Canada is not an urban society. It is a suburban society. More than two-thirds of Canadians live in suburbs; in our largest cities the figure is over 80 per cent. Fifty-five per cent of Canadians live in detached homes. Four of the five best-selling vehicles in Canada are pickup trucks. (The fifth is an SUV.)
The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to hasten the flight from downtown to suburb, from the condo tower to a house with a garage and a backyard, from public transit to owning a car.
To understand the future of cities, understand the suburban family living on a curvy street in a house with the garage sticking out and a Ford F-150 in the driveway.
What does this family need or desire? How, other than relying on market forces and keeping out of their way, can we make their lives better? These are the questions that matter when we talk about the future of cities.
The pandemic has revealed flaws in the assumptions behind downtown living. Many millennials, unable to afford the stratospheric prices of houses in the core, live in high-rises. This is not an ideal environment when two adults suddenly have to work from home and there isn’t even a balcony, let alone a backyard.
Some of this will go away once everyone is vaccinated. But working from home is likely to become much more common, which is why in my city, Ottawa, Shopify wants to sublet its downtown headquarters.
Suddenly, the idea of thousands upon thousands of people wasting hours each day funnelling into city centres in the morning and then back home at night seems faintly ridiculous. Who wants to go back to doing that five days a week?
If the future of the city involves more people working at least part of the time from home, housing will have to adapt. As it turns out, the detached suburban house is quite well suited to the task.
People downtown grapple with issues such as congestion, homelessness, affordability. They assign a high priority to combatting global warming. They seek redistributive solutions: social services, subsidized housing, anti-racism initiatives, bike lanes, a carbon tax.
But the priorities of many suburbanites – including the 51 per cent of immigrants in Greater Toronto who live in suburbs – are aspirational rather than redistributive; they are more interested in getting ahead than in giving back. They don’t ride bikes between November and April, and they don’t seek to defund the police. As for global warming: pickup trucks.
If your response is that we must must get suburbanites to change their way of living and thinking, how do you plan to win their votes?
People in city centres should be thinking less about compelling suburbs to change, and more about what they’re going to do with all those empty downtown office towers and the shuttered stores in the malls beneath them, now that suburban workers are spending at least part of their work week at home.
They might ask how they’re going to get suburbanites to come downtown to shop and eat and see a movie or a play if they don’t work there much any more, cool new restaurants are opening in their own neighbourhood and everything they want to see is streamed.
That doesn’t mean many suburban dwellers don’t want changes. Looser zoning and fewer regulations might encourage the return of the corner store and other shops within walking distance.
Public transit may be reshaped to serve each community rather than acting as a hub-and-spoke commuter system.
The pandemic has revealed that retirement homes can be life-threatening. In our aging society, houses need to be redesigned to accommodate multiple generations of one family. Actually, they already do. Drive around any suburban neighbourhood with detached homes. Note how many jam three or four cars into the driveway. That may well be a multigenerational family, including grandparents and adult children who can’t afford to move out.
People thinking about the future of the city need to show suburban dwellers more respect. Stop telling them what their values and priorities should be, what future you envision for them.
They are most of us. They will decide their own future. And just in case you haven’t noticed, they like big trucks.
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