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Detached homes and apartment buildings in Etobicoke's suburbs stretch west of Toronto, on Aug. 18, 2017.Patrick Dell/The Globe and Mail

Rino Bortolin is a strategic adviser and project manager at the University of Windsor’s Centre for Cities, and a former Windsor city councillor and chair of its planning standing committee. Dorian Moore is the principal architect of Archive DS in Detroit. Anneke Smit is the director of the Centre for Cities and an associate professor of the University of Windsor’s faculty of law. James Tischler is development director at the Michigan State Land Bank and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Cities. All four authors are members of the Housing Systems Innovation Lab at the Centre for Cities.

With a push for housing densification coming fast and furious in the form of conditions on federal funding to municipalities, there has been a growing chorus of voices defending suburban living as being the “Canadian way.” A report from a research team led by Queen’s University professor David Gordon recently confirmed that most of the population growth in Canada since 2006 has been in the suburbs, with more than two-thirds of our country’s total population living there as of the most recent census in 2021.

But the flaw in this premise is that the prevailing suburban lifestyle is not necessarily a reflection of people’s preferences; rather, it is largely a consequence of deliberate policy choices that have affected what has been built and where since the Second World War. The report also found a slight decline in the proportion of people opting for suburbs and a corresponding increase in those preferring urban settings.

In short, Canada’s all-in focus on suburban growth over the decades has fundamentally constrained the potential of urban living, preventing comprehensive urbanism from being viable in the majority of our cities and reinforcing the suburban lifestyle – whether Canadians really liked it or not.

Through regressive and restrictive zoning bylaws and municipal taxation schemes that have favoured building on undeveloped land over building in established urban cores, various levels of Canadian governments have consistently favoured and facilitated the building of suburban, car-centric neighbourhoods while limiting the range of urban living options. The long-time priority of building single-family homes to create low-density areas has shifted planning processes away from what should be their primary goal: creating livable cities for everyone.

Sound urban planning and government oversight is necessary to ensure our communities grow in ways that are environmentally and fiscally prudent, and that prioritize equity and public health. However, these approaches have not been genuinely available in most Canadian cities.

Limited, oversimplified municipal tax policies have actually subsidized suburban growth, as studies commissioned by Ottawa and Halifax have shown. Public infrastructure investments have followed these growth patterns, as illustrated by the amount invested in highways and expressways compared to public transit in this same period. These prioritizations have made urban living less desirable, since the amenities associated with city living have been underfunded and are therefore either unavailable or unreliable.

Yet at a time when municipalities are facing multiple intersecting crises, including housing affordability, climate change, biodiversity, public and mental health and socioeconomic disparity, dense and walkable urban neighbourhoods have emerged as superior. Suburbs that have focused on walkability and access to transit also do a better job of addressing several of these issues than those that are car-reliant. Denser suburbs have been shown to bring both health and economic benefits for residents, for example.

So while Canada may be seen as predominantly suburban, the past doesn’t have to dictate the future. Just as we have prioritized suburban sprawl through policy, we can slow or even reverse our trajectory with the same tools.

To break this pattern, governments must challenge the status quo and actively shift their focus, allocating resources toward initiatives that make urban cores better and reforming municipal taxation and planning policy to do so. This approach means simultaneously developing urban and suburban areas, and better understanding the costs and consequences of both. Doing so will help create a range of better housing choices, and foster a more balanced urban-development landscape.

Canada finds itself at a critical juncture where the decisions we make today will shape the physical form and function of our cities for decades. The urgent need for housing and the corresponding response will leave a lasting impact on our culture and economic prosperity moving forward. We need to make sure that impact is felt most keenly in our cities.

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