When Mack and I first shared with some people that we were expecting, the first question we were often asked was, “So when are you moving?” Our love for living Downtown is well documented, and though we knew raising a child in a very urban neighbourhood would come with some challenges, I couldn’t imagine trying to navigate being a new mother in a new-to-me area, too.
I also don’t drive, so it was doubly important to reside somewhere not only walkable, but with good access to public transportation. It’s easy to become isolated as a new parent, but I wanted to be able to continue my pre-baby lifestyle that did not depend on a vehicle. Although our household does own a car (which Mack drives when necessary), we want Emily to be familiar with a variety of transportation options.
Now, after almost a year and a half of seeing Downtown through child-tinted lenses, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. What follows are some of my reflections on our experience (so far!) in raising a baby in Downtown Edmonton.
In those early weeks, I was lucky enough to have my parents around for a few hours every week to give me a bit of a reprieve during the day. The weather was pretty brutal in February after we brought Emily home, so I didn’t feel comfortable taking her out for walks just yet, but it was everything to be able to get some fresh air and to stretch my legs. And more than that, it was nice to feel like myself again during simple errands like visiting a drugstore or grabbing a coffee, sans baby. It was convenient to have a destination to visit on foot that wasn’t too far, but one where I could lose myself in the anonymity of white noise for a short while.
We’ve always relied on our proximity to the City Market to provide us with the foundation of our groceries, and this didn’t change after Emily. We continued to walk to City Hall in the winter (and pop out our front door in the summer) for our weekly shopping trips. Before Emily was born, I was afraid we wouldn’t have time to visit the market any more; I’ve since learned that you can make time for anything, especially those activities that you value. But it’s definitely easier to plan for it when it’s close by.
At the City Market on 104 Street
One of our more recent discoveries is that our Downtown Edmonton Community League membership (which happens to be free in 2018-19) provides us with access to a free weekly swim at the Don Wheaton YMCA. Being just a block away from our condo, this is a fantastic amenity that we will be putting to use year-round. The family change rooms are clean, spacious, and (bonus), even features a stall with a play yard.
Places for Children
I was very fortunate to discover several indoor amenities for small children within a short walking distance from our condo; the proximity meant I was much more likely to access them on a frequent basis.
The Enterprise Square branch of the Edmonton Public Library was a lifesaver for me. I didn’t really know how fantastic their programs were for babies and toddlers until I started attending them on a regular basis. Although the program space is temporary until the Stanley Milner Library renovations are completed in 2020, we didn’t mind the aesthetics. The staff are wonderful, and most create the welcoming atmosphere that encourages repeat visits (a special shoutout to Jenna, who always made the effort to greet Emily by name!). We were attending the Baby Laptime program twice a week religiously for the last six months of my maternity leave; the program and the parents we got to know are one of the things I miss most since returning to work. A side note – the Enterprise Square branch hosts Books2Buy sales every three months, with all proceeds going back to the library; we’ve filled Emily’s bookshelves predominantly with second hand books picked up at these sales.
Enterprise Square Library
The Royal Alberta Museum opened up in October 2018. One of the additions in the new facility is a Children’s Gallery, which includes a dedicated area for kids 3 and under. The section is carpeted, with a padded half that doubles for Emily as some of the only “stairs” she encounters on a regular basis. And for $35 (kids under 6 are free), adults can purchase a Mammoth Pass that provides unlimited admission for a year! My only small quibble with the Gallery is that the adjacent dinosaur dig area contains little plastic pellets, which inevitably end up in the toddler section (and, given their size, are prime eating hazards for babies).
In the Children’s Gallery at the RAM
The Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL) has also been offering an Urban Kids playgroup for a number of years. Volunteer-led by Downtown parents, the group gathers in the DECL space every Friday from 10am-12pm for snacks and crafts. While I didn’t start attending the group until towards the end of my leave, my Mom still takes Emily there from time to time to reconnect with the other kids she’s met.
