Robert Fulford's column about urban and suburban real estate

(The National Post, April 5, 2000)

Revelations of great social interest sometimes emerge from the real estate market, and Carla Bouchard, the Royal LePage Real Estate franchisee in Moncton, came up with one of them yesterday. She was responding to a report, generated by her company, which showed that house buyers increasingly favour urban over suburban residences. Ms. Bouchard said this could be partly explained by something she had noticed: People who work in home-based offices are increasingly moving to the centre of town.

This is, of course, precisely the opposite of what has been predicted for decades in the pages of architectural and planning magazines. We have been told frequently that independent contractors in the knowledge business, working from home offices and no longer tied to downtown offices, will move to suburban and even rural locations, communicating with their clients by e-mail. I've seen that prediction in print on dozens of occasions, and until now have never noticed the inherent silliness of it.

What will people who work alone all day need when their work is done? An acre of empty space and a shopping centre half a mile away? Some may indeed be pleased by that arrangement, but many will want to walk out their front doors and see busy streets, cafés, stores, and maybe a pool hall.

Humans are social animals. What made us imagine that large numbers of them were anxious to isolate themselves?

Desires like these constantly reshape our towns and cities. Everyone is a town planner, to the extent that we all exercise some control over where we live, work, shop, study, worship and play. When we make those decisions we help one district to come vividly to life as another quietly dies.

Evidence assembled by Royal LePage indicates that this process has recently taken an interesting turn. Downtown housing prices are now not only higher than suburban prices, they are also increasing at much greater speed.

If you had acquired a two-storey house for $230,000 in the downtown Toronto district of Cabbagetown/Riverdale five years ago, you could have sold it early this year for something like $335,000. Five years ago you could have bought a similar house for $210,000 in suburban Markham and this year it would probably have brought about $255,000.

So: between 1995 and 2000, the value of real estate in pleasant, urban Cabbagetown/Riverdale increased by more than 45% while the value of real estate in pleasant, suburban Markham increased by about 21%.

In a market like the late 1990s and the beginning of 2000, the rising tide lifts all boats. But it lifts some of them a lot farther and faster than others.

This is a change from the early 1990s, when there was no similar difference in the rising of prices. Sherry Chris, a vice-president of Royal LePage, says, "It has shifted, no doubt about it. We started noticing it two or three years ago." She thinks that roughly the same pattern is playing itself out in the U.S.

This may be no more than a demographic shift (grey-haired boomers, having raised their children, wanting a more interesting and convenient life downtown). But it may be that people are slowly turning against the suburbs. It is even possible that the most significant trend in North American human settlement in the second half of the 20th century, suburbia, is now slowly shifting into reverse.

The price difference operates across the country. In the Glebe district of Ottawa, a standard two-storey house has increased by about 31% since 1995, up to about $225,000; the same kind of house in suburban Kanata has increased 11.5% over the same period, up to $174,000. A detached bungalow in Calgary's most popular urban area, Mount Royal, has increased in price by about 48%, up to $325,000; an equivalent house in the fast-growing suburb of North West Tuscany has increased by 30% to $177,600. In Montreal's urban Notre-Dame-de-Grace district, prices increased about 15% over 1995 while prices in a popular suburb, St-Lambert, went up by only about 2%.

People are still buying suburban houses, if not as eagerly as before, but it's possible we are witnessing the twilight of the suburban ideal. The suburban ideal was that the most pleasant and sensible way to accommodate a growing population was to keep building new space-wasting subdivisions, one after another, each of them farther from downtown than the last.

The suburbs that began rising after the Second World War were a major product of modernism. They were logic applied to dwellings. Like modern industry and business, they were highly specialized, and their specialization led to apparent efficiency. Developers cleared raw land or former farmland and laid it out in separate chunks -- houses here, schools there, shopping over there.

The suburbs promised to replace the chaotic development of the old cities with serious planning. In the mid-1950s, when the first truly planned suburb in Canada came together -- E.P. Taylor's Don Mills -- the first house-buyers felt like pioneers of modern civilization. No one spoke about the hidden costs. Services were expensive -- school buses, for example, gobbled up great sums of education money. Public transport seldom became better than spotty. Everyone depended on cars, so suburban life grew more expensive every time oil prices went up. Those who lacked a car (teenagers, for instance, and the old) often felt marooned.

For years now, visionary planners have been trying to halt the spread of suburbia, fill in some of those empty spaces and create denser districts that may have a better chance of feeling like communities. Sometimes this movement feels like a lost cause, but it may turn out that the market and the private inclinations of home buyers will accomplish what governments and planners have never been able to do: develop a more sensible use of land and help the suburbs become more humane and desirable places to live.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image