In Defense of Suburbia

By Bruce Firestone | Real Estate

Dec 30
[Here’s an article written by me and professor Ben Gianni that was first published in November 2008]

In Defense of Suburbia: Part II

By Dr. Bruce M. Firestone, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa and Adjunct Research Professor, School of Architecture, Carleton University and Professor Ben Gianni, Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Carleton University

A Brief History

It wasn’t that long ago (and the condition still exists in certain cantons of Switzerland, for example) that if you didn’t own land, you couldn’t vote in civic elections or even represent yourself at town hall gatherings. Power was tied to ownership of land so it is not surprising that as the middle class started appearing in western nations and elsewhere, their first ambition tended to be land ownership.

They soon found that lands in the centre of towns and villages tended to be monopolized by the upper class and that rural lands tended to be in the hands of the nobility. To own land, they needed to be close to their places of business and work but to afford it and to find a ready supply, they needed to move out from the city centre.

Land ownership brings with it not only the ability to influence civic decisions but also brings with it: a sense of self respect, the equity to start or further capitalize a business, a sense of renewed citizenship, a feeling of permanence and belonging, the respect of others and an escape from the vagaries of rent increases imposed by Landlords as well as forced eviction should the Landlord want the premises for his or her own family or for other reasons such as land speculation and land assembly for redevelopment or other purposes.

There is a close connection between human rights and property rights that is not well understood. Former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, recognized this; he attempted to include property rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms but, ultimately, he was not successful.

Canadian Provinces, which are the near equal of the Federal Government in Canada’s federal system of government, effectively vetoed this—they did not want anything to stand in their way as they laid claim to the exploitation of natural resources beneath private property. (Natural resources are a Provincial responsibility under the original Act that created Canada (the BNA (British North America) Act)).

So Mr. Trudeau had to give up on securing property rights in the repatriated Canadian Constitution, otherwise, Canada’s Constitution would still remain at Westminster and ultimate authority for the nation’s laws would still be determined by the British Privy Council.

Many dictators have intuitively understood that if you wish to take away an individual’s human rights or that of a group, first make them homeless. By taking their property without due process of law (or by way of the imposition by civic authority through the process of eminent domain), they are closer to losing their liberty and maybe their lives as well.

To say now to a new generation of young adults that their dream of owning a suburban property should be dashed and that they should focus solely on owing a downtown apartment or condominium, may not be entirely fair. Thomas Jefferson’s vision was that a country of citizens would also be a country of landowners. Most people today would still (intuitively) agree with this view, not just in North America but in most developing nations as well.

Now many of suburbia’s critics today speak highly of the blessings of greater density. They feel that higher densities would: make public transit more practical, enhance the ability to live and work in the same neighborhood, make cities more compact and easier to service, cost less for municipalities to operate, reduce the environmental footprint, be more interesting places to live and work and shop and play.

But what many may be forgetting is that there is such a thing as over-densification. To live in New York City, circa 1899, was not an entirely pleasant experience for most of the citizenry. Manhattan alone housed over 300,000 horses in vertical stables; they closely co-habited with humans, who themselves were often housed in tenements that were unbearably cold in winter and hot in summer, were fantastically over-priced, were subject to violent crime and unimaginable cruelty of a type not well understood by residents of towns and cities in North America today. They lacked access to park space and sports and recreation facilities of any type. They were also a major source of disease.

No wonder that folks decided to leave as soon as they could afford to do so. What made that possible was first the horse drawn streetcar followed later by the electric streetcar—the automobile simply accelerated a trend that had already begun. In fact, the spread of railroads had caused satellite towns to springs up which were basically suburban in nature: few jobs and lots of commuters. Jobs followed later.

Another factor behind the rise of the suburb was the desire for the separation of home and work. Clean air, clean water, access to parkland, the ability to own reasonably-priced property, escape from disease, crime and slum Landlords all played a part in the rise of the suburbs. But the ability to escape from the shadow of the workplace was an important psychological factor too.

