Features | Trapped in the sprawl

Justin Scherer revisits the big-box stores and clogged highways of southern Ontario’s suburbs

“Everything he had known had become permeated by a hidden death, a solvent of unreality, a sense of belonging to the past. It had all become a makeshift, like worn-out clothing that no longer fitted…this slow outgrowing of a beloved and harmonious home town, this shedding of a way of life no longer right for him.…”

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

Going Home – and I mean Home with a capital “H”; Home where your teenage fists beat holes in the drywall; Home where you cultivated an armature of acquaintances to blanket you in acceptance; Home that is dusty basement bedrooms and angsty posters; Home that is memory; Home that is family; Home that is rest – going Home is an experience nearly universal to student life, sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes surreal. This Home for me is Oshawa, Ontario (affectionately known as “the Shwa,” “the dirty Shwa,” or as the simple, unadorned syllable “Shwa”), a suburb of 150,000-odd upper-lower-middle class Canadians and the last gasp of the Golden Horseshoe heading east from Toronto. Stepping onto the platform from the train at the Oshawa station is always a shock in the winter. I brace myself against the cold and look down at the gritty concrete, bleached white by safety salt. I look out toward the city and thousands of car roofs reflect the afternoon’s dull light. They stretch nearly to the horizon where the dirty rush of the highway gives way to the bland sky.

Sometimes in the winter, if you look lengthways along the platform, the pale white of the salt-cracked concrete is the same colour as the blank winter sky just before snowfall, and they blend into each other uninterrupted. About a kilometre to the east, I see the bulky signs of a big-box store, behind them the formless, steel, almost impossibly huge buildings of the closed GM plant, with its smokeless chimneys, flanked for kilometres by parking lots with thousands of fresh cars squished bumper to bumper, so that one car can’t be moved without moving all of them. They are all the same model, utterly uniform. To me, the suburbs are like science fiction – strange and alien. I feel paralyzed by the inaccessibility of the city.

You can’t function normally in suburbia without a car, especially in the winter when it’s frigid. The sidewalks aren’t shovelled, and I live 10 minutes from the closest bus, which only comes once an hour. I can’t go to the store, visit friends, or do any activity outside the house other than shovel the driveway and walk to the park down the street, which is always empty and sad. Sometimes I go for walks at night; kill some time, get some exercise, get out of the house. Walking through a purely residential area, it’s unlikely that I would see a single person. I feel like an archaeologist sometimes, trying to find traces of life in a dead landscape. Evidence of human beings surfaces – the lights in windows, the perpetual hum of cars, the brown flowerbeds – but an actual human form is nowhere to be seen except for the garish blow-up lawn decorations of Santa Claus or plastic children skating on inflatable ice in a giant balloon approximating a snow globe. On the odd occasion, when I cross the path of another person, the terse nods we exchange feel almost perfunctory as if, even though we’re strangers, we must acknowledge each other because we’re the only two people to be seen.

Even with a car, the suburbs are no comfort. With a car you have to deal with highways like the 401 – simultaneously a congested anus of traffic and the main artery of southern Ontario. The region’s patient denizens ply that strip of cracked asphalt at a snail’s pace every day during rush hours. And I’ve seen the traffic do some nasty things. I’ve seen some of the nicest people I know reduced to snarling, swearing balls of rage, ready to smash and trample some other less-than-considerate motorists. I cringe when I start to add up a rough estimate of the hours, days, and weeks that people waste trying to get to and from work along the 401 every year: one hour each way twice a day times five days a week times four weeks a month times twelve months a year equals 480 hours equals 20 days every year! Imagine what you could do if even half of that time was reclaimed.

Thousands of people live this way throughout their adult lives. So much for seizing the moment. Then again, if your life rotates between the office where the boss breathes down your neck and home where family demands constant attention, an hour in traffic may be a welcome reprieve – some much-needed alone time. I try to imagine why anyone would design a place like this, and think that an imaginary genius, when devising the layout of the suburbs that sprawl for hours to the north, west, and east of Toronto, must have had in mind some radically new human being of the distant future. I imagine them thinking, “At some point, from the fetid, frigid ooze of Lake Ontario, there will emerge a species of humanity that will somehow have in their biological arsenal the ability to fly. So, let’s spread everything out well beyond the scale of the contemporary human being. Low population density will make public transit ineffectual and expensive. Let’s go big. Let’s go uniform. Let’s design the suburbs so that, between point A and B, there will always be rows and rows of monotonous and identical houses, streets, stores.”

