Spreading out

"The American Dream" by Roma Flowers

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.

6 comments

Monster carrot

20 August 2009

  1. Sean · August 20, 2009

    Awesome stuff, Taryn. How about integrating denser urban forms (for all income levels), mixed use, schools, and parks in a core, surrounded by lower density suburban housing, all within reasonable walking distance? This was tried once, and was partly successful in the Churchill Square area. The high value of real estate in the area shows that this is a popular option, but as a result, it has become far less affordable than was originally envisioned. Why can’t the City, in cooperation with developers, re-create this elsewhere, but also involve coops and non-profit housing so as to ensure that a certain proportion always remains affordable?

  2. damian · August 20, 2009

    for further meditations on suburban living in musical form see below

    http://alonetone.com/amfmdreams/playlists/suburban-teenage-riot

  3. ben jackson · August 20, 2009

    James Howard Kunstler did a fabulous TED talk about the problems of suburbia:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_suburbia.html

  4. taryn · August 20, 2009

    …”despotic building that wants us to feel like termites…” LOL!

    this guy has some interesting ideas…

    http://www.ted.com/talks/mitchell_joachim_don_t_build_your_home_grow_it.html

  5. M · August 20, 2009

    With the rental rates in St. John’s right now, you’re better off buying a house. Literally. I’m renting an apartment for 800pou right now. A 25 year mortgage for 200,000$ is about the same cost per month. The problem with renting for such an atrocious amount of money is that because you’re paying through the nose for a space worth half of that, is that you become stuck in a cycle of not being able to save money to get out of it. Minimum wage would be enough for me if I didn’t have to shell out almost half my earnings for a place to put my bed!

  6. Ken O'Brien · August 20, 2009

    Your article raises important questions about building communities, accommodating new growth, and creating sprawl. It’s not inevitable that our cities and towns will sprawl, but we have to think about new ways of building. One of the other comments concerns the Churchill Park area — lower density than downtown but higher than a typical suburban area today.

    People look to the suburbs to get larger yards and more open spaces. One challenge in cities is to set out ample, quality public open space BEFORE building dense settlements around it. Start with the open space which everyone can enjoy. We need more Bannerman Parks!