Forget about manicured front lawns, white picket fences and the sound of children at play. According to a growing legion of pundits and “peak oil” theorists, the tidy suburbs of today are the forsaken slums of tomorrow.
A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly by Christopher Leinberger argued that once-idyllic cul-de-sacs are about to become the domain of poverty, social disorder and physical rot.
More recently, Smart Growth B.C., the Vancouver-based not-for-profit with a focus on creating “more livable communities in British Columbia,” made the link between sprawling, auto-friendly suburbs and the grim spectre of childhood obesity.
Given sky-high gas prices, the new carbon tax and a growing number of “for sale” signs popping up in family subdivisions, there’s no doubt that B.C. suburban dwellers are facing a financial and psychological squeeze these days.
But writing them off as the doomed villains of the peak oil or global-warming stories is not only mean-spirited, it is also irresponsible.
That’s because moving to the city core for many Lower Mainland families is, for starters, financially impossible. The price tag for a three-bedroom apartment in Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood, for example, starts at a whopping $750,000 –out of range for even high-income earners.
And only a small fraction of the highrise condos built in downtown Vancouver over the past decade have been designed for families.
It turns out that many British Columbians live in the edge cities of so-called exurbia not because they enjoy long freeway commutes or the view of tract housing, but because it’s what makes the most sense for their families.
And newcomers to Canada seem to agree.
According to Robert Murdie, a researcher with the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre, many immigrants to Toronto and Vancouver are choosing to live in the suburbs because of their affordability and proximity to jobs being dispersed there from gentrifying downtown cores.
The suburbs are increasingly multicultural, and StatsCan figures show they also have more children.
Besides, the urban environment isn’t as picture-perfect for families as certain think tanks would have you believe.
As someone raising kids in one of Metro Vancouver’s denser neighbourhoods, I can vouch for the convenient access to public transportation and shops and cheery waterfront strolls. But on the downside, a nearby convenience store is the domain of crack pushers; used needles are known to turn up at an area park and local vagrancy and homelessness are a harsh everyday reality.
So I can hardly blame those parents who forgo the conveniences of city living in favour of the green grass of suburbia.
Given these uncertain financial times, their critics would be wise to ease off the trash talk. There’s a fine line, after all, between well-intentioned debate and old-fashioned schoolyard bullying.