In an effort to come to terms with my suburban hometown and the crippling ennui I feel whenever I return, I sat down with Professor Raphäel Fischler from McGill’s School of Urban Planning. There must be some justification for suburban living, right? He explained that the first suburbs emerged during the nineteenth century in Protestant countries like England and America. The English word suburb, just like the French banlieue and German Vorstadt, reveals that suburbia was born and developed in contradistinction to the city – as an alternative to urban living. Disgusted with the licentiousness and filth of rapidly expanding industrial cities like Manchester, the somewhat puritanical bourgeois elite sought to create havens of purity where their children could grow up free from the city’s influence. They planned these bedroom communities to ape the large estates of the landed gentry. As Fischler illustrated, “They placed single family homes well back from the roads, surrounded them with greenery, and gave each home its own driveway connecting them to the carriageway and to the city.”

They laid out the suburbs’ curvilinear street patterns to suggest a luxurious pace, mimicking the opulent mountain estates with their fresh air, inspiring scenery, and roads that followed the curve of the slope. The Montreal neighbourhoods of Westmount and Outremont are attractive today for the same reasons. Their winding streets were designed to be safe for children, eliminate noisy and dangerous thru-traffic, and ensure that any unwelcome strangers will immediately become disoriented. Plus, the property was cheap enough that one could own and control the land surrounding the house.

In the suburbs, one was free to bask in the comfort of domesticity and the nuclear family, free to control one’s own destiny. These ideas have percolated down through generations and left us with the modern suburb, explained Fischler. Of course, the scale has changed. Instead of individual houses surrounded by large properties with long driveways winding down to the road, we have sprawling labyrinths filled with uniform houses with short driveways and tiny yards. But the ideology behind the modern suburb is more or less the same, albeit without its puritanical bent. The energy of developers and residents still focuses on controlling the intensely private sphere of the nuclear family. In this sense, the notorious isolation and social homogeneity of suburbia is a good thing according to Fischler. Parents have the power to choose the peers of their children and shelter them from the city’s influence. They can surround their families with communities of like-minded people with similar backgrounds.

The suburbs of southern Ontario are far from culturally homogenous, though. The diversity of Toronto’s suburban satellites often approaches that of the city itself. Despite this, suburbia is still imagined and marketed as racially homogenous. In “Selling the Suburbs,” Katherine Perrott explains that cultural homogeneity is highlighted as a selling point – 81.7 per cent of the images advertising suburban developments contained only white models. These planned communities also tend to lack a diversity of age and socioeconomic status. Perrott notes that there are few opportunities to have a variety of incomes living in close proximity to each other. In this sense, suburban planning remains true to its roots, even if the homogenous ideal has retreated into the subconscious of most suburbanites.

Owning your own home and property also creates an outlet for showing one’s wealth. This I can attest to personally. During an unfortunate summer as a painter in Oshawa, I witnessed the suburbanites’ mania for customization and home improvement. They pour themselves into their homes. How else could you explain the hours they happily spend choosing shades of off-white paint for the walls or the perfect brand of riding lawn mower? And the value is still there. Property in the suburbs is much cheaper than in an urban core. There are, however, other indirect costs to suburban living.

One is the feeling of helplessness and isolation I feel in Oshawa, where I lose the freedom of movement that I enjoy in Montreal. Then again, the suburbs weren’t designed for people like me. With no car and no permanent job, I don’t fit, and that purposeful isolation turns from boon to bane. Fischler explained that transport has always been a problem for suburban planners. He emphasized that “good roads were always a must.”

The archetypal suburb had a conservative nuclear family in mind with one bread-winning (probably male) driver who had no problem getting to and from work via the highway. That stereotypical image we often have of the suburbs, where Valium-popping housewives go crazy with a kind of cabin fever, developed as a very gendered by-product of intentional suburban isolation. This image is fading today as people buy more and more cars. The average household in the outer suburbs of Toronto, like Oshawa, owns 1.9 vehicles, where their urban counterparts only own 1.1 vehicles per household.

