Sunday, March 6, 2011

Space and Freedom, Part One

i've been struggling with this for a while okay

I don't hate suburbs themselves. It's more the manner in which the concept of suburbs has been realized over the last seventy years that I really disagree with. I grew up in a suburban development, and I learned well how isolating and artificial life there can be - and this was an inner suburb, close enough to my downtown high school that I could walk home in less than an hour. After twenty years of sprawling at the fringes, my old address is practically downtown. If not for the bus stop literally right across the street from the house, I don't know what I'd have done.

The point is, they're not for everyone - but the myopic focus upon suburban development that has dominated city planning across most of North America for the last seventy years has assumed just that. The problem is that the "truths" of the twentieth century aren't going to cut it anymore. We shouldn't continue to build low-density, car-centric developments - to blithely assume that we will always have a so-cheap-it-doesn't-matter power source to fuel our automobiles is a very large gamble, and it's one that would affect all of society if the wheel doesn't stop where the suburb boosters have put down their chips.

Not everyone, of course, sees it the same way I do. The other day, I had the dubious privilege of stumbling onto Jon Ferry's column in The Province - a paper which had never really seemed right-wing until that moment - a column which has got to be one of the most ill-informed, ideological, disingenuous pieces of twaddle I've ever encountered in a major newspaper. It starts even with the headline - "Suburban sprawl is what we really want."

Oh really, Jon Ferry. Well, thank god the drifting, voiceless people of British Columbia have you to tell them what they want.

An aerial view of low-density suburban development in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Thank you, Phoenix, for always being there when I need to illustrate sprawl.

It begins with an idea that, in and of itself, isn't really offensive - rather than build new schools to support the city of Surrey's growing school-age population, just transport Surrey children to Vancouver schools. Now, I'm not sure how education is funded in British Columbia, whether tax revenues from each district support that district's schools, or if education taxes all go into a big hat and are redistributed by Victoria, or what - but if it's possible to keep existing schools open and use that $250 million for equally pressing things, such as transit expansion, it's something we should do.

But Ferry doesn't stop there. Instead, it's a segue on how Surrey is growing faster than Vancouver - hell, it's set to overtake Vancouver in population in the next few decades - "undoubtedly because it costs less to own or rent a fair-sized home there." This is true only because it's kept artificially so. I can't speak for rental rates there, because in my search for a place I didn't look anywhere south of the Fraser. I know enough to recognize that Vancouver is the hinge around which my life in the Lower Mainland pivots, even if I could never afford to actually own anything there.

The reason I chose not to put down rent in the Terminal City was because I placed a premium on easy access to the SkyTrain, and given the geography of development there were vast swathes of the city I ended up looking right past. I didn't even consider Surrey for the same reason - I have no interest in spending however long it may take to wait for a bus, for that bus to reach one of the four SkyTrain stations in northern Surrey, and for that SkyTrain to then wind its way downtown. My commute from New Westminster is more than long enough.

Ferry, however, couldn't be more supportive of Surrey and other suburbs built in the same image. He sees the idea of suburban sprawl as under attack by "city-centric politicians, ivory-tower professors and other politically correct members of the chattering classes" who advocate for "compact, multi-unit living" and "keep yammering on about the supposed evils of suburban sprawl." He discards the argument of densification as decreasing carbon dioxide emissions with one of the most ridiculous notes I've ever come across in a legitimate newspaper: "Let's forget for a moment whether human-induced CO2 emissions really cause global warming, which seems increasingly doubtful."

Fucking Christ! Does this man have any grasp of science whatsoever? Does he think that our factories, our coal-fired power plants, our cars' tailpipes emit some sort of "artificial carbon dioxide" or "CO2 plus" that doesn't act as a heat-trapping gas? Carbon dioxide has been known to act as a greenhouse gas for generations! Back in Grade 4, in 1990, I did a school essay on the greenhouse effect and used as sources already old library books that acknowledged the role of carbon dioxide in generating the greenhouse effect! This is not new science! The only thing new is the appearance of conservative idiots and corporate shills who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, or do not want to admit that their actions may be greatly harming the future and so look for other people to blame!


Okay. Okay. I'm good now. Before I go any further, I'd like to note that aside from an eleven-month stint between graduating university and finding a good job, I have lived in apartments since leaving home nearly ten years ago. I can understand what Ferry means when he says he left London because he wanted "a sizeable house, not a cramped apartment with thin walls." My apartment may not be cramped, but it's not uncommon for me to have to wait until the thumping of my neighbor's stereo disappears before turning in for the night. I'm not living in a single-family home; my residence is something much closer to the "eco-dense sardine cans" at which Ferry sneers. The life I lead is far, far preferable to one in the suburbs. I have no desire to ever get a house out in the sprawl. If ever I own anything, it will be a condo.

But no! According to the word of Ferry, suburbs are good. We have "oodles of space for housing, farming or doing whatever we damn well please," and that "we should be promoting suburban sprawl, not curbing it... and helping people own large, airy, stress-free houses."

These quotes are packed so full of asinine ridiculousness I barely know where to begin. I don't have to have been a homeowner to know that the idea of houses as "stress-free" is utterly insane. First, let's take a look at that scourge of every homeowner... the mortgage. Sure, it's basically a kind of rent that you pay to the bank, but at the end you own the house and can do with it as you please - whereas money you pay on rent, you never see again (except in the form of maintenance, management, common area lightbulb replacement, and all that other fun stuff). But I don't know of any rental contracts that have you continuing to pay for twenty or thirty or forty years. A lot can go wrong in that time. There's plenty of opportunity for rough patches. I doubt a bank would be more forgiving than a sympathetic landlord.

Second - yes, Canada does have a great deal of land available for housing, farming, or whatever. There's only one problem: it's the same damn land! Back in Ontario, hectares upon hectares of good agricultural land are plowed under every year to slap down yet another subdivision of cardboard estates. The Ontario government was forced to legislate protection for the environmentally-sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine, because the developers sure as hell wouldn't steer clear of it if they could make money slamming down suburbs. The more land is devoted to suburbs, the less there is for agriculture, and the more we depend on importation to survive. This is something that the Lower Mainland, being effectively an island, needs to be careful of. At one point this winter, the bread aisle at Safeway was nearly bare because an avalanche had closed the Trans-Canada and the shipment couldn't get through from Calgary. This is something I never encountered in Ontario.

Finally - promoting suburban sprawl. I had no idea that the Province had stationed columnists in the 1950s, because that's where this seems to be coming from. We've sprawled for decades, and what has it got us? Huge areas of low-density development that are difficult and expensive to serve with public transit, cut off from the services of the city and requiring a personal automobile in order to get anything done. Sprawl has had its chance, and given that we of the 21st century have the opportunity to take stock of our history and improve on our mistakes, to charge on with those mistakes because it is ideologically convenient is a crime against the future. Advocating the promotion of suburban sprawl is like advocating the installation of gas lamps in all the light standards on Columbia Street, because they look so much prettier than electrics.

I know that people like the idea of suburbs, that they seek the sense of "space and freedom" that Ferry lionizes. Sprawl is not the only way to get this - it's just the easiest way, the one that has seven decades' worth of memetic engineering working in its favor. We can have suburbs without having sprawl. I would've written on this today, but I've said enough for now. You want to know my alternative? Come back on Tuesday and I'll tell you what it is.

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