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C200: When Does A Suburb Become A City?

2011 April 12
by Gordon Price

< Denman Street in Vancouver's West End; photo by the author >

When does a suburb become a city? Because that’s what the next half century is all about.

We spent the last half of the 20th-century creating suburbs – the stuff we city types dismiss as sprawl. But, sorry, it’s not dismissable. People love it. Always have, and still do.

Whenever a society gets rich enough, people buy space. Hence the suburban instinct that flowered for the middle classes in the age of the streetcar – the technology that expanded cities exponentially in the 1890s.

Vancouver, founded in 1886, one of the first places to adopt electric-streetcar technology, and so shaped itself around the villages that formed wherever the streetcar lines went. And though we may look so mid-20th-century modern with all our concrete high-rises, we are still function more like a late-19th century city. And also because we didn’t build freeways into our core.

Unfortunately our surburbs did build freeways, wide roads and parking lots – lots of ’em and not a lot of transit - making themselves almost totally dependent on the auto and truck for almost everything. Today, those suburbs are vulnerable. Having driven out all other transportation choices except driving, they are now hostage to the price and availability of oil.

So what to do? What distinguishes the central area of Vancouver, given the imits of water and mountains, was to build on the streetcar fabric and make high-density development sufficiently attractive that all classes of people could imagine living in it. Vancouver provided enough practical transportation choices – walking, cycling, transit, taxis – sufficient to accommodate more people without accommodating more cars.

The rest of the region has decided that it too would like a bit of what Vancouver has. In the regional town centres from North Vancouver to Langley City, they’re embracing density, transit and the public realm. High-rises sprout all along the rapid-transit lines.  In our largest municipality, Surrey, they prohibit the use of the word ‘suburban.’ They’re using public investment - a new library, a new city hall, walkable public spaces, more transit – to stimulate private-sector development, to concentrate into true ‘downtowns.’

The suburban ideal may remain dominant in the older subdvisions, but they too like the idea of choice – in accommodation, workplaces and transportation. And they’ll need to, if the suburb is to have a future.

But then they’ll call it a city.


< Surrey Central regional city center, Surrey, BC; photo: Warrington Property Mgmt. >


Gordon Price is the Director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University. He sat for six terms as City Councillor in Vancouver, BC and also served on the Boards of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (Metro) and TransLink. He publishes an electronic magazine and blog on urban issues, with a focus on Vancouver, called “Price Tags” – and