A sprawled Waterloo Region? Considering an alternate view

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Markus Moos
School of Planning, University of Waterloo

Our views and opinions are in part shaped by the positions presented in newspapers. In a recent opinion piece in the K-W Record, it was argued that Waterloo Region’s efforts to stem suburban sprawl were ‘anti-family’. It was suggested that the proposed policies would prohibit families from affording to purchase single-family homes in the suburbs. In short, the policies would prohibit the ‘suburban dream’. As someone who studies and researches cities and suburbs, I felt compelled to contribute to this discussion. Below I consider some of the arguments against suburban sprawl–the growth of low-density, car-oriented neighbourhoods, dominated by single-family dwellings at the fringe of cities.

First, those that argue in favour of more single-family homes make assumptions about what families want based on the current housing choices available in our community. Many families may want to raise their children in more walkable neighbourhoods with amenities nearby. In a context of rising energy prices, many may find they can save money on their energy bills by moving into the smaller apartments, townhomes or row houses. Our community does not currently offer these housing options in a realistic way for many people. The single-family home, as one of my colleagues reminded me, is certainly not on the “endangered species list” in this community. It is the most common housing type.

The suburban dream also often includes only one kind of family. The reality is, however, that demographic changes, increasing educational attainment and equalization of women’s rights, among other factors, have contributed to decreases and delay in child bearing. This resulted in a larger diversity of family types and sizes. This community, and Canadians in general, have long found pride in accepting diversity. Today this means planning for a community that can accommodate a growing diversity of families.

It means we need to build a larger variety of housing types and sizes. Otherwise we run the risk that we will see many young, well-educate professionals turn their backs on our community because we assume that a family must include “2.5 children”, residing in a single-family home. It will mean losing out on the economic development associated with retaining a diverse workforce. Single-family homes in the suburbs, which provide housing for specific demographic groups, are not and have never been as equal as they are sometimes made out to be.

The argument in favour of more suburban development further neglects the fact that the costs of providing infrastructure, like roads and sewers, are higher for low-density neighbourhoods. As planning consultant Pamela Blais demonstrates in her recent book, municipalities commonly charge developers the same per lot regardless of the cost of providing municipal services. It means that those living in the more compact urban neighbourhoods are subsidizing those residing in the larger suburban single-family homes.

Some recent real estate surveys do indeed show that many people still desire a single-family home—however, those choosing this housing option should also pay more for the high cost of servicing suburban single-family neighbourhoods with municipal infrastructure. More accurate and user specific pricing of municipal services may provide a powerful incentive to raise families in smaller homes, which cost less to service.

The increasing difficulty of affording certain kinds of housing in Canadian cities is real. It makes a case for considering new ways of ‘owning’ our homes, such as shared mortgages between several occupants, housing cooperatives, or better protection for long-term renters. Increasing prices make a case for housing affordability policies that subsidize costs, and perhaps even income re-distribution. Increasing prices do not necessarily make a direct case against policies that aim to prevent sprawl.

Finally, the argument in favour of the suburban dream neglects to consider that low-density suburban development often results in the loss of valuable agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands. It overlooks the research that indicates current suburban neighbourhoods are generally associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions per capita because they are dominated by cars. The plans currently proposed in our region are proactive about addressing these environmental issues. We may all want to live in single-family homes but the high environmental costs of doing so may simply not make it sustainable in the future.

There is a complement to the traditional suburban dream. It involves raising a family in a community that respects and values a diversity of family types and sizes. It is a community where more people can access amenities using a diversity of transportation options. It is a community where we protect our nearby agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands for our children. This future still includes single-family homes. But it also includes apartments, townhomes and row houses to offer people, whatever size or form their families may take, a real choice between the suburbs and a vibrant urban core.

Further reading: