Thursday, October 1, 2009

Defining the suburbs

What are the suburbs? Are they any residential area not adjacent to the city centre? Are they satellite communities completely separate from a city? Are they a lifestyle?

As people in my age group begin to pair off and settle down, we each have to make decisions about where we live, and those decisions define our lives and how we interact with the world.

To the young, modern, urban, university-going environmentalist (am I painting a picture here?), the concept of "the suburbs" is often met with disdain, disgust, and moral condemnation. But what are we actually talking about here? When it comes to the debate on the pros and cons of suburban living, some serious clarification of terms is necessary. To many, the concept of packing up and moving to the outskirts of town has a very symbolic meaning. "The suburbs" is an extremely loaded term.

Technical definitions--

Based on my superb and in-depth research techniques (I googled "define: suburbs"), definitions of "suburb" vary between a residential area just outside city limits, or on the edge--but within-- those limits.

I think we can agree that in popular understanding, a suburb is a residential community at least somewhat removed from the city centre (a place of work and recreation), which necessitates vehicular travel. That's pretty vague though. How far from downtown does a residential area have to be to fit this definition? I don't think Wolseley is considered a suburb, but Norwood might be. Or if it isn't, then what about Old St. Vital? Where's the line? If someone can link a great definition, please do.

The suburbs as a lifestyle--

Basically the above discussion is irrelevant, because when someone says "you moved to the suburbs? whoa, you sold out, man!" they don't care if your house falls within the city limits or not. They're talking about something much bigger.

Images of monstrous and morally bankrupt suburbia have been explored in pop culture over the years, and include tree-less, cookie cutter homes with 3-car garages, desperate housewives and rich, wasteful, out-of-touch people driving their SUVs around as much as possible. While there may be some truth to these little gems, please indulge in them with caution, because stereotypes hurt.

With my enviro-guilt complex, you can imagine it was hard for me to buy a home in non-central Southdale. While I would have liked to live closer to downtown, where I go to school and hang out often, there were plenty of good reasons for our choice. 1. Familiarity-- it's the area my boyfriend and I grew up in (more or less, I'm a Windsor Park native). So we didn't move to the 'burbs, we just shuffled around within them. 2. Family-- we're a walk away from the boyfriend's parents'. We use their car and "borrow" their food. We're poor, so it's great. 3. Compromise-- my boyfriend goes to the U of M. We needed decent bus routes to serve us both.

So you can probably also imagine that I'm quite preemptively defensive about where I've chosen to live. While I've gotten flack once or twice from drunken and disgruntled hippy hipsters, I must admit I'm my own worst critic on this one. Did I sell out? Does where I live define me?

Ok, I'm about to blow most of your minds with this revelation: moving to a non-central residential area does not automatically enroll you in the mindless-suburban-excessively-consumptive club.

An ideal sustainable and otherwise healthy community is a place in which people live, work, play, and build relationships, in close proximity. Focusing on the local is always best, I agree. Not only does a setup like this encourage interconnectedness and community involvement, but it limits the need for cars. But that doesn't mean you are evil if you live out here. In some circles, I feel ashamed to tell people where I live, and that frustrates me, because I love our house and neighborhood. In fact, we benefit from the proximity of an urban habitat-- the Seine River is a short walk away. We ski and toboggan there in the winter, and deer and other animals are part of our community (they steal our garden veggies!).

But the truth is, it's hard to be sustainable when things aren't central. Walking, or even busing, to the grocery story is a real hassle. I don't have access to the organic stores that populate the hippie haven of Wolseley (nor could I likely afford to shop there --an upcoming post). An hour bus ride to school downtown is the norm, and service really isn't great at night. It's a big effort, but what can I say? As an environmentalist, I'm location-challenged.

In terms of the city's future, re-developing existing urban areas to make them livable should be the priority. But with a constantly expanding population, suburban development (whatever that may mean) seems inevitable, at least to some extent. What we can do is strive to make it as sustainable as possible. This means things like preserving and incorporating mature trees into development, providing efficient and accessible public transit (can't stress this one enough), and providing some local amenities to eliminate needless car trips. There are also benefits to new developments, such as opportunities for sustainable construction techniques like geo-thermal.

I found a CBC archived series on sub/urban issues, and specifically, the video called The new (sub)urbanism (number 9), that seems pretty relevant, even if it's a bit old.

To sum up, suburban dwellers can be environmentally conscious too, and marginalizing us won't help anything. Not everyone can live in the city centre.


  1. Sandy, thanks for defending those of us living on the 'outskirts of town'. I do need to drive if I want to get anywhere in under an hour, despite being located on the fringes of a bus route. But at the same time, my family grows a lot of our own vegetables and even some fruit (enough for canning and keeping in the root cellar until spring!!), finds ways to reuse things whenever possible, buys phosphate-free washing products, and recently installed one of the most energy-efficient furnaces on the market. So, thanks again for following up on your earlier post about the location issue, and letting people know that while important, location isn't everything. :)

  2. I'm "torn" on the definition "issue". I want to say that I dont live in the suburbs because I am within the city limits, but the more I think about it, and hear other opinions, the more I think the definition changes with the size of the city.

  3. Good point. Smaller cities like ours don't have as much need for commuter towns (aka out of city limits suburbs).

    "great" use of quotations, by the way.