The New Burbs
After 50 years, Canadians are rethinking the suburban dream
The city is Oakville, a sprawling community beyond the western outskirts of Toronto, but it could just as well be any other suburb in any metropolitan area in Canada. Along the crescents and courts named after maples, oaks and birches (not to mention entire Sherwood Forests), the vistas are all similar. Wide, curving streets meander through Maginot Lines of twoor three-car garages that partially obscure the grey, split-level homes behind. On a beautiful July morning in suburban Oakville, no one is on the street. “The paving is so extensive, the roads are so wide, there’s no sense of street life,” says Toronto architect and urban designer Peter Gabor, pointing through the car window to a swath of subdivision. The cul-de-sacs, the interchangeable street names, conspire to make driving a disorienting experience; Gabor consults his map. “I go into projects like this and I’m lost—was it left-right-left or right-left-left? I’m surprised they don’t find corpses of people who wander in and can’t find their way out,” he laughs. “Nothing leads anywhere.”
Among critics of suburbia, it’s a common refrain: the sense of placelessness. But the suburban dream has always valued space above place. Space for the kids to play, space for the lawn to grow, space to drive the family car. And it has been that way for a long time. As the country’s population began to soar 50 years ago—with the dawn of the Canadian baby boom—the dream grew, too, taking up more and more room. It was fuelled by optimism, by a burgeoning economy that had been pent up through two decades of depression and war— and by the growing availability of the automobile. It was driven, too, by the dawn of the TV age and its ubiquitous American sitcoms, which were invariably set in generic suburbs where Beaver Cleaver skipped home from school and Ricky Nelson strummed his guitar in a high-school rock ’n’ roll band.
The real burbs were booming, as well. In 1921, most Canadians were rural. Today, almost 80 per cent live in urban areas and, of them, well over half are in the suburbs. That suburbanization has transformed not only the political landscape—moving electoral power from rural areas to the suburbs—but also the physical landscape. Around every Canadian city, the suburbs have replaced wilderness and farmland, inexorably staking their claim on a new frontier. Forget covered wagons: the movers of the modern settlement of Canada have been station wagons and minivans.
The suburban wave has, to a large extent, defined Canadian growth since the Second World War. The suburbs have been—and are—the places where most Canadians buy their first house, where they raise kids and put down roots. But at what cost? Increasingly, urban planners, architects, municipal officials and developers are questioning whether the old suburban dream is sustainable—economically, ecologically and socially. More development farther and farther from city centres and other employment areas has made public transit less feasible, increasing automobile use—as well as pollution and traffic congestion. The quality of suburban life, critics say, is deteriorating, and it will only get worse. “The suburbs have become a monoculture, totally dependent on the automobile,” claims Vancouver urban planner Paul Rosenau. “They are this unidimensional place full of houses on curving streets and cul-de-sacs. And nothing else.”
Enter the New Urbanists, a loose-knit band of architects and planners like Rosenau and Gabor. Led by American urban designers Andres Duany and Elizabeth PlaterZyberk—whose retro-looking “villages” of Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands, Md., have made them darlings of the U.S. media—the movement wants to bring a sense of place to suburbia. But despite the name, there is little new in the New Urbanists’ approach. In essence, they look to timehonored elements of older neighborhoods—the dense streets of Toronto’s Annex, the back lanes of Calgary, the park squares of American cities like Savannah, Ga.
New Urbanists contend that some of the old ways of doing things can make suburbs better places to live. No street life? Move homes closer to the road, say the New Urbanists, and put porches out front to encourage community interaction. Increase housing densities by putting units closer together, making more efficient use of services and
precious land, and making public transit viable. Mix housing types— put condos and townhomes and detached houses close together, creating a concoction of age and income groups. And quit building shopping malls and workplaces miles away from homes. Bring back Main Street, a place where people can live and work and shop, or just park the car and go for a stroll. Garages consume too much frontage? Put them behind the house, on a laneway. Too many car trips? Lay down a grid road system that uses space more efficiently than the meandering curves of typical subdivisions.
Disperse and slow down traffic, allowing pedestrians a short, safe walk—and give them a reason to take one: the corner store.
