The New Suburbia
JOHN STACKHOUSE finds a land of contradictions -- people
wanting city and country, voters wanting liberalism and
conservatism -- and explodes a few myths along the way
Saturday, October 28, 2000
By JOHN STACKHOUSE
What made David Suzuki, Canada's eco-guru, believe he could wade into the materialistic marshes of suburbia and win over the bourgeois crowd was not immediately clear.
But on a calm autumn day, just before the nation was to be plunged into a federal election campaign, there he was, on stage at the annual fair in Markham, north of Toronto, to implore the richest generation of middle-class homeowners Canada has ever known to consider . . . smaller houses.
In a suburban city where 2,000 square feet is billed as a cute starter home, the audience listened politely to the merchant of modesty and nodded as he spoke of downsizing their aspirations. Then they bolted to the display booths to survey the latest in interior palm gardens, back-yard irrigation systems and a $6,500 bathroom retrofit package that includes an oversized steam bath.
Such is the contradictory nature of suburban Canada today that homeowners who talk conservation also want to trade sprinklers for irrigation systems. And such is the contradictory nature of suburban politics that those who want better schools also want lower taxes.
Over the next four weeks, the suburban paradox will beguile politicians on both the left and right, perplex the national media and help determine Canada's fate, because the first election of the 21st century will be a knock-down fight for the suburbs, where a third of Canada's voters now live.
The suburbs have long been a political mystery, in part because Canada has yet to produce a truly suburban leader on the national stage. They are often stereotyped by the press as a cultural wasteland and assumed by the major parties to be bedroom bastions of parochialism.
Nothing could be more wrong. Many of today's suburbs are ethnically diverse, culturally ambitious, economically independent from the big city next door and politically angry. They have plenty of welfare cases (only more dispersed than downtown), crime (the latest example being the abduction and killing of 10-year-old Heather Thomas in Surrey, B.C.) and a growing number of single-parent families (divorced parents often have to settle for cheaper houses).
But if today's suburbs are a political enigma, they may not choose to be ignored for much longer.
According to custom builder Otto van Oosten, who has lived in the Markham area for 12 years, the suburbs' inherent contradictions -- of people seeking city and country, of voters wanting liberalism and conservatism, of homeowners asking for size and manageability -- stem from the most important trait of suburban living. "People here don't want to feel like they're regressing," he says.
The allure of suburbia is seldom what it seems, not like a quaint house in Toronto's tony Beaches or a fashionable walk-up in Ottawa's Glebe.
For Patrick Walsh and Jacqueline Kovacs, a couple of magazine editors who once worked for an aid organization in Africa and were proud of their Toronto address, the rolling hills of subdivisions north of the city held no allure.
Then, last month, they and their two young children were blown out of central Toronto like leaves in an autumn wind, landing in a subdivision in Aurora, a town of 41,000.
"If someone had told us when we were camping in the Ngoro-Ngoro crater [in western Tanzania] that we would be living here, I would have laughed," Ms. Kovacs says. "Now, it makes sense."
Their reasoning came down to money. For millions of Canadians, the suburbs are what developers call a "price point," not the biggest decision of a married couple's life but rather something more akin to picking ABC over Tide, or tax cuts over debt reduction.
Before landing in the suburbs, the young family shared one bathroom, on the main floor, and had little room for anything other than eating, sleeping and watching television.
For $20,000 more, their Aurora house has three bathrooms, including a master ensuite, and a home office for Ms. Kovacs.
Getting to their new home is another issue. It is an hour's drive from central Toronto, up Highway 404, the main artery of the region's northern suburbs, an eight-lane expressway that blows by high-tech parks, Lego-like subdivisions, rich farmland and dwindling forests, noble as they are in their fall colours.
Off the 404 and into Aurora, housing developments continue, like a snow melt in search of a stream, the water flowing to fill every available crack and crevice.
The Walsh-Kovacs crevice is named Wellington Lanes, an ironic name given that the entranceway is a four-lane divided road that is wider than Yonge Street in downtown Toronto.
To one side are two signs that embody the spirit of today's suburbs. "Buy this house. No money down," trumpets a billboard, giving shoppers the impression they can have a 2,500-square-foot home -- about double the size of their parents' postwar home -- for, well, nothing. The other sign offers a promise no less extraordinary: "A community with it all."
This belief in old-fashioned values, except for the value of having to pay for something, cuts to the core of suburban development and to today's political climate. Suburban voters want to believe that they can pay lower taxes and have better schools, just as they want more police on the road while they drive 140 kilometres an hour on the 404.