Developers have found that a residential development right next to a major employment hub does not necessarily fill up with buyers working in that hub; people want a commute of some duration to de-stress before they arrive home.

Suburbanization was interrupted by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. After the War was over and as automobile ownership became even more commonplace, the process speeded up. The freedom that the automobile conveys on its owner—to go from any place to any place at any time—is not new. In fact, if cars became unavailable or unaffordable, the horse drawn carriage would make a swift comeback.

People want the ability to go from any place to any place at any time. Life would be much poorer if the ability to meet friends, do errands, visit face to face about a business matter or shop at a specialty store were completely limited to the schedule of mass transit.

After the War was over, people married and had (by today’s standard) large families of four children or more. They owned one or more private vehicles and wanted to enjoy the benefits of homeownership. The suburban home answered those needs at an affordable price.

Of course, the US and Canada didn’t sustain bomb damage during the war as many European nations did. Hence, our governments did not need to intervene as directly to rebuild the core. Their goal was, instead, to find a quick and effective solution to the post-War housing shortage and to get as many sectors of the economy involved in producing it.

Governments in North America were not directly responsible for building or maintaining the housing stock and that is what most people preferred. Moreover, the 25 and 30-year mortgage term meant that house was paid off by retirement (i.e., by the time owner’s income dropped). Affordable ownership became its own form of social safety net.

Despite the years of New Deal in the US, it was the search for other options that private developers were responding to.

In fact, European countries are now struggling to figure out what to do with large amounts of government built housing stock. Some North American cities are faced with the same challenge.
They need to turn more of it over to the private sector and get ownership rates up. Amsterdam’s housing stock, for example, was around 90% rental in 1990. The Dutch middle class was not happy. Government built rentals may be a good short term solution but most nations find that it is not acceptable in longer term.

Public housing tends to deteriorate faster and need more repairs to meet safety and health standards than privately owned housing. Governments are not widely known to be efficient at the doing of things so one could conclude that private owners (with Landlords or sitting owners) would use scarce capital more efficiently.

An explicit decision by governments (US and Canadian) to leave as much of the provision of housing as possible to the private sector has left North America with less of a public housing problem. C. D. Howe, an American who became one of Canada’s great post War Cabinet Ministers, announced in Parliament in 1946 that: “It is the policy of this government to ensure that as large a portion as possible of housing be built by the private sector.” And so it was.

A Case in Point

Even today, it is hard to see how a couple would house a family in a city centre in an apartment, especially a large family.

A village, town or city is a survival machine (bringing the greatest benefits to the greatest number) and so is a typical suburban home. In fact, each home is a type of factory. The rapid urbanization of the planet is probably one of the factors that is helping to return some areas of the planet back to a wilderness state. We have only look to what happened to the residents of Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge forced over 3 million people into the countryside in less than a week. Hundreds of thousands died and the country side was devastated as hungry, desperate people denuded huge sections of forest in search of food and fuel.

Today’s home is a place for multi tasking. A typical suburban home and grounds could be used as:

a. survival machine for the inhabitants;
b. office work and employment;
c. teaching (of children);
d. warehousing (storage);
e. laundry service;
f. place of domestic employment;
g. research (if you have a home office and you happened to be a Professor, for example);
h. writing;
i. retailing (home based businesses);
j. sports and exercise in a fully equipped gym;
k. entertainment;
l. communications;
m. light manufacturing (home based businesses);
n. packaging (home based businesses);
o. consumption of large quantities of data, electricity, natural gas, food, clothing, gasoline, beverages, water, paper, oil, windshield wiping and other automotive fluids, office supplies, school supplies, art, furniture, bedding, camping equipment, sports equipment, gardening supplies, packing materials, and more;
p. the home consumes services such as snail mail, couriers, faxing, email, browser, Internet, telephone, flyers, local newspapers, national newspapers, coupons, social networks, door-to-door salespeople and petitioners;
q. restaurant (meals served to guests);
r. parties;
s. events;
t. handicrafts;
u. tool room;
v. repair shop;
w. hobbies;
x. education;
y. gaming;
z. mating, caring and feeding babies;
aa. school;
bb. library;
cc. dance studio;
dd. art gallery;
ee. personal grooming;
ff. clothing repair;
gg. pet grooming and housing;
hh. and much more.

