Little boxes

Little boxes

Suburban living is booming across Canada. A Dalhousie researcher is investigating the impacts of this 'outward migration'
September 9, 2009

(Article courtesy of Dalhousie University)

With more than half the Canadian population now living in the suburbs, Jill Grant says it’s an obvious time to study this increasingly popular living option, one that remains a bane to urban planners and downtown boosters.

Are people drawn to the concept of perfectly matching houses throughout a neighbourhood — the “little boxes,” as the “Weeds” theme song goes — or is it the slightly sterile lack of urban energy often associated, fairly or not, with life in the ’burbs? More likely, it’s a desire for living space, inside and out, that’s roomy, and that’s tough to find in the downtown core of most Canadian cities.

As costs associated with living in an urban environment continue to rise, more and more Canadians are pushing outward toward these ready-made neighbourhoods-in-a-box. And Grant, a professor with Dalhousie’s School of Planning, in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning, is casting her gaze to the ’burbs too. Her research project, “Trends in Residential Environments: Planning and Inhabiting the Suburbs,” recently received just over $101,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Standard Research Grants program.

So what are the impacts of such an “outward” migration? Grant has a number of theories on the effects on our cities and towns. “The suburbs and the core are affected by the same kinds of pressures and processes, but in different ways,” she says. “Since ownership of the car became quite common, living in the suburbs or in the countryside and commuting to the city has been easy. Developers looking for places to build new commercial spaces looked to the periphery to find relatively inexpensive land that would be accessible to those in cars. Consequently, people and commerce drained from downtown.”

The fate of our nation’s downtowns is directly tied to the trends in the Wisteria Lanes across the country, though it isn’t all in the direction of more or better ’burbs.

“In recent years, we see new attitudes about downtown that are renewing interest in living, working and shopping downtown,” says Grant. “Developers are reacting to that with new projects downtown.

“At the same time, development trends in the suburbs are changing somewhat. Lots are getting smaller, homes are getting closer to the street; some suburbs are developing a bit of an urban feel.”

Grant further suggests the suburban life may be getting a bit of a rethink, that the longer commuting time isn’t worth the extra square footage. “In many cities, the costs [in time and money] of commuting are getting so high that people are rethinking suburban life. We’re seeing more interest in rapid transit because people want to reduce their commuting time. But rapid transit is expensive in cities that sprawl too much. The current fiscal crisis is slowing down the development a bit, but it probably won't stop suburban development. In the larger cities, we are seeing suburban-urban nodes developing: ‘town centres’ that increase densities and mix uses outside of the major urban cores. That is increasing the numbers of people working outside the city cores, so it may affect commuting times and patterns.”

Grant, who has been studying trends in planning for residential-development planning in Canada and around the world since 1999, will use her newest study to fill gaps in existing knowledge, including learning more about the perspectives of residents of Halifax suburbs. She’ll talk to the denizens of the Halifax Regional Municipality’s Ridgevales, Clayton Parks or Portland Hills to find out what attracted them to their neighbourhoods.

So the next time you’re parking the minivan in the two-car garage, rolling out the barbecue or watering your already green lawn, give some thought to why you may have chosen to become a suburbanite. Those thoughts may just end up going a long way toward answering the big questions dogging city planners everywhere.

The ’burbs: A history

Suburbs, which are essentially small communities surrounding cities, grew throughout the mid-20th century as a result of improved road and rail-transportation systems and, particularly, an increased embrace of commuting. In the period immediately following the Second World War, population booms saw North Americans gravitate to “bedroom communities,” so named because people slept in the suburbs but did much of their "living" in urban centres. Suburbs tended to grow around cities with an abundance of flat land in the surrounding areas, extending as far as the countryside. Grant notes that one of the downsides of suburban communities is the rich, valuable farmland they consume — a resource increasingly in short supply.