• Illustration: Guy Parsons/Can Geo

AS TIM VANDEWARK walks through his Edmonton suburb of Prince Charles one April evening, the “problem houses” keep appearing. Here is one post-war bungalow without curtains and a yard being reclaimed by nature. There is one with a deck that is leaning like it’s drunk. VanDewark stops walking at another, its windows covered in cobwebs.

“There’s a lot that’s going to be happening in this neighbourhood,” he says. “I would say there are at least 100 homes that haven’t really been well-maintained that will probably get demolished and redeveloped.” 

VanDewark, 31, is married and has a two-year-old son. He’s living the new-house suburban dream, except he’s doing it in a different kind of suburb than the homogeneous, car-dependent, edge-of-city places most of us think of. Last year, he and his wife Megan, also 31, and his brother and his brother’s partner, demolished a 1950s bungalow on a single, 15-metre-wide lot in Prince Charles and built two slim, detached houses, known as “skinny homes.” 

Prince Charles is a “first suburb,” or a neighbourhood of predominantly detached houses that were built during the rapid suburban expansion that followed the Second World War and continued into the 1960s. Like many of these spaces, its streets feature a canopy of 65-year-old, 30-metre-tall trees and detached bungalows so dwarfed by their yards that they look like Monopoly houses sitting on the game board. After decades of city growth, Prince Charles is now about 20 blocks from Edmonton’s growing downtown skyline, several transit options surround the neighbourhood and VanDewark can even walk to his job. 

Since the population of most large cities in Canada exploded after the war, first suburbs are ubiquitous in places such as Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., Winnipeg, Calgary, Regina and Ottawa. Today, they often share the same scourge: they’re shrinking, greying and losing wealth. For instance, in Ottewell, an Edmonton suburb of detached homes built in the 1950s and ’60s, population is down 38 per cent since the neighbourhood’s heyday in 1971. And these days, about 30 per cent of Ottewell residents are 60 or older. These communities see schools close, transit lines stop or struggle, nearby shopping centres fill with dollar stores and pawn shops and houses grow increasingly ratty and undesirable. 

As cities grapple with the unsustainable costs of sprawl, pressure is increasing to find ways to get more people back into first suburbs. Edmonton is targeting 25 per cent of new housing to be built in its downtown and mature neighbourhoods. Regina is targeting 30 per cent, while Calgary and London, Ont., are targeting 50 per cent. While most have fallen short of the targets, infill development is nonetheless accelerating. Many in first suburbs across Canada, however, aren’t enthused.

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IN LATE 2017, Ottawa city councillor Jeff Leiper published a list of grievances from voters in his ward about its redeveloping neighbourhoods. Construction workers, he wrote, were starting work earlier than allowed and destroying mature trees, among numerous other complaints. Residents detailed their own experiences, too. “I almost got in an actual fight in front of my house for simply asking one worker to move a truck that was blocking my driveway for the tenth time,” one man wrote. 

Back in 2015 in Edmonton, city council voted to allow lots more than 15 metres wide in first suburbs to be split to allow multiple dwelling units instead of the existing single detached house. Soon after, councillor Mike Nickel published a blog warning of issues like those reported in Ottawa. For followers of Canada’s infill disputes in its first suburbs, Nickel’s post reads like a standard grievance sheet. While he acknowledges there is a need to redevelop such neighbourhoods, he notes that change is happening too quickly, local infrastructure isn’t sufficient to absorb more people, neighbourhood “character” is being destroyed and resident complaints are not being adequately heard. “We are a long way off from making this a win-win for the city and its neighbourhoods,” wrote Nickel. 

The cauldron boiled over in Edmonton’s Westbrook Estates in 2017. Resident Darren Jacknisky helped organize his neighbours to sign restrictive covenants, banning their lots from being subdivided or rezoned, to prevent infill from taking root. He says he bought his house 17 years ago for its character, including the large yard and unobstructed views of nature in the backyard. And he wants to keep it that way. And, he notes, those same covenants already exist in many newer communities. 

