Jenna and Gus in Vancouver

Jenna lives in Vancouver with her husband and two kids. As you’ll soon discover, this family’s love for their city is strong! Jenna gave us a glimpse into their everyday life as well as their intentions as an urban family. She doesn’t close her eyes to the particular challenges of her city, but finds a way to lean in and build community in their world-class city.

Please note: this interview was recorded before the coronavirus outbreak requiring all of us to stay home to protect ourselves, our neighbors, and our healthcare systems. We’re publishing now as a reminder of normalcy but please, stay home!

Gus, Jenna, Saul, & Tor

You live in Vancouver, a city I’ve always wanted to visit! Can you tell us what your city is like?

We live in Vancouver, BC., on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land. We’re on the edge of Chinatown and across the street from the Seawall (the world’s longest waterfront path). We also live in the V6A postal code, a neighbourhood known for significant social issues such as poverty, addiction, and homelessness.

Vancouver is a world-class city with beaches, mountains, and a killer third-wave coffee scene. It also has a major housing crisis, opioid epidemic, and systems which continue to actively oppress its most marginalized peoples. It is diverse, vibrant, and beautiful.

Have you always lived in Vancouver?

I grew up just across the bridge in Deep Cove, steps from the forest and the ocean. I’ve always been drawn to the excitement of the city, though, and craved a more walkable, lively, and multicultural community. My husband and I moved to Vancouver shortly after getting married, and quickly put down roots here. City life really suits us; I can’t imagine living anywhere else!

I’ve always been fascinated with Vancouver’s proximity to nature. What a gift that you’ve experienced both in your lifetime.

What do you love about city life? It’s an open-ended question, but I want to know what keeps you in the city. What’s the magnetic force?

I love that the city is a living, breathing, constantly evolving entity. I love the connections that form between people, across differences, in public spaces. I love having easy access to the best of international foods, cultural events, and nature. As a family we are passionate about seeing positive change in our community, and feel that living here allows us to enact our values and ethics in tangible ways, day to day. We see our children growing in empathy and character as they experience diversity and understand their own privilege. Working with youth and families facing multiple barriers in the community, I also appreciate the opportunity to walk alongside them as a neighbour rather than as an outsider coming in.

Can you share a time you felt like your family was thriving in city life?

Honestly, it’s all the time, and in small, simple ways. There is much joy in stepping out of our building and selecting from the many possibilities around us. Even an aimless walk becomes an adventure, as we encounter the unexpected amidst our predictable routines. There is nothing like the smiles on my kids’ faces when shop owners greet them warmly and offer them special treats, or when we turn a corner and find a street festival with live music and food trucks!

I love the connections that form between people, across differences, in public spaces.

How often do you have that feeling of joy about the place where you live?

It surprises me, sometimes, when I’m just running a quick errand and come across a new piece of street art, or someone calls “kids on the block!” when we’re rolling through. Sometimes I’ll have my umbrella in front of my face on a rainy walk to preschool then glance up to see the moody dark blue of the ocean to my right. There is delight in every day, I think, if we’re mindful about finding it. My favourite, though, is coming back from a trip, or even just dinner with family in the suburbs, and that feeling of diving into the city lights and hearing the kids sigh, “We’re home.” That’s how you know you’re in the right place.

I know that feeling exactly. Has there ever been a time when you felt like you were merely surviving in the city? A time when you wondered if you weren’t made for urban life after all, or maybe the city wasn’t made for you?

Merely surviving, yes, but the city has always acted as a balm in these trying times. I’m thinking of the fog of new parenthood, for example, and how fresh air, good coffee, and encouraging neighbours helped us survive it. Oh, there was the time our old apartment had bed bugs coming through the walls; their bites broke me out in hives. For months. That wasn’t great.

How did you overcome that feeling of barely making it?

Well, by taking practical steps for the bed bug situation! I think it’s ultimately an attitude adjustment that does the trick: being grateful for what you have, finding humour in the absurdity of it all, and seeking opportunities to learn and grow from the hardship—that’s what makes us resilient, and better equipped to take on new challenges or extend help to others. There is a real sense of community, connection, and solidarity that we’ve found in the city. I think that might be surprising for some, as the stereotype is that the city is an impersonal and heartless place. Our experience has been the opposite, though certainly not everyone sees it that way.

