Terry Fowler

Heritage in the ‘Burbs: How to Make Suburbs a Lasting Legacy

Sustainable districts and buildings must be appreciated as organisms that grow and adapt to their changing physical environment.

New ideas need old buildings.

– Jane Jacobs

Imagine walking down a street of a suburban subdivision built in 2000, somewhere on the outskirts of Calgary, Vancouver or Toronto. Only now it’s 2020. To your right is one of the single family homes that survived a phys- ical transformation initiated in 2007, when it became clear that surviving the oil crisis required neighbourhood inten- sification. In his home, a retired minister sells polished and drilled semiprecious stones – amethysts, agates and tour- malines – out of a living room he has transformed into a showroom. His workshop is in the basement. Next door, a vari- ety of stores form a small semicircle. They sell hardware, toys, groceries and second-hand goods. The stores’ entrances are focused on a small, sunny courtyard filled with trees and benches. Two storeys of apartments are stacked on top. Only a generous sidewalk separates these buildings from the street. It is filled with people walking, yes, walking in the suburbs.

Further down the street, most of the formerly expansive lawns are now covered haphazardly with row houses. There is a small walk-up apartment with a community garden in the back. People pass by on the sidewalk. Cyclists join them as they make their way to a larger grocery store at the end of the block.

“Heritage” and “sustainability” have become plastic words. That is, they are employed to mean many things. They are often used without context, which is to say they are thrown out mindlessly. But far from being mindless, these terms suggest specific places. The phys- ical environment is crucially important to the histori- cal and ecological value of a building or collection of buildings. Place unites heritage and sustainability. One way of seeing how this works is to look at the suburbs as our heritage buildings of the future. That was the idea behind the scene described above.

Normally, heritage refers to works of art or buildings that are considered to be culturally significant. But what is cultural significance? However much one may want to celebrate architectural details or the monumental grandeur of buildings or city districts, cultural signifi- cance lies at least partly in how the building or district fits into the environment, both built and natural. This sense of fit, in turn, is a central theme of the ecological sciences, which are constantly looking for ways in which particular species are created and supported by their ecosystems. Just as important, ecologists have discov- ered how ecosystems are created and supported by plants, animals and other organisms.

Using similar reasoning, consider how sustainability refers to the ability of a system to survive and develop over many generations. Humans are not the first species
to create cultures that overtax their ecosystems and wipe themselves out, but we certainly seem to have perfected the process, as Ronald Wright shows in his book, A Short History of Progress. Our highly advanced brains and technical finesse somehow fail to foster political, social and economic habits that respect our natural environment. We ignore the importance of maintaining a constantly changing mixture of old and new habits.

Because of our cultural predispositions and our astounding postwar material wealth, North Americans built enormous urban and suburban developments, which some experts now say are unsustainable. Europe, on the other hand, though economically vibrant and with the ability to do much the same, proceeded much more cautiously.

A subtle, organic mix of old and new development is scarce in Canada and the United States. Instead, our landscapes tend to be made up of either large, ecologi- cally offensive swathes of totally new houses and malls, or, as is particularly evident in the US, decayed inner cities. This reality suggests that sustainability needs to be defined by more than the admirable but abstract measure of how many resources are used by a particu- lar building. Sustainable districts and buildings must be appreciated as organisms that grow and adapt to their changing physical environment. As such, they endure and contribute to our sense of place.

Weaving districts into the city

There have been many attempts to recreate historic districts without reference to how they fit into the city or town. Sucked dry by shopping malls on their fringes, many North American urban centres have sandblasted historic storefronts and subsidized small businesses so they will return to these parts of town. Such projects only seem to work when a culture of loyalty to the town’s centre already exists. More often, the result is a semi-vacant stage set, visited sometimes by tourists, but hardly a sustainable business core. Unionville, Ontario and Corning, New York are good examples of this phenomenon. The Pioneer Square district of down- town Seattle is another.

A first principle is that districts tend to become sustainable when they are allowed to weave themselves into the economic fabric of an evolving city. To be sustainable, districts must adapt to new uses, something that is possible if their scale and design are flexible. This ongoing process doesn’t interrupt the spontaneous and therefore impossible-to-plan changes in the flow of energy and resources that characterize vital cities. Such organic evolution has produced some of the most excit- ing parts of Canadian cities. Think of Kensington Market in Toronto or Granville Island in Vancouver.

Preservation of old structures complemented by new construction encourages mixed use. This is a more sustainable model than one that demolishes a district only to rebuild it from scratch, or one that involves construction of a large new development on the outskirts of a city or town. New construction requires vast amounts of new energy and resources. And subur- ban developments have the added disadvantage of requiring use of cars.

Huge, single-use developments are unsustainable in a deeper sense. Jane Jacobs notes in The Death and Life of Great American Cities that Harlem, New York City’s notorious slum, was once a middle class suburb. It was a large, strictly residential development, built all at once. When even one or two buildings in a homoge- neous development deteriorate, they tend to, or are perceived to, attract the “wrong” kind of people. This sparks a mass exodus, which, Jacobs argues, is what happened to Harlem. St. Jamestown, a sea of highrises in downtown Toronto, started out as a magnet for young, middle class professionals seeking an exciting urban life. Like Harlem, when a few families moved in that were not young professionals, the entire complex swiftly lost its prestigious sheen.

To be vibrant, districts need shops and small busi- nesses, as well as old and new buildings, according to Jacobs. They anchor people in the area for different reasons and allow for gradual change. These rich mixtures give districts resilience in the face of inevitable social and economic changes.

