A look at how the suburbs are changing and growing up

Markham, Ontario
CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia/IDuke

There is a photo of sprawl in Wikipedia that has been used thousands of times on articles about the evils of suburban urban planning. It's taken in Markham, Ontario, a suburb north of Toronto. Writer Amanda Kolson Hurley is from Silver Spring, Maryland, but has probably spent more time in Markham than I have, living in downtown Toronto. In a fascinating article in the Next City, Skyscrapers in the Subdivision, she looks at how the suburbs are changing, and how they are growing up. She visits two: Maryland’s Montgomery County and Ontario’s York Region, which includes Markham and that sprawl photo.

With populations passing one million, Montgomery and York are major urban places in their own right. Spending time in them, you feel like you’re watching the suburb of the future emerge, a place where people of all colors and creeds live in apartments as well as houses, bring tres leches cake and samosas to school bake sales, and hop on the bus to run a quick errand instead of taking the minivan. Already, these new suburbs are changing in more fundamental ways than the gentrifying cities they border.

Silver Spring, where she lives, has become pretty cosmopolitan;

We can walk to places serving Salvadorean, Ethiopian and Dominican food. Buses come every five minutes. They’re packed — our neighborhood has the same density as San Francisco. As a non-Hispanic white person, I’m in the minority, and I’m used to hearing Spanish and Amharic as much as English.

She visits Markham and finds much the same thing.

Now the most diverse place in all of Canada, Markham is getting over its growing pains by setting policies for inclusion and using its diversity to economic advantage. The mayor, Frank Scarpitti, has gone on trade missions to China and India. The Pacific Mall has become a major tourist attraction. Scarpitti has sung Cantonese pop songs on its stage.

She meets "suburbanist" Roger Keil, who calls suburbia “a place where worlds collide, where futures are made, where urban change has to be explained.”

The article challenges a lot of the assumptions we make about where the action is. We write about everyone wanting to move downtown and the suburbs being in trouble, but it ain't necessarily so; some are booming. I think it's time for this downtown TreeHugger to leave his beloved Wychwood Barns and visit the Pacific Mall. I suspect it will be an eye-opener, as this article certainly was.

Good reading from Amanda Kolson Hurley in the Next City.

Tags: Cities | Toronto | Urban Life | Urban Planning