People Polarized on the Suburbs

When we think about where or how our city can grow to accommodate the anticipated increase in population there is an important factor we cannot ignore: where do people want to live? While there are numerous studies on the environmental, social and economic benefits of smartly designed density, simply building multi-family units downtown won’t fill the gap if few people actually want to live there.

Across Canada (and in the U.S. too) there is a growing trend of people opting for a lifestyle that includes a single-family home, in a vehicle-reliant neighbourhood, with a garage and a yard for their family (and pets) to enjoy. And, despite many opinions about why this continual migration to the “burbs” is not a good thing, the demand for the suburban lifestyle isn’t slowing down.

The Suburbs vs. The Core

According to a report done by David Gordon and Associates at Queen’s University, as of 2016, 67% of Canada’s population lived in auto suburbs as opposed to 14% in what they called active core neighbourhoods. To offer some simple definitions from the report: the auto suburb is a classic suburb where the majority of its residents commute by car, with limited options for transit, cycling or walking. An active core is defined as a community where the majority of its residents use active means of transportation (walking, cycling) to commute. These are most commonly found within inner-city areas. Here in Winnipeg, most would agree that the Exchange, Osborne Village and areas surrounding Corydon could be considered active core neighbourhoods.

Gordon’s report highlights concerns with our growing population in these auto dependent communities including obesity, greenhouse gas emissions as an effect from the increased transit, and the economic impact their required enabling infrastructure will have on citizens’ bottom line and tax dollars, to name a few. What this particular study doesn’t explore are any of the positive attractions or reasons for the suburbs ongoing and increasing popularity.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail highlighted some of the key benefits of suburban living. Affordability, no surprise, is a big part of the draw. In virtually every Canadian city, homebuyers can still get more for their money if they move away from the city centre. Another appeal that can’t be overlooked is the type of housing the suburbs offer. Many people prefer a home with a private yard and accessible green space, rather than apartment-style living. This preference is supported by recent studies undertaken by McGill University and the University of British Columbia; both have found that people are generally happier in places that feature lower density and lower house prices.

What does all of this mean?

Perhaps, as a society, we should stop villainizing suburban neighbourhoods and the people that choose to live there, when it is clear it is what the majority of our population wants. Sprawl or Nothing, a recent article in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business agrees and suggests that instead, we might explore how we can continue to make these neighbourhoods better: work collaboratively with city planners, engineers and developers to design communities that offer meaningful services and destinations, walkable paths and trails, and well-located density and that are well-integrated with transportation corridors and public transport systems so that they bring value to our city and our residents.

As anyone can see by simply visiting one, today’s new communities are far more evolved, better planned, more ‘complete’ and very different from the suburbs of the past. Continuing to create these new communities where many Winnipeggers actually want to live will attract both newcomers and new businesses to our city. With integrated and thoughtful planning, these initiatives can work in parallel with the ongoing recent efforts to regenerate our active core, for the people who want and choose to live there. Winnipeg’s Play-off street party series is an excellent example of how diverse, strong and united our city and its people can be. That’s why it is so important to understand that we need both – well-designed new communities and a revitalized core – in order to be a vibrant, modern and successful city.