It isn’t just my genes or my lifelong, whole food cooking tendencies (thanks mom), that shapes me: I have always lived in walkable, cycleable neighbourhoods. That’s a long time. Over 55 years in 9 different neighbourhoods across 7 Canadian cities.
I’ve previously trumpeted this fact in this blog, as a cyclist living in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, in an employee profile story to several thousand other workers in my organization and again, in Fit, Feminist and Almost Fifty as a guest blog writer.
Initially Clueless, But Now Grateful: Walkable Neighbourhoods
I also grew up in such neighbourhoods in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario and then spent several years in London, Ontario while in university. Though I don’t remember, first 3 years of life, were in a tiny town of 1,000 people, outside of Hamilton, Ontario. We didn’t have a car.
All these years, I’ve dimly taken for granted my neighbourhood choices and as a result, probably became healthier. To me, it is a higher quality of living. Better use of my time and money.
But not everyone has lived in a walkable, cycleable neighbourhood . They may not even understand the concept. They might have lived in farming, rural areas or in areas where they get around town by car all the time. For everything –work, shopping. Even to the park or recreational facility.
Liveable Neighbourhoods for Walking, Cycling, Transit, Services and Convenience
In a nutshell, sustainable neighbourhoods means living less than a 15-20 min. walk, to public transit, a signed bike route or path, near essential stores and services — grocery store, doctor, community centre, library or park. It means a neighbourhood that has built-in infrastructure which encourages human-powered transportation; pedestrian and cycling safety, human interaction among people in public spaces and in local businesses.
They are places with sidewalks, good pedestrian surfaces and curb cuts for safe walking and wheelchairs; bike lanes, traffic signalling systems, street lighting for safety, street benches, etc. Stuff that gets us out in the bigger world, into our community –safely.
After all, email, Twitter, Facebook and even blogging can make us solitary couch surfers at times.
Blame Good Choices On My Parents
My lifelong choice to live in such neighbourhoods, have been influenced by memories of my parents actively searching for homes that were close to transit, services. They had to since we didn’t have a car until I was 14 yrs. We were very poor. (Read on later.) Even after car ownership, they chose to always have a home close to transit and in most cases, close to some shops and services.
As an adult, I just naturally followed suit. Made sense to me. Maybe I don’t know any better. After all, real estate property value is often about location, location –near basic services and amenities.
I don’t drive. I just wasn’t comfortable. I’m not a freak.
Liveable Communities- My Saga of Neighbourhood Homes
1. Waterloo, Ontario- 7 People in 1 Bedroom Apartment
Until I was 10 yrs. old, we lived in the downtown core when city was under 30,000 people. In a one bedroom apartment. Our family mushroomed to 5 children. Sure, we violated the fire code by today’s standards. What could my parents do? They were very poor.
Grocery stores, shopping mall, bank, post office, library, my father’s workplace (a restaurant) and park were within a 20 min. walk.
2. Waterloo, Ontario: First Family House @14 yrs. old
Then we moved to our first house in downtown core. The 6th kid was born. It was a 20 min. walk west from former apartment. On a one-way street with some heritage homes, a church with its small lawn patch where we occasionally played games. It was mixed income neighbourhood ranging from our family (low income) to upper middle class with professionals. Still only a 15 min. walk to shops, school, transit, etc. We had 1 car by then. But we walked to school. I lived there until I moved out for university in the late 1970’s.
It was, still is, a street lined with mature shady trees –maple and some walnut. I still dream about autumn leaf glory. And yes, boys did play ball hockey in the one way, narrow street. Now our former house has been renovated with an attractive cute porch, moldings, porch rail. I’m sure it’s now worth a lot more on a street that has higher value …for its closeness to services, transit, yaddayaddda. Yes.
3. London, Ontario: Student Living Still Neighbourhood Friendly
As an university student, I still made sure I could walk from home 15 min. to campus, transit or to a shopping mall. I lived off-campus and fortunately in graduate student apartment shared with 2 other room mates. Even as a student, I was not isolated from the real world: I could hear children playing outdoors. They were children of older graduate students. Didn’t bother me. I grew up in a noisy, large family. Our housing complex was 5 min. walk from a large park which was part of the university, where the Thames River flowed through.
