Studying the Suburbs

by May 22, 2009

SUBURBS, URBAN, MIGRATION, NEIGHBORHOODSWith over half the Canadian population now living in the suburbs, Dalhousie University Architecture and Planning professor Dr. Jill Grant says it’s an obvious time to study this increasingly popular living option – one that remains a bane to planners and urbanists. Are people drawn to the concept of perfectly matching houses throughout a neighbourhood, the “little boxes” as the famous 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 that feels shiny, new and most of all, roomy, that one is increasingly hard-pressed 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. Grant will study the communities we know so well from television shows like “Desperate Housewives” or “Weeds” in her research project, “Trends in residential environments: Planning and inhabiting the suburbs”, which 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 queries about such effects on our communities. “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 accessible to those in cars. Consequently, people and commerce drained from downtown.”

And 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,” Grant notes. “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 re-think. “In many cities the costs (in time and money) of commuting are getting so high that people are rethinking suburban life,” she suggests. “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 intelligence including learning more about the perspectives of residents of the region’s suburbs. She will talk to the denizens of the cozy hamlets themselves and will try to determine why they chose to live in their communities of choice.

So park the minivan in the two-car garage, roll out the barbeque, put the dog in the house and give some thought to why you may have chosen to embrace your inner suburbanite. Those thoughts may just end up going a long way toward answering the big questions dogging planners everywhere…

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