Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Suburban Mistake?

I usually enjoy reading John Barber's articles in The Globe and Mail. But today, I have been disappointed by Mr. Barber's latest writing. It's one of a never-ending stream of articles in the mainstream media about suburban life. The gist of just about article on suburban life is that suburbia is evil, a mistake, something to be rid of. This is laughable at best (and I'm an Urban Planner by education and practice). Much of the negativity about suburbia seems to revolve around the reliance on the dreaded automobile, the misplaced notion that things were (or are) better before in the urban areas of cities and the lack of diversity in terms of income, classes, etc.

Yes, people who live in suburbs rely on the automobile to get to work, to get to shopping, to get to anywhere. But is that a bad thing? Is it bad that a person has the choice to go anywhere they want at anytime? Public transit is great if it is readily available throughout a city and if service is frequent (10 minutes or less in my book). If the bus only comes buy once an hour, public transit is useless - you have to schedule your day around it. Yes, rush hour sucks, but so does standing in a packed bus, streetcar or train. But the established or older parts of cities are not free of cars. In Toronto, on-street parking is in great demand in older residential areas. Many areas require permits for overnight parking. If shops are so close and transit is readily available, why the demand for parking? Because even 'urbanites' like the freedom a vehicle gives them.

Diversity in the inner city is a myth. Households cluster by income. I don't think there are too many low or middle income families in Rosedale in Toronto or too many high-income families in Regent Park or Jane and Finch? House prices are insane in Toronto. How can a middle-income family afford to buy a $400,000 townhome on a 20 foot by 100 foot lot? They can't. The suburbs provide them with housing that is affordable - contrary to what the article says. Why is that a bad thing? The opportunity to own your home should be afforded to as many people as possible. The anti-suburbanites would have us either living in rental housing or paying off a mortgage for at least 25 or more years.

Finally, the notion that things are (or were) better in established areas. These seems to be based on some unproven fact that the suburbs are bad areas where kids have nothing to do and no one knows their neighbour. I don't think so. In the suburb where I grew up, I was able to play street hockey without having to worry about neighbours complaining about orange balls ending up in their precious gardens. There are no "No Street Hockey" signs like on many streets in those nice parts of Toronto. Kids in the suburbs are no different from kids in the inner-city: they hangout just the same.

The suburbs are no mistake. Don't buy the elite anti-suburbanites mantra that people are forced to live in the suburbs. People live their by choice. And for the most part, many of them are happy with that choice.