Drivers of Suburban Growth

Despite many years of having been warned about the perils of suburban living, the message still does not appear to have been heard. Smart Growth proponents and a number of city planners have been consistent in their message: suburban living is not only expensive in terms of infrastructure and creating congestion, it is also unhealthy in terms of the car-orientated lifestyle that it encourages.

And yet the lure of suburban living continues. This can be seen in the construction numbers. All three major Canadian cities, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, show significant suburban growth according to new census figures. In fact, in Ottawa, the vast majority of projected growth will continue to occur outside the Greenbelt in new suburban communities

With all this in mind, City Planners must be wondering what they are doing wrong. While intensification has been implemented and positive results achieved, the overall trend to the suburbs has not been slowed, let alone stopped.   It appears that restricting suburban growth was never a realistic goal in the first place, even if it was ‘the’ goal.

What is fuelling the lure of the suburbs? Two constituencies are of interest: young millennial families and immigrants. Its certainly possible that young millennial families would like to locate in a city’s central area, but they are unable to do so because of cost factors. While not for everyone, the majority of millennials still aspire to a detached house with a garden once they have children. Such properties are particularly expensive in the city centre, so these young families are compelled to look further afield to realize their real estate dreams. It is primarily affordability that is driving young millennial families to live in the suburbs.

The second constituency, immigrants, is more complex. Immigrants are interesting because you have to look at where they come from and what it is that makes Canada an attractive destination in the first place. Most immigrants are from source countries with far higher densities than Canada. Many are from environments where they’ve lived cheek by jowl in high density, often high rise projects with their neighbours. Part of the appeal in moving to Canada is the space that it offers and the opportunity to own a ground oriented home. The rapid growth of areas like Brampton suggest that immigrants themselves are now by-passing the traditional inner-city cultural enclaves as their entry point and are moving straight to the suburbs upon arrival. With respect to Canada’s immigrant population it appears that one of the most important factors that Canadian planners have missed is the cultural demand immigrants have for ground oriented living space.

Given that immigrants make up much of the population growth in Canada, this trend needs to be acknowledged. After enough critical mass is attained, a self-perpetuating ethnic enclave is created, attracting new immigrants immediately with the promise of community networking and jobs. It is conceivable that the traditional inner city cultural enclaves are in the process of being replaced with suburban models and we could see significant communities become the primary destination for specific ethnic groups.

So where does all of this leave municipal planning’s drive towards intensification? The general policy direction will undoubtedly continue. City Planners are not wrong that unnecessary suburban growth is undesirable. The prescription – to focus development in already built-up areas and along arterial mainstreets is one logical solution to the issue. But the tension between City policies and home buyers’ desires is palpable. There are however some potential solutions to mitigate the issue.

City planners tend to talk in terms of providing a variety of housing forms to meet all needs. This is the idea that a variety of above grade family oriented housing types should be provided in inner city neighbourhoods. These housing forms are increasingly referred to as the ‘missing middle’. Additionally, these same housing forms could be used to support the concept of ‘aging in place’ as the baby boom generation continues to age and it makes personal and societal sense to allow them to age in place and not have to move elsewhere. When these resident types are mixed with transit supportive densities and ease of access to the rapid transit system, we can see progress towards an overall strategy to combat congestion. Rapid transit can also stimulate local economic development, ideally allowing a resident to work in close proximity to where they live.

Developers and builders will continue to build where the market and municipal policy takes them. Through its joint Building Better and Smarter Suburbs initiative, the City and the development industry have already invested considerable time and initiative in looking for ways to better develop suburbs more efficiently. With current trends, these guidelines will become increasingly more important and utilized well into the future.

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