Suburbs header

Markus Moos and Anna Kramer
School of Planning, University of Waterloo

The objective of the Atlas of Suburbanisms is to make publicly available research and data analysis of Canada’s changing cities with an explicit focus on suburbanization. The Atlas will serve as a portal to create dialogue and share data analysis of suburbanization in Canada. The Atlas will also be a repository of socio-spatial analysis that provides an empirical account of the diversity of Canadian suburbanisms using Statistics Canada census data. The project includes quantitative and conceptual research on processes shaping the changing built form, land uses and demography of Canadian cities at multiple scales. The Atlas will be of interest to researchers, policy-makers, educators and the general public.

What is suburban? And what are its ‘isms’ ?

An Atlas of Suburbanisms ought to begin with an unambiguous definition of what is meant by suburban. After all, we have often been told that one cannot analyze something that is not concretely defined. Or, can we? While we often view the suburbs as a large geographic area surrounding our central cities, any attempt to create an exact definition of the suburban is actually on somewhat shaky grounds. There are no natural features delineating the urban from the sub-urban; and anyone who has ever spent time in suburbs knows that they come in diverse forms—think of the many high-rise apartments dotting the suburban municipalities of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver that are often believed to be dominated only by single-family housing.

What is the issue then in trying to define the suburbs concretely? Well, defining the suburban as a concrete, geographic entity—a place we can draw on a map with exact boundaries—means that we only understand suburbs as places—and suburbanization as the process that creates them—in opposition to the central city, the urban. It means that all the differences that exist within suburbs are ‘averaged’ out. We cannot tell whether some places in the suburbs actually have characteristics that are much more urban in some ways, say for instance high-density housing, centralized near transit. Nor can we tell whether there are places in the central city that remind us of the characteristics we often ascribe to suburbs—the expensive neighbourhoods consisting primarily of single-family housing found near the downtowns of our major cities come to mind here. The suburbs become only defined as ‘not urban’, as less dense, as less diverse and often as more automobile intensive than the urban.

How are we to talk about the suburbs without actually knowing ‘where they are’?

The MCRI on Global Suburbanisms, under the leadership of Roger Keil, has encouraged us to move away from thinking of suburbs as particular places, and instead thinking of suburbanisms as particular ways of living. This opens up the possibility of unraveling new kinds of knowledge about how our cities and society are changing. Alan Walks has recently articulated how we can turn to French theorist Henri Lefebvre, who theorized what constitutes urbanism, to help us define suburbanism along six continuums. The use of continuums essentially involves thinking about how people’s ways of living are shaped by:

  1. the distance from the central city,
  2. the symbolic distance from positions of power,
  3. the diversity of people and households nearby,
  4. the colocation of different land uses and social, economic, cultural and political activities,
  5. the reliance on automobiles, and
  6. the degree to which spaces and activities are public versus domestic.

As an analytical tool, these continuums permit us to concurrently characterize people, or places, as ‘more’ or ‘less’ suburban for different reasons. For example, a new condominium development downtown where most people still end up driving to work can be, for different reasons, both urban and suburban at the same time. Suburbanization then as a process is one where places become less central, less diverse, less public and more automobile oriented. While we are currently working on measuring how places in Canadian cities fit into these different continuums, the intent of the Atlas is not to provide some sort of comprehensive account of all suburbanisms.

The idea is to unpack the traditional definition of suburbs as a singular entity by making available maps and data of the changing built form and socio-economic characteristics of Canadian cities.

So, where are the suburbs?

Anna Kramer (University of Waterloo) has creatively mapped out Statistics Canada census variables for our three largest metropolitan areas below. The maps allow us to see how the spatial definition of what we might think of as being suburban changes depending on the variable used. Our group of researchers are currently working on analyzing the different geographies of suburbanisms and their changing internal characteristics in various ways. But the maps themselves are an interesting, and powerful, first look at the spatial dimensions of suburbanisms as ways of living. In these maps, suburbanisms are defined by the characteristics of the housing stock, commute patterns and tenure.

The variables were selected to reflect the common assumption that suburban ways of living often take place in the context of single-family housing, homeownership and automobile oriented commute patterns. The maps can tell us ‘where’ people are living in ways that we popularly think of as being suburban.

How many drive to work, live in a single-detached house, and own their home?

Metropolitan averages Montreal Toronto Vancouver
Source: Anna Kramer. Calculated using Statistics Canada census data (2006).
Density (persons / km2) 6,895 7,948 5,778
Driving to work 70% 71% 75%
Detached housing 32% 42% 36%
Owner-occupied 53% 68% 65%

Our spatial analysis categorizes the metropolitan areas into several categories based on whether an area—analyzed at Statistics Canada’s dissemination area level—exhibits below or above metropolitan average values in terms of the percentage of workers driving to work, percentage residing in single-family dwellings or percentage owning their home.

The maps point to the inherent fuzziness of the spatial boundaries of different aspects of these three specific definitions of suburbanisms, and their combinations. The analysis also evidently points to the fact that suburban ways of living as defined by single-family dwellings, home ownership and automobile commuting are to some extent more prevalent in areas at some distance from the downtown in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. But in all three metropolitan areas there are pockets of suburbanisms in central areas and pockets of urbanism in outlying areas. The latter is especially visible in Vancouver where planning policy has emphasized concentrated development in town centers and near the SkyTrain, a light-rail transit system.

The task now is to add more layers to these mappings of what constitutes suburban ways of living, and explore the internal characteristics of the resulting definitions. We invite you to return to the Atlas in the coming months and year as we continue to update our progress on this research.