The Suburbs: A Rich Frontier for Environmental History Research

1960s Etobicoke Housing. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

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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. [1]

GTA2006SuburbsMap

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.” [2]

GTAcaruse2001Finally, 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. [3] 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. [4] 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. [5] 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. [6]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] Environmental Health Committee, Ontario College of Family Physicians, Report on Public Health and Urban Sprawl in Ontario: A Review of Pertinent Literature (2005), 39.

[3] 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.

[4] Ontario College of Family Physicians. The Health Impacts of Urban Sprawl: Volume I, Air Pollution (2005), 3.

[5] 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).

[6] 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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Sean Kheraj is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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