Monday, July 18, 2005

When you try to explain the shortcomings of suburbia, or oppose the over-development of it, you are usually met with one of two responses from either those in the sprawl industry or from citizens who live in suburbs:
1) “You can’t force people to live like ants stacked side by side and on top of each other!”
2) “You can’t force families with children to live in the inner city!”

The second response is very common here in Winnipeg. I hear that one all the time. Apparently whenever you are suggesting that modern suburbs be designed and built like traditional neighborhoods, or that instead of growing outward, we should concentrate on infill development, you are saying that families should leave their quiet neighborhoods to live on the most crime-ridden streets of the West or North Ends. Completely untrue.

I am not opposed to building new suburban development. (Currently, I believe that Winnipeg has little need to build new ones on its fringes). As a theory, I do not object to suburbs when there is a need for them. What I am fully opposed to, however, is poorly planned and built, car-first modern suburban developments. I see them as being bad for the existing city, bad for the environment, bad for the children that have to live in them, and bad for the rest of the “community” they are attempting to create. You can read what I wrote about cul-de-sacs on June 7th to find a few examples of this. Suburban development, when done right, can work very well.

My central neighborhood of Wolseley, for example, was considered a suburb of Winnipeg 95 years ago, but with its narrow streets, back lanes, orderly rows of trees planted along sidewalks, and front porches, it was very different than the suburbs of today. There were homes of varying size, and small apartment buildings sprinkled throughout the neighbourhood. Grocery stores, butcher shops, clothing and shoe stores, pharmacies, banks, movie theatres were all located within walking distance of residents. Streetcar routes ran down Portage Avenue and Sherbrooke Street, which were the northern and eastern borders of the neighbourhood. Later, In the 1920's, one of the first transit buses in Winnipeg began service running down Westminster.

Through the late 1930's, 40's, and into the early 50's, my grandmother grew up on Borebank Street off Academy Road, which was part of suburban River Heights built up between the wars. Aside from the houses on her street being mostly bungalows without front porches, all of the features of a classic 1910 “streetcar suburb” still existed. And even though her father and my great-grandfather, owned a nice, new car, Grandma was not chauffeured to school, clubs, or to a friends houses the way all but the poorest children are today. (My Great Grandfather himself, who worked Downtown, would leave the car at home and take the streetcar.)

Even the neighborhood my Dad grew up in, South River Heights on Beaverbrook off Grant Ave was built much the same way. This area was built in the 1950’s, so every house was now a bungalow, and the lots were wider which allowed the houses to stand end-to-end rather than side-by-side. But like in the older neighbourhoods, the gridded streets that permitted access and connectivity remained. As did the garages tucked away in back lanes, the sidewalks that ran alongside orderly rows of elm trees, and neighborhood stores and services on Grant and Corydon Avenues, within a five-minute walk.

I've heard alot of people my age say that the modern suburbs of cities were wretched places to grow up once you were older than ten or so, and I can imagine they were. Looking back on my own childhood, there was nothing better about being a kid in a small, traditional town than getting to hang out at the playground down the street, at the arcade, the candy store, riding bikes around town, or playing war games in back lanes with other kids. If suburbia still offered these kinds of opportunities for kids, I might actually buy that "we live in the suburbs for our kids sakes" excuse I hear all the time.

I'd like to see suburbs that actually let kids be kids again: Gridded streets instead of cul-de-sacs and serpantine "drives" and "crescents", so that it is quick and easy to navigate and get around without Mom driving you. Sidewalks that you can play with other kids on. Destinations... It's nice being able to buy a candy bar or licorice on your own, rather than feeling helplessly dependant on adults, even after you've reached adolescence but are still too young to drive.