The last couple of months I’ve been looking for an apartment to rent in St. John’s, and I found there’s really very little for rent in the city. So I started to consider the available options which include either renting a condo downtown for upwards of 2000 dollars a month (?!), or living in a basement apartment somewhere far away from work and getting a car. Neither of these seemed very appealing to me, and I bet there are a lot of people in a similar situation. In fact I know there are, just from the amount of ‘apartment wanted’ ads in local media like Kijiji. To the chagrin of would-be downtown renters, it looks like the place to live in St. John’s right now is the suburbs.
The suburbs are no longer housing-only areas, where inhabitants commute to and from the downtown core every day. They are transforming to become small, self-contained satellite cities on the edge of a larger city. There’s a school, a salon, a family-friendly restaurant, a sports bar, and maybe even the office building in which you work. In theory, you never really have to leave your neighbourhood. Many suburbs around St. John’s are starting to look like this, or already do. And it’s attractive for many people who find living downtown just too noisy, congested, crime-ridden, and expensive in comparison.
On the other hand, we all know the negative effects of suburban sprawl. The obliteration of our forests, property tax hikes for everyone, and generic architecture. The American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion, have both stated that there is a significant connection between sprawl, obesity, and hypertension.
But my biggest beef is that there’s nowhere to go, besides the Costco parking lot, to be around people in a public space. There’s no place to hang out that isn’t centered around buying stuff.
One might say a suburban lifestyle is more individualistic, if you compare it to living in an apartment building where many of the domestic services are shared. Things like laundry, garbage collection and recycling, parking, heat and hot water, a gym. I once lived in a building that had three parking spaces reserved for a car-share service, which was outrageously convenient and economical. The services become part of a ‘public life,’ and you become a part of public life. The sacrifice you make is the abundance of privacy and space.
Why should we worry about this now? Our city is growing—and needs to be growing in a more thoughtful manner. Last year our population grew by 0.5 per cent, the largest increase since 1983. And by the end of 2010, another increase of 0.5 per cent is expected, translating into several thousand people migrating to Newfoundland. New housing ‘starts’ are expected to increase 1.5 per cent, to 3102 houses, and almost two thirds of these new houses are located in St. John’s. At the same time, rental vacancy rates in St. John’s are at an historic low of 0.9 per cent, and there is little or no development of new rental spaces.
Limiting subdivision development might not be a bad idea. It would help preserve the natural areas we still have on the Avalon, and I believe it would be in our collective social and economic best interests. While some Canadian municipalities have successfully adopted ‘urban growth boundaries’ to limit the sprawl, there would naturally be debate about how much of a role our governments should have in determining whether we choose to live a communal lifestyle in the core of the city, or in an unattached house in the quiet suburbs.
The bigger question, perhaps, is how can we stop developers from making irresponsible subdivisions? How can we ensure new developments reflect Newfoundland culture through architecture? And, as a city, how much do we prioritize public space, places where you can go to be with people? Flattening a forest to make a clean slate for a subdivision is easy. The alternative—working on already developed areas—requires designers, planners, impact studies, a lot of time and a lot of careful consideration.
But it might just be worth it.