Repost: Rethinking Housing and Urban Planning in the Suburbs

Dave Hardy, R.P.P.

Annotated Remarks to the Scarborough Caucus Federal Liberals from May 28th, 2017

There are global changes affecting Canadians cities that suggest we need to rethink and improve how we make decisions about housing and urban planning, particularly related to the suburbs.  

Three specific global changes are important. 

First, we are seeing the flattening of cities. Suburban areas becoming more urban and urban areas becoming more suburban. It’s a result of population growth and increased housing prices affecting both core and suburban areas. This creates a disruption of traditional suburban and urban function.  The changes are not only happening in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area but also in London, Rome, Berlin, Sydney and Los Angeles. 
Flattening has two characteristics.  The first involves the pushing of housing demand to the suburbs from the core.  Core area housing unaffordability leads to demand for suburban and rural housing.  The demand for suburban housing also brings with it the demand by new residents for urban services in suburban areas. Where are the arts and cultural venues? Where’s my barista? 

The second characteristic is an inward demand for suburban services. Young millennial core dwellers whose first housing purchase was a core area condo are now having children. And they are not happy having their children growing up on condo balconies.  They realize they need traditional suburban services: Home Depots, big box stores and the same decent parks, schools and play-spaces that suburban residents have.  

The second change is growing pressure to find a better balance in how Municipal governments prioritize core vs. suburban investment, and how the imbalance is being played out for residents who judge whether the investment priorities are fair.

It is important to understand that suburban residents in North America and most of Europe and Australia represent the majority of the population.  Scarborough alone has a larger population than Halifax, the provinces of Price Edward Island and Newfoundland, and the combination of Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo.

Guardian writer Rowan Moore states:

As inner cities have undergone a renaissance, suburbs have been left behind. Suburbs have been missed as a focus of policy and policy implementation.
— Rowan Moore, The Guardian

So, Toronto planners and political leaders need to do a better job in getting the investment balance right.  The goal should be investment that builds complete cities including both core and suburban areas. 

The third change is the strengthened voice of people living in the suburbs. It is not a coincidence that we are seeing these changes manifest globally through Brexit, Trump, Ford and Le Penn. Suburban residents, the majority, are asserting rights. 

In part, suburban and rural residents are increasingly concerned that the investment occurring for wealthy urban core residents is occurring at their expense.  

For example, we saw Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie challenge Mayor Tory over the matter of road tolls.  In a Toronto Star op-ed, she stated:

To toll or not to toll is not even a question we can ask in Mississauga, and that is the crux of the problem.  In this sense, it is the 905 versus the 416.  The municipalities of the 905 together represent over 3.5 million people, yet we’re not afforded the same powers as Toronto.  

Premier Wynne did not “cave” to the 905 as it has been characterized, but listened to a significant population – a growing population I may add – of residents who have been forgotten for far too long.
— Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie

As a result, the core vs suburban vs rural divide has become a social justice issue creating an ideological divide. In my opinion, creating a complete city requires rethinking how we plan and invest in our cities and regions. 

How do we respond to these changes and deliver a complete city?  
Creating a complete city involves challenging the prevailing anti-suburban ideology of core area influential opinion leaders and policy makers.   The prevailing ideology amongst some policy makers is that suburban land-form and housing is somehow immoral – nothing of merit happens there, the suburbs consume land, and the suburbs are characterized by polluting car culture. 

Chicago architect and author Judith De Jong says,

We need to think past standard narratives, oversimplifications, and stereotypes of suburbia and the suburban metropolis, and to think, analyze, and understand the nuance and complexity that exists in the suburban landscape and in suburban life.
— Judith De Jong, Chicago Architect

Pointing to the obvious, author and California professor Joel Kotkin states:

‘People move to the suburbs for good schools, parks, safety and more privacy and joy of talking to their neighbours.  People love living in the suburbs.  People don’t live in the suburbs because they like to drive cars.’
— Joel Kotkin, California Professor

Suburbs are rich in ideas and, in Scarborough, we have a wonderful multi-cultural diaspora.  Across the GTHA Regional planners have done an excellent job creating suburban communities that deliver quality of life for residents.

The second aspect of this anti-suburban ideology is that subdivisions are somehow environmentally unsustainable.  I’m not advocating sprawl, but from an environmental sustainability perspective, recent research and practice indicates that suburban land forms may be at least as sustainable as urban land forms.  New subdivisions in Halton, Peel, York and Durham Regions are planned to be environmentally sustainability. Oak Ridges Moraine protection and Places to Grow legislation and practice is well enshrined. 
Vehicle miles travelled is roughly the same for core vs. suburbs, and the growing use of hybrid and electric cars means that emissions generated from commuting are less of a source of climate change. Indeed, there is evidence that denser urban housing may be a greater generator of green-house gas than suburban housing.  Joel Kotkin goes as far as stating ‘it’s time to dump the argument that density and height are green and sustainable.’ 

Creating a complete city also involves looking carefully at planning practice and education.  

We need to adjust how planning practice guides housing and infrastructure decisions in cities.  The type of urban planning that has done so well in making Toronto’s core urban area one of the best in the world is not the type of planning that also makes the suburbs, regions and rural areas the best in the world. For example, walking to work urban policies might be fine for Liberty Village residents but they don’t work for Malvern and 905 residents. 

Too often, our planning schools teach that suburbs are broken land forms that need to be fixed or retrofitted.  A recent published paper criticized suburban communities because they can’t be easily intensified.  While greater housing density to support transit and the protection of environmentally sensitive lands is appropriate, planning schools haven’t got the message that suburbanites do not want the core of their communities radically transformed by visionary planners and architects.  Course curriculum needs to change to accept that comprehensive planning and building strong regions involve looking at core, suburban and rural areas together.  The suburbs need to be seen as central to both core and rural prosperity. 

The third change involves standing back and asking what kind of cities we are creating – with a bias toward creating a human city.  To do so, we have to accept that while some densification has merit particularly in support of transit and protecting environmental areas, densification for its own sake also has human costs for families.  In contrast, we need to accept that suburban living brings quality of life. 

In his book, ‘The Human City’, Joel Kotkin asks:

Who are we building the city for?  Do we want to build housing for childless single professionals, the creative and the urban wealthy?  Or, are we building for families, children and the growth of the next generation?  He states that cities need both a cosmopolitan economy and places for families and neighbourhoods.
— Joel Kotkin, California Professor

If we are going to build a truly great city for all residents, we are going to have to reset our basic city planning assumptions.