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Aerial View of Coquitlam - a Metro Vancouver suburb.

More studies show that young people in North America - the millennial generation - are forgoing car ownership and choosing to live in cities over suburbs. Before these findings get urbanists exchanging high-fives at their successful redesign of downtown centres, I am not convinced that we should be celebrating just yet.

It only took a recent trip to IKEA to confirm that the suburban dream is alive and well. In a panic at having not started creating a nursery for our future son (due in a few months), last weekend my husband and I took a trip out to the suburbs to visit IKEA. The place was full of young families –all between the ages of 25-40 – buying furniture for their suburban homes and packing that furniture into their personal vehicles. They were not riding bikes to their downtown condos like this admirable fellow in Denmark:

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IKEA Denmark lends out bicycles equipped with trailers at its stores.

First of all, I love the idea that more young people are going to reject suburban sprawl in favour of living downtown in condos - and maybe we will see more families riding bikes with trailers for their kids, using car share programs and cramming their stollers onto crowded buses and trains.

North America has been very successful at making cities attractive places to live and young people - often raised in the suburbs - are taking notice (and there is no reason to stop doing this). However in many instances cities are no longer affordable for people that need a bit more living space to raise a family. And, the suburbs have not yet received the desperate attention they need to become walkable, more dense, more urban areas.

This situation is especially true in cities that receive high rankings for liveability, like Vancouver, San Francisco and New York. All of these cities face an affordable housing crisis that is not going to go away. These cities risk becoming exclusively home to the young (single professionals under 30), the old (downsizing retirees) and the wealthy, and not much in between. There are some policy decisions that can mitigate this, such as building more public and subsidized affordable housing, and adding more housing stock, especially middle-income housing (these examples were suggested in a recent article in the Atlantic Cities in relation to San Francisco’s skyrocketing home prices).

 imageAnti-gentrification protesters temporarily block a shuttle bus full of tech workers in San Francisco. San Francisco (AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle, Kurtis Alexander)

But, turning away from the affordable housing issues of livable cities, the real problem that requires immediate attention is how to fix the sprawling suburbs, which is where the rest of the population is moving in order to find an affordable place to live. Vancouver urban planner Gordon Harris spoke of this in an article about how heavily subsidized suburbia is:

Today, close to 70 per cent of all Canadians live in those suburbs. Most bought homes early in their adult life. Most raised families. And many are now living alone or with an aging spouse in houses designed for four to six people. The kids have grown and left, so nearby schools are unsupportable, too. Even the strip malls are failing as old neighbourhoods hollow out — as young buyers head to ever-more distant points in search of the latest “cheap” development.

This was all a bad idea in 1974 — and we knew it. It’s worse today, especially now that we understand the additional burden on the environment. We are changing our climate in a dangerous way to support a lifestyle that condemns most of us to spending unacceptable parts of our day driving, expensively, from one place to another.

In Metro Vancouver, we already see the population shifting eastward out of Vancouver and into the suburbs. According to Michael Heeney, principal at Bing Thom Architects, the centre of gravity of Metro Vancouver population has migrated east over the past 50 years.

"Back in the ’60s, the centre point of the population was on the East Vancouver-Burnaby border. Today, it’s in New Westminster, and it won’t be long for it to hop the river and settle where Surrey City Centre is."

Unlike many cities, the Metro Vancouver region is fortunate to have designed suburbs that are more ‘progressive’ - built around The Livable Region Strategic Plan that promoted preserving green space and building town centres around public transit. This plan even led to the establishment of an Agricultural Land Reserve to preserve valuable farm land.

As a result of these critical decisions, Metro Vancouver municipalities like Burnaby, North Vancouver and more recently, Surrey and New Westminster, have been promoting more density, mixed use developments and better public transit services -  transforming from sprawling suburbs to bonafide walkable cities in their own right.

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Plans for Surrey City Centre

According to Vancouver urbanist, Gordon Price, “If the ‘suburbs’ can provide what the city offers - particularly walkability - then we get the phenomenon evident in those inner-ring communities, developed before Motordom destroyed the streetcar fabric, that still have centres, a range of densities and are connected to the urban core with transit.”

Unfortunately, there are many issues coming to a head in Metro Vancouver that could spell disaster for the region’s reputation as “livable” and many of these decisions will have serious implications for urban sprawl in the suburbs: the provincial government recently announcement it is selling off 584 acres of forest on Burke Mountain so that the City of Coquitlam can tear down more forest (as they already have) to build monster homes with no access to transit or services; the provincial government is also moving ahead with a referendum that could threaten support for public transit, and more and more land that was designated as part of the Agricultural Land Reserve is being given over to development.

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Proposed plans to sell parcels of Burke Mountain in Coquitlam.

While all of this is happening in the suburbs, there are many success stories of people doing great things to make cities more fun, liveable and sustainable. There is still more work to be done in cities around the world. However, let’s not forget the elephant in the room. It’s time to turn our attention to the countless sprawling neighbourhoods in suburbia - the gated communities, the car dependence, the isolation, the homogeneity, the lack of access to public transit, and the large government subsidies that make it all possible.

According to Harris, “It’s not exactly breaking news: suburban sprawl costs a fortune. The most common pattern of “urban” development is an expensive and wasteful environmental blight that is inadvertently promoted by a host of clumsy government subsidies. We are actually taxing ourselves so we can live more uncomfortably.”

Not all young people will abandon their cars and leave the suburbs, so lets start the conversation on how to make them better. We have work to do.