Back in Oakville, at least three New Urbanist-influenced communities have sprung up recently, and the differences from typical subdivisions are clear. Ignore the clouds of dust and fresh red brick, and the Village of Morrison—a winding string of mostly row houses set around a central green, a communal mailbox and a convenience store—could nearly double for some sections of downtown Toronto. Pass over the saplings and patchwork sod on the yards, and Morrison Creek Crescent—a circle of stately Georgian-style homes, with garages tucked away in the back—is reminiscent of older neighborhoods in Montreal. “When this matures, it could be like Mount Royal,” says Gabor. “That kind of community can grow here.”
The fact is, a lot of people like the suburbs just the way they are.
Sheelagh O’Donnell, a 55-yearold medical secretary, says that life in the Vancouver-area suburb of White Rock “is like a summer getaway, only it’s all year round.” She and her husband, John, 62, moved there five years ago from Vancouver in part to regain a sense of community they thought was disappearing in the city. “All the people on the bus are very friendly,” says Sheelagh, whose commute to Vancouver takes an hour and a quarter. “And I never heard a horn honk once in the first year I lived here.”
Hosts of other Canadians live in the suburbs out of necessity. Three years ago, Leslie Fitzsimmons, now 33, and her husband, Scott, 37, wanted to buy a first home, but Kitsilano, the trendy urban Vancouver neighborhood where she had lived since 1980, was too expensive. Instead, the couple bought a small house in suburban North Vancouver—and have ended up loving it. “I had
The suburbs have become a monoculture’
forgotten what it was like to talk to the people who live around you,” says Leslie, who is six months pregnant. “I love that my baby will have people looking out for him or her.”
Peace, quiet, safety and affordability: those are the promises that suburbia has always held out to the home-buying masses. And yet antisuburban sentiment, especially among city dwellers, runs deep. Nostalgia-inducing though they may be, the likes of Leave It to Beaver and The Brady Bunch presented the suburbs as a white, middle-class land of Milquetoast and saccharin, while current incarnations—like the dysfunctional Simpsons—have scathingly ridiculed suburban life and its foibles.
The truth is that Canadian suburbs defy the stereotypes. They are anything but racially uniform—witness the burgeoning of Chinese store signs in just about any suburb of Toronto or Vancouver. They are not all middle-class, either: in Surrey, B.C., for one, soaring real estate prices in downtown Vancouver have led to an influx of low-income families.
And suburbs are no longer simply bedroom communities. They have their own theatres, restaurants and economies, often taking in as many commuters as they export.
The misconceptions about the suburbs only obscure real—and deep-seated—problems that provide much of the impetus behind New Urbanism. One is population growth. From 1991 to 1996, metropolitan areas across Canada witnessed a boom on the so-called urban fringes. Kanata, outside Ottawa, grew by 10,600 people, a 28-per-cent increase. Similar growth rates occurred around Toronto and Vancouver, and Foothills, outside Calgary, grew by 26 per cent. And the suburbs will continue to expand to meet an increasing demand for housing. In Calgary, city planners estimate that the metro area will soar by 500,000 people by 2024— and that fully 98 per cent of that growth will occur in new suburbs.
Historically, Canadian cities have done a better job of accommodating growth than their U.S. counterparts, many of which have sprawled across the countryside while city cores have fallen into decay. But the troubles of the Canadian suburbs may prove just as intractable. Relatively large lots and extensive roadways have meant more asphalt, more snowplowing, more sewer pipes and more miles of wiring, adding to infrastructure and servicing costs. Fewer suburbanites are commuting to the city core, but they are still commuting—often to office parks or big-box stores in other suburbs. With rising land prices in the past few years, lot and house sizes in the suburbs have been shrinking—but thanks in part to environmental laws, the average number of homes per acre has continued to fall in most new suburbs. The result is that, compared with city centres or even the suburbs of the 1970s, recent suburbs generally have fewer people per acre, more miles of road per person, proportionately more vehicles and a lower use of public transit.
The New Urbanists think they have a better idea. And they blame many of the real and potential problems of suburban growth on the way developers have built subdivisions. “People don’t walk to do the typical things they should,” says Nickolas Poulos, a transportation planner and principal of Entra Consultants Inc. in Markham, Ont. ‘Why? Because we’ve laid out the subdivision for the car. We haven’t laid it out for people to walk or take the bus or Rollerblade.” But the New Urbanists’ challenge is daunting. In try-
ing to change the fabric of suburbia, they are taking on decades of business as usual.