The home of the future may be designed quite differently with this functional program in mind. It will almost certainly have much greater bandwidth and more people will work at least some of the time from ‘home’. They will ‘goggle’ into the metaverse and participate in conferences by avatar and in stereo space (the 5th Migration). (We should not underestimate the power of technology and reform to create solutions.)

There will be room for adult children and elders living under one roof but with independent access to their space.

Employees will be able to come to the home and work there when necessary.

‘Granny’ flats in the backyard, apartments in the basement or in the attic or above the garage will become more commonplace.

Suburbs will evolve—they will become denser and be subject to more intense uses.

Density will increase, that is there will be more of the same type of activity taking place on one lot: more residents per hectare. But intensity of use will increase too as different types of uses (e.g., employment and residential uses) become co-mingled and this becomes commonplace.

It makes little sense to invest huge sums in suburbs not only for built forms but also for the infrastructure that supports suburbia and then use the structures only for sleeping.

For a family of two adults, six children, one nanny and one elder living in a suburban home in Ottawa, Canada with three rooms being used for office work, the costs look something like this (circa 2008):

10 residents
3 work-from-home jobs
13 residents and jobs
$725,000 value of home
$ 55,769.23 capital cost of accommodation per person-worker
6% interest rate on mortgage
25 amortization
($363.55) principal and interest per month per person-worker (assuming 100% financed)
$ 6,000.00 tel
$ 4,000.00 elect
$ 4,500.00 gas
$ 7,000.00 property taxes
$ 3,500.00 insurance
$ 2,800.00 misc
$ 27,800.00
$ 2,316.67 per month
$ (178.21) per person-worker per month
$ (541.76) per person-worker per month

Factoring in all capital and operating expenses, the cost per person-worker comes to around $540 per month.

A comparable urban home (if one could be found to accommodate such a large and diverse family) would cost around $940 per month per person-worker, a significant increase.


Perhaps we are seeing suburbs at an early stage of their development. Suburbs have been around for more than a century but that is not a significant amount of time in comparison with the 100 centuries that humans have been building cities. It represents just 1% of the time since humans began living in villages and towns so perhaps a few more centuries will see some quite radical adjustments.

By retrofitting suburbs to allow for greater density and intensity of use, as well as allowing more varied uses including office and retail and industrial structures to mix in with the mono-cultured suburb which became the norm after World War II, the suburb can be redefined and resurrected and resuscitated and reused.

Sustainability needs to become a concept that embraces the idea that we are designing systems of interconnected functions. What’s the point of designing a home to efficiently accomplish all these tasks if zoning By-laws prohibit work-from-home businesses?

The NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) movement is powerful. It is based on two human emotions: greed and fear. People are fearful that any change in their neighborhood (like allowing people to work from home) will negatively affect their property values and they are greedy to see their property values increase.

There are many serious environmental concerns on this planet but someone who is working from their home is not one of them. There are hundreds of other examples of this type of behavior, which resists change and compromises efforts to move our communities to higher levels of sustainability.

In California, people have additional incentive to add solar collectors and wind generators to their home or place of business. Any power they generate, that is surplus to their needs, can be pumped into the public grid and their meter will run in the reverse direction: that is, they are compensated for their power. What’s the point of investing in these types of technologies in, say, Ontario, where reverse metering is not allowed?

We have to recognize that a large part of the challenge to increasing the level of sustainability is to convince people and their institutions to change policies and regulations, not just improve technology and technical prowess in how we build things and do things.

