More continuity than change? Re-evaluating the contemporary socio-economic and housing characteristics of suburbs.

Author:Moos, Markus


Suburbs that developed in metropolitan Canada post-World War II have historically been depicted as homogeneous landscapes of gendered domesticity, detached housing, White middle-class nuclear families, and heavy automobile use. We find that key features of this historical popular image do in fact persist across the nation's contemporary metropolitan landscape, particularly at the expanding fringes and in mid-sized cities near the largest metropolitan areas. The findings reflect suburbanization into new areas, point to enduring social exclusion, and recall the negative environmental consequences arising from suburban ways of living such as widespread automobile use and continuing sprawl. However, the analysis also points to the internal diversity that marks suburbanization today and to the growing presence of suburban ways of living in central areas. Our results suggest that planning policies promoting intensification and targeting social equity objectives are likely to remain ineffective if society fails to challenge directly the political, economic and socio-cultural drivers behind the kind of suburban ways of living that fit popular imaginings of post-World War II suburbs.

Keywords: suburbs, suburbanization, suburban ways of living, Canadian cities, metropofitan landscape, sprawl


Les lotissement suburbains batis dans les regions metropohtaines du Canada apres la Seconde Guerre mondiale ont souvent ete representes comme des paysages homogenes caracterises par la domesticite sexuee, les maisons isolees, les familles nucleaires de la classe moyenne blanche, et l'utilisation intensive de l'automobile. Nous constatons que les principales caracteristiques de cette image populaire historique dominent en fait le paysage contemporain des metropoles canadiennes, en particulier dans les franges en expansion et dans les villes de taille moyenne pres des grandes regions metropofitaines. Les resultats refletent la persistence de l'exclusion sociale et rappellent les consequences negatives sur l'environnement decoulant de l'utilisation generalisee de l'automobile et de l'etalement urbain. Cependant, l'analyse souligne egalement la diversite interne qui marque aujourd'hui les banheues et la presence en croissance de modes de vie suburbains dans les centre-villes. Nos resultats suggerent que les politiques d'amenagement favorisant l'intensification et les objectifs d'equite sociale sont susceptibles de rester sans effet si la societe ne parvient pas a contester directement les facteurs pofltiques, economiques et socio-culturels derriere les modes de vie suburbains qui correspondent a l'imagination populaire de la banlieue canadienne d'apres-guerre.

Mots cles: banlieues, rurbanisation, modes de vie suburbains, villes canadiennes, paysage metropolitain, etalement urbain


In a process that in many ways echoed the Fordist transformation of the United States' economy after 1945, the search for a peace-time spatial fix exploded the Canadian metropolis outwards through an expanding network of highways leading to new low-density residential communities (Walker 1977, Lorimer 1978, Harris 2004). The tremendous popularity of these new housing developments reflected state efforts to vastly increase access to mortgage credit, but also the widespread seductiveness of an existing image of the suburbs as idyllic retreats from the polluted and congested industrial city and its density, diversity, and perceived danger.

There has been much discussion of the dramatic transformation that Canada's metropolitan regions underwent after the Second World War, but much less about the continuing prevalence of the postwar suburban ideal. Postwar Canadian town planners and urban scholars participated in the reproduction of this image (Sewell 2009), not least through their deployment of measurement and mapping. By relying on variables such as distance or development density, they helped cement a definition of "the suburbs" as spatially bounded and ontologically separate segments of the metropolis. Mass media representations complemented this image with skewed depictions of ethnic and class homogeneity, exclusivity, and profoundly gendered domesticity (Korinek 2000). Even recent scholarship (see Gordon and Janzen 2013), in trying to determine the extent of Canada's suburban population, has generally relied upon mutually exclusive categorizations. Although seeing value in the prior research, this study, by building on the conceptual work of Walks (2012), seeks to chart a different and complementary course. We explore the multiple overlapping dimensions in the persistence of suburban ways of life.