He’s correct: new communities, such as the suburbs at the edge of any Canadian city you can name, can have stipulations preventing homeowners from too much change or too much density (though in late 2018, Edmonton created new bylaws that will not allow neighbourhoods to have only detached homes in the future). All Westbrook is doing, says Jacknisky, is locking its own sense of self with rules. Several other first suburbs in Edmonton have taken Westbrook’s lead and signed their own restrictive covenants. 

“Those covenants, whether they be limits on subdivision or green fences or apple trees, or whatever their thing is,” says Jacknisky, “are basically designed to maintain the character of the community.” 

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CAN CANADIAN homeowners really block redevelopment in their neighbourhoods? The answer is often yes. Homeowners are powerful in cities. So powerful, in fact, that some now call them homevoters. Lee Fennell, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School and author of The Unbounded Home, has used that term (not her own, but one coined by William A. Fischel, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, N.H.) to understand how property owners can seemingly dictate political decisions at city councils. But beyond the how, the biggest question is why? 

The home’s place in our financial portfolio is one large culprit. “That focus on a home as your family’s wealth is what creates this intense motivation to resist change,” says Fennell. 

While boundaries of a typical home end at the property line, its value is influenced by many factors beyond that. For the owner, this creates a natural tension or anxiety. “I think the current situation is that you have an owner who has their parcel of land, but there are so many things affecting the value of land that are happening outside,” says Fennell. “So, they have an intense interest in trying to control what’s happening in the neighbourhood.” 

City processes also play a role in giving homeowners power. Cities today are responsive to the complaints and grievances of their residents. If those residents organize, they can be nearly unstoppable. “If people know change is coming, they’re smart enough to know that, in our system, if they resist enough, that change can be pushed elsewhere,” says Robert Summers, associate director of urban and regional planning at the University of Alberta. “And if you haven’t seen change or experienced change, it’s scary. So if something comes up, you just jump into resistance mode.” 

The resistance in Calgary, for instance, isn’t about skinny homes as it is in Edmonton, but about density. Some residents have argued — loudly — against encouraging population growth in existing neighbourhoods using mass transit, but most especially, against secondary suites, better known as basement apartments or granny flats. 

Druh Farrell, a Calgary city councillor, says while Calgary and Edmonton residents are ostensibly upset by different things, it’s the same root cause — a deep discomfort with change. And the types of people who come with it. During her time on council, overseeing hearings about secondary suites, Farrell says she noted a distinct split in who advocated what. 

“The demographic difference between those in favour and those against secondary suites was really interesting,” she says. “People who were younger and ethnically diverse were speaking in favour. It was generally older Caucasian people speaking against. It was fascinating to watch.” 

Illustration: Guy Parsons/Can Geo

AS DIVERSE AS CANADA’S  first suburbs are, depending on where and when they were built, they can share “broad similarities,” says Douglas Young, who studies suburban redevelopment and is an associate professor at Toronto’s York University. Most crucially, first suburbs and their original residents in cities such as Edmonton, Regina, Ottawa, Calgary and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., share a sort of foundational myth. 

Originally, says Young, first suburbs were “at the edge” of their respective cities, before that city sprawled farther. And that perceived visual divide from the city core is key to understanding the current debate. First suburbs aren’t the streetcar suburbs that shoulder downtowns and are now overrun with a mix of houses, condominiums and row housing. Rather they’re the next step out, the neighbourhoods that once required a drive to get to. 

“There was a degree of remoteness, which I think was its appeal — you were almost leaving the city while in the city,” says Young. 

While debate around change is inevitable, Young says it can be especially intense in first suburbs because existing residents “have a vision of a particular way of life” they cherish. “Its essence is that it’s low density, residential and car- dependent. I think people feel threatened that that will be lost.” 

