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Exodus to the burbs: why diehard downtowners are giving up on the city

The reasons to abandon the overcrowded, overpriced, not-so-livable city are beginning to outnumber the reasons to stay. More and more of us are tempted by the 905 and beyond. Screw Jane Jacobs. We’re outta here

The New Suburbanites

Brian Porter and Carrie Low thought they’d hatched the perfect plan to avoid the eight-lane gridlock they faced every week on their drive to the family cottage in the Kawarthas. Porter, a soft-spoken 41-year-old Toronto firefighter, would arrange his work schedule to be home on Friday. He’d pack the car at noon and pick up his daughters, Lily and Amelia, from daycare shortly after lunch. Then, rather than head from their home in the Beach to pick up Low downtown, he’d drive to a strategic pit stop in Oshawa. Low, a slim 41-year-old redhead, works as a lawyer with RBC in the financial district, her days and nights packed, respectively, with meetings and paperwork. Her role in the escape plan was to get off work early and catch the GO train to Oshawa Station. Often, she’d end up working a pressure-packed day until 5 p.m. anyway, leaving Porter and the girls waiting at the station for hours. In the end they never gained that much time—it could still be a challenge to get to the cottage before nightfall. But at least they’d avoided the worst hours on the DVP and the 401.

Porter and Low’s weekend escape strategy was symptomatic of their over-engineered city lives. To juggle all their needs and obligations—two careers, mortgage payments, bills, kid drop-offs and pickups, groceries, meals—they had built a life that resembled a Rube Goldberg machine, and any misstep threatened to collapse the entire contraption. Grandparents were often called in to shuttle the kids to lessons and play dates and birthday parties. “My mother-in-law would phone me at work and ask, ‘Where is Amelia’s dance outfit?’ and my stress level would go through the roof, ” recalls Low. “I’d say, ‘Why are you calling me at work for this? It’s in the house somewhere. Don’t ask me, ask Brian.’ ”

Porter’s more flexible hours allowed him to handle most of the household duties (he typically works seven 24-hour shifts every four weeks), while Low would often leave the house at 7 a.m. and return 12 hours later. When Porter was on shift Low would pick up the slack, but the moment he returned she’d play catch-up at work. They didn’t realize, at first, that the routine was taking a toll on their marriage. “Sometimes I’d come home from a shift and she’d hand me the baton and head out the door,” Porter recalls. “I’d barely be able to stand up, but I’d feed the girls and send them off on their day. Carrie and I were like two ships passing in the night.” You might even say they were behaving like an already-divorced couple sharing care of the kids. “If we kept it up, I could not be sure that we would still care about one another five or 10 years down the road,” says Low.

The problem, they decided, was not each other or their careers or their kids, but the city itself—a surprising diagnosis given that they had both grown up in Toronto, happily, in the Beach. They bought their 1,600-square-foot detached home on Benlamond because they wanted to raise their family there, too. “The Beach tends to keep people,” says Porter. “I can walk along Queen East any day of the week and meet friends from high school who run businesses on that street.” But living in the city required too many contortions. They decided to divorce it.

They spent months searching for a new home, pushing the outer boundaries of the GTA as they went. Low was adamant: “I didn’t want a suburban house.” In the end they moved as far away from Toronto as they possibly could for a couple whose livelihoods still depended upon the city: Cobourg, the Lake Ontario town with its own lovely beach and boardwalk, just this side of Prince Edward County. The only thing separating the gigantic walkout basement of their new, 2,700-square-foot detached house from the Lake Ontario waterfront is a municipal park. And the cottage run is a one-hour scenic drive along quiet secondary highways.

  • lowrez

    hogwash!

  • Anon

    I can definitely relate. At 32, I’ve got a great job in downtown Toronto but the cost of using a horrible transit system, the fight for space and the impossibility of ever purchasing a home in the core is certainly driving me to move out of the city in the next 6 months.

    I came here to make connections both in the arts scene and on the dating scene and because many of the people I’ve encountered aren’t open to new people, it hasn’t been helpful. It’s just the ways of city life, I guess. I’d rather go back to a small town where everyone talks to each other and aren’t yelling at you from their car windows as you scramble for room to ride your bike to work.