THE NEW URBANISM
Of all the vanities in suburban thinking, however, none is more striking than the belief in New Urbanism, the design philosophy that poured north from the United States in the 1990s and has touched, in one way or another, every new subdivision in Canada. It promises nothing less than urban interaction in suburban seclusion.
At Wellington Lanes, the promise of New Urbanism can be seen right at the gateway, in the local shopping plaza. Unlike old suburban strip malls, stores are built in pods situated around the parking lot, giving the sense of a rural market and allowing pedestrians -- yes, pedestrians -- to amble into shops without having to schlep across an acre of concrete.
At major intersections, roundabouts are installed to slow traffic and perhaps give a taste of English village life. Along each side there are faux gas lamps, perhaps to give Ye New Suburbanites a feeling of Ye Olde Towne.
The houses are different too. Single-family homes, semis and townhouses are built on the same street, shattering that most ancient of development creeds -- the one that makes a hierarchy of house sizes and never allows them to mix.
Following an American trend toward century-old design (in architecture and politics), each home is also trimmed with gables, turrets and often front porches, a concept that was buried in the 1950s when suburbanites retreated to their living rooms and back yards.
There are other touches, such as trees planted along each street. And people. They're out walking on sidewalks. There actually are sidewalks, and in Wellington Lanes they lead to trails into a small wetland, complete with a real marsh with real ducks.
"The monster home is dead," says developer Eric Wegler, president of the Greater Toronto Area Home Builders Association. "The whole trend is toward compact urban living, for better-designed smaller spaces. It's almost cottage living, the whole Martha Stewart stuff."
Across society, there is a social movement toward informality, with dress-down Fridays, khaki-clad lawyers and the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in a wetsuit.
There is also a move away from grand designs. In places where the suit is the enemy, big visions, for new cities or national daycare plans, don't play well.
While conformist in some ways, the suburbs have also come to offer an unexpected flexibility.
For instance, Mr. Walsh switched magazines to be within an easy 30-minute drive home. The migration of knowledge jobs out of the downtown core -- a North American-wide phenomenon -- allowed for this option, which was not available in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ms. Kovacs took the New Economy one step further, showing how technology (first the car, now the microchip) may yet again transform the suburbs. She swung a deal with her magazine to work at home.
"Our stress level has reduced incredibly," she says.
Strictly, New Urbanism is supposed to wean people from their cars and recreate a sense of community and interaction through the resurrection of corner stores and relocation of garages to the back of houses.
In Wellington Lanes, some of this spirit can be found in the local plaza, where Sobeys stocks fresh octopus, live lobster and marinated mussel salad, the sort of choice one used to find only downtown.
Across the parking lot, the trendy Flavour Coffee shop claims to have 300 regular customers with coffee cards, the kind that are punched with each purchase.
In the afternoons and evenings, middle-aged homeowners congregate over medium coffees (no one says grande here) and chocolate (not mocha) cappuccinos. They come with babies and dogs, in church groups and books clubs, or sometimes alone, to read a book or listen to the coffee shop's favoured Latino music. Think Friends, post-marriage, moving to Aurora.
CAR DEPENDENCY NOT BROKEN
Except for the dog walkers and baby walkers, however, few people walk the 50 metres from Wellington Lanes because most houses are located well beyond the front gate. So all three banks in the plaza have a drive-through service, and no shop is built without a front full of parking spaces.
For half a century, this kind of auto dependency has been the undoing of progressive plans, turning suburban communities into concrete islands.
Even a celebrated example of New Urbanism, McKenzie Towne, southeast of Calgary, was given a failing grade by the U.S. consultancy Wendell Cox because of its heavy reliance on private vehicles. The reason: McKenzie Towne residents rarely work near their community.
In British Columbia, the province has threaded the Fraser Valley suburbs with an express train to central Vancouver. The investment has led to a boom of new communities reaching as far as Maple Ridge, an hour's commute from downtown, with a quality of housing that would be unaffordable for most people closer to the city.
In the new suburbs outside Vancouver, above the transcontinental corridor of fast-food and video rental shops, subdivisions are being carved into the Fraser Valley's lower hills.
It is not the sort of "industrial-sized sprawl" that urban planner Ken Greenburg finds all around Toronto. West Coast styles and more restrictive bylaws have done their part to curtail that, as has the trend toward community markets that are built around squares or commons. Rather than a Wal-Mart, the centrepiece may be a pub or deli where people can gather.
But all of these public and private forces seem unable to curtail the broader car culture, which has been the great nemesis of New Urbanism and of a more liberal suburban nation.
Looking out over B.C.'s Lower Mainland, a retired newspaper-circulation manager who identifies himself only as Don explains what the planners are up against.
