From “Sugar Cookies” to “Gingerbread Men”: Conformity in Suburban Design

By Jill Grant

New urbanist-inspired approaches to suburban development are common in contemporary Canada. Suburbs influenced by new urbanism and featuring modified grid layouts, narrow streets, small lots and limited street setbacks are increasingly common. “Traditional” houses with front porches and pitched roofs are proliferating across the landscape. The new urbanist model has promoted new values: reduced car usage, well-designed public spaces, “eyes on the street” and urban diversity. It hoped to become a town-centred, anti-suburban approach. Beyond the superficial architectural details, however, are the new urbanist goals of equity, environmental protection and economic efficiency being achieved? Is new urbanism “re-urbanizing” the city, or simply creating cuter cookie-cutter suburbs? Is it creating sustainable development?

Since 1999 I have been visiting new urbanist developments in four Canadian provinces–Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Based on interviews with planners and developers and examination of their claims, I see a parallel with the historical fate of the Garden City movement. The same processes that reduced the Garden City to a sterile concoction of winding roads, big lots and wide houses are now creating a parody of the vision of new urbanism. The holy grail of sustainable development is in danger of becoming an empty catch phrase to justify any of a wide range of decisions and outcomes. Instead, low-density growth remains the dream of the producers of the urban and suburban realm, and the reality of its inhabitants.

The Concepts Break Down

Developers in rapidly growing Canadian cities began large-scale projects in the 1990s, and two developments exemplify the new urbanist trend. McKenzie Towne opened in Calgary Alberta and Cornell broke ground in Markham Ontario. The early phases of McKenzie Towne featured “brownstone” town houses around a square, similar to designs for the new urbanist development of Kentlands, Maryland.. Andres Duany participated in the design process. Calgary planners became staunch advocates of new urbanism, developing plans and policies to promote the new models.

The first phase of McKenzie Towne, Inverness Village, had narrow roads, a public square, back alleys with garages, small setbacks and narrow lots. The central “high street” provided space for commercial uses. The developer, Carma, moved away from some of these new urbanist principles in later phases in an effort to recover costs and improve sales. Some of the design concepts, like apartments over stores and garages, proved too expensive to construct. Recent phases of McKenzie present more conventional styles. While porches and columns remain popular, the details in newer phases are less functional; moreover, front garages and cul-de-sacs–features typical of traditional suburban development–are returning. McKenzie cannot easily escape reality–its location ina suburb quite distant from the employment core of the city. With each successive phase it tones down its new urbanist principles to appeal to households looking for starter homes in the suburbs.

Cornell, in Markham Ontario, also has “brownstone” townhouses lining the boulevard leading to its “town center.” Brick buildings emulate the style of Ontario country farm houses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A mix of single-family and semi-detached homes are most common. The streets follow a modified grid, while alleys accommodate garages. It should be mentioned that the homes in Cornell are not inexpensive.

Markham adopted new urbanist planning principles as its preferred option for new suburban development. New projects in the community conform to the prescription: straight streets, alleys, limited setbacks, narrow lots, “traditional” dwelling styles and attractive public spaces.

Developers in many Canadian communities are emulating elements of new urbanist design. Mass-produced houses commonly sport porches, although seldom deep enough to accommodate more than a row of chairs. Gingerbread trim has become de rigeur, even on homes with front-attached garages. These new designs fit well on the compact lots that planners now recommend. Thirty to forty foot wide lots make land use denser than a decade ago. At the same time, however, new developments have a greater amount of impervious ground cover (in streets, alleys and building envelope). What may be gained in infrastructure efficiency is lost in landscape function. Those who believe compact forms are sustainable applaud; those who believe that environmental function should take precedence find the outcome disappointing.

Moreover, as average household sizes are smaller than they have been in the past, greater housing densities may not translate into higher population densities. For example, the typical 1960s household may have had five people on a 50 x 100 foot lot; 1990s suburbs had about 2.5 people on a 30 x 100 foot lot, consuming more land and building materials per person in the same life cycle phase. Smaller lot sizes do not necessarily translate into sustainability.

