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.
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.”
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.”