The template for almost all postwar suburban development was set a half-century ago, when beer magnate E. P. Taylor began buying up semirural land north of Toronto, in the Don Valley. Ten years later, construction ended on what was then the largest suburban development in Canadian history: Don Mills. Despite concerns that, at 17 km, the subdivision was too far from downtown Toronto, it was wildly successful with home buyers. Forty years later, it is hard at first to see why former Toronto mayor and urban critic John Sewell calls Don Mills “the most influential develop« ment in Canada in the 20th 2 century.” Highrises and even more sprawling subdivisions g dwarf its modest ranch-style g houses and block apartments. 1 But the underlying—and fa§ miliar—pattern is there: K curved streets, similar architectural styles, plenty of green space and a rigid separation of residential, commercial and industrial zones—hallmarks of suburban development ever since.
There is a town square with a corner store and a post office, and a bandshell straight out of turn-of-the-century small towns. The homes—a mix of European-style townhouses and detached single-family units—look stately, permanent, even antique. The irony is that McKenzie Towne (note the gentrified air) is anything but old. Designed by Duany and Plater-Zyberk, the Calgaryarea subdivision has been open only a year and half. But already, it has taken on what its residents describe as a real sense of community. One reason is that no house is more than a five-minute walk away from the central square—a design feature that will be maintained as the development grows from one to 12 distinct neighborhoods, eventually housing 30,000 people. “You walk to the store to pick up the mail and meet people along the way, and often end up going for coffee,” says Donna Wallace, 46, who moved from Edmonton 11 months ago with her husband, Terry. “It’s almost impossible to take a brisk walk at night because you are always stopping to chat with people.”
For years now, New Urbanism has garnered more media attention than it probably deserved, at least based on the number of communities actually built according to its principles. But throughout North America, it has become both a recognizable movement in home building and a significant marketing trend. Even Disney, the purveyors of the American dream par excellence, have got into the act with Celebration, a planned community outside Orlando, Fla.
In Canada, too, the many promises of New Urbanism are becoming more than castles in the air. There are now at least 14 TNDs (traditional neighborhood developments) in the works across the country, including eight under construction near Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. The number of projects (more per capita, the movement’s Canadian contingent likes to point out, than in the United States) was one reason that the fifth Congress for New Urbanism was held this spring in Toronto, attracting 360 architects, planners and developers from around the world.
But if the New Urbanist approach sounds idyllic, a host of complications and trade-offs are involved in its implementation. Increasing public space by removing garages to the rear of the lot reduces the size of backyards. Narrow laneways behind the houses can be difficult to navigate—and even harder to plow. Intensifying densities translate into houses that go up rather than out, meaning more stairs that could put off older home buyers. New Urbanist designs also usually require a rethinking of the zoning bylaws, utility regulations and building codes that have been in place for decades. And attracting retail stores to occupy the main streets and commercial centres has proved difficult—leaving few places to walk to.
Despite those glitches, several Canadian municipalities have readily embraced the new planning principles. In the suburban Toronto town of Markham, ground broke earlier this month on the granddaddy of Canadian traditionalist projects, a 2,400-acre, 10,000home community called Cornell. The development, which has sold more than 200 units in the past three months, was the result of unprecedented co-operation—and negotiation—among planners, developers, utility companies and the town. Now, with Cornell under way, Markham has given over its entire 5,000-acre expansion zone to New Urbanist developments. It is, perhaps, a radical experiment. But Jim Baird, director of planning for Markham and a convert to New Urbanism, disagrees. “I wouldn’t say it’s an experiment,” he says. “I’d say it’s a grand vision.”
