ARTICLES

WHY LIVE IN THE SUBURBS?

JOHN GRAY September 1 1954
ARTICLES

WHY LIVE IN THE SUBURBS?

JOHN GRAY September 1 1954

WHY LIVE IN THE SUBURBS?

ARTICLES

JOHN GRAY

In the last seven years half a million Canadians have decided this is the life for them. Yet housing experts call their situation “a ghastly mess.” Here are the facts on the great migration that has changed the face of Canada from coast to coast ¿1

ON FRIDAY, April 2, 1954, Ronald Mondoux, a Toronto chemical engineer, his wife Dona and their two small children moved into a new house in North York, one of the burgeoning suburban municipalities that ring Toronto. Dona was pregnant. The house was unfinished.

But Ron’s biggest worry that day was that the moving van would be unable to negotiate the road, which spring rains had turned into a gluey quagmire. After a heroic effort the truck did get in, the furniture was unloaded, and finally towards midnight Ron and his wife staggered through the chaos to bed.

The next morning Dona turned on the tap in the bathroom. “There’s no water,” she complained in a small voice to Ron.

“It’s nothing,” Ron said. “They often turn off the water in North York.” This wasn’t the reason the Mondoux had no water however. During the night the temperature had dropped suddenly and frozen the still-uncovered pipe leading from the water main to the Mondoux house.

“We got some straw and laid it around the pipe and set it alight,” Ron explains, “and that fixed it.” The pipe froze again on Sunday morning but they were old hands by then and there wasn’t a hint of panic. On Monday workmen covered the pipe in.

Mud and chaos and frozen waterpipes ushered the Mondoux into some of the mysteries of suburban living, the great phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century. They now consider these natural hazards to be endured when they happen and laughed about later. More important, and more striking to the young couple, was the new atmosphere. “The night we moved in,” says Dona, “I was tired to the point of tears when our next-door neighbor came in with some sandwiches and coffee and a lieer for Ron. Nobody ever did that for us in the city.” To Mondoux, who was born and raised in Timmins in northern Ontario, that first meeting with his neighbors was almost as good as a trip home. “It was the friendliness,” he says. “I guess I’m just a small-town boy.”

The Mondoux’ experiences are familiar to the half-million families who have moved into the suburbs of Canadian cities in the last eight years in a migration unparalleled in our history. These half-million families are new pioneers on an old frontier—the home front. Their battles against traffic, mud, loneliness, blocked septic tanks and rising taxes are part of a changing pattern of Canadian living. By the year 2000, according to Eugene Faludi, a prominent town-planning

What’s Suburbia Really Like? Turn Page

T♠HE DREAM That Lures Them From the City

consultant, “half the population will live in houses built in a rural atmosphere so there is room to breathe and see the sun.”

The half-million families who have already moved into the rural atmosphere moved because they couldn’t afford old houses in central residential areas or because there was no room left in those areas. They moved because roads have been built into formerly inaccessible areas and because builders started after the war to carve townsites out of the cheap farmland around the cities. They moved because they wanted to escape from the crowded, dirty, noisy cities, high taxes and unreasonable building codes. In the suburbs they hoped to find fresh air, space, and a better life, particularly for their children.

Behind the trek to suburbia are two long-term trends and a machine. The trends are the increase in Canada’s population and the gradual shift in that population from the farms to the cities. The machine of course is the automobile.

Canada’s population has now passed the fifteenmillion mark and is still growing. The birth rate in 1953 was almost as high as in the peak year of 1947. More than a million immigrants have arrived since the war. Not only is the population getting larger, its character is changing. In 1891 sixty-eight, percent of the population lived and worked in rural Canada. By 1951 that ratio had

almost reversed and 62 percent were living and working in urban Canada. The rural farm population actually dropped ten percent, a total of 300,000 people, between 1941 and 1951. This loss was absorbed by the cities, which registered a population gain of 30 percent.

As the cities fill up the overflow goes to the suburbs. In Toronto, for example, the city proper added only 1.2 percent to its population in the ten years between 1941 and 1951 while its suburbs grew 86 percent. In Vancouver, where the rate of suburban growth was equally high (82 percent) the city proper grew 25 percent. One eastern city, Saint John, N.B., showed a decline of two percent in the decade but its suburbs grew 45 percent. Between 1941 and 1951 the population of our fourteen metropolitan areas -from Halifax to Victoria—rose 27 percent to more than five million people. That’s what the total population of Canada was fifty years ago.

