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Is suburban sprawl just “a personal choice?” by ajkandy
January 14, 2009, 11:29 am
Filed under: griffintown

Rima Elkouri writes in La Presse about demographic trends producing some paradoxical changes in the makeup of Montreal, namely, a multilingual, immigrant society with a common public language, French (well, wasn’t that the point of all the language laws, after all?)

One line strikes me as rather willfully ignorant, however:

Les tendances dominantes sont le déficit de naissance chez les francophones, l’étalement urbain et l’arrivée d’une proportion importante d’immigrants non francophones. Or, il est très difficile de faire bouger ces tendances. […] Contrer l’étalement urbain? Pas évident d’aller à l’encontre du choix personnel d’un nombre croissant de familles qui vont s’établir en banlieue.

Is suburban sprawl really a personal choice? I would say that it is in reality a lack of choice — it is what has been made available on the market by speculators and developers, to the exclusion of all else. It is also the result of provincial policy decisions that favour automobile use over investment in public transit (highway 30), municipal policy decisions that delay or sideline walkable, transit-centric, denser urban neighborhoods with good portions of affordable housing. It is also the result of banks, private and public investment groups putting all their eggs into the production-homebuilding industry.

Maybe people have been sold on the idea of suburbia as the dream where you have all the lebensraum you need, but when you think about it, suburbia is a lifestyle choice that has been politically wedged into our society, that drains the main economic engine (Montreal) of money in order to sustain itself. If it continues, Montreal’s critical infrastructure will continue to degrade, but ultimately, if Montreal goes, so go the suburbs that depend upon it vampirically.


I’d say it propagates kind of like a religion… instilled by upbringing, re-enforced by dominant culture, perceived as a choice only by the particularly enlightened.

I once heard that the greatest factor that determines where you want to live is where you grew up. A large number of people who grew up in the suburbs may spend their university years in the city but ultimately can’t envision raising kids in parkettes and back alleyways… Its pretty deep-rooted and i guess it’ll take a generation or two to reverse it.

The real “non-évidence” will be what to do with all the sprawl once it falls from favour…

Comment by AH

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Very well put. I think the assumption that it is a choice that you spotted in that article is an excellent example of the myth of free market freedom that has grown so out of proportion in this last decade. There is still a certain amount of choice, but when the economy and power structure favours suburban over urban growth, choosing the latter requires some sacrifice (or at least the illusion thereof), so it’s not an equal choice.

Comment by walkerp

Alanah, I agree that it is partly a culture factor; I’m also sure that there are economically rational arguments to be made for it — affordable homes with backyards that offer much more floor space than you can get “in-town”, plus lower taxes in the off-island suburbs.

I think the unasked question is *why* is it cheaper when, by all logical reasoning, it ought to be more expensive? The answer seems to be that we subsidize this pattern of living partly for political reasons (suburban voter blocs) and partly because it’s seen as generating economic activity. Cui bono, however?

Comment by ajkandy

Politicians have been calling it “growth” since the railroads started, maybe even before that. But with even the oil companies sort of almost begrudgingly admitting that we may have used up half the world’s oil supplies in, say, 100 years – and you can bet we are going to go through the second half much, much quicker – it’s just more obvious all the time that sprawl is the total opposite of how we should have been building cities in the first place. The trick is not just to attract people back into the city, but to get them to leave their cars behind.

Comment by neath

“lebensraum”? was that really necessary?

Comment by Rowdyroddy

No, but it was fun to write. More seriously though, when you think about it, isn’t a phrase like “the American way of life is non-negotiable” essentially saying the same thing? That we need to invade other countries for their oil, you see, because we have this suburban lifestyle we’re addicted to?

Comment by ajkandy

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