After their children left home, he and his wife traded their 1,200-square-foot house in Burnaby for a 2,100-square-foot house in a cute little enclave above Port Coquitlam. It was more isolated, but they figured the train was close enough to zip into Vancouver for the occasional show.
That was 11 years ago. They have yet to use the train.
When North America experienced its first suburban boom in the 1950s, most of the newcomers were white-collar workers looking for more and safer space for their families. In those days, the main income earner -- a man, usually -- was willing to commute by regional train.
Today, the suburbs are much more diverse, demographically and economically. Most families have at least two income earners (but often more, with teenagers holding part-time jobs) and they tend to work in different locations. While one person may be able to take mass transit, the odds of two being in that position are much less.
The suburbs are also becoming a natural home (affordable, safe, clean) for senior citizens, especially in gentler climates on the East and West Coasts. Seniors tend to shun mass transit. Even if they feel fit to do battle with crowds, their favoured destinations -- a golf course, recreation centre or grandchildren's house -- are not often on a train line.
More challenging to the New Urbanists is another fast-growing group of suburbanites, the newly affluent class of blue-collar workers from the car factories around Toronto, the mills of the Fraser Valley and other industries riding a labour-squeezed economic boom.
Not so long ago, unionized labour lived in bungalows, drove rusting sedans and wagons, and voted NDP. Now, you're just as likely to find them in a 2,500-square-foot house in a subdivision, driving a new sports utility vehicle and voting Alliance.
Farther up the Fraser Valley, beyond the town of Pitt Meadows, the new subdivision of Somerset exudes a contentment that now runs deep among unionized labour. There are boats parked on driveways and at one home a monster truck, the kind with big fat tires. On the road, a group of teens play in-line hockey, talking as they spin around a net about a friend who just spent $200 on skateboard accessories.
This is the sort of comfort Patricia Tochkin, 41, and her husband have come to expect in the suburbs. Each will earn about $80,000 this year at the nearby U.S.-owned Weyerhaueser mill, which just added 20 more jobs to its work force of 160.
For a childless couple, a combined six-figure income helps pay for a big house, a Jeep Cherokee and Honda CR-V in the driveway, and lots to spare. This new suburban wealth, and the desire to protect it, also fuels a certain discontent.
Close to half of the family's earnings goes to income tax. An additional $2,300 is collected in property tax. Who knows what they will pay in goods and services tax, but enough to confirm where their votes will go.
MORE DIVERSE THAN PEOPLE THINK?
Like Somerset, one of the most obvious features of Wellington Lanes is that every face on the street is white. It is not just a racial issue, but one of class.
In Toronto's rough east end, where Mr. Walsh and Ms. Kovacs used to live, they had to run a gauntlet of panhandlers and drug dealers just to get a litre of milk. At the local daycare centre -- where their son and daughter, as Caucasians, were members of a visible minority -- there were long waiting lists, strict security and care packages for many of the parents.
"Aurora's idea of a visible minority," Mr. Walsh says, "is a redhead."
But Canada's suburbs may yet prove to be more diverse than his comment suggests.
On the eastern edge of Toronto, just past the Rouge Valley in Pickering, Terri and Bob Kimball found a surprising diversity when they moved a few years ago from the north-central Toronto neighbourhood of Leaside with their young daughter, Meaghan.
Of course, there is only one good restaurant in Pickering and "there isn't a good croissant out here," says Ms. Kimball, a self-employed development consultant. But, she adds, "Meaghan didn't know a black kid till we moved here." In suburban Pickering, about one-fifth of the pupils at her primary school is black or Asian.
Across Canada, immigrants and the grown children of immigrants are moving in record numbers to the suburbs, reflecting their increasing wealth, participation in the New Economy, which is largely suburban, and adoption of Canadian middle-class values that place a premium on space, schooling and safety.
Italians in Woodbridge, Ont. Sikhs in Surrey, B.C. Chinese in Markham. Vaughan, which calls itself Canada's fastest-growing city as it eats up farmland to the west of Aurora, has gone so far as to place greetings on its official Web site in seven languages: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.
The 1950s -- the mythical Ozzie and Harriet days, when dad drove downtown to work and mom raised the kids in a big back yard -- may have been an aberration, suggests Richard Harris, a professor of urban studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
A generation later, the suburbs may be returning to their normal keel. "There's a growing recognition that the suburbs are very diverse," Dr. Harris says, adding, "It is said the suburbs have become a microcosm of the nation rather than becoming a particular segment of the population."