The most startling thing about the new suburbia is its size. Mile upon mile it sprawls, subdivision after subdivision, and as long as the times are prosperous there is no sign it will stop. Metropolitan Toronto has an official area of about 240 square miles, but that is a legal quibble. Toronto is no longer a city, or even a metropolitan area, but an urban region stretching from Hamilton in the west to Oshawa in the east, varying in depth

along the lakefront from five to fifty miles—perhaps 800 square miles in extent.

Something the same is true of Montreal, which has long been a suburban city. Montreal’s growth has been along the lines of communication, the railroads and the roads. The once-sleepy townships of Ville La Salle, Lachine, Dorval and Ville St. Laurent are bustling communities today. Wherever a bridge leads off the island the suburbs ooze acros and spread out on the mainland. In Vancouve» the spread is threatening to destroy some of tin best agricultural land in the Lower Mainland area, the fertile part of southern B. C.

Besides being a sprawling giant, modern suburbia for many is an attempted compromise between the frenzy of a factory or counting house where they go to make a living and the peace of a permanent home where they prefer to l>e. As a suburbanite who lives on Bedford Basin, outside Halifax, puts it, “You wake up in the morning. There are trees all around you. You can look out on the water, not on your neighbor’s back fence; it’s quiet and the air is salty and pure. To hell with the city! It may have more conveniences, but not more advantages.”

It was a dream of such a world, pent up and postponed by fifteen years of depression and war, combined with a staggering housing need, that burst on Canada in 1945. The result has been the new suburbs.

What is this postwar suburbia? Nobody seem; to be quite sure. At best it is a bright, clean, airy rebuke to the grey, sordid, soot-laden, trafficclogged cities around which it has grown. At worst it is an essay in desperation. The best suburbs attract people in the highest income brackets and those with the best educations, and drain both taxpayers and civic leaders from parent municipalities.

The Barbecue is Everyone’s Dish

Where subdividers and builders have been interested in something more than a fast buck, suburbia is vital and alive, as it is in Don Mills, near Toronto. Here planning has resulted in streets which keep the traffic away from homes and children’s play areas. Green spaces provide some rest from asphalt and cement, lots are large, and homes are efficiently designed for young families who have never known the luxury of servants. Where the fast buck was predominant the result is monotonous rows of masonry or frame boxes topped with the inevitable forest of TV aerials, or even a blatant slum like Ville Jacques Cartier near Montreal.

The most noticeable single impression from these new suburbs, good and bad, is that people are living differently, more casually than their cousins in the cities. Retailers have noticed, for example, an increase in the sale of sports shirts, blue jeans and similar apparel. Dona Mondoux, who wouldn’t have been seen dead in blue jeans before she moved out to North York, now wears them most of the time.

Suburbanites have rediscovered the outdoors, and make use of it. The barbecue pit has become a suburban symbol. Lawns are larger and gardens are bigger. In many cases subdivisions have risen where the soil was unsuitable for lawns, or where the topsoil was removed or buried in bulldozing operations. Soil experts have developed a compound for breaking clay down into loam, mainly for suburbanites wanting lush lawns. The demand for topsoil is so great around Toronto that whole farms have been purchased and stripped of their topsoil, leaving them, as Markham Township’s deputy reeve W. A. Clark bitterly expressed it, “little more than a desert.”

Ron Mondoux thinks he will cover the clay in his backyard with sod, which will cost him twentythree cents a square yard or about one hundred

Next page: The Good and the Bad I

THE REALITY They Soon Must Face

SUBURBS: continued

dollars. He is also thinking of buying a power lawn mower, or perhaps chipping in and sharing one with his neighbors. The sale of power mowers has mushroomed in the last few years. SimpsonsSears had one listed in its mail-order catalogue three years ago—today it has eight, ranging in price from $79.50 to $189.00. The sale of ornamental trees and shrubs is worth, wholesale, three times what it was ten years ago.