New urbanist projects are not solving the problem of affordable housing either. Developers contend that New urbanist design costs more to build than does conventional suburban design and appeals to the upscale market. Starter suburbs have, however, copied New urbanist design elements like front porches and pitched roofs. Hence, new urbanist details are rapidly disseminating into the suburban vernacular, without the rest of the model.

New urbanism seeks alternatives to the car, however, the projects built to date have not reduced car usage. With few jobs nearby, people must commute. Mass transit is available, but not well-developed. Most people still use their vehicles for shopping and recreation. Moreover, most developments pop up in farm fields. In order to get to the real urban landscape, people have little option but to drive.

Some urban redevelopment projects provide greater potential. For instance, the former military base in Calgary offers a mix of rehabilitated housing units and new homes in a central location. Garrison Woods is well-integrated into the urban transit system. An existing commercial core and new retail meet daily shopping needs. Here the principles of new urbanism have a chance of flourishing because they build upon the traditional urbanism of the city core.

In most suburban areas, however, we can see the concepts of new urbanism boiled down to what the market finds useful for packaging: porches, gingerbread trim, peaked roofs, narrow lots. In areas with cold winters, developers may provide garages off unpaved back lanes; in moderate climates, cars are parked in the front driveway. This is not urbanism, but merely updated suburban development.

While planners encourage modified grid layouts and other elements of the new urbanist model, developers prefer the loops and cul-de-sacs perfected in the post-war period. These still sell at a premium. Some communities have adjusted lot layout standards, but few reduce them to urban dimensions. Alleys are not proving popular with consumers; people worry about snow clearing, poor visibility for garage access and potential usage as routes for criminal activity. In some areas, utility companies are reluctant to put services into alleys. As a result, the street edge may fill with unsightly service bollards that contrast markedly with the “traditional streetscape” illusion generated by retro-homes.

Cookie-Cutter Suburbs

The suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s were certainly a “cookie-cutter” phenomena with standardized street patterns, house forms and school locations. Designed to meet the needs of the middle-class nuclear family, they fit the mass-produced stereotypes of the times. Developers perfected the combination of house-on-lot-in-neighborhood that sold relatively cheaply and quickly. Planners facilitated standardization by supplying rules and regulations that enabled land use patterns to emerge.

Economic forces in the development industry and cultural values about domestic environments are already pushing new urbanism into stereotypical patterns. The “sugar cookie” suburb of the post-war period is giving way to the “gingerbread man” suburb of the late twentieth century; suburban substance has not changed. The stereotypical suburb now has houses with distinctive architectural features on narrow lots. Contemporary suburbs aimed at the “move-up” or “executive” market have beautiful public spaces, parks, commercial or recreational amenities and sidewalks. Where the suburbs target the middle- and working- classes, developers do not invest in public spaces or ornate streetscapes and retain winding streets. Developers are segmenting the market to target product lines at particular consumer groups. As in the post-war period, planning facilitates the development process by adjusting land use regulations to accommodate demand.

We see then that suburban development practices follow the paradigmatic logic of their time. Planners articulate models in planning principles and developers embed them in the practice of development economics. Over time, politics, economics and professional critiques modify those principles and practices. Cultural values test the professional principles and eventually force reconsideration. What do people expect from the landscape and how do those expectations change over time? What means do they have available for meeting their needs and what choices do they prefer? What meanings do they give to the neighborhood through the patterns of their daily activities? In many ways, the market response to development models reflects cultural values. As we see new urbanism being boiled down to its essential architectural elements, we find that the public has only bought into a limited number of the values of the paradigm, just as they only latched onto a few of the elements of the earlier Garden City model.

In its search for a physical planning paradigm to create a new urban social order, new urbanism overlooks the patterns of job distribution, automobile usage and recreational activities that contribute to the shape of our settlements. People resist paradigms that do not address their needs. The planner’s search for sustainable development patterns will likely continue for the near future, coded now in the language of smart growth. Whether any of these models will produce the equity, environmental protection and economic efficiency that planners have sought since the early days of the profession (and embedded in the various models of good neighborhoods we used throughout the twentieth century) remains for the future to judge.

Jill Grant is a professor in the School of Planning at Dalhousie University, Halifax Nova Scotia. The research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Thanks to research assistant Jaime Orser for her contribution to the work.

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