Of course car culture intensified with the suburbs’ new, huge proportions. This expansion continues into the present, and car dependency has embedded itself as a fundamental, almost subconscious fact in suburbia – so much so that cafés and banks are equipped with drive-thrus and malls are spread out so far that you can’t get between two stores without driving.

A s commutes get longer and traffic more tangled, people are spending more and more time sitting in their cars, often to the detriment of their health – hardly a surprise when the only exercise you get is the walk to and from the parking lot or driveway. The Environment Health Committee of the Ontario College of Family Physicians’ “Report on Public Health and Urban Sprawl in Ontario” found frightening links between suburbia and physical and mental health.

Authors Riina Bray, Catherine Vakil, and David Elliot affirm that “Evidence clearly shows that people who live in spread-out, car-dependent neighbourhoods are likely to walk less, weigh more, and suffer from obesity and high blood pressure and consequent diabetes, cardio-vascular and other diseases.” They also establish that the lack of accessible green space in these areas negatively affects psychological well-being. In their study, Bray, Vakil, and Elliot also established that 60 per cent of residents in low-walkability neighbourhoods were overweight compared to 35 per cent in high-walkability neighbourhoods.

The health of our environment also suffers massive damage at the hands of car dependency and urban sprawl. In “Comparing High and Low Resident Density,” Jonathan Norman, Heather L. Maclean, and Christopher A. Kennedy found that in the Toronto area per capita transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and energy use is 3.7 times higher for individuals living in low-density suburbia versus high-density urban settings. They linked this increase directly to high car dependency in the suburban fringe. Unless commuter behaviour changes, estimates predict that greenhouse gas emissions will increase 30 per cent for the greater Toronto area and 40 per cent for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (Bray, Vakil, and Elliot).

Car dependency brings with it the parking lots, malls, highways, and subdivisions that continue to swallow up fertile land to make room for more suburbanites and their cars. The number of big-box stores in the greater Toronto area almost tripled between 1998 and 2006 from 266 to 721. These are the ugly public spaces that I find so strange every time I revisit the Shwa.

The suburbs of the future may not be so ugly, though. According to Fischler, this unsightliness has been duly noted, and efforts are being made to improve it. While suburban development continues as before, some planners are moving toward putting the “urb” back in the suburbs. By concentrating more on well-designed, attractive public spaces, the suburbs of the future may bring together the best of both suburban and urban worlds. The planners designing these communities establish the norms for generations who will call them home.

Then again, today’s aging suburbs may have a gloomier fate. The baby boomers for whom they were constructed are moving into their sunset years, and young families are not buying the houses they’re leaving behind. Can you blame them? If given the choice between an older bungalow complete with newspaper insulation in the walls and a constant rash of repairs, or a recently built, insured home, the choice seems easy. New arrivals to the suburbs usually favour new development, and as a result, the older suburbs decline in value and many of these aging communities may become the slums of tomorrow. This is already a reality in cities like Los Angeles, where some of the worst neighbourhoods are technically suburban.

This may also be the fate of my hometown. Throughout its history, Oshawa developed as a bastion of southern Ontario’s once-thriving auto industry. It was the birthplace of the McLaughlin Carriage Company – later General Motors. It seems that Oshawa is doomed to endure the same slow death as GM, despite its efforts to the contrary. The General Motors plant in Oshawa cut nearly 2,000 jobs in 2008 alone. Unemployment has risen steadily in Oshawa and the surrounding towns. Right now, it stands at a staggering 9.8 per cent according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Slums or not, I know that the suburbs are not for me, even if they do regain some of their “urb.” It’s not because the suburbs are an evil, alien, or cruel place to live, but because the ideology and history in which the suburbs are couched just don’t line up with this stage in my life. I’m young. The world is mine to discover and I want to be challenged by the dynamic environment the big city offers. I don’t love my friends or family any less because they live in the suburbs. At the end of the day, they are my Home more than Oshawa ever will be.

And yet, this nagging apprehension tugs at the edges of my mind whenever someone responds to my complaints about the ‘burbs by insisting that I will want a suburban home “when I grow up.” Unlikely as that may be now, someday I might be choosing shades of off-white and trimming lawns with the best of them.