THE SUBURBS NOW COM­MAND RE­SPECT

More than two out of three Cana­di­ans live on the fringes of urban set­tle­ments

Vancouver Sun - - FINANCIAL POST - Murtaza Haider is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Ry­er­son Univer­sity. Stephen Moranis is a real es­tate in­dus­try vet­eran. They can be reached at www.hm­bul­letin.com.

Suburbs are the cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion, pro­claimed Harold SpenceSales who founded Canada’s first urban plan­ning pro­gram at McGill Univer­sity some 70 years ago.

Suburbs are also the en­gine of de­mo­graphic growth. A re­cent re­port by Pro­fes­sor David Gor­don and oth­ers at Queen’s Univer­sity revealed that metropoli­tan areas ac­com­mo­dated an ad­di­tional 3.2 mil­lion res­i­dents be­tween 2006 and 2016, with suburbs ac­count­ing for 85 per cent of that growth.

Dur­ing that time frame, the num­ber of dwellings in metropoli­tan areas in­creased by 1.46 mil­lion. Again, the suburbs and be­yond ac­com­mo­dated 78 per cent of the growth in dwelling units.

More than two out of three Cana­di­ans now live in a sub­urb, mak­ing Canada a sub­ur­ban na­tion.

But while Cana­dian house­holds and builders have over­whelm­ingly favoured suburbs over neigh­bour­hoods in the urban core, the suburbs don’t seem to get any re­spect.

Dis­cus­sions about growth and plan­ning in the pop­u­lar press and on so­cial me­dia have a near ex­clu­sive focus on high-den­sity down­towns.

The Queen’s re­port di­vided metropoli­tan areas into four mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive ty­polo­gies. “Ac­tive core” rep­re­sented mostly in­ner-city urban neigh­bour­hoods with a higher pro­por­tion of work­ers com­mut­ing by walk or cy­cle. “Tran­sit suburbs” rep­re­sented neigh­bour­hoods with a higher share of com­mutes by pub­lic tran­sit. “Auto suburbs” rep­re­sented areas where work­ers com­muted mostly by cars. Lastly, “Ex­urbs” rep­re­sented low-den­sity ru­ral areas in­cluded in the Cen­sus Metropoli­tan Areas.

Sub­ur­ban pop­u­la­tions across Canada grew five times faster than the pop­u­la­tions in urban cores and tran­sit-cen­tric suburbs. Yet plan­ning pro­fes­sion­als, in­clud­ing the au­thors of the re­port, see that as a problem that needs fix­ing. The au­thors of­fer recipes to tar­get more growth to the urban core and tran­sit­cen­tric neigh­bour­hoods.

The in­ter­ven­tions in­tended to re­verse sub­ur­ban­iza­tion ig­nore the fun­da­men­tals of land eco­nom­ics and de­mo­graph­ics and hence are un­likely to suc­ceed. Land is cheaper in the suburbs and so is hous­ing be­cause suburbs are land rich. The neigh­bour­hoods in the urban core are mostly built up with lit­tle, if any, de­vel­opable land, which is re­flected in higher land and hous­ing prices, a point we il­lus­trated in an ear­lier col­umn. Since suburbs have ex­cess land, de­vel­op­ment is more likely to oc­cur there than places where land is scarce.

Even more sig­nif­i­cant is the het­ero­gene­ity in house­hold sizes, com­po­si­tion and pref­er­ences. Large house­holds need more shel­ter space, some­thing that can­not be sup­plied at af­ford­able prices in the urban core where dwellings are smaller. It is, there­fore, no sur­prise that 83 per cent of the dwellings com­pleted be­tween 2012 and 2016 in the City of Toronto were con­do­mini­ums, which are hardly suited for grow­ing fam­i­lies, who in­creas­ingly turned to the suburbs.

Urban plan­ning lit­er­a­ture, such as the Queen’s Univer­sity re­port, views suburbs with a nar­row lens of pop­u­la­tion den­sity and au­to­mo­bile-based mo­bil­ity, while ig­nor­ing all other sub­ur­ban man­i­fes­ta­tions in­clud­ing the most ob­vi­ous one be­ing af­ford­abil­ity.

If it were not for the suburbs, the hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity cri­sis would be even worse in fast-grow­ing ci­ties. New hous­ing de­vel­op­ments in the suburbs help ease pop­u­la­tion pres­sures on in­ner ci­ties and thus pro­vide an af­ford­abil­ity cush­ion. In ci­ties where new de­vel­op­ments are in­creas­ingly tar­geted at the urban core and tran­sit-ori­ented suburbs, such as Van­cou­ver, hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity wors­ened even more.

But are suburbs without prob­lems? Sub­ur­ban liv­ing is as­so­ci­ated with higher in­ci­dence of obe­sity, the re­port’s au­thors re­mind us. How­ever, re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Toronto who tracked in­di­vid­u­als over time, found “no ev­i­dence that urban sprawl causes obe­sity.” Pre­vi­ous find­ings of a re­la­tion­ship be­tween sub­ur­ban liv­ing and obe­sity failed to con­trol for the fact that “the in­di­vid­u­als who are more likely to be obese choose to live in more sprawl­ing neigh­bour­hoods.”

Crit­ics blame suburbs for auto-de­pen­dent life­styles caus­ing greater pol­lu­tion and higher fos­sil fuel con­sump­tion. This is true. How­ever, sub­ur­ban de­mo­graph­ics such as larger house­hold size and the pres­ence of chil­dren ne­ces­si­tate the use of the pri­vate au­to­mo­bile. Also, sub­ur­ban res­i­dents do not nec­es­sar­ily work in tran­sit-ac­ces­si­ble down­towns. Over time, as gaso­line-pow­ered ve­hi­cles are phased out, con­cerns over GHG emis­sions and fos­sil fuel de­pen­dence will likely lessen.

The fu­ture of growth ci­ties will be even more con­cen­trated in the suburbs. It is merely an out­come of land eco­nom­ics and de­mo­graph­ics. Suburbs could be de­signed bet­ter with mixed­land uses and greater di­ver­sity in hous­ing ty­polo­gies. Cor­nell in Markham, Bois-Franc in Mon­treal, and Gar­ri­son Woods in Cal­gary are ex­am­ples of the new age suburbs that of­fer the best of both (urban and sub­ur­ban) worlds.

ED KAISER/POST­MEDIA NEWS

Cana­dian house­holds and builders have over­whelm­ingly favoured suburbs over neigh­bour­hoods in the urban core.

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