Province column: British Columbians are voting with their feet and heading to the burbs

The Province
Sunday, February 24, 2008

Move over, cigarettes and fast food, “suburban sprawl” is quickly becoming society’s public enemy No. 1 — taking the blame for everything from air pollution to obesity and social disorder.
According to a 2004 report from the advocacy group Smart Growth B.C., “there is an emerging consensus that sprawl is damaging the environment and eroding the quality of life in B.C.” South of the border, the Sierra Club refers to the phenomenon as the “dark side” of the American dream.

If car-dependent subdivision dwellers are feeling under siege, they should prepare for more than just the disdain of special-interest groups. Soaring oil prices are pinching their middle-class wallets like never before.

Then, there was last Tuesday’s introduction of a carbon tax, which has been applauded in environmental circles for taking direct aim at auto emissions.

The reasoning seems to be that this will ultimately lure folks out of their cars — and onto cleaner forms of transport, like buses and bikes.

Metro Vancouver’s suburbanites should be taking notice. Faced with sketchy public transit, they’re the ones most likely to drive carbon-belching minivans and station wagons — as they commute from far-flung neighbourhoods or shuttle their kids around to hockey games and ballet classes.

And like it or not, they’ll have no choice but to pay up.

It’s a scenario that has some pundits gloating from their moral high grounds, including noted “new urbanist” James Howard Kunstler, who visited Vancouver recently to deliver his grim vision for suburbs in the Lower Mainland and beyond.

In his book, The Long Emergency, Kunstler writes that “suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It has a tragic destiny.” But even though the chattering classes have designated SUV-driving suburbanites as the doomed villains of modern cities, the numbers tell a different story.

Recent Statistics Canada figures show that immigrants to Canada increasingly are flocking to the suburbs of our major urban regions, including Metro Vancouver.

The dark side of the suburban dream, at least for newcomers, has been overlooked in the pursuit of affordable housing, spacious backyards and, yes, the white picket fence.

Not only are the suburbs increasingly multicultural, the StatsCan figures show they are also younger. They have more children.

According to B.C. census numbers, meanwhile, the biggest growth in our region is in places like Surrey, Mission, Chilliwack and Abbotsford, where single-family homes still rule.

In the City of Vancouver, where condo towers continue to sprout, the population growth rate lags behind Metro Vancouver as a whole.

British Columbians are voting with their feet. And they’re opting for suburbia.

Folks like Kunstler can rage against the suburbs all they want — but wishing them away won’t make it so.


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Filed under Environment, Health, Immigration, Real Estate, Transportation, Urban Planning, Vancouver Province Columns

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