Suburbia has been concerned first with outdoor living space but it has not neglected the indoors. Home buyers are being more selective and are demanding better use of their space. The Mondoux made a long list of requirements for a house, and found them more often in new suburban homes. They wanted a bungalow, so there would be no stairs to climb. Dona wanted a large kitchen with an eating area in it. They insisted on a large lot. Ron wanted a basement so he could have a workshop and so there would be room for Dona’s washing machine and drier. Dona at first wanted a picture window but it later became unimportant. “There’s not much point in having a picture window unless you have a picture to look at,” she says. Their house has a picture window, but no picture.

The changing patterns of living are not confined

to people like the Mondoux. They are also having a profound effect on municipalities and rural townships which have gone suburban, for while the new suburbanites seek the wide-open spaces of the country they don’t want to give up any of their city comforts—the paved roads, sewers, piped water, garbage services, modern schools and such that municipal government is called on to provide. These demands have come so quickly they have often caught the new areas unawares. Many have seen their taxes and problems multiply unbelievably.

To provide such services the suburban councils are forced to levy high taxes which residents often can’t afford to pay; even then the services are no match for those in the cities. In the fringe areas outside Alberta cities many residents foresee “a hopeless, expensive future and would be glad to leave except for economic and housing reasons,” according to a recent report by the Alberta division of the Community Planning Association of Canada. In Toronto Township, near Toronto, money collected for schools has risen 900 percent in seven years.

Rural areas have watched the spread of the suburbs with alarm, and some, like Chinguacousy Township, which is within commuting distance of both Hamilton and Toronto, have boldly plotted to remain rural. In Chinguacousy minimum landholdings must be ten acres, which tends to slow down subdividing.

Chinguacousy has realized that legal barriers are required to discourage the subdividers today where a few years ago distance would have been enough. The automobile changed that. It has become so important in suburban life that it can no longer be considered a luxury. The Mondoux, for example, are slightly more than a mile from public transportation and feel that with three small children they cannot be without a car.

; Motor car registrations have doubled since 1945, when suburban building has been highest. Gasoline consumption has risen forty percent. To Faludi, the town planner, the car is wielding a profound social influence. “We have become attached to our cars,” he says, “as the nobility of Europe or the frontiersmen of the west were to their horses. A car today is part of a man’s body. It gives him freedom to move anywhere at anytime. The motor car, by overcoming physical obstacles, is primarily responsible for the exodus from the cities.”

Distance today is not measured in miles but in time. Suburban commuters soon discovered that once they had negotiated the rush-hour tangle a few minutes drive would put them deep in the country. The Metropolitan Planning Board of Toronto thinks people will travel any distance as long as it doesn’t take them more than an hour. Three Calgary suburbs, Midnapore, Bowness and Forest Lawn, are approximately the same driving time, 20 minutes, from downtown, though Midna-

A Suburb That Went Sour

Ville Jacques Cartier, Que., where chaos took command

Near Montreal thousands flocked to buy cheap land by Installments.

With no planning, tin and tar-paper shacks mushroomed in a community which had no sewers or water.

pore is ten miles away, Bowness seven miles away, and Forest Lawn only four miles. Midnapore is on a main 60-mile-an-hour highway, and four of the ten miles are four lanes; Bowness is on a good highway but the route is all twenty and thirty mile zones; while Forest Lawn is on a road blocked by chuckholes, truck traffic and a narrow bridge.

Ron Mondoux increased his traveling time to work from ten to fifty minutes when he moved to North York. A growing awareness of this time spent traveling has suggested to some planners and industries that decentralization is the answer. Some industries have already built in the suburbs, partly because land in or adjacent to the large cities is already gone. But others are investigating smaller cities and towns, where employees will be able to live within a few minutes of their work.

So important has the car become to the suburbs that those who can find the money often buy a second car. Ron Mondoux has already made up his mind to buy one. “It will be an English car and it can’t cost more than $300; but we have to have it,” he says. “I just can’t leave Dona here all the time without some way to get in and out.”

The automobile takes commuters home to every kind of suburb, from the hundred-thousanddollar estate subdivision to the shacktown. For the most part home is lost in the dull monotonous lines of strawberry boxes and ranch-style bunga-

lows typical of the building of the postwar period. Generally speaking, in the opinion of Humphrey Carver, chairman of the research committee of Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal government’s housing authority, the suburbs are “a ghastly mess.”