It is interesting to hear criticism of suburban design as wasteful of land and resources when zoning By-laws often enforce maximum densities, minimum parkland and open space requirements, large front yard, side yard and rear yard setbacks, restrict uses to single family homes only, use winding, curvilinear street patterns that increase the distance and time between any two points as does restricting left turns and using one way streets and even preventing citizens of one town or suburb from driving on the streets of a neighboring town (yes, this is done by not allowing traffic to cross a street and proceed straight ahead!), impose limits on home employment uses, disallow corner stores or offices within the community, etc.

Those very people (town planners and municipal councilors) who impose such constraints then turn around and decry the result. They are not usually the ones who inhabit the poorer sections of town. They are also often the ones who live in areas that are close to the core and in what used to be considered suburbs. These people have forgotten that their hugely valuable homes that give them the large yard of a suburban home and the privacy of the suburban home are now considered ‘urban’ simply because the city has spread out and enveloped them.

The automobile suburb successfully distanced itself from the industrial city. Success was in direct proportion to distance from the industrial core. The pattern derived from the railroad suburbs of 19th century. Those who could, moved out. Personal mobility was a sign of wealth. Meanwhile, immigrants lived within walking distance of mills (in polluted river valleys). Or they lived in the eastern parts of North American towns because winds tend to be westerly and, hence, industrial pollution moves from west to east.

One of the arguments often cited as a reason to abandon the suburbs is that they are subsidized by the urban resident. Most new suburban roads, water mains, sewer lines and other infrastructure in cities in North America are paid for by the private developer who builds there. These costs are presumably passed on to future homebuyers. In addition, most developers must pay development charges (DCs) when they secure a building permit. Those DCs are ‘hook-up’ payments; they pay for larger waste water and water treatment plants, for schools, for more libraries and other requirements that are beyond the four corners of the sub-division. The argument that suburbs are a negative fiscal drag on cities is a specious one—a) cities would not have to pay anything for anyone if they didn’t exist at all, b) the actual fiscal argument is far from settled and c) there is no reason why suburbs can not be built with much greater densities and intensities if developers were allowed to do so by their political masters and by existing residents.

If anything, today’s new suburbanites are paying a higher share of the costs to create new suburbs than their parents or grandparents did. By putting in place these DCs (mostly beginning in the 1980s), municipal leaders (if they owned a home and, of course, most did) in effect voted themselves a one-time increase in the value of their homes and imposed new costs on new homeowners. Young people are over-represented amongst this group and this brings up the question of intergenerational equity.

The marketplace can and will make adjustments as long as appropriate governmental policies and incentives are in place and they have the courage to implement them. After all, any system taken to its logical (and sometimes illogical) conclusion may produce unexpected consequences and need adjusting.

In many ways, suburbs are more sustainable than cities: a) they are more stable in the long term, b) cities can be overly subject to change, c) they have less air pollution and congestion, d) they are more resistant to terrorist attack and pandemics. History shows us that the most stable communities in the urban landscape were the railroad suburbs that were built in late 19th century and early 20th century. The middle class and our financial institutions like stability. The city centre is one of the primary realms of speculation and change, not stability. (The other is, of course, the fringe of a city where agricultural uses and urban uses often come into conflict and change is endemic.)

As cities push farther out, the need is for a different model—namely, a village model rather than a typical subdivision. New eras require new approaches. Centers of employment will be distributed throughout a city-state. Commuting times will drop. Higher fuel prices will encourage this trend.

Count Our Blessings

In many developing nations and, even some European countries, they greatly envy the suburbs of North America; they love the ability to own your own home, to be in a place that is quiet, to be free of a Landlord’s influence and much more. They don’t want to be indentured to a Landlord for life. Unlike many European countries where homeownership was limited to the wealthy, building at high volumes on inexpensive land brought ownership within the reach of middle class.