They are also becoming a dominant part of the Canadian population. Within the next two decades, three-quarters of Canadians are projected to live in seven major urban centres, and most of them will be in the suburbs. In the Toronto area in 1996, roughly three million people lived in the extended suburbs, compared with 654,000 in the central city. In Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, suburban dwellers now outnumber city residents by at least 2 to 1.
Facing such daunting numbers, Mr. Greenburg, the Toronto planner, believes that too many provincial governments, most notably Ontario's, have thrown caution to the free-market wind in the hope that private developers will keep pace with demand.
"We're in a very free-wheeling, let-the-private-sector-take-care-of-it environment right now," he says. "It's a great inducement to rapid sprawl, which is highly automobile-dependent."
Mr. Greenburg says an additional problem has been the failure to link suburban communities with each other, and with the idea of a larger metropolis.
"What's happening in the GTA [greater Toronto area] is people no longer relate to a single downtown," he says. "There's a real challenge to the whole notion of place, of a place we all come from. To say, 'I'm from Toronto,' is something people say when they get on an airplane and go somewhere far away."
Only two or three decades ago, Toronto's suburbs were an integral part of the city, with people from places such as Scarborough travelling easily downtown to Nathan Phillips Square or the major department stores, and downtown residents travelling to the new Metro Zoo in Scarborough.
Mr. Greenburg fears that the loss of such exchanges is costing urban Canada its sense of civic pride.
But when the Kimballs moved to Pickering, they discovered to their surprise a kind of community spirit, but it is the kind downtown planners tend to dismiss. The suburban sense of civic duty they encountered seems very much linked to responsibilities rather than rights, much like the message of a nearby street sign: "Respect our neighbourhood. Obey the speed limit."
The plea is not based on the threat of law; it's about respect.
Similarly, when the Kimballs put Meaghan in a local private school, they encountered a strong desire among parents to participate -- a value that once was the strength of public school systems.
Despite paying $5,500 a year in tuition, the Kimballs are still keen to help the school with their time. "You line up to volunteer and they turn people away," says Mr. Kimball, a criminal defence lawyer.
Meaghan's summer soccer league is a greater display of civic power in a suburban context: 3,500 kids from every race, income group and creed known to Pickering, all coached and organized by parents like Mr. Kimball.
"They're not as driven by work," he says of suburban parents.
"Maybe out here there aren't as many diversions," Ms. Kimball adds, sipping a beer at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.
But there are.
GROWING COMMUNITY SPIRIT
Canadian suburbs are bubbling with community theatres and arts centres, usually built with a mix of private and public money, the sort of use of tax dollars so many suburban voters decry. While they are nothing like the surge in U.S. suburban culture, these new facilities represent a growing autonomy from the mother city.
In Surrey, B.C., an active arts centre has a full season of musicals and sketch comedies, such as Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, Menopositive! the Musical and Aloha, Polynesia (an extravaganza of song and dance from Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand).
Markham's art centre has a fall program that includes Holly Cole, a veteran singer from Toronto's hip Queen Street West circuit, and Natalie MacMaster, the renowned Cape Breton fiddler.
In Oakville, another suburb west of Toronto, "I've never been in a place where there's such a sense of community, where there's so much to do," says demographer Tom McCormack, president of Strategic Projections Inc.
"I just don't buy the premise that it's a cold impersonal place. I don't agree suburbs are impersonal and isolating, and somehow the city is warm and inviting. In fact, I would argue the opposite is true."
Pollster Michael Adams, president of Toronto-based Environics Research Group and a city dweller, believes that what suburbs now need are civic-minded organizations that reach beyond a play or concert.
In a book, Better Happy Than Rich, to be published next month by Penguin Canada, Mr. Adams finds that Canadians, especially suburban Canadians, are more money-conscious than ever, even in their approach to charity. Although our stingy instincts are finally subsiding, we give mainly to causes whose needs we can relate to, such as breast-cancer research or saving the local wetlands.
What is missing, Mr. Adams says, are strong private institutions and organizations that can face society's broader challenges, which may not be as clear-cut as breast cancer.
He says a political leader could do worse than stand in front of the Markham YMCA and call for a new public-private partnership, the sort of message that is going down well in many U.S. suburbs.
It would appeal to the suburban quest for community, the suburban distrust of governments bigger than a municipality and the new and growing suburban desire for participation, the kind Mr. Kimball sees at his daughter's school.
"That we can be in control of our own destiny, that we need government as a partner -- these are big messages in the suburbs," Mr. Adams says.
In a growing number of communities, these ideas are already being championed, but not by politicians or planners. They are coming from a new kind of suburbanite, the religious fundamentalist who has come to see the suburbs as the dominion of a new direct democracy.
Continued ... Suburbia - Part 2
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