  • 905er

    So basically these white people will only live in neighbourhoods like the beach or riverdale or in small towns well outside of the city? Does the 905, with its superior transit links to downtown (GO instead of Via), much better restaurants (compared to the exurbs), and large homes on big(ish)lots, contain too many “Others?”

  • Anna

    while a yard and open fields are nice, I personally would never trade a short bike ride/walk to work for an 80 minute commute. if you add that up the number of hours are staggering.

  • Melissa

    It is all about quality of life. Suburban living is quieter and gentler. Living cheek by jowl makes people rude and impatient. Suburban residents are more laid back and pleasant. People talk to one another. Nothing has been mentioned about condo dwellers. In those downtown buildings, the residents are transient so no one knows their neighbours. People don’t treat their neighbourhoods with respect while suburbanites generally have a pride of ownership that is reflected in their curb appeal. I would never live anywhere other than my leafy north Toronto neighbourhood.

  • Etien

    I hope that the writer or the other couples featured in this article will not take offense at my comment. The way that it is described, their life (both in the city and out of it) sounds absolutely horrendous. I assume that it is the presence of the children that makes either lifestyle feel acceptable, and, since I am just a little younger than the people featured here, am dreading the time when being greeted by a Walmart sign or being child-free for two hours in a generic restaurant will pass off as being pleasurable.

  • TorontoMom

    Personal space, affordability, sense of community. All important it’s true, but certainly not impossible to find in Toronto. We bought a real ‘fixer upper’ in the Harbord Village community 3 years ago. We paid less than what these people paid for their suburban homes even with the renos. With the extra tenant space we have it’s very affordable. Thanks to the strong community of friends we have nurtured, the house reno became a group project. New Neighbors shared their tools and advice, helped us jackhammer up the concrete and haul away trash, or simply enjoyed watching and commenting on the transformation. The house is more than large enough to fit our expanding family (1 todder, 1 baby on the way and a dog). There are countless cultural opportunities for our children in the city like OCAD and UofT summer camp programs, the ROM, the AGO, major theatre companies offering childrens programs – classes that go well beyond Hockey and Soccer (which you can find too). We have a huge group of young kids on our street who all congregate at our fabulous parkette. We have concert musicians living on our street, so the sounds of Chopin occasionally fill our neighborhood. Beautiful enormous trees line the street. Kensington Market is steps away for fresh veggies, China town, College Street. The diversity and vibrancy and variety of options for us to explore make every day an adventure downtown for our family. I’ll take that over the relief of seeing a Walmart sign any day.

  • peachy

    i’d live in the barrens if i could sit on a quiet-ish train and prepare my day / get some work done during commute…

  • cathie

    It appears to me that none of the people profiled here have really gained anything. Without being able to work in the town one lives, they are faced with a huge commute, and any money saved on a cheaper home will only go towards increased transportation costs. And if they feel their children can be let loose in a small town with less supervision, that’s pretty dangerous thinking. To the writer- glad to see you are leaving Toronto, we have enough people who litter. With that attitude, you won’t be missed.

  • john

    yeah seriously, you litter?

  • madra beag

    Family moves to small town (as someone astutely points out, not the nasty 905) in order to shorten the awful commute. To “the cottage”. Good grief, so spoiled, only in Toronto Life ….

    Not to be even more of a killjoy, but sounds like the RBC person improved her life by going to a telecommute and committing to leaving the office in time for the 5:30 train every day, which she could have done in the Beaches without upending the family, no?

  • Margaret

    Littering = Uncouth.

  • OPL

    This article is just another example of suburbanites questioning their decision. Because let’s face it if you truly believe in something there’s no point of constantly reminding yourself or others why. But, the best parts of this article were on the first paragraph, a ‘soft spoken…’ and ‘slim 41 year old…’. Like somehow those two traits are relevant in the story to make the couple believable and tolerable and that urbanites are loud mouths and fat? One more thing…cry me a river on Brian and Carrie’s horrible commute to their cottage.

