In this ongoing series of posts, we will be talking with researchers on the Global Suburbanisms project about their own individual work, published articles and ongoing research. This installment features Dalhousie University professor Jill Grant , discussing her work.
Q: Can you talk about your background and how you became involved in the Global Suburbanisms project?
A: I’ve been following development trends in Canadian suburbs since the 1990s. I first got interested in how theories and trends such as sustainable development, new urbanism, and smart growth were influencing planning theory and practice in designing new residential areas. Then I began tracking gated communities and private enclaves. Since the Global Suburbanism project wanted to include an east coast city, I took on conducting research in Halifax, Nova Scotia for the team.
Q: What's so important about suburbs?
A: Suburbs are common habitat for Canadians, and for people around the world. In one sense, suburbs are simply the leading edge of the city: its frontier for expansion as the city grows. For that reason, they are sites of innovation, of dynamic demographic change, and of significant economic activity. Suburbs are important symbolically: they have been the locale of choice for growing families, newcomers, and the middle classes. Increasingly, though, they have become targets of ridicule from those who see the city as more sophisticated and urbane. They are now sites of policy and physical transformation, as planners encourage greater densities, mixed uses, and transit options.
Q: What is the focus of your research for the MCRI to date and what are you working on over the next few years?
A: We have done some case study work in Halifax, looking at the extent to which new developments are (or aren’t) increasing densities and mixing land uses. Smaller cities where growth is slower than in Canada’s largest cities do not experience the same pressures to transform suburban development practices. Although the suburbs of Halifax are changing, they don’t see the same kind of pressures for density that areas around Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary would see.
At present we are looking at strategies Canadian cities are using to coordinate their plans. Many cities today have large numbers of plans (e.g., official plan, transportation plan, active transportation plan, parks plan, recreation plan, transit plan, cycling plan, growth plan, capital investment plan, secondary plans – and so on). In some cases, the objectives and policies of the plans may conflict. We’re trying to understand how planners are working in this context.
Q: Looking at your recent article "Seeking density and mix in the suburbs: challenges for mid-sized cities" written with Kirk Brewer, what's the most important point you wish to convey?
A: We recently published an article on how the suburbs of Halifax developed over the post-World War II period. We found that despite planning policies that advocated greater densities and mixes of uses and housing types, the newest suburbs remained low density and spatially segregated. Although developers are interested in increasing densities in new development areas, policy inconsistencies and political concerns about the potential for crowding mean that suburban form can remain resilient to change.
Q: How do you hope this article and your research will change the conversation both in terms of further research and in affecting policy?
A: We’ve been trying to highlight the policy challenges planners face in trying to transform the suburbs. Now we’re doing more research on the strategies that some are developing to manage these kinds of issues.
Q: Beyond just your own work, what are your hopes for the MCRI in terms of changing how we think about suburbs?
A: The more we know about the suburbs the better we will be able to offer useful advice to policy makers and practitioners who need knowledge and data to do their work.
Q: What do you with your time when you're not thinking about suburbs?
A: I dance – it’s good for the soul.