We need to move on from the suburban myth

Suburbs aren’t sustainable in face of a growing population

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A birds-eye-view of a suburban landscape. Visible are cars, solar panels, rooftops, and roads.
Space is at a premium in urban areas — we need to be more efficient with how we use it. PHOTO: Tom Rumble / Unsplash

By: Jared Murphy, SFU Student

The idea of suburbia probably conjures up many different ideas for you. Possibly, a nostalgic picture of riding your bike until “the street lights turn on,” like mom used to say. For others, maybe feelings of isolation because the nearest activity is 40 minutes away by car. Either way, it’s important for all of us that the myth of suburban utopia dies in our collective consciences. Suburbs aren’t bringing us towards some middle class utopia, but rather towards some hodge-podge form of neo-feudalism in which power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of the few. 

The development of suburbs accelerated after WWII. With a massive amount of wealth flowing through the West as soldiers made their ways home, the concept of the middle class was brought to the forefront of public perception, opening a new demographic. Cash was flowing, and the recent abundance of cars drove a new demand — cheaper country housing without the need of workable land. 

An unfortunate reality of suburbs is that they are ecologically damaging. Houses lose heat much faster than an apartment complex; exposing five walls to the outside for heat to drain through. Single-lane road construction averages over a thousand tonnes of CO2 per kilometer, and with suburbs, we need a lot of concrete for all those Hondas to park somewhere. Further, the low-height sprawl of suburbs takes up a lot of land to house a comparatively small population. Even without considering the emissions of construction, every square kilometer of developed land takes away from what could otherwise be much-needed conservation areas. As we start to recognize the need for sustainability in infrastructure, we should also realize that the best way to do this is to make cities more dense. 

The trend to treat land more like an investment than a human need has become increasingly pronounced. One needs to only look at how much faster Vancouver’s housing prices are growing than its population to support this. I find it abhorrent to watch billionaires drop millions in pocket change in what is basically a glorified flex. How many DailyHive articles showing off “eye-popping” mansions in West Vancouver need to be published until we begin to realize that this is all just a game to those with capital?

Additionally, there are countless anecdotes of people moving into a single-family home only to commute over two hours to and from work. We need to decide on which path to take — either that of densifying and urbanizing the surrounding suburbs into more efficient uses of land, or moving away. I don’t need to remind you that Canada is huge. Moving to Chilliwack isn’t the solution to the problem. The middle and lower classes might need to be reawakened to the dream that’s being sold: suburbia isn’t sustainable.

I would like to offer an alternative. Vote with your (probably empty) wallet. Vote with capital alongside with your democratic rights. Move away from detached homes — lobby for more high rises, and incentives for rural living. Our city has some of the most draconian zoning laws, all in the name of vibes. Younger voting blocs could shift this legislation that affects us all. This city isn’t the only cool place in Canada. Working towards living in a strictly rural or urban environment can lower our capitalist, carbon-laden impacts as a result.