Suburbanism as a plural phenomenon: Suburban ways of living found to varying degrees across the Canadian metropolitan landscape
Post-doctoral Researcher, University of British Columbia
Our team of Canadian researchers affiliated with the Global Suburbanisms project has been busy investigating the evolving and highly variegated links between the metropolitan built environment, suburbanisms as ways of life, and the socio-demographic characteristics of residents in Canada’s largest metropolitan areas. Team leader Professor Markus Moos and research assistants Anna Kramer and Robert Walter-Joseph, all at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning, have worked together to build informative and thought-provoking empirical representations of such relationships. Below are a new set of maps intended to enable a closer examination of the multifaceted socio-spatial patterns that constitute the lived and built environment of metropolitan Canada. My intent here is to document how these maps came about and to highlight a few intriguing findings.
Seeking to document and understand how the category of suburb acquires a different “referent” as we alternate between various ways of capturing its changing geographies, Moos was interested in examining an intuitive set of quintessential elements, or characteristics, of suburban life. Following other researchers, he distinguished between suburbs as places and suburbanisms as ways of living. With the assistance of Kramer and Walter-Joseph, he turned toward specific combinations of elements that pertain to what we might call the built-form/commute-mode dimension (homeownership, occupancy of detached single-family housing, and reliance on the private automobile), the domesticity dimension (incidence of couples with children at home, average house size expressed in number of rooms per dwelling, and time spent doing unpaid housework), and the social status dimension (incidence of high income, high levels of formal education, and employment in high-level managerial occupations) of suburbanism. Statistics Canada measured the incidence of these phenomena in the 2006 Census and has released the information at various levels of aggregation, including the metropolitan level but also finer scales of enumeration such as Census Tracts and Dissemination Areas (DAs).
Working with Moos, Kramer mapped the areas where characteristics match one or more of the census variables associated with the above-mentioned dimensions of suburbanism. Using Census data at the DA scale, she came up with the idea to produce maps that represent the built form/commute dimensions for Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in a way that cleverly brings the logic of the Venn diagram to digital cartography. The result is a series of maps that make it easy to visualize where the combinations of such variables occur or fail to occur, and more pointedly, where those variables happen to register either higher or lower proportional values than each CMA’s average. Walter-Joseph, working with Moos, extended Kramer’s approach to map all three dimensions for the 25 largest Metropolitan Areas (CMAs), leading to this latest addition to The Atlas of Suburbanisms.
At the most general level, the team’s ensemble of maps reveals two broad patterns, observable throughout all CMAs. First, we note that as we move outwards from the historical centres, the most prominent types of area are those where two and often all three of the variables in each dimension have values above the metropolitan average. (The social status dimension, discussed in more detail below, provides to some extent an exception to this pattern.) It is of conceptual and empirical significance to note that, from this particular standpoint, the location of suburbia in Canada seems largely to conform to the idea of an expansive peripheral region radiating outwards from the urban cores. Nevertheless, it becomes clear in the second general pattern noticeable in these maps that the spatial coincidence of above-metropolitan-average values for all 21 variables also often occurs within the CMA’s central-city areas, and is therefore not exclusively a suburban feature.
To the extent that the simultaneous occurrence of high scores on more than one characteristic can be equated with forms of suburban living, the set of multivariate maps suggests that suburbanism is in fact a series of “conditions” to be found to varying degrees across the whole metropolitan fabric of Canada – giving credence to the notion of suburbanisms as a plural phenomenon. More broadly, this dual trend of relative socio-spatial ambiguity – or plurality in the location and character of suburbia – is confirmed by the existence of a similar distributional trend when it comes to areas where at least two variables per dimension happen to jointly score above the CMA’s average.
Looking more specifically at the built-form/commute-mode dimension across all CMAs, one is struck by the rareness outside central cities (or historical city centres) of areas where none of the three variables have values above the metropolitan average. To a lesser extent, a similar pattern is also noticeable with respect to areas where both owner-occupation and incidence of detached single-family housing is higher than the CMA average. This geography reflects the typical features of higher densities and mixed dwelling-structure types found in the core of the largest of the CMAs included in these maps. It is important to remember, however, that the largest amount of metropolitan land is consistently represented by Dissemination Areas where these two variables plus the automobile-reliance variable jointly display above-average scores. The widespread incidence of high scores on all three variables is consistent with the findings of much urban transportation research, which shows that comfortable-middle-class households (in this case owners of detached single-family dwellings, often considered to be the archetypal suburban subjects) are less likely to commute by car if they live in relative proximity to central-city jobs or, more generally, in areas that are well-served by public transit.
Click images for high resolution PDF maps.
Consistent with the typical residential built form of Canadian urban cores, the domesticity dimension exhibits a sparse incidence of high scores for the variable “Number of rooms” in practically all the metropolitan areas. This reflects the smaller housing-unit sizes in and immediately around the urban centres. Here, we can observe either a combination of high scores for couples with children and unpaid house work, or of high relative levels of couples with children but low levels of unpaid housework. Above-average values for all three variables occur largely in outer metropolitan areas, although other combinations are also strongly noticeable there. In particular, the expansive outer regions of all CMAs display a pronounced quasi-checkered pattern, in which areas with triple above-average values intermingle with areas of joint above-average values for the dwelling-size and couples-with-children variables. Curiously, what distinguishes these two types of area is the presence of below-average scores for time spent doing unpaid house work. In some metropolitan areas, this specific pattern of spatial alternation gives way to a pronounced east-west or north-south geography, especially in the CMAs of London, St. Catharines-Niagara, Victoria and more markedly in Saskatoon and Regina. In terms of the domesticity dimension, it would seem that Canadian suburbanisms are especially associated with above-average proportions of large housing units, incidence of couples with children and, to a high but varying extent, time spent doing unpaid housework. The uneven geography of unpaid housework and the labour and gender implications of this intriguing spatiality deserve closer scrutiny from urban scholars.
Click images for high resolution PDF maps.
This dimension is one for which above-average area values for all the three variables that compose it (high income, university degree and managerial occupations) are peculiarly rare in locations that are peripheral to the historical urban cores. In Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Halifax, however, areas in which the three variables tend to jointly score above the metropolitan average are visible within and immediately around the city centre, revealing a metropolitan dimension particularly reflective of the geographic plurality of suburban ways of life. Lower-than-average values for all three variables together tend to be spatially associated with suburban locations in a heavily pronounced way. A higher incidence of managerial occupations alone – occurring in conjunction with below-average values for university degrees and income values below one-and-half times the metropolitan average – is also heavily associated with suburban areas, although this type of area is also found to some extent in the central cities of a few CMAs such as Quebec, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Kingston. Nevertheless, one can also see that the patchwork of area types outside urban cores exhibits in some cities a pronounced north-south or east-west geography. The variegated social constitution and spatial distribution of areas where levels of managerial occupations sit above the metropolitan average certainly deserves further scrutiny in future research.
A lot more could be said about the intricate geographies that are revealed by these fascinating maps. Moos, Kramer and Walter-Joseph have provided us with an invaluable resource for the elaboration of a complex empirical understanding of suburbanisms as highly plural – but also unevenly distributed – ways of life in the contemporary metropolis.
Click images for high resolution PDF maps.