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Real Estate

Urbs vs. Burbs: “My parks are nicer than your backyards”

Architect Naama Blonder explains why young families should live downtown

By Naama Blonder, as told to Andrea Yu| Photography by Ebti Nabag
Urbs vs. Burbs: "My parks are nicer than your backyards"

In the summer of 2021, my husband, Misha, and I were looking to buy. Our daughter was two and a half, and I was pregnant with our second child, who would be born in February. We were living in a two-bedroom rental near Grange Park, paying $2,200 a month. Our firm—Misha and I are both architects and urban planners—was doing well, and we wanted to purchase a home.

We didn’t think twice about choosing a condo as our first family home. Both of us are from Israel, and we grew up in apartments. Misha lived in a five-bedroom place with his grandmother, parents and sister while I was in a four-bedroom apartment with my parents and two siblings. I loved it: the freedom, the walkability and the independence at such a young age. I wanted my children to grow up in a similar environment, with all the opportunities the city has to offer.

We soon found that the range of condos available in Toronto was limited. Most places were being built for singles and roommates, not families. That narrowed our options to only five buildings in the neighbourhood that happened to have three-bedroom units and larger common areas. Our favourite was near King and Bathurstan efficient layout with no long corridors, micro kitchens or columns in awkward spots. We bought it for $1.1 million in November of 2021.

I immediately fell in love with our building’s amenities. There’s a shared terrace for dinner parties, which we use every weekend in the summer. Our children love the outdoor pool. And there’s a theatre room that we plan to use when the kids get a bit older. There are about 10 other families with children living in the complex, and the amenities have helped us make friends with most of them. Our children enjoy playdates. The condo’s ample shared spaces have really created a sense of community. 

Even as the kids get older, we have no plans to buy a car. Instead, we choose to walk or take transit most of the time. I’ve been called “radical” by friends and colleagues for eschewing automobiles, but we simply don’t need one. The kids’ daycare is across the street from our office, so every weekday morning, we load them into the double stroller and take the 20-minute walk. When Misha and I are finished at work, we pick them up and stop by a park on the way home. The kids love St. Andrew’s Playground Park, which is just down the street from our condo. If it’s really cold, we take the streetcar instead. And when we want an indoor family outing, we’re surrounded by Toronto’s great attractions. We have family memberships at the AGO, the ROM and Ripley’s Aquarium, and we visit each spot at least once a month during the winter.

Toronto architects Naama Blonder and Misha Bereznyak of firm Smart Density
When I consider the cost of owning a car, our lifestyle choice only makes more sense. For example, a few months after we landed in our home, friends of ours moved to the suburbs (they paid 20 per cent more for their house than we did for our condo) and ended up buying a second car out of necessity for $30,000. They estimated that insurance, gas and maintenance would cost them $10,000 to $12,000 a year, which is more than we spend annually on vacations. 

Sometimes, though, it does make sense to use a car. For longer weekend trips like a visit to the Toronto Zoo or a hike outside the city, we use Communauto at a price of $50 a day. In the winter, we may Uber to Costco for groceries. Still, the cost doesn’t compare to the ongoing expense of owning.

Even if someone offered me a detached house with a backyard for the same price and location as my condo, I wouldn’t accept it. Our condo has more privacy: when I walk past houses, I can look straight in and see what cookbooks are on the shelves. Our building’s security makes us feel safer too. And I would never trade our unit’s abundant natural light for the tiny windows of most suburban homes. 

Most importantly, living in an urban setting affords me more time with my family. If I had to commute three hours every day from the suburbs to downtown and back, I would be devastated. You may love driving, but I guarantee that you don’t love being stuck in traffic. I feel even more sorry for the kids (especially teenagers) who have to rely on their parents to take them everywhere. Growing kids need independence—to socialize, discover the world and learn basic skills like planning ahead.

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I hope that more young couples will choose to raise their families in urban environments and enjoy everything this amazing city has to offer. In 2017, the city implemented a policy called Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities, which means that today, 10 per cent of every new condo development must be three-bedroom units and 15 per cent must be two-bedroom units.

Misha and I are privileged, we know. Not everyone can afford to buy a big condo. But so many families are buying suburban houses at the same price as our unit, and they’re suffering for it: more costs, fewer amenities, less community and less time with loved ones. I don’t know why so many people are choosing that lifestyle.

How many times have you heard someone say, "We needed more space, so we bought a house”? But do they really need more space? Our family doesn’t have 2,000 square feet, but we have everything we need. My parks are much nicer than your backyards. My free time is spent at home with my husband and kids or enjoying the attractions that all Torontonians—urban or suburban—enjoy. I want young families to realize that they have a choice between the traditional way of living and an urban lifestyle. For me, the answer has never been more clear.

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