When the Ontario government recently announced its measures to try and cool the housing market, it was the culmination of a years-long obsession with real estate in the province. For ages now, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, it has seemed like the cost of housing is all anyone can talk about.
Perhaps that isn’t surprising. Beyond the obvious — where and how we live, and how much it costs, fundamentally shape our day-to-day lives — real estate also ends up touching on many other key issues: income inequality, government intervention, and the changing nature of our cities.
It’s a familiar story now: The presence of high-rise towers has grown exponentially, while few detached homes are built any more. Coupled with a new planning orthodoxy that has us shifting toward denser urban living and it seems this endless conversation about housing has now led to what was once a startling proposition: the dream of the single family, (sub)urban home dead may be dead — and rightly so.
The hypothesis is everywhere. A recent CBC panel on Canadian real estate debated it. Toronto Star columnist and urban affairs writer Shawn Micallef has suggested it more than once. In fact, a whole cadre of people including thinker Richard Florida, Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, and most of the province’s progressive columnists all push the idea in one way or another. The shift is not without reason, either. As Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi likes to point out, suburbs full of detached homes are not simply unpopular with city planners, they are often economically and environmentally unsustainable.
But as the conversation around how we should organize cities focuses on diversifying what counts as a family home, perhaps not enough attention hasn’t been paid to the families living in those homes. The suburban cities that ring Toronto are not only full of detached houses, they are also famously home to a vast of array of communities from around the world. While it may be easy to dismiss these places as oceans of McMansions, many communities move to the suburbs not just for financial reasons, but also — or instead — for cultural ones. And if planners and urbanists wish to create denser, more sustainable cities, those cultural differences also need to become part of our collective conversation about housing.
The clean, wide-open spaces of the suburbs can seem sterile compared to either the bustle of downtown Toronto or the compact charm of small-town Ontario. But if one has left crowded cities like New Delhi, Lagos, or Shanghai, the newness of the suburban form, with its subdivisions and shopping plazas, can also feel like both relief and success. And those single family homes can be symbolic of why one came to this country at all, the independence and comparative luxury they afford becoming markers of success.
The Canadian dream of home ownership gains an additional layer of complexity when it is also the Canadian immigrant dream.
Another layer of complexity: there is often more in those homes than you can see from the outside, which are frequently also home to three or four generations. In Ontario cities like Brampton and Markham, the multi-generational home is common and evinces the cultural roots of such arrangements in which, for example, sons continue to live with their parents after marriage, or grandparents look after kids while parents work. Those kinds of scenarios are harder to maintain in denser downtown neighbourhoods, where apartments are too small and houses too scarce and too costly, so it’s understandable not only that immigrants congregate in the suburbs but form communities and become entrenched there, gathering in houses of worship and banquet halls and restaurants.
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We are thus faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, many Ontarians live in subdivisions for deep-rooted cultural reasons. On the other, the suburbs and the single-family home that dominate them cost cities too much to maintain, and cause huge environmental harm in terms of energy use and perpetuating dependence on cars. What’s more, there are myriad upsides to living in denser, more complete communities. People who walk are both happier and healthier. Mixed-use and mixed-dwelling areas allow seniors and others to remain active or, if need be, downsize and stay in their own neighbourhoods.
The aim, then, shouldn’t be to pit urbanism against the interests of Ontario’s immigrant communities. Instead, our planners and politicians must start including those specific needs — for personal space, community space, and multi-generational housing — in their discussions about how our cities should develop.
This doesn’t mean continuing to prioritize the single-family, detached home. What it might mean is formalizing strategies that allow for multi-generational condos, such as encouraging condo construction that allows residents knock down walls between units to make a larger one. It could perhaps mean both investing in and promoting new, hybrid forms of dwellings or neighbourhoods that allow second-generation immigrants, who may not share exactly their parents’ preferences, a chance to live close by, but perhaps not directly with their extended families. It may also mean reinforcing the trend in which a certain percentage of new units are mandated to be affordable housing, so that buildings can house mixed-income, and therefore more diverse, populations. Building codes for bylaw enforcement of standards for noise and smell would help, too, as part of the appeal of the detached home is allowing its residents to be less disturbed by their neighbours.
This kind of planning should also extend beyond individual homes. A more culturally nuanced urbanism includes cultural centres and temples of various kinds (though, of course, cities shouldn’t be in the business of building the latter). Some cities are already starting to think more proactively about how public spaces like parks might be used by various communities, whether for tai chi, yoga, or any other number of practices — another trend that should be encouraged.
The more general point, however, is that in those glossy visions of new urban space, there must be a realization that along with dwelling diversity, there has to be a cultural diversity in urban form, too.
These aren’t radical suggestions. And to be clear, they aren’t even wildly different from the general tenor of current planning philosophy; the concept of complete communities popular in urban planning these days does encompass a lot of this. But perhaps the key element is to rethink the relationship between planning, outreach, and community input. Consider a proposal for a development of townhouses in Brampton in 2013: the lot of 333 townhouses ran into stiff community opposition because the smaller dwellings couldn’t fit the joint families of the mainly Punjabi community who lived there. Brampton city council eventually approved the development, over the raucous objections of citizens.
It seems a clear example of how a more complete community, with various modes of housing, rather than an enormous block of the same type, might have better served everyone. And crucially, it would have been a decision that both the developer and council could have made more effectively if they had involved the community in planning more thoroughly, and far earlier on. Urbanist advocacy has to do better at outreach, including, where necessary, in the many differing languages of the communities where they work. If discussion of new city planning doesn’t appear in the various immigrant newspapers and TV and radio shows across the province, as well as in more mainstream outlets and niche design and urban planning publications, it will necessarily omit many of the people who will be most affected by these policies.
Cultural difference is not in and of itself an argument for or against anything. But it must be factored into how we think about cities. If we are to inch closer to a model of urbanism that is as inclusive as it is sustainable, and if we are to address our current housing crisis equitably as well as effectively, our strategies must account for these differences. That starts with actually talking to people, in the languages they speak, and with an ear to their needs.
Photo courtesy of Loozrboy and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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