I recently had the opportunity to attend Simon Fraser University Public Square’s community summit We the City, a week long event covering topics from the role of universities in city building, to renewable cities, along with several discussions surrounding housing. One of the topics touched on was rethinking how we design the urban core and its surrounding suburbs.
Proximity - the kind that occurs in urban centres - has long been touted as a key to building more renewable living environments. It offers opportunities for reduced energy consumption and increased energy re-use, and encourages use of active transportation, such as walking and biking. The challenge with this approach is that much of the population genuinely prefers the lifestyle offered by suburbs. Sixty percent of Canadians still choose to live in the suburbs, a number that has shifted by only five percent over the last generation, despite efforts towards urban intensification. The cul-de-sacs, low density, and car-dependent layouts of post-war suburbia however, present significant challenges from a sustainability standpoint.
Larry Beesley, a professor of Planning at the University of British Columbia, and founding principal of Beasley and Associates, who presented at Carbon Talks: Resilient Renewable Cities, addressed the need to rethink suburbia in a recent article for the Vancouver Sun titled 'Canada needs a new vision for the suburbs'. He argues that a density of about 40 units/acre (up from the 6-8 units/acre typical of post-war suburbs), begins to work for issues of sustainability, recommending a strategy of “gentle intensification” to get there.
Postwar sprawl of Kipling Heights
Another approach Beesley advocates is drawing from the streetcar suburbs, typical of the 1930s in Toronto, in new development plans. While these communities have a much greater density than post-war suburbs (made clear from the differences in the aerial views shown above and below), they still offer far more private space than urban developments, and offer a better neighbourhood atmosphere many families seek. While many new subdivisions offer similarly high densities, they tend to be designed for entirely car dependent living, from the way streets are laid-out to the locations of amenities.
Compact community of Leslieville as of 1942
Christine McLaren, director of research and partnerships at Happy City, and co-founder of Discourse Media, touched on ideas that support this approach to neighbourhood building in her talk at Housing the City: Beyond the Headlines. She discussed the difficulty in balancing our human need to connect and desire to retreat. She then shared a story about a resident who was eager to move into a high rise tower surrounded by glass and views of the city, only to find himself looking down at a courtyard community below. Yearning for the sense of connection that the residents from those properties seemed to experience, he eventually moved into one of these units instead only to be much happier. The sense of community turned out to be far more valuable to him than the city views he'd thought he'd wanted. McLaren concluded by asserting the importance of “softspace” between neighbours, such as small front yards that provide just enough space to encourage casual interaction.
A report prepared by Happy City for the Cityquest forum in 2014, shows that people who are socially connected live up to 15 years longer and are less likely to suffer from cancer and heart disease, concluding that connected communities that have shorter blocks and allow for face-to-face connection, are a way to achieve more vibrant communities.
Both the reconsidered suburbs that Beasley describes, and the strong communities that McLaren and Happy City advocate for, mean balancing space and density, suggesting that it may be possible to find strategies that simultaneously address issues of sustainability and of livability. Creating a new vision for suburbia - what Beasley terms the "Posturb" - will require ongoing dialogue between planners, citizens, developers and policy-makers, but one thing that's clear, is that effective solutions won't just be about building houses, but building neighbourhoods.
Researched and written by Miranda Corcoran, an Industrial Design and Digital Media Student at OCAD University