Worth Reading: On Suburbia

Saturday’s Grope & Flail has a fine article by architect Jack Diamond on the whole suburbia and sprawl thing. It’s behind the subscription wall, but here are a few excerpts:


Most new urban growth occurs on the perimeter of urban centres, and
does so at densities that render residents of those areas
automobile-dependent — such low densities make public transit
uneconomic. Paradoxically, this also means that significant sectors of
the population are rendered immobile. Those who don’t own cars, or who
are too young or old to drive, have no alternative means of
transportation. Automobile dependency also acts as a social centrifuge,
segregating land use and socio-economic groupings into discernibly
distinct areas. Indeed, urban poverty is now centred in suburban
growth, where it is largely invisible, distant from inaccessible, but
desperately needed jobs, social services and retail facilities. The
rioting in Paris suburbs is an instance of the results of this
festering, but unrecognized, problem.


… Retail concentration in shopping
malls does little to encourage small, start-up enterprises that the
more mixed and individually owned Main Streets foster.

Most significantly, the cost of providing services to such areas
exceeds the tax revenue derived from low-density development. In an
analysis of one such area in Southwestern Ontario, it was found that
for every dollar received in real-estate tax, $1.40 was needed to
service such low-density development.

This form of urban development has been made possible, and indeed encouraged, by … what amounts to subsidies that land speculators and
low-density developers receive from provincial and federal governments
in the form of highway construction, and the provision of trunk-line
sewers, water supply and other services. The burden of this cost is not
borne by the beneficiaries, but by all taxpayers.

So, what can be done to change current development trends? And will
those who have the power to initiate such change do so before it is too

The means to make these changes is first to institute full-cost
pricing. Let the market forces exert their logic: If each increment of
suburban growth were to bear the full unit-cost of expressways, trunk
water supply and other services, the market would adjust to more
appropriate urban forms. That this would create densities capable of
supporting public transit, creating a richer mix of land uses, would be
an added benefit to affordable development.

Nowadays, development occurs at the extremes of density — either
vast expanses of single or semi-detached housing (and low-density
commercial uses), or high rise/high density condominiums. There is a
wide variety of satisfying housing in between these two extremes, from
town houses and duplex dwelling to low-rise apartment buildings of
about six to eight storeys. Ingenuity, when confronted with necessity,
will out.

A.J. Diamond is a principal of Diamond and Schmitt Architects
Inc. He was a commissioner of the Greater Toronto Task Force that made
recommendations on governance, taxation, land use and transportation
for the GTA.


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