Aug 11

You always seemed so sure / that one day we’d be fighting / a suburban war

Philip Preville’s got an article in this month’s Toronto Life (alas, not yet online) that advances the premise that moving out of the city and into the suburbs — or the exurbs, or small town Ontario, or whatever you want to call it — is a totally awesome thing to do.

This has caused quite a bit of reaction. My pal John Michael McGrath has a nice summary of viewpoints over at TorontoLife.com. (Which is a site that I, in the interest of full disclosure, also sometimes contribute to.) I’ll add to that pile this just-published piece by Holly Bacchus, which is interesting if only because it’s the only thing I’ve read so far that actually defends Preville’s thesis.

I don’t want to waste keyboard taps reiterating points others have made so well, but I will add two things to the discussion.

The first is simple: arguing about the relative merits of suburban and urban living is mostly just a giant waste of time. You might as well debate whether it’s better to live in Switzerland or New Zealand. Where people choose to make their homes is such an intensely personal, expensive and permanent decision that of course the natural response to any criticism is passionate defence.

That spirit of defensiveness and spirited rationalization runs through Preville’s piece. And I get why: his family has just uprooted from one place to another, shifting a half-million dollars around in the process. It’s natural to want to feel good — to feel justified; to feel centred; to feel home — after such a move, and so you get the kinds of emotional declarations Preville applies both to himself and to his interview subjects: they’re happier now; they’re better people now; they appreciate life so much more.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that there’s an inherent inclination to want to feel good about your own sense of place, especially when you’ve made things permanent through the signing-of-mortgage papers and the having-of-children. The alternative is to be a miserable person filled with regret, and most of us tend to tend to shy away from that.

The second thing, and I think this is what intrigued me and also disappointed me about the Toronto Life piece: there is a really good article still to be written about the significant financial hurdles associated with middle-income people with kids buying homes and establishing affordable lives in the downtown core. Preville’s feature, tied up with platitudes and anecdotes, isn’t it.

Here’s what I want to hear more about: We are quietly facing a mounting situation — primarily in the Old City of Toronto but it extends outwards as well — where freehold houses, even in so-called up-and-coming neighbourhoods, are priced too high for your average dual-income couple. At the same time, almost all of the new residential units that have come onto the market over the last decade are one-bedroom or one-bedroom-plus-den units in condominiums. The result is a potential “housing gap” for people with growing families who want more space for their kids but can’t afford the exorbitant prices for semi-detached homes in urban neighbourhoods.

As others have noted, Councillor Adam Vaughan has been working to address this in his ward with a push for more three-bedroom condo units. He’s faced resistance from developers due to a simple problem of economics: developers can make more money off smaller units. That’s where the demand is.

I’m not sure what the solution to the issue is, but I’m very much interested in knowing more. An old-fashioned suburban-versus-urban war-of-words is great fun to follow, but there’s more substance in these details. How can we make urban living work for everyone who wants it?