Despite much fuss and even more money, the suburbs still rule the roost

From limiting growth and encouraging intensification, from cycling lanes to an LRT boondoggle, we’re going to see an increasing number of projects designed to make Waterloo Region an idealized version of a hip city, a happening place filled with funky high-tech businesses and a vibrant cultural life. In this dream, happy people get around by foot, bicycle or public transit, happily enjoying a new, happy way of life.

It’s an unlikely future, but one municipal officials are happy to spend your money on.

The reality is that the region, like pretty much every urban area, is seeing most of its growth in the suburbs, despite the very visible – i.e. they’re eyesores – highrise developments. The ongoing suburbanization is especially true of mid-size cities (50,000 to 500,000 people) such as those found in Waterloo Region, and the kind that are home to some 45 per cent of Canadians.

A new study led by Queen’s University urban planning professor David Gordon shows the suburbanization trend is not only continuing, but growing.

“Many people over-estimate the importance of the highly visible downtown cores and underestimate the vast growth happening in the suburban edges of our metropolitan regions. The population in low-density auto suburbs and exurbs is still growing five times faster than inner-cities and inner-suburbs across Canada. Despite their inner-city condo booms, even the Toronto and Vancouver metropolitan areas saw 3.4 and 2.4 times as much population growth in auto suburbs and exurbs compared to active cores and transit suburbs,” the new report finds.

“Canada is a suburban nation and its population became more suburban from 2006–2016, despite the planning policies of most metropolitan areas.”

Waterloo Region may think it can buck the trend, but the numbers say otherwise: 72 per cent of those living in the Kitchener-Wateloo-Cambridge census metropolitan area (CMA, as used by Statistics Canada) live in what’s called the “auto suburb,” with just 11 per cent in the so-called “active core” area of the cities.

Similar numbers can be found in other Canadian cities, with the divide growing in favour of the burbs.

Still, the focus – and the money – is on countering the trend, while growth rolls on unabated by officials at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, who are determined to cram down our collective throats all of the egregious problems related to those policies.

When it comes to planning policies, some of the goals are admirable, at least in part.

Who wouldn’t like a vibrant cultural scene, with great entertainment options and a real nightlife in the vein of, say, Montreal or Vancouver? Without, of course, the congestion and demographic nightmares of Toronto and its ilk. Curbing growth, however, is not on the menu.

With walking and cycling, who isn’t captivated by the street life of European centres? It’s great to see people going about their daily business under their own steam. We lack the beautiful old architecture, public spaces and way of life, but on we go.

As for transit, it’s fast and convenient – and sometimes even inexpensive – in other parts of the world. Why not here? Never mind the geographical distances, car culture and premium placed on our time … we’ll plough ahead in a small, makeshift way, spending much in return for little.

OK, none of that pessimism is on display at the official level.

The region is pressing forward with its transit scheme.

The cities are looking at adding bike lanes.

More highrise buildings are being erected.

Tens of millions are being poured into downtown redevelopment.

This is all driven by an optimism that these moves will bring change. Positive change. Hopefully, that is the case.

Happening, walkable, livable cities would be ideal.

All of this is predicated on ever-more growth, despite the fact constant growth – the Ponzi scheme that is our economy – is not sustainable. It also depends on separating taxpayers from even more of their money, despite spending that outstrips economic growth (there’s that word again) and people’s incomes. Most troubling, it depends on people changing their behaviours in large enough numbers to make any of it work.

The ideal of so-called compact communities puts me in mind of Europe, where densities are higher and people live within an easy walk or bike ride of most of the amenities of daily living. Because most communities developed before the advent of the automobile, they’re very much people-centric as opposed to the car-centered towns and cities of North America.

People actually do walk and cycle as a means of transportation, not just recreation. Public transit is convenient and well used. In short, the antithesis of how we do things here. Living there, you can quite easily do without a car.

Of course, vehicles are more expensive, gas prices astronomical and parking spaces limited, putting a real damper on the kind of automobile enthusiasm seen in North America.

In all the talk of more human-scale communities, there’s no mention of aesthetics. For me, that’s the make-it-or-break-it part of the equation: our ugly built environments foster neither pride of place nor a desire to be out on foot, interacting with the place where we live something to enjoy in its own right. It’s going to take a monumental effort at creating something better to get us out of the suburban model: Shifting from our box of a house to our box of a car to the box where we shop and the box where we work. The insides may be nice and comfortable, as we shut out the world and the others who happen to live in the same town, but the shared spaces are not conducive to creating the kind of community envisioned by proponents of a livable city.

For decades now, we’ve had a model of suburban sprawl – low-density living that relies on roads to connect our homes to shops and workplaces. In the region, it’s pretty difficult to get around without a car. The transit system is not particularly robust, especially outside of the main transit corridors, which means pretty much the bulk of the area. The townships are beyond the pale.

The LRT will not change that one iota.

The fact is that car ownership is seen as essential in most communities – few North American cities, such as New York, actually make car ownership more expensive and less convenient than doing without an automobile.

And once someone is invested in a car, most of the costs such as monthly payments and insurance are fixed whether it’s sitting in the driveway or rolling through town. Transit is rarely faster, so people take their cars. While people tend to underestimate the cost of operating their vehicles – gas, wear and tear and the like – they still see it as cheaper than using transit.

The study released this week indicated that’s not going to change in any appreciable timeframe.

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