It was a bottom up phenomenon in North America where the right combination of private initiative by developers and a willing market of increasingly wealthy consumers produced a lucky generation. It might not have worked in countries where land was scarce and car ownership was lower but mass suburbanization was quite effective in North America.

Developing nations understand the power of home ownership to create a sense of belonging and a sense of citizenship and a buy-in to the nation’s laws. Also the number one source of startup capital for new business formation is home equity. Developing nations recognize that it is the rise of the entrepreneur class in places like China and India, their unshackling from onerous regulation and bureaucracy and the release of trillions of dollars of home equity that brought about those economic miracles and the rise in living standards there. It was not five year, government-mandated plans, government sponsored great leaps forward or centrally planned economic strategies that brought those nations out of intense poverty.

Leading development economist, Hernando de Soto, speaks to these issues and encourages governments everywhere to create the legal mechanisms for home ownership even recognizing informal towns as important economic generators when private land ownership is protected and encouraged.

Every square foot of our planet’s land area is claimed by one government or the other. If anything, today’s new suburbanites are paying a higher share of the costs to create new suburbs than their parents or grandparents did. In the past, the costs of collector roads, water mains, sewers and all manner of municipal infrastructure were shouldered by the city as a whole—the costs were buried in the general tax rate paid by all. Most cities today force developers to install all the services within new sub-divisions at their cost plus the municipalities charge each new homeowner a DC (Development Charge) which contributes to the cost of off-site infrastructure. By putting in place these DCs (mostly beginning in the 1980s), municipal leaders (if they owned a home) voted themselves a one-time increase in the value of their homes and imposed new costs on new homeowners. Young people are over-represented amongst this group and this brings up the question of intergenerational equity.

One hundred centuries ago, if you didn’t like your tribal chief, you could take your family and friends and move on. Today, more nations are putting up fences to keep their neighbours out. And many local politicians want to do the same—put up a fence around their cities and not allow anyone out. Perhaps we will become poorer than our forebears of ten millennia ago.
Many city centres can be frightening places with legions of homeless, crime and deserted streets after the office crowd goes home at night. They are not necessarily the best places to bring up the next generation of business, political and social leaders.

The argument that suburbs are brain-numbing environments has not panned out. Top students tend to come from suburbia. Many leaders (political, business and institutional) tend to come from suburbia. The pursuit of excellence, respect for law and other cultural values are supported by suburban residents.

With rising wealth comes the demand for more housing choices. In fact, the post modern economy is more about providing choices and alternatives than ever before. For the first time, it is possible to mass customize products and services through the intervention of the Internet. It hardly seems likely that fewer choices in housing forms is the direction most people want to go in.

North Americans should give themselves more credit: both for what they have built and for their ability to find creative ways of addressing issues arising from their creations. As cities have spread out, they have also pushed higher at their core, all else being equal.

One of the least understood urban phenomenon is that suburbs and urban cores are in a symbiotic relationship. If that were not true then Manhattan would have the same density as Toledo. Not everyone wants to live in an apartment above a pub. Some want to live in a quiet suburb. Happily, some do. People in the suburbs employ a legion of advisors—financial planners, lawyers, accountants, consultants, bankers what have you. They need office space. The people in the suburbs and those financial planners, lawyers, accountants, consultants and bankers go our for dinner, they go shopping, they go to films and plays, they attend the opera and festivals. People who work in retail jobs, for example, may, indeed, want to live in an apartment in the city centre above a pub. To make it affordable for them, the urban form is compelled to change—buildings need to go higher and spaces need to be smaller to make more efficient use of a scarce commodity—land and to increase the yield. This keeps prices lower than they otherwise would be.

City centres that look like downtown Chicago or Manhattan don’t come to be in a vacuum; they exist because suburbs do.

There is a big difference between saying suburbs were built wrong (which is probably not true) and saying that things should be done differently now (which we probably should do). Social changes are producing a new kind of demand for compact, transit-oriented development. This is a good thing. But we cannot conclude from this that suburbanization was necessarily bad.