Halloween with Urban Kids
While I welcome the additional green spaces still in development for the core, I treaded some familiar paths on walks with Emily. McKay Avenue School provided a concise loop point when I didn’t want to venture too far, and the adjacent Dick Mather Park features some nicely shaded benches. The Legislature Grounds were further afoot, but Emily and I spent many afternoons there on a blanket people (or bird) watching.
Bird watching at the Legislature Grounds
Closest to home is Alex Decouteau Park, just a block away from our condo. Mack and I were first time community gardeners last summer, and I learned that I could actually enjoy tending to a plot. While Emily was a bit young to appreciate what we were growing at the time, this year, she’s relishing the freedom of exploring the (thankfully fenced-in) yard, eating as many cherry tomatoes as she can fit into her mouth, and peering into the adjacent dog park!
At Alex Decouteau Park Community Garden
We did find that one of the downsides of our location is the distance to playgrounds. By foot, the closest playgrounds are located at Grandin or Oliver Schools, about twenty minutes away. As a result, we are thrilled with the new playground installed in Dick Mather Park! It’s not as elaborate as some school-based set-ups, but for now, it’s a fun amenity for Emily to explore.
Playground at Dick Mather Park
Arts and Cultural Activities
There were a few months where Emily would voice her displeasure when in the confines of the car seat. As such, there was a period when we limited our vehicle trips to non-negotiable errands.
Swing dancing at City Hall
Because we are so fortunate to live in a neighbourhood rich with festivals and events, it was always easy just to walk out the door for something fun to do. We also found that because the barriers of distance and ease of access were removed, we were more likely to keep our annual traditions alive, just now with Emily in tow.
At the Grey Cup/Santa Claus Parade
While I tended to remain within a radius measured in walking distance of twenty minutes one way, there were times I had to step outside that bubble. On those days, I relied on our public transportation system to do so. The majority of trips were pretty seamless (Emily’s pediatrician, for instance, is just a 10-minute bus ride away), but there were some instances when my frustration level mounted. Sometimes this was because of minor inconveniences (recognizing that I am able bodied and on most occasions had some flexibility with my time), but mostly because it would be easier to be a strong advocate for ETS in a car-oriented city if the system were more reliable.
Taking Emily on transit in those early days would always involve the stroller, primarily because I had a tendency to overpack and needed cargo space. As a result, taking busy routes during rush hour required some patience; no longer could I pack onto an already full bus and hang on. I did have buses pass me by because they just couldn’t accommodate a stroller with all of the passengers already on board.
I also had to become very familiar with the locations of LRT elevators. Their cleanliness, particularly downtown, was questionable, but that was secondary to whether or not they functioned. I count myself lucky to have not experienced an unexpected outage when out and about on my own with Emily, but a couple of times out with Mack, we encountered elevators out of order. We were able to handle it because there were two of us, but it again factors against the dependability of the system for those with accessibility concerns.
Yay, a working ETS elevator!
One of the reasons we love living Downtown is the architectural variety, including the historical buildings in and around our street. That said, I learned first hand that many of these buildings don’t have provisions for strollers (or wheelchairs for that matter). Many independent shops and restaurants that I frequented before baby, located in buildings like the Mercer Warehouse or Beatty Lofts, required that I plan ahead to use a baby carrier so I could easily traverse the stairs when solo. Obviously protecting the historical integrity of these buildings is important, as is ensuring the small businesses can thrive, but it was a reality that I was only forced to reflect on after relying on a stroller for the first time.
On a related note, construction detours were another constant headache. I am supportive of the infrastructure improvements that are being made, but the frequent pedestrian detours over the past year have been a nuisance to say the least.
One of the biggest potential deterrents for us to stay Downtown for the long term is the lack of an elementary school within close walking distance. Some might consider it a privilege, but we’d really like Emily to be able to walk to school. Although it’s not impossible with Oliver and Grandin Schools (a twenty minute walk for adults), something within the Downtown boundary would further show how serious officials are about making the core welcoming to young families.
So while some changes could be made to further improve Downtown as a welcoming place for young families, in our experience, it’s been pretty great. We hope more parents and parents-to-be consider the core as a viable neighbourhood in which to raise their children.
I’ll be writing a separate post about dining out close to home with a small child!