Building Better Suburbs

It may not seem like it, but I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how we can make our suburbs better. Really, it’s only fair. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we make our city better, so I should make sure I’m thinking about how to make the entire city better.

Naturally, my first inclination is to think that we should start building the suburbs like we urban areas. They should be walkable, sustainable, mix-use…all that good stuff. It’s pretty common in urban planning circles to hear people note that we’ve been surbanizing our urban centres, and its about time we start pushing back, and expanding urban areas.

Now, I tend to believe this is true. And I tend to think it’s the just thing to do. And I reject the argument that people demonstrate that they prefer the suburbs. Not only is there a strong cultural imperative to embrace the suburbs for the last, what?, five decades? The suburbs are also heavily subsidized by urban neighbourhoods. Don’t tell me that people are merely demonstrating their true preference, when we’re actually paying them to move to the suburbs.

But it seems like it’d be a bit concern troll-y of me to say that I want to build better suburbs when I really want to turn them into urban areas. (Even if it’d be absolutely true, a moral imperative and the most benevolent thing the city could do.)

No, it’s fair to say that if we’re going to improve the suburbs, we should try to improve them within the suburban framework.*

Interestingly, Ottawa has been doing a lot to try to improve the suburbs, and, in fact, it’s been the case of bringing a bit of urban wisdom to the suburbs. When you look back over the past few years, you’ll notice a few different initiatives undertaken by city hall and city staffers.

We’ve slowly, but surely, increased density in our suburbs. Lots are getting smaller. We’re moving away from bungalows, and embracing tall, narrow houses, semi-detached homes and townhouses. New suburbs are fitting more people into smaller areas. This is a good thing.

Further, we’ve been working to improve density in older, established suburbs (including “the bungalow belt” as areas like Alta Vista and Bel-Air are sometimes called). City staff are working to allow corner lots to be split, so that more units can be built on a block. This is the sort of gentle density that can be very palatable but also helps achieve some pretty important goals.

This won’t be a radical change. It’s nothing the city will impose. For it to happen, the lot owner has to want to split the lot. Until that happens, the status quo remains.

A significant policy change occurred when the city decided to allow small businesses to move into residential neighbourhoods. Again, this isn’t going to be a tidal shift in the nature of these neighbourhoods, but adding more corner stores (or what have you) that can be walked to, that can liven up the street and that can demonstrate that mix-use zoning isn’t some urban hellscape is a benefit to both the local communities and the city, as a whole.

There is more stuff going on. The Stittsville CDP is a huge leap for bringing urban planning to the exurbs. Attempts to bring businesses to Orleans could, at the very least, help keep some commuter traffic in Orleans. And if we’re ever able to hold the line on development boundaries, that will create pressure to build up and intensify.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot of work to do. Decades of suburbanization and car-centric have taken a massive toll on the city, as they have on most of North America. It is still very important to hold the line on our urban neighbourhoods and to push the urban environment further outwards, but there are hints that we can be doing suburbanization right.

*Personally, I think as we improve the suburbs, they’ll naturally shift to a more urban framework, but that’s a side topic.

4 thoughts on “Building Better Suburbs

  1. Recommended reading: Councillor Tobi Nussbaum on “disappointing” Hazeldean Road development:

    “I don’t know if we’re serving the people of Stittsville well by expecting them from Hazeldean Road to walk 200 metres to a storefront. Those small buildings you see on Hazeldean Road, have no active street front, there are no entrances to those buildings on Hazeldean, there are blank walls, there are postered-over windows.”

  2. Jonathan: You raise some excellent point (as usual). I was hoping you might have time for coffee sometime. I would like to discuss what I see is a great opportunity to create the type of sustainable, mix use, communities we both support that I see in the Mooney’s Bay and Alta Vista area. I think we need to put some pressure on the City to push for this type of development.



  3. Why would a suburb want to become urban? People move into the suburbs because they want a green backyard, spacious living, quietness, and safety. They removed themselves from the city because they did not want to live in a densely populated community nor next or above a store. There is also a financial reason: land is cheap because there is hardly any infrastructure at first.

    I think these reasons for moving to the suburbs are the guiding concepts how to lay out a new neighborhood. The key rule is not to plan and build like in a city. You call it the “inherent hostility of suburban design” but there is no way around it.

    Changes in the suburbs along the way are not anticipated and not much loved by residents. Services and industries are added on the outside of the residential cluster but never inside.

    The huge and for suburbs necessary car infrastructure makes for a very hard sell to build additional bike lanes or sidewalks as part of a city budget. If shared paths are approved anyways it is nice for the residents but I am not convinced an extra piece of infrastructure does anything to become more urban.

    If I understand correctly the main goal of changing the suburb is to decrease the overall car dependency and in particular car traffic in the core of the city. I am all in favor of that goal but I can not see any city achieving that surrounded by suburbs with their own very particular way of functioning.

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