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.