This is the fourth in a series of articles on the history of Toronto’s suburban environments. NiCHE is publishing this series to provide some context for participants of the 2014 Canadian History and Environment Summer School at York University. The theme of this year’s CHESS is “Suburbia and Environmental History.”
Canada has been and continues to be a suburban nation. Yet, Canadian environmental history has not fully explored this rich potential area of research.
According to David Gordon, director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University, “More than two-thirds of the nation’s population (22.5 million) lived in some form of suburban neighbourhood in 2011,” and in the Greater Toronto Area “more than 86 per cent of the population live in a suburban neighbourhood.” Between 2006 and 2011, Canada’s low-density suburbs saw the highest rate of growth with some metropolitan areas experiencing low or no growth in core neighbourhoods. In all 33 Census Metropolitan Areas in Canada, more than 80% of the population lives in low-density suburbs.
A 2013 study by David Gordon and Mark Janzen calls for a reclassification of “urban” in demographic and planning research. They argue that suburban planning requires a different set of techniques and strategies and therefore a classification system for suburbs is necessary to better understand the needs of Canadian urban dwellers. They divide suburbs into three classifications based on a combination of density and transportation characteristics: exurbs (low density rural areas with high automobile use; more than 50% employment in city core), auto suburbs (almost all residents commute by automobile), and transit suburbs (high proportion of transit commuters). They defined “active core” areas as census tracts where more than half the residents commute by walking or cycling.
The Greater Toronto Area is Canada’s largest suburban environment with an overwhelming population living in low-density suburbs. In 2006, 4,410,425 people lived in GTA suburbs, more than 86% of the population of the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area. By contrast, just 530,285 people (10% of GTA) lived in Toronto’s active core area. 
The extraordinary growth of Canada’s suburbs pose numerous challenges for urban planners. Low-density automobile-dependent suburbs tend not to support economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner of Toronto, recently wrote in Globe and Mail that “For municipalities feeling the fiscal crunch, low-density development is proving to be extravagant.” Supplying necessary urban services to low-density suburbs is expensive. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi recently called for an end to “sprawl subsidies,” the various tax breaks, infrastructure support, and other public policies that facilitate suburban sprawl.
Suburban growth poses substantial public health challenges. Beginning in 2005, the Ontario College of Family Physicians began a four volume study of the public health impacts of low-density urban sprawl, focusing on the effects of air pollution, road injuries and fatalities, obesity, and social and mental health. It found that “The direct and indirect human health implications of urban sprawl are far reaching and have tremendous impact.” 
Finally, the expansion of Canada’s low-density suburbs has resulted in significant environmental challenges. In 2005, a Statistics Canada report on the impact of urban sprawl on agriculture found that by 2001 more than half of Canada’s urban environments were situated atop dependable agricultural land. Furthermore, the report revealed that between 1951 and 2001 the supply of dependable agricultural land declined by 4 percent, while the demand for cultivated land increased by 20 percent.  The growth of automobile-dependent suburbs has also contributed to regional air pollution and the spectre of global warming from anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Auto commuters from Toronto’s outer suburbs tend to drive more vehicles per household and they travel longer average distances than those who live in the City of Toronto.  This contributes to both regional air pollution and global atmospheric change. As the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007, “Transportation is also one of the fastest growing end-use sectors in terms of CO2 emissions in both the developed and the developing world.”
Canada’s suburbs then are a rich topic for environmental historians, yet there have been few sustained scholarly studies of post-World War 2 Canadian suburban environmental history. In the 2005 Urban History Review special issue on environmental history, none of the articles focused explicitly on post-war suburbs (although two articles dealt with regional planning). Richard Harris and John Sewell have provided excellent historical analyses of suburban development in Canada, but their work tends not to focus on the ecological dimensions of urban sprawl.  US scholars, including Adam Rome and Chris Sellers, have explored the links between suburban growth and the emergence of modern environmentalism, but similar studies in Canada have not yet emerged. One exception would be the work of Anders Sandberg, Gerda Wekerle, and Liette Gilbert on the battle over the Oak Ridges Moraine in Ontario. 
There seems to be an opportunity for Canadian environmental historians to explore suburban environments of the post-WW2 period. Given that a majority of Canadians now live in suburbs, a historical study of changing human-nature relations in these environments would yield important insights.
We chose this theme for the 2014 Canadian History and Environment Summer School both to take advantage of our location at York University and to bring attention to the vast potential of suburban environmental history for future scholarship. We hope that this event will help stimulate new ideas, generate debate, and potentially lead to new research on Canada’s suburbs.
 David L. A. Gordon and Mark Janzen, “Suburban Nation? Estimating the Size of Canada’s Suburban Population” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 30, no. 3 (Autumn 2013): 209.
 Environmental Health Committee, Ontario College of Family Physicians, Report on Public Health and Urban Sprawl in Ontario: A Review of Pertinent Literature (2005), 39.
 Nancy Hofmann, Giuseppe Filoso and Mike Schofield, “The Loss of Dependable Agricultural Land in Canada” Rural and Small Town Canada Analysis Bulletin 6, no. 1 (January 2005): 1.
 Ontario College of Family Physicians. The Health Impacts of Urban Sprawl: Volume I, Air Pollution (2005), 3.
 Richard Harris, Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004); John Sewell, The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).
 Adam Rome, Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Christopher C. Sellers, Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Sandberg, L. Anders, Gerda R. Wekerle, and Liette Gilbert. The Oak Ridges Moraine Battles: Development, Sprawl, and Nature Conservation in the Toronto Region (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).
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I found this analysis interesting and find that using commuting methods as a way of differentiating suburban neighbourhoods a useful analytical framework. The links on health problems with suburbia were interesting and refer very specifically to the types of suburbs present in the 21st century (and clearly focusing on the GTA and National Capital Regions). However, suburbs did not emerge fully formed as they currently are and I was wondering whether the comparative situation were the same in the 1910s, 1930s or 1960s, when commutes were somewhat shorter, Canadian children had fewer cars and the urban cores were more polluted. How did these trends evolve historically and relate to to larger trends in urban geography?
You raise a very important point. The contemporary analysis of the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of suburbs changes over time. Early twentieth century Canadians living in street car suburbs might have experienced improved health effects by living further away from point sources of air pollution in city centres. The arguments about sustainability, however, are often directed at what Richard Harris refers to as corporate suburbs of the post-WW2 period.
The main point that you raise still stands. Social, economic, and environmental conditions of suburbs are historically contingent. All the more reason for Canadian environmental historians to take a look.
You may be interested in this recent EconTalk podcast. The guest, who is a road engineer, has some interesting things to say about the history of road design in the United States.
Marhohn points out that the post-war model of low-density growth created an enormous number of liabilities that are now coming due. Here are some key sentences:
“Just essentially spreading everything out. Basically means there is more for everybody to pay for. There is more for everybody to maintain. As we’ve gone on, that illusion of wealth you get from all the new growth is a real enticement. And so our solution to financial distress has been to generate more and more growth. And at the end of the day, that’s only made our problems worse. So, today our cities face these huge financial imbalances in terms of infrastructure they need to maintain, the amount of area they have to police and serve with fire protection and other services. And they just simply don’t have anywhere near the tax base to do it. There is not enough there, in a sense.”
Thanks for sharing this very relevant resource. Sewell makes a very similar point in his book, Shape of the Suburbs. Taking the TTC as an example, he finds that the TTC became less profitable and eventually ran an structural operating deficit as it shifted from an urban public transit system to a suburban commuter transit system. Stretching its lines to outlying, low-density suburbs was costly and the new suburban neighbourhoods did not have the ridership to recuperate those costs.