Post-CHESS 2014 Reflections: A Great Time and A Complex Theme

Oil pipeline marker in Rouge Park. Source: S. Kheraj

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By Michael Brennan

Upon seeing a new suburban development it is hard not to be struck by the ecological decline and seeming social conformity. Cumberland, Maine- a twenty-minute drive north from Portland Maine. Source: Michael Brennan

My approach to Pearson Airport for this year’s CHESS festivities seemed to support the generalization about the suburbs, its quotidian routines, and worldview. Looking down at the orderly subdivisions it was impossible not to notice the similarity in house style, the curvilinear streets often ending in a cul-de-sac and the familiar front-yard ecology of manicured lawns. It is no wonder that environmental historians have chastened suburban research to a degree. The human grid appears to have superimposed its will on the original ecology and its human residents, fostering social alienation and ecological decline.

This year’s CHESS taught me to move beyond this superficial analysis. Inquiry into suburban history and contemporary issues must be approached in a complex and nuanced manner. The seminars, field trips, and walking tours over the course of a beautiful weekend reinforced this notion; the reorganization of land in suburbs has created conflict in the human psyche and its by-products have manifested themselves in the human body. The natural world continues to evolve and shape human culture even in this most “modern” of environments.

By Sunday morning’s seminars my preconceptions had been shattered. Steve Penfold’s insightful talk on the development of Scarborough, a suburb directly east of Toronto, used the before and after pictures as its philosophical and visual foundation: the before picture, with its green-space, contrasts sharply with the grey-space of the picture taken after suburban development. Yet, this visual only supports the generalizations of the dominant discourse. It obscures that the green-space “before” was clearly influenced by human activity and it totally elides a consideration of how First Nations people had conceived of and interacted with the land. It obscures the development of a sense of place, instead urging a simplistic sense of nostalgia.

Likewise, the grey-scape picture of four-lane roads, industrial complexes, shopping malls, and residences seems to attribute causality to monolithic forces that cannot be broken down into units small enough for detailed historical study. Penfold argued that it is the mundane rather than the extraordinary that will lead to a more nuanced analysis of suburban development. For example, he observed, that a block-by-block analysis of development in Scarborough may lead to more insight than a narrative of the failed Spadina and Scarborough Expressways. Long-term patterns and subtle points of contrast will emerge rather than a snapshot of a one-time social struggle.

An ostentatious suburban home set on a granite outcropping in Cumberland. Source: Michael Brennan

Perhaps the suburbs have been the objects of intellectual scorn because it appears to be the place where humans have taken control of the environment to create the ideal modern lifestyle. The grid superimposes its will on the land, the automobile expresses individual freedom and convenience, single-dwelling homes ensure human comfort, and conspicuous consumption and waste adding the final insult to the societal and ecological injury. Yet the presenters at CHESS stressed the agency of the environment, even in the suburban context. Perhaps this dissonance arises because the suburbs seem so divorced from nature. This makes it all the more important for environmental historians to bring the zeitgeist of the discipline to their suburban work. As Anders Sandberg, speaker at the plenary session on Friday evening wrote, “Local non-human nature has certainly paid a price as a result of the rapid growth of housing subdivision…but the change is not only in one direction.”[1] I interpreted the presenters at CHESS as showing how this process works.

For example, highlighting the agency of nature helps to show that the suburbs and its residents are not monolithic entities. This examination can begin with the complex emotion arising in the human mind about suburbs. Penfold’s presentation employed some interesting testimony from Scarborough’s planning board meetings. Here citizens displayed reticence towards unfettered development, resulting in an ambiguous articulation of a vision for the community’s future. For example, while they supported the expansion of infrastructure and mass transit, they opposed the densification that would justify it. The new natural and human ecological conditions profoundly affected the human psyche with a variety of different emotions; often these emotions were contradictory within the individual. Humans may have divided the land, but it has divided our thinking process about social organization and ecological conditions.

Chris Sellers’s keynote address on Saturday evening illustrated how changes in land use and the ecological changes that accompanied it not only caused complex and often contradictory emotions in its residents, it also made the human body a contested object. Of course, the suburbs had originally been seen as a genteel repose from the rigors of urban life. Yet by the time of the mass-produced suburbs on Long Island in the 1950s, they were more an expression of socioeconomic status and racial anxiety. The development of mass-produced suburbs led to disposal and pollution problems. This greatly impacted the health and, as a result, worldviews of suburban residents. It is here, Sellers argues, that an important strand of the environmental justice movement emerged. This is an important and insightful observation. It is also important to note that the production and expunging of chemicals precipitated these human actions. Ecological conditions were central to shaping the health of the body, in turn, spurring human action towards the environment.