There are exceptions, of course, like Don Mills, Ont. Don Mills is a small city (it will eventually have 30,000 population) being built on the northeast fringe of Toronto by a company backed by industrialist E. P. Taylor. It takes up 3,300 acres along the Don River and perhaps illustrates what suburbs of tomorrow will look like.

To start with it has four elementary schools to serve four main sections created by bisecting main roads. Later it will get a high school, 80-acre shopping centre, sewage disposal plants, parks and a lake built by damming the Don.

The planners have tried to think of everything the town will need, and some of their thinking points up the problems of the new suburbia. The first concern was to get enough indust ry to support the residential area. Many suburbs are loaded with charges for services which predominantly residential building cannot support. Ten factories have already been built in Don Mills and seven or eight more will be added in the next few years. The factories are designed so they do not belch smoke or fumes or make a lot of noise.

In an effort to avoid the monotonous look of

the modern suburb the company has kept fairly strict control of house and factory design. To date it has approved fifty-three different house plans. These are for every income level and family size. Currently homes costing from $11,000 to $17,000 are being built, and some apartments have been erected.

Don Mills is at one end of the scale. Across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal is an example of the other a shacktown. Here, Ville Jacques Cartier mushroomed during and after the war into a community of 30,000. Many of these people live, or lived, in tarpaper and tin shacks built on postage-stamp lots bought on the installment plan. There was originally no water or sewers. At one time outdoor toilets drained into ditches along the roads, water was hawked from carts in the streets as it used to be in medieval times, and fires often claimed homes and sometimes lives. Jacques Cartier, like Toronto’s Lakeview or Winnipeg’s “Rooster Town,” grew because people needed a place to live and the land was cheap.

Between Don Mills and Jacques Cartier lie the great mass of suburban developments that, have gone up since the war. As land near the cities has filled up builders have gone farther and fart her into the country, leaping over farms and going out of range of water and sewage services. These isolated subdivisions go in with septic tanks instead of sewers and with wells Continued on page 50

A Suburb That’s Making Good

Don Mills, Ont., where strict planning paid off

Near Toronto 53 types of new homes are going up on planned streets.

There will also be parks and green areas, apartments, 80 acres of shopping space and a man-made lake.

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 11

instead of piped water. But septic tanks break down, and many Canadian suburbs are suffering from an inadequate or unsafe water supply.

In Markham Township, northeast of Toronto, wells serving more than a thousand people were recently condemned, and users warned that their water supply could produce jaundice, polio, typhoid and types of dysentery. Markham asked Metropolitan Toronto for water. Health authorities suggested that further subdividing be stopped. As Markham’s reeve pointed out, when wells are established on fifty-foot lots that also have septic tanks trouble is bound to develop.

Suburbia naturally keeps asking local governments for services. But the services cost money. In 1951 Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimated that it would cost about $740 to service a $10,000 house on a fifty-foot lot. This included sidewalk, street paving, sewers and water mains. It wouldn’t include the capital cost of water and sewage disposal plants, maintenance, or other services such as garbage collection and snow removal.

The Boom Moves Fast

Many suburbs, lacking the industrial assessment to support their acres of residential building, have gone deeply in the red. Oakville, Ont., had to get the provincial government to bail it out of a half-million-dollar hole last spring. More and more municipalities, aware that they cannot support themselves on property taxes alone, are going to their provinces for financial aid.

At the end of the war the suburbs were a bright white hope for Canadians who for years had been unable to build. But there were traps for the unwary. “There’s a joker in every seventy-foot lot,” a Toronto suburbanite said gloomily. “The lot looks good but I didn’t realize every square inch would be on display. Why, I can’t even burn stick on my back lawn.” Another suburbanite whose house was painted freight-car red went away for a week end and returned to find that neighbors had got together and repainted the house as a “friendly” gesture. They repainted it grey with a pastel green trim. He didn’t bother to protest.

Many who leave the city for the privacy of the countryside have been enveloped later by the building boom and restored finally to the city. This happened to Dr. G. B. Langford, professor at the University of Toronto who moved to the suburbs and then back to the city. “It was partly traffic the tie-ups got longer and worse,’’

he says. “But the main thing was that the city we had left grew right out j around us. I asked myself, ‘If you’re in the city anyway why not be where i it’s more convenient?’ So we moved.”