  • anon

    these folks moved to small towns, not the suburbs.

  • Berna

    Very true, We plan to move to Alliston ON, for a very different life.

  • Minnie

    I’ve lived right downtown for years and I am not rude, nor do I litter. I have to say, the people who usually cut me off on the street or in the subway/GO are not usually from the city. People in Toronto are actually very polite, helpful and engaging. Yes there is a lot anonymity here, which is great, because you’re not forced to be fake. You can choose when you want to connect. However, if you’re an asshole, you’re an asshole and moving out of Toronto isn’t going to change that much… expect make it a better city for us who stay.

  • LC

    Small towns aren’t pretty ……. They just look that Way………:D

  • jaydee

    As others have commented, this article is written by or for 905vers who regret the move to the lonely, isolated subs and are now trying to justify the error of their ways. I have a backyard and open fields (High Park).I personally would never trade a short bike ride/walk to work for an 80 minute or more commute. If you add that up the number of hours are staggering. Everything I need is within walking distance. Restaurants, Cinema, Entertainment, Culture etc. I’m 20 minutes from Yonge & Bloor. The TTC is not that bad but I don’t need to use it that often. I got rid of my car ’cause I was using it once or twice a month. Those savings pay for a lot of cab or public rides if and when needed. Try ‘Ronces Village before your big move. You might be pleasantly surprised. The time & $$$ savings, not to mention the stress on your life, will more than compensate for the more expensive downtown property costs.

  • jaydee

    Oh! And BTW. Double hogwash!!!

  • hop

    Two Words: White Flight.

  • leslie

    its not the cost of housing dummy, its the f**ing salary levels – so eighties, literally. i want to open a biz in canada – excellent infrastructure, educated, trainable, capable reasonable employees so vastly underpaid in the global scrum it brings tears to my eyes. learn some negotiating skills people – clearly noone is going to give it to you. then you’ll be able to buy one of the developed worlds more affordable houses without having a heart attack everytime you pay your mortgage.

  • Matt

    This article is great – but maybe doesn’t highlight the reason people move as much as it could. I was born and raised io Toronto and still work there as does my wife. We moved to a small town outside of Cobourg last year and have never been happier. We output roughly the same amount of money, but have much more to show for it (we own a house now at half the cost of the rent we paid down town, the rest goes to commute cost).
    The difference for us is that we feel the commute is very much worth it. We found our dream house, reduced our stress levels and feel we have something that is ours. It’s not just about finances. Shame the article doesn’t have people like us (not management, no kids, just average working stiffs making a living) profiled as I think we represent a fair number of people that still love Toronto, but don’t feel we’re getting the bang for our buck that the generation before us did.

  • Nathan

    I live in the west-downtown, but along with 905er I am troubled by the “conservative white flight” feel of this piece. It makes it sound as if these types of white-hetero-family-values-cottage-professional-corporate types can live either in certain downtown or inner-suburban areas or way out in small towns. But that leaves out most of the 905, and frankly the 416 too!

    Also, could the writer not find a single example of a somewhat different (non-white? gay? no kids?) couple making a similar choice? And if not, is there something left unsaid in this piece? Yes, Toronto has changed a lot since 1961, but these changes aren’t only or even mostly about congestion and house prices, are they?

  • DRC

    Did the author ever consider that these people’s lives improved because they changed their working habits by deciding to have better work life balances. They could have made a lot of the decisions they made without moving. Notice also that they moved to small towns with main streets etc., sort of like the quaint little communities that make up the nice parts of Toronto.

  • George

    Are you guys serious talking about buying homes? Dont you know of the market crash in real state comming in? Unbelievable!

  • Richard

    My wife and I moved a few years ago to one of these ‘suburbs’ as she accepted a great job and it seemed idyllic…went from renting to owning a home, both in our late thirties, good jobs. I tried commuting back to my work (80 minutes on a good day) and still had to deal with parking and taking transit downtown…3 hours a day got to be too much. So I quit my job in T.O. (Social Worker) thinking it would be easy to find a similar position…did not happen…very insular professional community was not receptive to new people, so I took some short term contracts but it was far from steady…as well the ‘community feel’ espoused by those in the article was non-existent if you did not come from the town.(Yes we made a significant effort through volunteering and joining civic groups) We spent many weekends back in Toronto…most friends did not visit (we don’t have children)…and believe me there are just as many assholes here as in Toronto…recently returned to our old neighbourhood (The Junction) after 4 years and will never look back. It would be interesting to follow up with those in the article in 5 or 6 years to see how things panned out….