Have you ever thought of leaving the city?

Nope, though we might have had to consider it if we’d decided to have more children. People ask us this all time, though it’s more of an assumption than a question- like “WHEN you move…”. But we’re pretty determined to make it work. Hopefully our boys are cool with bunk beds until college!

The “WHEN you move…” assumption is so real! I like to hope the feeling of us urban families being outliers is fading.

There is a real sense of community, connection, and solidarity that we’ve found in the city. I think that might be surprising for some, as the stereotype is that the city is an impersonal and heartless place.

Have you made any sacrifices for city life?

Not really. There is the constant push and pull of wanting the Western ideals of comfort, space, and stuff, but also knowing it isn’t necessary. We try to hold a more global perspective, realizing that we already have so much more than we need. Having said that, a second bathroom would be such a luxury. We keep a spare potty in the bathtub, in case of emergencies!

What have you gained by living in the city?

A broader perspective of human experience- the ability to recognize the ways we’re all connected, and the factors which create division and power imbalance. With this awareness comes an appreciation for diversity, a dedication to positive change, and the confidence to challenge dominant social discourses. We’ve also learned the value of simplicity, flexibility, and compassionate curiosity.

What advice would you give to someone who has recently moved to a city or is considering a move?

A huge perk of city living is the walkability. It saves the planet, saves money, and helps us get our steps in. If you have little ones, invest in a great stroller. Ours is a true adventure-mobile, equipped with a snack tray for the toddler and a ridealong board for our oldest. We fill it with groceries, library books, and care kits for our neighbours in need. It takes us across the city and back again, with coffee in the cupholder of course, almost every day. I like to give the kids opportunities to walk, transit, or ride bikes too, but the stroller allows us to get where we need to go quickly!

For Vancouver, where it rains a lot (to say the least) a Science World membership is totally worth it. Their outdoor “risky play” area is also a favourite of ours in the summer!

Strollers are not overrated for city life. I wish we had an odometer to see how far we’ve pushed ours over the years!

I think we need to be intentional about occupying communal spaces, weaving ourselves into the fabric of our cities rather than creating arbitrary divisions.

What are the particular strengths of Vancouver? Does it have any challenges?

I’m tempted, here, to list all of our family’s favourite spots, but I think what I appreciate the most about Vancouver is the evidence of common grace, or those aspects of the city which are open to everyone without discrimination. This is where the strengths and challenges find a sort of equilibrium which I find significant and exciting. Pianos in public spaces, where a street-entrenched neighbour can show off their musical talents, libraries brimming with opportunities to learn and connect, parks that allow us to rest, play, and take in our four distinct and beautiful seasons, mural festivals that welcome and feature multicultural artists, and social enterprises which provide meaningful employment and support the community- these are what make a city great. I think we need to be intentional about occupying these communal spaces, weaving ourselves into the fabric of our cities rather than creating arbitrary divisions. I believe this leaning-in can strengthen connections and increase community capacity.

And with that, I really want to visit your city! What’s your family’s favorite park so I can start my Vancouver bucket list?

We are so fortunate to have a park for every day of the week! And all within a small radius. But here are a few favourites and why we love them: Creekside Park is across the street and has a massive sandbox with a water pump and a spectacular view of the city, ocean, and mountains. Coopers’ Park is our favourite for rainy days and hot summer days, since it’s tucked under the nearby Cambie Bridge. The shelter and shade make it a popular hang-out for local families, and we’ve collaborated on some pretty cool sidewalk chalk creations there! Crab Park is a 10-minute walk north towards the Port of Vancouver. It has a playground and splash pad, but my boys especially love watching the port operations, boats, and helicopters, and throwing rocks into the water. The Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden is 2 blocks away and has a free public park which provides a peaceful retreat in the heart of the city. We love to nibble on a steam bun and play hide-and-go-seek in here! Stanley Park is Vancouver’s crown jewel, with over 1,000 acres of West coast rainforest, beautiful beaches, and tons of play spaces. It is totally life-giving, and a quick bus ride away.

Keep up with Jenna and her family’s urban life on Instagram!