Arguably, the apotheosis of industrialization was personal mobility. We can decrease dependency but we can’t deny people the opportunity to own and use cars as they choose. Perhaps the goal should be to make it more of a choice and less of a necessity. The question today is not how to get rid of suburbs but how to make them more diverse without compromising their stability.

Many of the suburbs circa the 1950s and early 1960s already accommodated change and transformation over time. The combination of relatively small homes on relatively big lots meant that owners could buy in affordably then expand their house as they accumulated funds and their families grew. More recently, many are being knocked down and replaced with doubles and other more dense built forms.

It’s true that newer suburbs (from the 1980s onwards) seem to be less flexible. Houses are much closer together and lots are smaller. This is a function of higher land prices, higher infrastructure costs, higher taxes and the need for affordability.

Density makes better use of road and sewer infrastructure but does not translate to walkability or diversity with respect to uses and demographics. They may just end up dumping larger numbers of people out onto feeder roads (“traffic sewers”). The changes need to include policy ones to get a better design, more mixing together of different uses and, hence, produce more sustainable communities.

People won’t just stand there and allow their suburban lives to go down the tubes. They will densify the suburbs (for example, the City of Ottawa took a tentative step in that direction allowing in-home suites to be built everywhere (notwithstanding what current zoning By-laws say) except in the Village of Rockcliffe Park.)

They will (eventually) allow granny flats, duplexes, triplexes, doubles and other forms of densification to take place. If people can’t afford their suburban homes any longer, they will rent out rooms, build in-home suites, add granny flats, add apartments in the attic or above their garages, whatever it takes to make the economics work better. They will also intensify the suburbs—there will be much more work from home so these expensive buildings will be used day and night.

If there is enough pressure, they will turn hideously land intensive uses such as golf courses (which are ecological nightmares too) into urban farms or add industrial greenhouses to their homes.

Car pooling and mass transit use will increase. The personal mobility and freedom that a car represents won’t go away but the size, motive power and frequency of use may change—there is a reason why people had a horse and buggy even when they had access to horse drawn streetcars. Points to point journeys, as discussed above, are just much more convenient and efficient with individual transport alternatives.

A higher overall density is required before mass transit can be made to make sense. Suburbs needed time to grow, mature and become denser. We’re now in a position to consider alternatives to the car. The pattern of the transit network may be significantly different than what we might have put in place had we built mass transit system 50 years ago.

The problem is not entirely one of form: it’s the covenants and restrictions that limit how suburban properties can be used and occupied. These policies are the greatest threat to suburban intensification.

Different mixes of uses and levels of density require different approaches to community design (coupled with changes in zoning, covenants and NIMBY attitudes). Promoting diversity is not just as simple as building a few high-rise housing projects on the periphery; we’ve already learned that lesson. If designed properly, diversity can benefit all. New Urbanists have done much in this regard.

The opportunity to build Greenfield developments in new ways and also to consider creative approaches to suburban intensification is a challenge that architects and developers and urbanists are keen to take up.

Toronto tried to restrict development to the corridor form Oshawa to Mississauga (in hopes of strengthening the role of transit) but the effort backfired and sent development northward where land was cheaper and regulations fewer. Ottawa tried to contain the city by putting a greenbelt of protected lands around the entire community only to see development jump to more distant and expensive (to service) suburbs.

Studies in England show that, despite increased commuting times, most of the middle class would prefer to move further out.

The range of choices has been redefined by the emergence of the condo market. Single family detached homes now appeal to a narrower market sector. The marketplace has become more diverse and sophisticated. It’s the emergence of these new choices that make new forms of communities possible.

But having said this, who wants to deny a person’s right to their ‘little cabin in the woods’? Is a utopian search for a middle landscape—the best of both the urban and rural worlds—wrong?

Copyright. Dr. Bruce M. Firestone and Professor Ben Gianni, Ottawa, Canada. November 2008.

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.