  • Reality Check

    I agree with anon – this is an article about small towns, not the burbs.

    (Creemore is definitely not a “burb”)

  • jeff316

    Well, Creemore is starting to turn into a burb for Barrie

  • carly

    These people don’t appear to be considering what will happen when their toddlers grow into teenagers. Once you turn 15, a spot in hockey camp and a big yard that you can play in after sunset become less important and autonomy takes a front seat. I’m 22 now, but as a teenager, my ability to hop on a bus to catch a movie or, see a concert or go to a friends house was vital to my well-being. These amenities kept me out of trouble compared with my suburban friends because there were other things to do besides drinking and drugs. My suburban friends’ teenage years were a nightmare; they were at the mercy of their parents’ will to shepherd them to the strip mall, otherwise they were trapped in their houses. As a result many of my more sheltered suburban friends had a much tougher time adjusting to life on their own in college than I did.

  • Mike

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    You’ll bevhappy you made the move! See you soon.

  • yupiyogi

    I live in a neighbourhood where we wave to each other when driving by, wait for each other’s kid’s parent to show up at the bus stop, have 3 parks, tennis courts and a church, celebrate Canada Day and Labour Day with our own fireworks in the cul-de-sac, and I can leave my kids playing outside without worrying about them being taken away. I live right off the DVP and 401 and don’t need to commute 2 hours to get to downtown TO. It’s not about where you live, it’s about your character, your priorities, and your attitude towards life!

  • Mike

    For all the urban moralizers out there, you can still live a sustainable, urban life without living in Toronto. I’m a Hamiltonian (cue the guffaws), and I live right downtown, and work in mid-town Toronto. But you couldn’t pay me to live there.

    My 3brdm townhome’s mortgage is $700/mo, has a deep lot with a deck, a few hundred square feet of raised garden beds and a garage. I live a few minutes walk from grocery stores, a farmer’s market, shops, art galleries (galore!) and restaurants.

    The commute is long, yes, but it’s only wasted time if you let it be: it also doubles as daily exercise (I walk to the GO station), reading time (entire newspaper in the morning; books, magazines and work material in the afternoon), and time to listen to music (a passion).

    So years before my Toronto friends, my partner and I have a house, a car, a kid, and tens of thousands of dollars in savings. If one of us wants to stay home w/ kid #2, we can–no worries.

    And we still get to live in a city, albeit a smaller one where all our friends live less than a 10min walk away, and where we’ll all be retired at 55.

  • Sam Girgis

    A perfect piece on how priorities change after you hit 30, and how the city is becoming less capable of addressing them!

  • Matilde

    I moved from downtown Toronto to Cobourg 6 years ago and don’t regret it whatsoever. When the only thing you miss about a place is the food, it’s not a very compelling reason to stay. Yes, you have to commute back to the city for work but remember, when you live in the city you have to get to work too and that can often take 1-2 hours each way also. I rode my bike to and from work each day, which I loved, but that still took close to an hour each way and in the winter on the TTC? Forget it! Nightmare. Add to that, getting groceries, running errands, etc while fighting the masses every week just wears you down.

    Ultimately you have to ask yourself what it’s all for. Do you want to make more money just to spend more money on a house, lattes from Starbucks, clothes, eating out all the time, etc or do you want to simplify things a bit, cut back on discretionary spending and live a life outside of the confines of capitalism? Of course, you can make those changes anywhere – city or village – but it’s a lot easier in a small town. A place like Cobourg is the perfect inbetween location in my opinion. You’re still close to the city and all of its greatness but far enough away to find yourself again… and breathe.

