Recollections from a 905-er: (Re)positioning the Suburbs as a Site of Inquiry

1679 Simcoe Street South. Source: Oshawa Community Museum and Archives, A989.30.

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By Amanda Robinson

After travelling back to my niche in Oshawa from CHESS 2014, I’m reminded that the suburbs are more than just my home. The suburbs — as much as they have been constructed, planned, and critiqued — simultaneously represent a sense of place, belonging, and potential for some people. For others they have meant isolation and stifling conformity. But for better or for worse, the suburbs, at least for now, are here to stay.

So much of what we have to say about the environmental state of the suburbs is connected to how many of us (myself included) live from day-to-day with stuff, tons and tons of it. It is an intrinsic characteristic of modern existence: in order to survive, one must consume. This insatiable appetite for things fuels the growth of industry, consumerism, and unsustainable development patterns globally. Environmental concerns have almost always taken a backseat to our collective consumer desires. At times, they have even been placed in the trunk, an expediency on our trip to the future of abundance. After all, science, technology, and big business have often promised to smooth over the environmental potholes in the rear-view mirror.

At CHESS 2014, Steve Penfold announced that “people like to build things,” and so Toronto’s “greyscapes” were slowly, and sometimes quickly, planned, poured, and paved. Anders Sandberg and Christopher Sellers outlined how residents and stakeholders in their respective studies came to care a great deal about the natural environment and the changes that came with “progress” and suburban growth, ensuring the suburbs would be, in essence, a “greenspace.” But in a market inundated with messages about how to consume to be sexier, smarter, and even more environmentally friendly, incremental consumer choices bear heavily on how, as a society, we are consumed, and our greenspaces turn grey. It is here that the decision to drive or walk is directly affected by the ways in which the built environment unfolded around modern consumerism and automobility. The 1956 General Motors’ Motorama exhibit film, Key to the Future, did just this, envisioning an ideal world where planning and progress had “solved” the problems created by the automobile. The whole family has their desires satiated behind the glass of a turbine-powered Thunderbird as it tours over the rugged landscape and gravity-defying overpasses. As popular culture projected these visions in a North American context, local shopping malls like the Don Mills Centre and Oshawa Centre deployed like-minded advertising strategies during the same period to sell marvelous, but ultimately unsustainable, visions of the modern shopping-scape as it was remodeled around the suburban automobile landscape.

Plastic Grass. Source: Amanda Robinson.
Plastic Grass. Source: Amanda Robinson.

In many ways, the suburbs can be considered a microcosm of a specific type of modern reality where the movement and accumulation of everyday people, things, and experiences is rapid, necessary, expected, and desirable. Under this logic, the lines between needs versus wants are increasingly blurred. Despite this, CHESS repositioned the utility of the suburbs for me: these are people’s homes. While there are limits to improvements in human health because of suburban living, scholars are beginning to make strides in considering how the built environment influences the nature of people’s bodies. The possibilities of studying and comparing various residential configurations adds another layer to a growing scholarship on the history of the suburbs and the future direction of our modes of living. Although suburbanization has not been guided by a definite meta-narrative of class status, CHESS reified that people’s interaction with the natural and built environment is directly correlated to class-based notions of space and also social equity. As Anders Sandberg touched on in his talk on the Oak Ridges Moraine battles of the 1990s and 2000s, the gentrification of environmental activism is closely connected to previously established, but sometimes transformative, social hierarchies. Social stratification is an important factor in who has access to, who speaks for, and who claims the natural environments and space in and around the suburbs.

The natural environment can be robust. Despite human efforts to alter the landscape to facilitate planned residential communities, “nature finds a way.” The trees grow back and birds, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and deer all return to varying degrees. However, CHESS revealed that there isn’t a linear history of regrowth in the suburbs and adjacent greenspaces except in one regard: the (almost) inevitable growth of highly diverse human communities. Indeed, people are the most prolific species in the suburbs.


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Amanda Robinson

PhD Candidate at York University
Amanda Robinson is a PhD Candidate at York University studying the shifting modes of transportation in modernizing Canada. Much of her work as a public historian is rooted in her ethnographic observations as a proud former auto and public transit worker in Oshawa, Ontario--also known as "Canada's Motor City" --where she was raised only few blocks from General Motors in the city's highly industrialized south end.

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