Thursday, July 12, 2012


In my house and in many, many others, May and June are known as "soccer season". Our three girls all play soccer. This means soccer games or practices six days a week for two months. For parents, soccer season is a tactical exercise involving complex scheduling and Google maps to get each player to the right field at the right time. It's a commitment for sure, but the kids love playing and I get a kick out of watching their progress. Sometimes as a parent you have to muster a little extra enthusiasm for things like school Christmas concerts, but I truly enjoy watching my girls play soccer.

They play at a fairly competitive level now, but they all started at 3 or 4 years old. Tim Hortons heavily sponsors this age group, so much so that soccer players under 8 are often called by the name on the front of their jerseys - Timbits. Timbits soccer is more about swarming the ball and kicking it into the shins of the player in front of you; actual field positioning and strategy come later. It's mainly running around and having fun, and the kids are still too young for the hyper-competitive parents (dads, mostly) to start yelling at them and the ref. A few Timbits medals, which are awarded to every player, are still on display in our house.

I have very happy memories of my own playing soccer as an eight-year-old. There was only one game a week, always Saturday morning. I would bike about five minutes from home to Rosedale Park, usually on my own. After the game we would often go to Beckers for a popsicle or a bottle of coke, if we had money.

Now soccer is played at any number of fields across the city. This year maybe one-third of our games were within walking or biking distance from home. We have a perfectly good field in the park two minutes from our house, but we were lucky to play there twice all year. Most players are chauffeured to each game. Also, players on a team live in the same general part of the city, but rarely in the same neighbourhood. A lot of this has to do with how the soccer league is managed. The priority is for teams to play other teams at the same skill level, so a lot of tiering and mid-season scheduling takes place. But I wonder what these kids are missing by not being able to get to the games on their own, or to be able to hang out with friends afterwards.

A few years back the girls' elementary school was on the closure list. It was a unique situation, in that enrollment was not declining, but they wanted to close the school to consolidate with another one nearby, supposedly to secure big renovation money for the receiving school. I have a lot to say on this topic, but for now the short story is the school stayed open and the receiving school ended up being closed the following year. For parents and concerned community members, this required a large effort over several months to learn how the process works and to lobby to keep the school open.

I did a lot of research during this time. Our school was small (about 150 students) but it seemed to work well at that size. Everyone knew each other, and the older kids helped the younger ones out with their winter boots or by being a reading buddy. The research more than confirmed our intuition that smaller schools are usually more functional and provide better outcomes both in education and towards the children's personal development. Part of it is having a school right in your neighbourhood which fosters a sense of community, and is obviously healthier as more kids can walk or bike instead of taking a bus. (Another surprising fact: there are rarely any economies of scale in larger schools - small schools usually cost the same or less than a big-box school, per student.)

Having a stable, local school close to home is important for young children. Unfortunately many are now growing up in an environment where every activity requires an adult and a vehicle. I believe this instills a kind of geographical disconnect for the child, as well as more reliance on parents and less opportunity to explore, hang out, create, invent, or anything else a kid would normally do on their own. Will these children grow up viewing life as transient, just moving from one place to another? Will they be able to develop responsibility, citizenship, and pride in their community?

The New Urbanism, a movement about making cities more livable, has a core principle that a neighbourhood that works should have an elementary school within walking distance. I found during our school closure wars that most people think of schools as simply a building where education happens. Schools are so much more; they are perhaps the most important part of a community. They determine what kind of population will live nearby. They provide opportunities to connect, for children, parents, and others in the community. They double as sports facilities, voting stations, meeting places, and increasingly offer "wrap-around" services like preschools and health clinics. I came to the conclusion that closing a school is the single worst thing you can do to a neighbourhood.

In Edmonton and similar cities built up in the automobile age and with no geographical limitations, sprawl has been the natural tendency for a long time. It becomes normal to live in a suburb and drive everywhere. Only recently have there been so many cars on the road that the commuting lifestyle is starting to be questioned. Short-sighted city planners allow huge new developments on the outskirts of town without thinking through the longer term impacts. These new "communities" are usually low-density homes separated from any recreation or shopping by busy traffic arteries. If you want to leave the house, a car is almost always required.

The popsicle test is a quick way to evaluate a neighbourhood's livability. The test is: can an eight-year-old child go to the store on his own, buy a popsicle, and get home before it melts? The home where I grew up passed the popsicle test. I would guess the majority of Edmonton's neighbourhoods do not pass the popsicle test, and probably none of the newer ones. The main reasons are busy roads and the homogeneity of residential zoning, meaning there are no more corner stores to buy popsicles at the end of the block. The closest popsicle is at Safeway in the commercial zone across the main road.

And of course, once people move into these treeless mazes of winding crescents that all seem to have the same name, they expect a school for their kids. In Alberta, the construction and location of new schools is mainly a provincial matter; city officials and local school boards have some input but no vote. So what happens is the provincial government looks at these new developments and decides that's a good place for a new school (usually this decision comes a few months before an election).

This seems logical at first, but it's the beginning of a vicious circle. Now the school board has one more school to support, and the overall utilization rate goes down. Because so much depends on this utilization rate, there is a strong incentive to reduce classroom spaces elsewhere, and it is often the school in the central or mature neighbourhood that ends up on the chopping block. This has happened several times in Edmonton, and has been repeated in cities across North America. Once the school is closed, families do not move in and mostly leave the neighbourhood. Once a neighbourhood no longer has enough young families, it ceases to be a vibrant place to live. The ultimate effect is like a cancer eating away at a city from the centre outwards. As people move farther and farther away, the core slowly dies; this is the donut hole syndrome which has made many cities unlivable. What happens next can be even worse, as the sprawl goes beyond the city limits, so the tax base shifts to other municipalities outside the main city. Detroit is a good example: hardly anyone actually lives in the city of Detroit, they have all moved into the surrounding bedroom communities.

Edmonton is not quite there yet. Up until 2010, the Edmonton Public School Board was continuing to close schools, always in mature areas that need them the most. New suburban developments continued to be approved. But the mayor and city council have started to address ways to repopulate and re-energize older, central neighbourhoods. A new, responsive board of school trustees has put a moratorium on closing schools and is looking at ways to work with the city and the province on these concerns. But the provincial government keeps putting new schools in new developments as quickly as they can. In fact, just today they announced they will keep building new schools whether the demand is there or not.

Edmonton is not Manhattan, or Hong Kong, or Vancouver. It will never be at risk of crowding all its residents like sardines into tall condo buildings. There will always be the option to live a suburban lifestyle, and there will probably always be a part of the population that prefers it. But we need to at least have the choice for families to live in non-suburban areas too, where a car is not essential. Closing schools limits such choices. I hope my kids don't grow up thinking that spending two hours a day in a minivan is normal.

Diversity is another pillar of New Urbanism, that neighbourhoods should have different types of dwellings - apartments, condos, rowhouses, detached houses - to attract a population that is diverse in age and economic status. A healthy, vibrant community has residents who are young and old, rich and poor, single and married. This is where I want to live. I want the variety pack full of every kind of timbit, not a stale old donut with a crumbling hole in the middle.