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Let the Suburbs Grow Up

Oct 20, 2010
Let the Suburbs Grow Up

by Richard Borbridge, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

That’s the call to action closing the TED lecture by Ellen Dunham-Jones. It encapsulates well the way we continue to coddle and misunderstand what the suburbs are and what they can or should become.

What are the suburbs? We’re vaguely aware of how the suburbs emerged from an era of burgeoning consumerism and opportunity after the second World War, sponsored by a infrastructure investment and a booming post-war economy. They promised to deliver the American Dream of 2.4 children, a private lawn for them to play on and a homestead, bucolic and isolated from the noise and pollution of the city-proper. The principle of building homes on the outskirts of cities to achieve a greener and more serene way of life is hardly new – just look at the turn-of-last-century Garden City Movement or even the villas of ancient Rome.

Today it is fair to ask “where are the suburbs?” It’s remarkable how many different ideas people have of what “the ‘burbs” represent… In the case of a tightly connected metropolitan region such as ours the lines are especially blurred and “suburb” encompasses at least three meanings. To some, they are any of the cities outside Vancouver’s Central Business District. To others, suburbs include any primarily residential area outside higher-density commercial zones. Examples include neighbourhoods like Point Grey or Richmond’s Seafair neighbourhood – but the “inner rings” of Kitsilano or the City of North Vancouver, residential areas that contain their own vibrant business districts, tend to confuse this definition.

Finally, the third school of thought limits the definition of suburbs to the exclusive, often isolated residential enclaves of winding streets and cul-de-sacs like Thornhill in Maple Ridge or Coquitlam’s Westwood Plateau. This last concept illuminates the suburbs’ primary challenges – the separation and inefficiency that Dunham-Jones speaks of in her work.

So for the sake of clarity our working definition of the suburbs features:

  • low density
  • exclusively single family home neighbourhoods
  • expanding the boundary of existing urban edges
  • fundamentally dependant on the car for transportation

Now though, it’s time the suburbs learned to go out and pay their own way in the world. Just as the children of the suburbs eventually need to move out of their parents’ basement, it’s time for the suburbs to quit freeloading. After decades of direct and indirect subsidization the costs of maintaining the suburban way of life are becoming harder to defend in these times of financial austerity. In paying taxes on the 500 feet of roadway in front of your house, would you rather share the maintenance between 10 or 100 households? A facile argument, but one that illustrates the principle that per capita, denser is cheaper.

Demographically the suburbs are growing up, whether the built form reflects it or not. As she indicated in her TED lecture, two-thirds of American suburban homes do not have children and more of Generation-Y are choosing an urban lifestyle with fewer children. Perhaps most importantly, the suburbs are where the Boomers and Gen-X are starting to settle down for retirement, having achieved so much and bought into the American dream before the half acre lot became a lightning rod for environmental issues alongside its chariot, the SUV.

What this dream has also increasingly led to is the model of “drive ’til you qualify” home ownership and housing sizes and features that would have prohibitive costs closer to the core. This means you pay less… and you get less in terms of an urban class of amenities. But the suburbs were invented and continue to propagate for good reason. People genuinely like living there. People also genuinely like living in 500 square-foot condos.

This raises a central question about of the suburbs: Do we have a real understanding of who lives there and most importantly why? The numbers Dunham-Jones presents show how the family-oriented impression we have of the suburbs is rapidly changing. With the pace of development and burgeoning environmental awareness it is clear that we need to build with the future in mind and keep questioning our assumptions about what constitutes good development, rather than relying on our perceptions of the present. Does this mean we should all be living in 500 square-foot condos in downtown Vancouver? No, and what Dunham-Jones brings to the discussion shows that adaptation and transformation – not migration – is the answer.

Suburbs are functionally unchanged since the prototypical communities of the era of Levittown, NY, North America’s first purpose-built suburb. The suburban model of development and its economics are now readily understood and effectively self-reinforcing.

Levittown, NY (image credit)
What do we get out of this lifestyle? Well, 2.4 children, a private lawn for them to play on and a homestead, bucolic and isolated from the noise and pollution of the city-proper. But we also get pollution, obesity, diabetes, and –the stress of traffic, vehicle maintenance costs, and less time to spend with our 2.4 children.

What all the ‘-urbanisms’ share is an attempt to make the place you are more worth being in. How and why vary by the flavour. Primarily, new “demi-urban” models drive toward the self-sufficiency of communities, illustrated by an emphasis on walkability and local amenities in urban design and development – creating places and communities where people are not required to drive 20 minutes, or worse: 2 minutes to get groceries, get to work and be entertained. Mixing land uses endeavours to take away at least a few of those car trips every day.

This leads to an argument for breaking down the urban/suburban dichotomy into a multitude of vital local centres. Metro Vancouver has championed this strategy for years, with a focus on Surrey’s Central City and Burnaby’s Metrotown, for instance, as alternative regional hubs that have their own gravity, so that it’s not all about Vancouver.

In her various precedents and examples, Dunham-Jones cites various cities have used to reclaim suburban spaces that have outlived their usefulness or have been subsumed by the pressures of rising land values. These spaces are redeveloped to serve higher-density purposes and new audiences. Shopping malls as arts centres, seniors’ complexes, big boxes as libraries or parking lots as reclaimed wetlands. She shows us the potential of transitioning suburban development patterns into a new hybrid and potentially fully “urban” form, though perhaps different than today’s image of urbanity.

The intention is to address the emerging demographic realities rather than simply expect the status quo to serve us indefinitely. Highest and best use is the trajectory for most parcels of land in our market-oriented mentality, which theoretically strives for efficiency in a world of scarcity. However, the inertia and subsidies behind the current housing model in combination with an insufficiently broad view of the housing market makes innovation risky and rare.

Despite being on the edge, surburbs represent the space between – the physical and social separation and the inefficiencies of ex-urban development. Technology has made the long view much longer and transformed our lives for the better, while it also demonstrating how our idyllic desires run counter to our collective long-term interest.

We would be wise to use the examples Dunham-Jones presents for improving connectivity, including effective ways to get around other than cars, and improved mass transit options to support large numbers of people who still need to travel between the urban hubs. In the end, Dunham-Jones asks us to reconsider our individualism and isolated thinking in favour of communities that serve the demographic and environmental challenges of the future.

Ellen Dunham-Jones is the author of Retrofitting Suburbia and a widely distributed TED lecture on the topic. She will be presenting next week at SFU’s VIA Urban Design lecture on October 26 (reserve your seats now).

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