There is evidence that cultural and socio-economic diversity within and between North American postwar suburbs was much more prevalent than what popular imaginings of suburbia allowed (Harris 2004, Berger 1960, Gans 1967,Nicolaides 2001). Such heterogeneity, moreover, has been increasing over the past four decades. PostFordist dynamics such as the decentralization of manufacturing at the metropolitan and global scales, the greater flexibility of labour, and various processes associated with increased inter-urban competition (including public investments in the cultural and consumption infrastructure of cities), have contributed to a heightened geographic mobility of urban populations and employment sources (Harvey 1990, Walks 2001). The resulting suburbanization of diversity (Orfield 2002, Singer et al. 2008, Li 2009) but also the apparent "suburbanization of the city" (Sherrell 2008) have led scholars to challenge binary conceptualizations that narrowly place "suburbs" as fixed spatial entities situated in relation to a historically defined urban centre (Bourne 1996, Ekers et al. 2012, Walks 2013).

In the Canadian context, however, such efforts have largely remained in the conceptual and theoretical domain (see Walks 2001 for a notable exception). Seeking to expand the empirical dimension of this important scholarly project, we present an analysis of Canada's largest metropolitan areas based on Census data for 2006. To do this, we bring into sharp focus that popular image of postwar-era suburbia upon which hegemonic notions of socio-economic homogeneity and dichotomous geographic segregation once firmly rested upon.

There are three objectives of this research: (1) to operationalize the popular image of postwar-era suburbia and then map it onto the contemporary Canadian metropolis; (2) to identify the specific geographies that will result from such a multi-dimensional approach; and (3) to draw conceptual implications for defining suburbs and "the suburban" in research.

As we show in this paper, these goals are significant in that they help us document and understand the present landscapes of metropolitan Canada, and more specifically, provide evidence of the existence of a spatiality in the contemporary metropolitan landscape that is in many ways consistent with the imagined postwar suburb. However, our analysis also shows the limits of such imaginings. On the one hand, we find that ways of living associated with the popular image of suburbs can occur in a plurality of geographical locations--including many unexpected ones. On the other hand, our analysis captures the demographic and socio-economic diversity that characterizes contemporary metropolitan expansion. By comparing an operationalized model of the popularly imagined postwar-era Canadian suburb to the actual geographies of contemporary suburbanization, our study challenges current understandings of (sub) urban space. We demonstrate the inappropriateness in some cases of relying on distance from a historical central area to understand processes of suburbanization, while putting empirically into question the dichotomous "city/suburb" conceptualization.

We begin our paper with a brief discussion of four ways of living that have become entrenched in popular consciousness as the defining traits of the Canadian suburbs that developed in the postwar era. We then explain how we make use of Statistics Canada data from the 2006 Census to operationalize these four ways of living. The analysis generates three different indicators of suburbanization, which we map to describe the contemporary geography of this ongoing but changing process. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for urban policy and research. In particular, we consider our findings in light of contemporary planning policy aiming to stem heavy automobile use and sprawl due to their negative environmental consequences.

Popular Imaginings of Canada's Postwar Suburbs

Exercises in statistical measurement still often view suburbanization as "a process whereby people, housing, industry, commerce, and retailing spread out beyond traditional urban areas, forming dispersed landscapes that are still connected to cities by commuting" (McCann 2009, pp. 731-732, see also Turcotte 2007). However, this definition is usually recognized as being necessarily incomplete, in the sense that it is relationally constituted around notions of what is commonly believed to be "urban" in a social and economic sense (Ekers et al. 2012, Smith 2006). We shift the reference point away from common ideas about what is the city toward common ideas about what is a suburb. In Canada, as we see below, such common ideas are closely linked to popular imaginings of residential tracts that were built and populated in the two decades following the Second World War.

During the 1950s and 1960s, dominant narratives about the rapidly and massively unfolding process of suburbanization generally coincided in their identification of four distinctive ways of living: pervasive automobile use, residence in a socially and culturally homogeneous environment, domesticity, and socio-economic advantage derived from middle class status (see for example Mumford 1968). A few critics argued for a more diverse view of the North American suburb (Berger 1960, Gans 1967). But...

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