Individual buildings are no different. Mention a “heritage” building and most people imagine an immaculately restored 19th century bank, warehouse or mansion. Often these buildings have been retrofitted to use less energy, but the renovation is not an inherent part of their heritage status. In fact, sustainability requires plain old buildings, buildings where the rent is downright cheap. As Jacobs argued years ago, these buildings incubate fledgling businesses. In Winnipeg’s Wolseley neighbourhood, a group of women who loved to bake bread and had a deep commitment to organic farming started the Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company in the late 1980s. Their idea was to buy grain directly from local farmers. They needed an old building to house their business inexpensively. It appeared in the form of a small neighbourhood bakery that was closing. Working out of that building, they were able to pay farmers well for their grain, give workers good wages, make some of the best bread on the prairies and still turn a handsome profit. New ideas, as Jacobs said, need old buildings.

Of course, small businesses of any kind can benefit from old buildings. When my car mechanic first started out, he rented an old garage in an alley. After accumu- lating a few customers he was able to move to a bona fide shop. The suggestion that empty bakeries and garages in alleys are part of our heritage may be too plastic a definition for some. But they contribute to local economies by helping people build new and inno- vative businesses, which, in turn, sustain culture. The bedrock of a sustainable economy consists of small businesses that provide the vast majority of the jobs.

Most cities and towns, however, hand out tax breaks and other subsidies to welcome big corporations that build large-scale factories, stores or office buildings that are sensitive to economic downturns. When profit margins drop they are quickly abandoned. Local economies and ecosystems all over North America, in cities as well as in small towns, have been badly damaged by transient developments that leave behind vast tracts of deserted land and buildings. In Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me, he documented the devas- tating effects of General Motors’ departure from central Michigan. Thomas Michael Power, in his book Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies, reported that areas in the vicinities of Butte, Montana and Kellogg, Idaho suffered significant environmental losses because of the mining operations that were temporarily at the centre of their economies.

Yet, despite being economically and environmentally unsustainable, these operations are part of our heritage as well. As wrongheaded as they may be, they are, nonetheless, culturally important and symbolic of our past. Unfortunately, new megaprojects continue to dazzle misguided municipal governments.

Acknowledging that abandoned sites are part of our heritage implies there is an interest in preserving them and incorporating them into the city. And this is start- ing to happen. In Toronto, a number of former indus- trial sites have been converted for housing and commercial uses. The old Goodyear plant in the west end is now environmentally friendly co-op housing, with buildings named after prominent historical people. And in the small village of Inglewood, Ontario, the historic Riverdale Woolen Mill is now home to an upscale fitness facility.

Imaginative solutions

Thanks to a wide range of government subsidies, including roads, suburbs currently represent the major- ity of development in Canada. In his book, Under- standing Sprawl, David Gurin notes that most Canadi- ans now live in suburbs. As such, suburbs are of immense cultural significance, but they are environ- mental and economic disasters. Poorly serviced by public transit and distant from most places of work, suburbs require residents to drive cars that burn non- renewable fossil fuels. They also destroy large swaths of agricultural land. In spite of popular belief and devel- opers’ advertising copy, Gurin points out that often- times, suburbs have poorer air quality, higher crime rates, more obesity and less community spirit than downtown communities. As a result, we desperately need creative ways to reduce sprawl’s negative impact.

One solution is put forward by the new urbanists. They design communities that discourage car use. Their towns have narrow streets and feature higher density development that includes shops, office buildings and houses – many with front porches. Cornell in Markham, Ontario, Montgomery Village in Orangeville and Bamberton on Vancouver Island are a few exam- ples. As inspiring as they are, however, new urbanist communities are generally built apart from existing developments. They don’t help us cope with the legacy of suburbs.

Although it’s politically challenging, a favoured solu- tion is to build all future development within the current built up area. Then, organically and incremen- tally, residential and industrial subdivisions will become the heritage districts of the future. Little by little, these communities will become nodes and neighbourhoods cherished by future generations.

Critical to the success of this approach is an appre- ciation of scale. It’s not just that small changes make environmental sense. Large, new developments that intensify existing suburban development are guaran- teed to face opposition from local residents. In other words, intensification must be small-scale, quite possi- bly because vacant land within the boundaries of North American cities tends to come in small pieces.

The stiffest resistance to incremental development will come not from current users of the land but from large developers and the municipal councillors. Public policy and administrative practices of municipalities and provinces have produced a dramatic decline in the number of small builders, and have supported the emergence of a few huge development companies. In writing about Frederick G. Gardiner in Big Daddy, Timothy Colton documents how the bureaucratization of Metro Toronto’s planning process made it almost impossible for small companies to be part of that city’s massive growth during the 1960s and 1970s. Only large, deep-pocketed developers could deal with the legal and planning hurdles thrown their way by big government. These developers thrived on greenfield development: large-scale subdivisions with thousands of houses, often on prime agricultural land.

If the predictions made in the documentary The End of Suburbia come true, the price of oil will soon force many people to either abandon subdivisions or partic- ipate in small-scale diversification and infill as described in the introduction to this article. Residents of such places will unite heritage and sustainability in their own unique way.

Edmund P. Fowler taught local government, urban studies and environmental philosophy at Glendon College, York University. His books include Building Cities That Work and Cities, Culture, and Granite.

To view images of smart growth in the suburbs, visit www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/community/transformations/index.asp

“Heritage in the ‘Burbs: How to Make Suburbs a Lasting Legacy,” Alternatives Journal, Spring/Summer 2007 (33:2/3), pp. 22-25