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Suburban nostalgia

Among my colleagues in urban planning, suburbia is seen as one of the most powerful forces shaping our towns and cities. Suburban sprawl, which eats up prime agricultural land, forces residents to drive ever further to widely dispersed retail and employment locations. The suburb has an exclusive history, as many were designed to exclude those of lower socioeconomic classes or certain ethnic groups. In this era of recessionary caution, they are the epitome of wasteful. And yet, they remain the preferred landscapes of the vast majority of people living in both American and Canadian cities.

Like many people my age, I grew up in suburbia and return there periodically. To this day, suburbanites provide me with endless comedic fodder. This is particularly true of those considered to be “average people.” You know, the people you see on sitcoms who live in giant two-storey houses and drive SUVs, who shop at Costco and are completely paranoid (read: boomers like my parents and others of their generation). On the surface, they seem so safe and isolated in their brick-and-aluminum-siding cells; and yet, under the surface lurk nightmarish thoughts.

A couple of years ago on a visit to the ‘burbs, my mom told me to take a large stick with me on a walk around the suburb, as there had been a rash of dog attacks lately (I assured her that a stick would be little protection against an angry Rottweiler, but this did little to placate her). I once said I’d walk to the corner store to pick up milk, and was told that I should take the car since it was too far to walk (15 minutes, the same distance I’d walked to school as a child). One evening, I mentioned I’d go for a walk; my mother looked at the clock in alarm (it was 9pm). On my walk, I saw at least twenty different homeowners out trimming their hedges, mowing their lawns, or gardening; at one house a couple of kids were out playing. My mother shook her head at these convention-flouters: didn’t they know it wasn’t safe to be out after dinner?

My suburbanite friends get their milk at one store, eggs at another, and vegetables at a third, endlessly trolling for deals (and by deals I mean savings of twenty cents). They choose the apples from Chile over the apples from Canada (cheaper). They assure me that nobody could ever live happily in a rental, and wouldn’t I need a yard once I had children? The fact that I’ve been renting for 14 years doesn’t convince them, nor the fact that most kids stop playing in the yard around age 13. They read about greenhouse gases in the daily paper but shake their heads sadly (there’s nothing they can do about it). They rail at the traffic in their city and insist on road widenings; they fume if they’re ever behind a city bus or have to give road space to a cyclist. They comment on every pedestrian brave enough to cross the busy multi-lane collector roads. Nighttime TV consists of CNN, 60 Minutes and The National, to recharge the paranoia levels.

On the other hand, suburbanites have space to compost, space to grow those organic veggies, space to pick local fruits and tuck them away multiple deep freezers. Space to store the 20-lb bag of onions or the cases of mangoes, pomegranates or oranges so easily found at Costco. They get good deals on virtually everything, the costs of food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment being vastly lower than in the city. And then there are the smells: freshly cut lawns, sprinklers, chlorinated pools, beds of carefully tended flowers. While these scents may smack of greenhouse gases, pesticides and non-biodegradable plastics, even a whiff of water from a garden hose transports me back to my childhood; they are oddly comforting.

Suburbanites live in the type of neighbourhoods that we have long been told are good for us: good for families, free from crime, with lots of open space…basically, the landscapes of The American Dream. But to planners, suburbs are more accurately portrayed in films like American Beauty (1999) or Lymelife (2009). My planning friends might be car-free, child-free, renters, and supporters of local farmers. They might support gay marriage, encourage supportive housing in their neighbourhoods, or walk to work instead of driving. But these urban eccentricities are frowned upon in the ‘burbs, and attitudes and behaviour are some of the hardest things to change in planning our communities.

There are glimmerings of environmental awareness in the ‘burbs; even a hint of planning comprehension. My suburban friends have heard of car-sharing programs, LEED-certified buildings and New Urbanism. They understand the benefits of organic gardening, public transit and community development. They just seem to be having a bit of trouble connecting these ideas to their everyday lives. They need to know how much money they could save by growing their own veggies, and how much weight they could lose doing all that gardening. They need information on local agriculture versus buying from vast supermarket chains. They need practical information, maps, schedules, and cycling workshops if they are ever going to transition from two- and three-car families. They need to understand what housing options might suit them best: it may be a condo or townhouse if they really don’t use their yards or live in one- or two-person households. They need to understand their municipality’s Official Community Plan and its social, economic, and environmental impacts so that they can get involved in creating better communities. This is grassroots-level work, the same kind of marketing and promotion that was done in the 90s to advertise composting and recycling, two activities that most suburbanites now do on a regular basis.

Aside from workshops and social marketing, the crux of the matter is that some suburbanites define themselves as drivers, as those who live in large detached houses, as people in the upper echelons of society, even as bargain shoppers. The very ideals that we attack as planners are in fact prized in the ‘burbs. But we should remember that these ideals were created in the 1950s, supported by government funding and policies, and we have the power to create new ones. There is a wave of new developments in the US that includes organic farms in their subdivisions; people who buy homes get access to fresh local produce, which is increasingly appealing for many. In Canada, many people are drawn to smaller homes, neighbourhoods with sustainability features (Greenbrook in Surrey, BC, will derive 10% of its energy costs from solar power) and urban neighbourhoods with access to transit. We need to create neighbourhoods that have the appeals of suburban living but are more sustainable, which can translate into more affordable; in the organic farm suburbs, farmers’ rent is initially paid to the developer, but after all the lots are sold the revenue goes to the homeowners’ association. There are many ways to market sustainable neighbourhoods and communities, and eventually replace the old suburbia with something more socially and ecologically rewarding. More crucial, we need to market these ideals as the hip new trend in housing.


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