Moving to the suburbs

Moving to the suburbs. PICS/iStock

Suburbs, due to their growing share of population, land area and emissions, must become centres of climate action, not accessories to urban plans.

From the early days of the pandemic, the specter of urbanites fleeing to rural havens made headlines. The flight happened, but the destination was much closer to home, just a short drive away in the suburbs.

Building on decades of on-again/off-again suburban growth, COVID-19 spurred a suburban acceleration across Canada and the United States. This shift has created increased demand for new suburban housing, infrastructure and commercial activity. With work arrangements becoming more flexible, the suburban surge is likely to have staying power. 

For climate policy, this creates a predicament. Suburban relocation increases emissions through demand for expanded road networks, larger homes, energy and water infrastructure, and land conversion. Yet suburbs have been largely overlooked as a site of local climate action, with central cities attracting most of the attention and resources. Even before this recent surge, suburban expanses exceeded urban cores in land area, population and emissions impacts. If suburbs don’t play a central role in local and regional climate planning, urban climate action will fail to deliver on its potential. 

In response, three of PICS’ Researchers-in-Residence, Hannah Teicher, Carly Phillips and Devin Todd, propose expanding Climate Solutions to Meet the Suburban Surge in an article published in Climate Policy journal on July 15, 2021 Building on recent research, they point the way to enhancing suburban climate governance through proven strategies. These include building networks of climate champions to share knowledge and build technical capacity. For example, a purpose-built network could support and convene dedicated climate staff in suburban governments to learn from each other’s successes. At the same time, suburban organizations have the chance to learn from the pitfalls of their urban neighbours, mitigating not only emissions, but the risk of gentrification that comes with redevelopment. This could include more support for retrofitting affordable rental housing and public transportation that meets workforce needs. 

The researchers build on recent case studies of retrofitting suburbia, laying out strategies for rethinking the built environment. For older, inner ring suburbs, this means deep energy retrofits and mixed-use infill on post-industrial land. For greenfield development, it means the opportunity to build for the future climate, avoiding flood and fire-prone areas and designing for extreme heat and rain. 

As all levels of government across North America make plans for a post-pandemic life, recovery funds present a narrow window of opportunity to tackle this suburban climate conundrum.

New Port Mann Bridge: Credit Mike, Flickr
The Port Mann Bridge, gateway to Fraser Valley suburbs which saw a record high 131% jump in real estate sales in March 2021, compared to March 2020. Credit: Mike, Flickr 

Footnote: the suburban surge by the numbers

According to Statistics Canada, personal health, the ability to work remotely, and higher housing costs are among the most important factors contributing to the decision of many Canadians to continue (or to no longer continue) living in large urban centres hardest hit by the pandemic. The census metropolitan areas (CMAs) of Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver continued to see more people moving out to other regions of their province rather than moving in. From July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020, the CMAs of Toronto (-50,375) and Montréal (-24,880) each posted a record loss of people as a result of these population exchanges.

Realtors are recording the same trend. Collier's report The Suburban Flight and Future of Office Demand | 2021 notes unseasonably high residential sales volumes in the suburban markets of Metro Vancouver throughout the pandemic. Fraser Valley, for example, saw record high sales in March 2021– an increase of 131% compared to March 2020. 

Likewise the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board says overall sales growth in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) regions were up by by 14 per cent year over year in 2020, whereas sales in central Toronto were down by 1.1 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019.