This way of life is more or less normal: More than two-thirds of Canadians live in a suburb, and in metropolitan areas that number climbs closer to 85 per cent, says David Gordon, a professor at Queen’s University who specializes in the history of Canada’s suburbs. 

Why do so many of us live in the suburbs? As the Second World War ended, explains Gordon, the federal government was terrified about housing. “There were over a million veterans away from their homes, and they were going to be coming back, and where were they going to live?” he asks. The existing stock of housing was old, concentrated in city centres and ragged. “The government was very concerned that there would be strife and they said, ‘We’re going to build half a million homes in the first few years after the war, if not more.’ And they did it in planned communities,” he says. “They did these subdivisions with the little Cape Cod houses in them.” 

Not only that, but the government did this in all sorts of cities. Many think their communities were locally planned. Today that may be the case, but in the decades that immediately followed the Second World War, Gordon says, most cities outside Toronto lacked planners and it was Ottawa doing the planning. “The federal government had its hands all over that.” 

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CITIES ARE sprawling faster than tax bases are growing. Take Edmonton: city administrators conceded in 2016 that taxpayers will subsidize its three latest, edge-of-city suburbs, expected to house about 200,000 new residents by the 2060s. Total cost, $1.4 billion. That eye-watering amount isn’t due to waste or scandal, but simply the disparity between the property-tax revenues that sparsely populated neighbourhoods generate versus costs for new roads, libraries, fire halls and sewers. 

Cities are waking up to this slow-burning problem with policies and rhetoric, but have struggled to respond in ways that concretely limit sprawl growth. Statistics Canada data shows that up to 90 per cent of city population expansion over the past decade has been at the fringes. The population growth in suburbs and exurbs has been slowly increasing “despite all the talk about intensification,” says Gordon. 

For cities, there’s little choice for the future, says the University of Alberta’s Summers — they have to fill in within their middle. “Continuing to sprawl, but not making good use of the urban space we have is really the biggest weakness we have right now,” he says. “The newer developments are pretty dense. Here in the mature core, it’s not at all. We could house a lot more people.” 

But if policies, rhetoric and even fights won’t work, what to do? 

One big answer could come from an ironic place: parking. As first suburbs grew in prominence, so did the ubiquitous, car-focused shopping centres that serviced them. In Edmonton, for example, the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood got the Bonnie Doon Centre mall, with what looks like an ocean-sized parking lot surrounding it. Today, the plaza has lost anchor tenants and is struggling for customers. But, thanks to an investment in a light rail transit line running at its door by the City of Edmonton, its owners are redeveloping the parking into thousands of new apartment and condo units — without much opposition. 

Gordon says that’s the future. Ironically, the parking lots built to serve first-suburb drivers near malls and transit stations were “a really great land-banking activity” for their redevelopment, he notes. 

“You take these existing suburbs and you get really rigorous about redeveloping around the malls,” he says. “It has to happen in the existing neighbourhoods, it just doesn’t happen in the loops and cul-de-sac parts of it.” 

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BACK IN 2017, VanDewark and his wife were expecting a baby and wanted more space than their downtown condo provided. But they wanted to stay in the city. 

On their budget, they expected to be forced to buy a post-war bungalow and renovate. But land values in Edmonton’s Prince Charles neighbourhood, about a 10-minute commute from downtown, were so depressed, and the houses so rough, that a developer suggested building a new house after demolishing the old one. 

“When I started looking at those numbers, it was kind of an eye-opener that we could actually build whatever we wanted at a cost less than what we had calculated it would cost to buy a pre-existing home and renovate to the finishes that we wanted,” says VanDewark. “So, it was kind of a no-brainer.” 

They braced for backlash. They had heard about the battles over similar moves. “We thought for sure, considering the average heights of homes and then ours, that people would be really upset we’d be towering over their houses,” says Megan. 

But they never heard an angry peep. Instead, the newer residents told them they were excited that more families were moving into the area. It was almost like they were part of a trend that was returning Prince Charles to its post-war, family ideal.