Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Suburbs are a state of mind.

American suburban life has influenced the Canadian perception of suburbia.
Randy Richmond, The London Free Press reporter out to discover London Ontario's soul, has a blog called Urban sub. Striving for interaction with his London followers, Richmond has a page encouraging readers to: Ask me anything. I took him up on his request and asked the following:

"How do you define a suburb? I think of suburbs as distant places, involving long commutes to work. If I walk does that mean I do not live in the suburbs? I have walked from The Free Press to my London home; I often biked to the paper in 15 minutes. You live in the city, Randy. You live in a newer neighbourhood but little different from many older ones. I think you live in London, not a suburb of London."

Randy replied quickly and in some detail:

"Hey, thanks for the question.

I think suburbs are defined by their nature, not their distance from the city core. (My drive in rush hour is about 20 minutes. * People in Byron have about a 30 minute drive. That is getting to commuter status.)
Suburbs are traditionally laid out in a non-grid road pattern, with dead ends and crescents, with wider lots, garages for each home. In general, they don’t have a shopping core such as a downtown or Wortley Village has. There’s a sense in a suburb, right or wrong, of having streets with less traffic, wider lawns, more space, more community parks, shopping centres, bigger but a bit blander of everything.

Having said all that, in London, a lot of suburbs do have some qualities of village neighbourhoods and even the downtown.  You are right about that.

As well, not all the suburbs in London are the same. Westmount was built with the idea of having services close by to everyone. Oakridge seems a little more like the suburbs of the 1960s, where everyone had to drive. Some of the newer ones seem a little like that as well.

In some ways, I guess, suburbs is a state of mind."

First, you have to admit that Randy gave a good answer to my question. When he says, "In some ways, I guess, suburbs is a state of mind," he may be onto something. He is certainly onto something when it comes to London.

In the somewhat distant past suburbs were the residential, bedroom communities lying outside the city limits. They were bedroom communities for the big, urban centres. Living in the suburbs was often cheaper than living in the city proper as the homes had neither city water nor city sewage. Septic tanks were the norm and can still be found in some distant outlying developments. (There are still a few homes inside the London city boundaries that retain their original septic tank systems.)

My original London home sat near the Forks of the Thames and my mother, who lived with me at the time, used to walk to Simpsons and Eatons in the city core. I thought I lived downtown, technically I lived in London West as downtown ended at the river, it certainly wasn't a suburban home, but a 102 years earlier that area had been the municipality of Petersville, a London suburb.

Byron, where I live now, was a separate community until it and the surrounding land was annexed in 1961. My entire neighbourhood was built decades later. One could argue my home is not suburban; It has always been in London. My neighbourhood is not a bedroom community and never has been. I have city water, city sewage and I pay city property taxes, yet almost everyone agrees that I live in a suburb. Yes, Randy is right, "suburbs is a state of mind."

Wider lawns and more space is often more myth than reality.
Until relatively recently, garage-forward houses jammed onto to narrow lots were relatively rare in London, except in the pages of The London Free Press. The local paper carried a lot of stories about suburbia that sounded far more like a description of life in Pickering, Markham or Mississauga rather than Byron or Masonville.

I used to argue this with the former editor-in-chief Paul Berton, even backing up my arguments with pictures as evidence, but to no avail. The mythological suburb was too deeply etched into his consciousness. As Randy said, "There’s a sense in a suburb, right or wrong, of . . . "

Newspaper all too often report the sense, even though it is wrong, rather than reporting the reality.

* [I figure 15 minutes gets me from my home in Byron to the paper. My wife who worked near the paper said it never took her more than 20 minutes to make the trip. Byron is getting to be a big place and I figure there might be some distant spots where the residents are 30 minutes from downtown but I cannot imagine that there are many spots like that. I used to drive the local news editor home occasionally and he can confirm that it never took me half an hour to get him home, not even with a requested stop at Tim's.]

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