THE SUBURBS NOW COMMAND RESPECT
More than two out of three Canadians live on the fringes of urban settlements
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.
Canadian households and builders have overwhelmingly favoured suburbs over neighbourhoods in the urban core.