  • jeff316

    The problem with these sort of articles (both pro & con) and the responses are incapable of objectivity. Too many are too busy contorting to justify the sacrifices associated with their choices.

    Urban dwellers need to get that for many an increasingly-populated urban lifestyle can be stiflingly crowded, hectic and lacking redeeming value that can’t be gleaned from periodic trips into the city. There are only so many times you can go to the ROM. Lack of personal space, property size (in the real estate sense) and the grind of constantly sharing/fighting for your experiences with hundreds of others is a legitimate gripe. A move to a less populous and less wealthy area can have significant lifestyle-enhancing benefits – especially when one brings with them more capital than most local dwellers. Once the novelty of nightlife, multiculturalism and ethnic food wears off, the city can become a boring and lonely place, particularly once you enter your popcorn and Netflix years. When priorities shift and the old positives of city life start to fade, people become disenchanted with the sacrifices that they used to be able to rationalize away. Urbanites are secretly thinking this, but seem too culturally and financially invested to admit it.

    The problem that the suburbanites fail to realize is that their unhappiness with the urban existence is largely down to poor planning on their part – the commuting horror stories are avoidable if you plan before you rent or buy – and that their improved quality of life is largely down to the fact that they took stock of their priorities and started making informed life choices. Savings from cheap property are debateable once total transportation costs become evident, and in some cases they wipe out advantage altogether advantages – two people commuting from Oshawa or the Hammer spend 700$~800$+/mo on GO and TTC alone, no to mention car, insurance and the secret pocketbook killer: spending much more on gas from using the car for everything evening and weekend. But mainly, suburbanites don’t want to admit that benefits of their existence are dependent on their choice being that of the minority. If the majority took a similar path, the benefits they rave about would evaporate – like they have in parts of Etobicoke, Mississauga, Scarborough and other inner or just-slightly-outer burbs. The remaining urban dwellers are economically, environmentally and socially subsidizing that lifestyle choice and no suburbanite seems willing to admit that.

  • George

    Well said, Jeff316. I would say this only: You have to be insane to put up with an 80-minute or 3-hour commute, no matter where you live. Commuting is death, unless you’re one of those who can do solid work while you’re doing it.

    There are ways around it. But like has been said, for most, it means sacrifices somewhere. If you have a family, and you’ve talked yourself into a mindset where “you don’t have a choice” to do the giant commute, well: you do have a choice. You can choose to say, screw that, and go be with your family, or your friends, or watching Neflix or checking out the latest underground cool thing in Toronto, if that’s your thing. Add up how much of your life you are commuting. Then say, no! And get involved with groups trying to solve insane gridlock. :)

  • kate

    Alliston Ontario, God, shoot me now. Who would want to live there? You will have a different life alright.

    I grew up in Toronto and moved out west after 31 years. It was great while it lasted as Toronto was all I knew. After moving out west I would never move back to TO. I don’t miss the huge line ups for everything from the motor vehicle office to bank line ups. I hear it’s next to impossible to get a doctor now. And the traffic, it used to take me hours to get around downtown and that was 21 years ago, I can’t even imagine what it would be like now.
    I have been back on business numerous times and it is not the same Toronto of my youth.
    I live in a city with a 1 minute rush hour and it only takes 10 minutes to drive to the beach and a variety of lakes in minutes.

    One thing I do miss though is the multiculturism although it’s getting better out here. Toronto has such a vast variety of cultures.

    I don’t miss the have to be better than the next guy attitudes and always talking about how much money you make and your fancy houses. It’s all about the $$$$$$
    I notice that when I visit.

    I could never give up seeing snow capped mountains every day while driving to work and riding my bike to the beach.

    BC is not for every one I guess but it’s the only place for me.

