the need for more affordable childcare. Despite being the second largest childcare system in Canada, only 17% of children are in licensed facilities. Fee subsidies are only available for licensed spaces and as parents can attest, there is a long waiting list to wade through. She stated that parents frequently spend around $24,000 annually for childcare and that affordability and accessibility is a major concern. She said that childcare funding can be obtained through Section 37 agreements and development charges, but that stable funding is necessary to sustain current and future needs.

Chief Librarian of the Toronto Public Library, Jane Pyper, was the last to speak. Pyper stated that despite high literacy scores, reading enjoyment has declined among children. To help resolve this, programming is offered at the library to engage children in learning and reading. Furthermore, advances in technology have significantly changed the way the library provides services. Digital Innovation Hubs have been created in addition to new urban living rooms and outdoor study areas. The library has become much more than a place to borrow books; it is also a study space for students, a place of relaxation and a meeting place for everyone.

Councillor Milczyn, Steve Diamond and Jennifer Keesmaat. Image by Marcus MitanisCouncillor Peter Milczyn speaks with panelist Steve Diamond and host Jennifer Keesmaat. Image by Marcus Mitanis.

As a way of tying everything together, a discussion was held at the end of the presentations. General consensus was achieved with the idea of using existing space and resources in a different way. One idea was to open up school gymnasiums outside school hours so that children in the neighbourhood can enjoy the indoor space, especially in the winter months. Although possible ownership and legal issues may arise, panelists agreed that there was a need to break down jurisdictional boundaries and barriers between the different government departments. Panelists also agreed that new developments in Toronto could make use of their rooftops in unique ways by retrofitting them with green space for use by families with children or dogs. A need for mixed-use neighbourhoods and rental housing was expressed as a means of resolving affordability and accessibility issues. Finally, panelists stressed the importance of integrating services and amenities so that parents can spend less time travelling between childcare facilities, schools and parks.

Audience members had a chance to participate by writing their ideas on comment cards which would then be considered by City staff. A set of tangible recommendations will be created in the coming months and should be available when the next roundtable is held on November 6. The theme for that roundtable will be ‘Main Street Retail: Animating the public realm through active retail and commercial uses’.

If you were unable to attend the discussion, and want to know more, you can watch the Roundtable in its entirety on RogersTV

Do you feel the City is doing enough to accommodate families in the core? What ideas do you have to make Toronto more family-friendly? Have your say by leaving a comment below.