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.
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.
Latest posts by Amanda Robinson (see all)
- History in “the Hollows”: Environmental History and Local Heritage in Oshawa, Ontario - September 18, 2015
- “A Terrible Fright”: A Short History of Early Aviation in Oshawa, Ontario - May 7, 2015
- Dislocated Landscapes: The Motor Car and Social Inequality in the Cultural Realm - February 5, 2015
- “Landscape, Nature, Memory”: Touring Vancouver by Foot - November 5, 2014
- Recollections from a 905-er: (Re)positioning the Suburbs as a Site of Inquiry - June 17, 2014