We are constantly confronted with messages that tout the plentiful benefits of living in a suburbian paradise. Whether it be the pastel-coloured landscapes of Hollywood small-town classics or the safe and sleepy havens portrayed on the nightly news — often in conjunction to dirty and crime-ridden urban settings — the suburbs certainly appear to be the logical place to settle down.
Yet, a child who grows up in an urban environment is surrounded by opportunities, and this is evident when looking at our own city. Toronto’s inspiring qualities lie in much more than the street meat or the city lights that keep it aglow at night. There is a peculiar freedom attached to maneuvering through a place so large and so full that one never runs out of new people to meet or new places to see.
Suburban upbringing, in contrast, is perhaps best described as a colour-by-numbers attempt at artistry. There is a persistent myth that the suburbs are the only adequate place to settle down or have children — and that any possible denial of this statement comes from those out of touch with the grime and grit of the city’s realities. Although the merits of a full backyard and a white picket fence appeal to many, finances and job opportunities often deter people from moving out to these more spacious and family-friendly areas.
Yet, growing up in the city is not the consolation prize that it may appear to be. In fact, children who move from subway car to streetcar may just be better-adjusted than their suburban counterparts who move from lane to lane in their cars.
For the New York City blog 6sqft, writer Michelle Cohen interviewed several parents from varying circumstances and asked why they had intentionally opted for urban living over the suburban experience. Many parents felt it was more convenient to both live and work in the city. Parents who work in the city while living in the suburbs tend to spend a good chunk of time commuting; without this, more hours in the day could be spent with their children.
For some parents, the nature of their job is so specialized that it is difficult to find work in their field outside of the city. Others simply do not wish to work outside of the city. Though in many cases parents are willing to put their careers on the backburner while they focus on child-rearing, there is no need for that when one lives in the city.
Jessica Grose, an advocate for the suburban lifestyle, has cited a lack of diversity as a definite consequence of life beyond the city. According to statistics on the City of Toronto website as per censuses conducted in Etobicoke neighbourhoods, while there are visible minorities in these suburbs, the majority of the population tends to be made up of people of European origin. In comparison, Trinity Bellwoods of downtown Toronto also has a highly concentrated European population but has ranked Chinese as the second most populous ethnic origin amongst the community.
Most universities and workforces are multicultural, at least in some capacity, and children who have never interacted with people of different races are more likely to experience culture shock in the real world. Being able to traverse the city, moving from Chinatown to Little Jamaica and all the other in-betweens is a perk of growing up in the heart of an energetic hub of activity that belongs to more than just one relatively homogenous group of people.
Lastly, growing up in the city affects the identities of the children who live there. The carbon-copy housing designs of the suburbs and the small communities created through public school and extracurricular activities create an environment where children can grow, be outspoken, and become fearless.
When combined with the lack of exposure to alternate and opposing worldviews, however, it is possible that these traits — much admired in children — can grow into the small-minded entitlement of teenagers and students on university campuses.
According to researchers like Dr. Suniya S. Luthar, well-off suburban students break just as many rules as inner-city youth. However, suburban deviance tends to be more focused on acts like cheating and stealing from friends and family, as opposed to crimes to do with personal safety and self-defence, such as carrying a weapon, which are more common in inner-city neighbourhoods.
We also hear of suburban kids conducting notorious escapades and feeling as though they can get away with them. The ‘Bling Ring,’ a group of teenagers based in and around Calabasas, California, stole millions of dollars in cash and luxury goods from a slew of celebrity homes. Motivations behind such offences are often centred on a need for excitement and escape from the dullness of suburban living.
In many cases, people do grow out of and evolve from these characteristics — and city kids can certainly be spoiled as well. Yet when one is centralized in the city, they are bred with a more realistic idea of their place in the world by being exposed to more perspectives.
One of the mothers Cohen interviewed discussed the importance of teaching city kids ‘street smarts’ in addition to basic safety such as wearing helmets and not talking to strangers; she revealed that doing so strengthened the character of her children. These are things that city parents worry about more than suburban parents, and the effect is to develop the skills children will need for adulthood.
The ways in which city children interact with the world around them differs greatly compared to that of their suburban counterparts. There is more nuance, more application, and more fluidity in their views of the world, simply because they have been exposed to more of it. Though some people dream of owning a picture-perfect home in the suburbs, others cannot imagine parting with the skyscrapers and loud city noises, and that is perfectly acceptable as well.
Jenisse Minott is a second-year student at UTM studying Communications, Culture, Information, and Technology. Her column appears every three weeks.