  • Michelle

    Just days before we listed our north Pickering home we received this month’s issue. 7 years ago my husband and I left our Danforth home and settled in a small hamlet called Cherrywood in Pickering, basically a stones throw from the Toronto Zoo. Working in the east end of Toronto, the commute has never been a problem. What we gained was a beautiful renovated farm house on a third of an acre surrounded in green space. We are located in the Rouge Duffins Agricultural Preserve. Our city friend’s love coming to “the ranch” as they fondly call it. Life here is much easier. When our daughter arrived from China and we needed child care, I calmly went and toured the various options and there was not one waiting list. We have a good selection of schools including a great gifted program and French Immersion. We also have quite a good selection of ethinic restaurants in Pickering which make dining not a problem at all. I remember thinking that we would never move to the burbs but there are so many great amenities, hiking trails, green space and friendly community activites how could we not enjoy our lives out here. The first month that we were here I remember going to City Hall to pay a bill and I parked right in front of the building for free and didn’t have to wait in line.

    We have decided to sell not because we do not love it here but because we are a family of three and we would like to downsize. We have always been fond of the 60′s style subdivision of Don Mills but we won’t move back…….they have that here. Great 60′s architecture on tree lined streets at a fraction of the price of Don Mills.

    It is not for everyone but it has worked well for our family.

  • Alexa

    It’s funny how subarbanites always have to justify their choice… And I see so many misconceptions about the city! I live on a quiet tree-lined street in Riverdale, very close to the subway and within walking distance to everything I need so I have not needed to own a car for the last 5 years (I will let someone smarter than me figure out the savings in $ and headaches over that time period). I know most of the neighbours on my street and in the summer I wake up to the sound of birds chirping in the tall trees that surround my property. I walk alone at night and have never been bothered by anyone or felt threatened in any way. I can get to work in 20-25 minutes and could cycle or even walk to my office if I wanted to. why in the world would I move to the burbs?? I don’t have kids but have friends who do and who live close by. None of them feels that their kids are being deprived of anything by living in the city… quite the opposite actually! The city is indeed a great place to live.

  • Jane

    I live in a condo in midtown Toronto. I am also on the Board of Directors of said condo. I am also in a Book Club and a baby sitting pool with mynneighbours in the me condo. I shop at the local stores, and eat at the local restaurants. I have a park across the street, and a community centre nearby. Why would I move for some extra square footage?

  • Justine

    I live in the city and in a wonderful neighbourhood. It has a great sense of community, a wonderful park steps away, restaurants, shops, great schools, a community centre, library, and movie theatres. Everything is within a 10 minute walk. We have two young kids and a city home with a very small yard and limited square footage. I can perfectly understand why living outside of the city can be appealing, even with all these amazing things nearby. You can get purchase a home with more square footage and a nice large yard. You can have a quieter and calmer lifestyle while the kids are young. We too have contemplated this move. What I have enormous reservations about is what happens when the kids become teenagers. It is the subject of snide remarks among residents in these small towns as to how the YMCA’s are full of pregnant teenaged girls and teenaged mothers. This can happen in the city too, but I am not sure that this would be the most positive environment I would want my daughter to be raised in. The reality is that kids will only want to hang out in their backyard for so many years. In the end, the city will be able to offer more than a quiet rural town. It would be interesting to find out why so many people are also selling their homes in these small towns and where are they moving to? Why? What is the flip side of this equation? Some of these small town homes stay on the market for up to 2 years.

  • SteelesAvenue

    well of course you don’t like Toronto, you expect to drive everywhere. thats not what we do here.

  • Randy

    People who live in the beaches are people who are on the fence about living in Toronto anyway. Otherwise they would live somewhere else in the city.

  • Jane

    I used to live in toronto. I left in 1997. If I made 1 million dollars I would not live there now in fact I hate to even visit that and cant wait to leave!!

  • Kathryn C

    Suburban residents are not laid back or pleasant at all when driving in any kind of traffic (which there is plenty of in the 905) or during the GO commute. Being insulated from others either in their vehicle or in their private headphone space the majority behave as if no one else matters or even exists. There are no manners any more.

    Living “cheek by jowl” requires consideration for others which living in your own fishbowl does not.

  • Joseph Carlisle

    It is actually not necessary to flee the city to the 905 to find a decent home without the “many contortions”. Mimico / Longbranch is a great example of a neighbourhood with small town feel, big lots, decent home prices, without the long commute.
    Find Your Next Home Online at: http://www.ChooseRemax.ca

 

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