For the relatively few Canadians who already live in New Urbanist communities, that vision is becoming a reality. And the demand certainly seems to be high. In Murray’s Corner, a three-year-old, 17-acre development in Langley, B.C., designed by Rosenau’s Ekistics Town Planning Inc., only 10 of the 79 lots remain undeveloped, even though the houses, valued between $325,000 and $500,000, are not cheap by suburban Langley’s standards. Homemaker Barb Orlowski, 50, and her husband, Jim, 51, a telecommuni-
New Urbanism is taking on business as usual—and a host of skeptics
cations worker, moved to Murray’s Corner with their two children last November. The home—a yellow, two-storey frame affair with front and back porches, and an above-garage loft rented out to a younger couple—embodies a style that Barb Orlowski calls “heritage-y.” The neighbors, she says, “are really good, and we know them all the way up the street.” Still, the tight-knit—and tightly packed—community has its drawbacks. “The idea is good,” says Orlowski. “The problem is, when you are this close together, you’re going to get other people’s noise and they are going to get yours.”
There are a host of skeptics who question whether the New Urbanists are really remaking suburban life or, in the words of one developer, simply building “cuter sprawl.” Ray Simpson, a planner and urban economist with 30 years’ experience in the Toronto area, scoffs at the notion that New Urbanism is a solution to the problems that face the suburbs. “Generally, it’s just ending up being more expensive housing for upper-middle-income,” he says. “I love the design, but let’s stop all this other crap, eh?” Simpson doubts that many home buyers will give up big backyards for a better street life. ‘We haven’t been able to make much of a dent in people’s lifestyle choices,” he says. ‘We haven’t been able to convince them that not having direct access to private outdoor space is something that they don’t want.” As for maintaining the suburban ideal of boundless space, he adds: “The evidence just shows that people will drive unreasonable distances to keep the dream alive.” Gabor, who chaired the New Urbanist conference in Toronto, is familiar with the criticisms. But he dismisses the idea that the movement is an exercise in social engineering—a kind of better living by design. “That’s not the intent,” says Gabor. “But if you don’t provide an opportunity for communal living, then you’re never going to have that We’re not saying it will necessarily happen, but we’re giving it the opportunity.” At least, Gabor adds, New Urbanism gives home buyers a choice they have not had for years. And the important thing now is to get the projects built “When they can see an example of what can be done, people start believing,” he says. “You do it in baby steps.”
Montgomery Village was one of the earliest Canadian experiments in New Urbanism. Its 180 homes are tucked into a field near the quaint central Ontario town of Orangeville, an outcropping of redbrick and grass amid a splotch of mud and farm greenery. The subdivision, which opened in 1994, has begun to shed some of the veneer of newness. As in many other New Urbanist communities, the homes are set close together, and their three-storey facades tower above the narrow street—free from garages. On a recent Saturday afternoon on Cottonwood Drive, kids Rollerblade in the street while adults wash their cars. It has a pleasant air, but seems a hybrid—not exactly suburban, but hardly urban either.
Before they moved from the Toronto satellite of Brampton into their three-bedroom, $185,000 house in Montgomery Village two years ago, Peter and Carolyn Howard did the usual shopping around through suburban subdivisions. ‘We had looked at a number of back-splits, side-splits, quadruple-splits—whatever they call
them,” recalls Peter, 32, a public affairs consultant who works in downtown Toronto. “I call them garages with living quarters in the back.” They decided on Montgomery Village for their first home both because it was close to the school where Carolyn, 31, teaches French immersion—and because they were attracted by New Urbanism. “The test was,” he says, “would it work?”
For the Howards, the answer is yes—by and large. They positively gush about their house. And both say they feel a part of a real neighborhood. “It brings the communal part back into community,” says Peter. They know most of the neighbors on the street, and even their two black labradors, Beaker and Barkley, have a buddy down the way, another black lab named Norm. The Howards are expecting their first child, and both say that Orangeville would be great place to raise a kid.
There are a few problems. One is the back lane by their garage, which isn’t plowed very well in the winter. And then there is the lack of stores in the Village—the original plans call for a main street with shops and eateries, but the developer has not yet been able to attract businesses. And then, for Peter at least, there is the commute—an hour and 15 minutes each way, meaning that he has to get up at 5 a.m. “You can do a lot with a development,” he says, “but you can’t move Toronto closer to it.” Howard hopes to be able to work from his home, which has built-in Internet access. But if that hope does not materialize, they may end up moving closer to the city. “That’s an active debate,” says Peter, glancing at his wife.
Who ever said life on the frontier—even a New Urbanist one—was easy?