4. Toronto, Ontario: Life in Canada’s Most Populated City
After university, I lived for a few years in a house with siblings and an upper level rented to tenants. Only 15 min. walk to subway station, stores, shopping mall, bank and library. Being close to what I needed and discovered, made it easier for me to adjust to faster big city pace of Toronto.
5. Toronto, Ontario: Living a Suburban Life –With Amenities Near By
Then my life took a big step into a suburban Scarborough condo high rise building across from a subway station. But I didn’t see the subway station from my place. Home overlooked condo’s courtyard enclosed swimming pool and lots of green trees on street.
At the time I found this place, I didn’t know until 5 months later, that I had a choice of 2 bike routes into downtown –1 south along Lake Ontario while 2nd route was through a network of ravine, wooded parks with paved bike-pedestrian paths in the Don River Valley area. I bombed happily on these routes for the next 14 years to work, shopping and for fun.
But still, I was within a 15 min. walk to several grocery stores and bank. It was suburbia but accessible to right stuff in that corner of the world year-round for 14 years of my life.
6. Vancouver, British Columbia: Beauty andSustainability 360 Degrees
I reluctantly had to leave this wonderful home location for a job in city #7 after 8 years in downtown– right by the popular Seaside-Seawall bike-pedestrian path. Without planning it, we are close to 2 bike stores, several different popular chain grocery stores, key services, shops, 2 transit train stations in different directions within a 15 min. walk. Heck, there is even a Costco store but we never went to it since our place couldn’t fit in bulk goods. Chinatown is close too and more separated bike lanes. We are 15 min. away from the thronging pedestrian crowds at the popular Robson St. shopping and restaurant strip.
We lived within 5 min. of Olympic 2010 venue sites. Yes, it was all exciting at that time in a city temporarily transformed. We saw free fireworks..every night during the Olympics. Some of my jobs were so close to home that I had to quadruple my commuting bike distance to have some decent daily, fitness rides.
7. Calgary, Alberta: Prairie Slow Run for Change
Living downtown, does somewhat mitigate my homesickness for Vancouver and Toronto, where both cities have highly vibrant downtown cores. I mean, not people drinking booze and partying all the time. Just people who enjoy chatting at cafes, strolling the streets, cultural activities and events. Since we just had a major city river flood in summer 2013, it can make any resident cautiously enthusiastic living in a flood plain during each spring snow melt.
Below are photos of Vancouver BC, Calgary and Toronto. Hover mouse over photo for slideshow controls to pause.
This is a city which still only has a few choice neighbourhoods with a sustainable community design footprint. Only within the last decade, Calgary is slowly crawling along to build some neighbourhoods that more reachable by foot, bike or transit. Just the thought of having a home without a car parking, is inconceivable to many Calgarians. In contrast, the evidence of less car ownership is starkly obvious whenever Toronto and Vancouver each have a transit strike for several weeks.
Yes, suburbs may tend to have cheaper housing. However, the lower cost of housing that is not close to transit nor safe cycling routes, needs to be weighed against off long term costs for car ownership, fuel and maintenance which some families, or just child-free free couples, are forced to have 2 cars. In a 2012 survey, over 81% Torontonians said that they would give up a large home lot if they lived in a walkable neighbourhood and near transit. Over 79% of these same people said that price influenced their buying selection for their home.
I’ve made my home neighbourhood choices and have benefitted greatly. However I realize I’m more an urban creature. How about you? Do you live or have ever lived in a 20-minute neighbourhood?
Chong, J. Cycling Greenways: Umbilical Cord to My Past Neighbourhoods –Prairies, West Coast and Ontario. In Cycle Write Blog, Apr. 14, 2013.
Thompson, David. Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Costs, Identifying Innovations. Sustainable Prosperity: University of Ottawa, Oct. 2013, p. 2.