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Home in the suburbs, heart in the city Add to ...

Meghan Maddigan and her husband knew what they didn’t want when they started looking for a place they could afford to buy.

They didn’t want a half-acre of yard to take care of, or a big house. They absolutely didn’t want to spend their weekends in a car, driving 100 kilometres or more just to buy groceries or go for a drink or find an ethnic restaurant.

“I didn’t want to live in the suburbs,” says Ms. Maddigan, a 30-year-old lawyer with a downtown firm, a one-time Abbotsford girl who had tasted the pleasures of urban life when going to university and in her first condo in Yaletown.

But, like hundreds of thousands of others, she and her husband Chad have ended up in the suburbs anyway – though on at least some of their own terms. They live in a rowhouse in Fort Langley, part of a dense new development called Bedford Landing. She carpools into downtown. On the weekends, the car stays parked. They walk to the grocery a few blocks away, to the nearby 1827 Piano and Martini Bistro, or to the local Indian restaurant.

Ms. Maddigan is part of a new breed of suburbanites changing the burbs, particularly around Vancouver. In the process, they are forcing politicians to recalibrate what their suburban constituents really want, with a new emphasis on public transportation and other urban amenities.

In fact, suburbs around North America have been undergoing radical transformation over the last couple of decades. They have become home to various pockets of new immigrants, to the old, to the poor, to significant proportions of minority groups, and to young, second-generation suburbanites who’ve decided to stay on in the territory their parents colonized. Those trends have become even more noticeable in the recently released results from the 2010 U.S. census; they’ll likely show up in Canada’s 2011 census as well.

But Vancouver has one additional, unique aspect to its suburban change.

It stands out as the city where more of its suburban residents live in dense developments of apartments, rowhouses, townhouses and towers than anywhere else in North America, says Metro Vancouver senior planner Christina DeMarco. That is going to keep increasing. In places like Richmond, Port Moody and White Rock, more than 90 per cent of new housing is apartments or townhouses. Even in Surrey and Langley, only 35 to 45 per cent of the new housing built is single-family homes.

That means many of the people moving there are those ready and willing to live an urban, not suburban, life.

“We call it the urban brain drain,” says Norm Shearing, vice-president at ParkLane Homes, which started 30 years ago as a single-family-house builder and now builds 80 per cent multifamily developments. Most are in carefully chosen spots in the suburbs that are close to historic old town centres – like Benson Landing near Fort Langley where Ms. Maddigan lives – shopping streets and transit.

Those new suburbanites are demanding better transit. They want cafes, shops and schools within walking distance. They are willing to consider adding even more density around them.

And, as politicians campaigning in this federal election are finding, they’re bringing up issues that are more typical of urban voters.

“They want to know, if the Evergreen line comes here, what will I do about the problems that come with it, like crime. They are asking about homelessness and social housing,” says Conservative MP James Moore, first elected in Port Moody-Westwood-Coquitlam in 2000, who is hearing those issues pop up as he campaigns this month for the federal election. He also finds that even the physical job of campaigning is changing, because he has so many constituents in apartment towers where new security measures make it impossible to go from floor to floor.

In Newton-North Delta, a riding that swings between Liberal and NDP, New Democrat Jinny Sims says the people she meets are worried about things like affordable housing for their kids – usually viewed as a Vancouver problem – and they’re piling in together in multigenerational households to save money.

Municipal politicians are noticing the difference too. Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts was one of the first to sense the sea change. Since her election six years ago, she has focused on treating Surrey like a city instead of a bedroom-suburb fortress immune from urban problems.

But politicians in farther-afield Langley and Maple Ridge are feeling the shift as well.

“We’ve seen a huge influx of these new residents,” says Jordan Bateman, a 35-year-old two-term Langley Township councillor who moved from a large single-family house to a townhouse with his family to be in a more compact area close to Langley's urban amenities. “They’re at many public hearings, saying, ‘I moved here from Yaletown because it was affordable, but we loved Yaletown so can we have some of that.’ The number one issue is always transportation.”

Mr. Bateman says it’s a balancing act for him and his fellow councillors to find solutions for both the older-generation suburbanites from eastern Langley, who moved out for a rural experience, and the newer suburbanites in western Langley, who want something more like a city.

The older generation doesn’t always get the transit hunger of the newer residents. “One said to me, ‘Why are you talking about buses? We use cars. That’s how we built this place.’ ” In the seventies, eighties and even nineties, says Mr. Bateman, if you built transit to a community, it meant to many people that it was poor.

In Maple Ridge – the last major suburb left that still sees more single-family homes built than multifamily each year, though not by much – Mayor Ernie Daykin says he feels the shift in his own family. His family started farming in the area in 1879; he ran a lumber-store franchise.

“I think differently than my kids,” he says. “They’re content with a townhome. And my daughter is the recycle queen, very conscious of the environment. There’s an expectation from that group that we’re going to do a better job of developing.”

For him, that means a new and different kind of debate when, for example, Walmart comes to town wanting to build on a green field near the old Albion ferry, something his council is currently grappling with.

Pollster Greg Lyle, an avid observer of subtle shifts in public opinion, thinks the new suburban patterns could mean a change in political behaviour.

Until recently, the suburbs have been seen as an undifferentiated mass of mostly conservative voters. Mr. Lyle, who runs the polling company Innovative Research Group, believes they’ve been inclined to vote that way because they’re stretched so thin, in time and money.

“What I run into is people who are exhausted. They don’t get enough down time or sleep time. They’re driven to the suburbs in the first place because they think it’s more affordable and they don’t realize the time and driving it’s going to cost them,” says Mr. Lyle. “They have no time to watch The National or read a newspaper. So when they do hear about an issue, they’re angry. They become populists.”

But the suburbs now hold the majority of the country’s population, Mr. Lyle says. And while some voters there may stay true to the image of the conservative suburbanite, others – living in places that increasingly feel like cities – may change.

“I would argue those people in the town centres will be less populist than the old suburbanites,” says Mr. Lyle. “They’ll be more like people in the city, where life is lived more easily.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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