Richard White giving us a tour of Don Mills. The duplex homes are visible in the background. Source: Michael Brennan

These conflicts in the mind, effects on bodies, and conditions of the ecology have animated suburbs with different structures and functions. The field trip led by Richard White of the University of Toronto around Don Mills, one of Toronto’s most prominent planned suburbs of the postwar era, confirmed this notion. To begin the tour we walked under a road through a tunnel designed so that children could arrive at school without having to walk on a street. While following White down a communal walking path, the crowd noticed that the willow trees along the path must have pre-dated construction of the suburb. From the walking path, one can proceed directly into a resident’s backyard or occasionally down an alley to the street. The path proceeds to a recreational area for the community. Don Mills also features many duplex houses, row houses, and “working class” apartments. On our tour we viewed a suburb that does not fit the norm; it was clearly built with many progressive, even utopian, features. White calls for a nuanced analysis of Toronto’s development that looks for differences “in degree rather than essence.”[2] It seems that examining how social, political, and economic structures interact with the existing ecology provides a means to this end.

Our terminology about the ecology of the suburbs has occluded a more precise and useful analysis from emerging. This issue has more importance than it first appears. Anders Sandberg’s plenary talk Friday evening on the “Battle over the Oak Ridges Moraine” illustrated a case in point. Residents of the exurban areas to the north of Toronto used their socioeconomic power to impose their vision of conservation on the headwaters of the city. The recreational opportunities and natural features of this region attracted people of high-socioeconomic status. In turn, citizens have attempted to fashion nature within their parameters of their thinking about conservation and development. Sandberg urged scholars to move beyond “the development-conservation binary” to ask who creates and executes the project and “who pays the price for these initiatives.”[3]

The convoluted visions of conservation and development have manifested themselves in Rouge Valley National Park, where Catriona Sandilands took us on an excellent guided tour on Saturday afternoon. There is conflict over the ideological intent and overall function of the park. Sandilands asked if the park should do more than be viewed as a “beginner’s wilderness,” the mantra of the dominant discourse. In addition, the park has conflicted intentions: there is a desire to restore “ecological integrity” yet farming that uses pesticides is allowed. These conflicted intentions were captured in a picture I snapped. Sandilands stood on a secluded trail telling us about the local ecology while leaning her arm on a sign for a oil pipeline that runs underneath the trail.

Catriona Sandilands on our tour of Rouge Valley Park. Source: Michael Brennan

Sandilands’ article on dog-strangling vine provides an opportunity to encapsulate the message of the weekend. She notes that conservation biology’s use of the term “invasion biology” creates the wrong image. The vine has taken up root in many areas of the park, quickly expelling its plant neighbors. Yet rather than “invasive”, Sandilands urges, “greater attention to plant capacities and agencies in the context of their particular interactions with particular humans in particular places.” Dog-strangling vine has literally been fire-torched from helicopters, one of the most brutal expressions of war. It is a futile expression of humanity’s attempt to control and shape its environment. Instead, she urges, humans need to develop “a more thoughtful, respectful, (and) democratic approach to plant-human relations.”[4]

The issue with terms like conservation, development and invasive species is that it connotes human superiority over the environment. It supports the dominant discourse that is contributing to human ignorance and ecological decline. In order for suburban ecologies, the human psyche, and the body to find equilibrium in the suburban environment, its citizens must realize this fundamental truth. Humans live in a co-modified world with nature; a more democratic approach to this process will lead to more healthful results for both entities in the suburbs.


[1] L. Anders Sandberg and Lisa Wallace. “Conservation and Development: From Rouge Park to the Oak Ridges Moraine” In Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region, eds.  L. Anders Sandberg, Stephen Bocking, Colin Coates, and Ken Cruikshank (Hamilton: Wilson Institute for Canadian History, 2013), 333.

[2] Richard White, “Toronto, an American City: Aspects of its Postwar Planning, 1940-1960” American Review of Canadian Studies, 44 no. 1 (2014): 69.

[3] Sandberg and Wallace, “Conservation and Development,” 311.

[4] Catriona Sandilands, “Dog Stranglers in the Park?: National and Vegetal Politics in Ontario’s Rouge Valley” Journal of Canadian Studies, 47 no. 3 (Autumn 2013): 93-122.


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Mike Brennan

Grad Student, Social Studies Teacher and Department Head
I am a part-time PhD student in the environmental history program at the University of Maine Orono. I am still completing my coursework, but I plan on researching the Environmental Justice Movement in Boston, Massachusetts for my dissertation. When not at work on grad studies, I teach social studies at a high school in Maine. I enjoy exercise and guitar playing in moments left over.

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