Eclectic Curiosity

Suburbia’s Last Stand

Posted on November 12th, 2005, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

I came across this gem of a quote in a Walrus article by Larry Frolick titled “Suburbia’s Last Stand” about planning denser urban neighbourhoods:

“Just as businesses selling products on price alone tend to become bigger box stores or fail, so it is with municipalities.”

(Why is San Francisco so much more liveable than LA? Why does NY have so much more character than New Jersey? Why is Toronto so much more appealing than Mississauga?)

The article discusses the imperative many municipalities face in building upwards now that they’ve run out of space to grow outwards. Or now that cities are finding it more difficult to finance the utilities to serve these areas. Or now that gas costs so much and fewer people care to commute ridiculous distances each day. Or now that immigration is needed to maintain the tax base and therefore more available housing is required. Or now that more people are recognizing the lunacy of razing more forests and farmland for another palacial suburban house.

Bland, soulless, overly gridded, falsely valued, and automobile-centric suburbs like Mississauga deserve to be called out as the urban planning mistakes that they are, which Frolick does rather politely in his piece.

There is obvious comfort in sameness, and culture retention across generations can be reassuring to parents, but the depiction is nonetheless one of parallel societies springing up in discrete patches that, to varying degrees, are choked by their own isolation. Such communities, clustered and segregated by a pulsating motherboard of grid roads, are like tiles in the “multicultural mosaic,” with minimal crossover and chronically frustrated access from one tile to the next. …

Cars do not allow for spontaneity – not when you must make twenty lights for a bowl of potato soup. An enclave is a ghetto on wheels, one might say of Mississauga. Wisla Plaza is schematically and therefore culturally isolated in a way residents must mutely ignore. This sense of isolation is so ingrained in suburban life, making itself felt at every turn, that it’s like breathing fast and shallow in a broom closet just for the giddiness. …

If you continue along Burnhamthorpe Road, heading east on foot, you will walk alone, confronted by a stark wall of slipshod wooden fences designed to block passersby from seeing into backyards. The effect is one of sanctioned insularity and collective withdrawal. This is the security of silent sidewalks, the empty promise of fenced-in property.

There is no “dialogue” with the street, no “streetscape.” It’s not a “walk” at all, but a pointless slog – past unseen, furiously barking dogs and the occasional pair of eyes, peering warily from drawn curtains – toward another set of traffic lights looming in the distance. This limited concern for public space has its origin in the city’s tax strategy.

Cities, I feel, offer one of the most vivid and directly relatable examples of why diversity, mixing, randomness and human interaction are generally all good things, not variables to minimize. Places that rely on only one or two industries or that foster very little in the way of cross-cultural interaction limit themselves creatively and often bore themselves in the process. It may be tidy, efficient and cheap – like a shopping at a Wal-Mart – but it’s hardly an enriching experience.

When suburbs are forced to take their growth plans vertical they won’t have much of a base to build on. As one interviewee remarks at the end of the article: “There are no options to curtailing urban sprawl. We must do it. My own family lives downtown, so we put up with urban stress. Yet we can walk down the street, see a museum, enjoy a glass of wine at a cafe, walk home at midnight. There are no services, nothing to trade off for, living in a condo tower in the suburbs. You get all the stresses of urban living, without the amenities.”

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