The zero-carbon suburb

It’s not just heat pumps and electric cars. To truly decarbonize, we need to reimagine how we live, starting with urban sprawl.

November 1, 2021

6-minute read

Look out your front door. What do you see?

If you’re one of the 60% of Canadians who live in a detached, single-family home, or one of the 11% living in semi-detached homes and duplexes, you probably see many other homes like your own.

You probably see a lot of cars, too, since 90% of Canadians own or have access to a personal vehicle. There are as many registered vehicles as there are people in this country. And the people in your neighbourhood probably need those cars. Can
you see a grocery store, school, or doctor’s office from your home? Can you see any workplaces?

If you’re one of the 7% of Canadians who live in an apartment building over five stories tall, your view is probably very different. From your window in the heart of the city, you might see other towers like your own, teetering above a grid of busy streets, interspersed with all the amenities of daily life and interconnected by public transportation.

You probably don’t need a car to get to work or school or to access the services you need. And as you survey this forest of concrete from your box in the sky, it might feel like you’re at the cutting edge of urbanization in Canada, setting an example for growing communities across the country.

But you’d be wrong.

Because the future of most Canadian communities is not densely-packed urban skyscrapers, as space-efficient as they are, any more than it is the continued expansion of car-dependent urban sprawl, which is deeply at odds with the necessity of achieving a zero-carbon economy.

No, the future of communities in Canada looks a lot more like the underappreciated middle child of Canadian urban design: low-rise apartments and multi-unit houses, mixed in with commercial and public spaces, to form liveable, walkable and sustainable communities.

It’s the best path forward for a climate-safe future, and it’s time we get used to it.

Today, only 20% of Canadians live in what experts call the “missing middle” of low-rise apartments and multi-unit houses. Advocates point out that these kinds of buildings solve many of the problems with both low-density sprawl and high-density towers.

The downsides of sprawl and suburbanization are well-documented, especially in terms of their environmental impacts.

So-called “greenfield” development destroys natural habitats and farmlands that serve important functions, including flood control, biodiversity protection and carbon sequestration. Suburbs facilitate and even necessitate environmentally-destructive lifestyles, since they are almost always car-dependent and suburban homes are typically larger than urban ones, requiring more energy and materials to heat, cool and maintain.
There are other costs, too.

Low-density communities stretch public services (such as schools and waste collection) thin, which results in higher costs and/or lower quality. Car dependence increases air pollution and reduces physical activity levels, both of which are tied to worse health outcomes.

Moreover, sparse, single-family homes are known to erode social connections and reduce wellbeing, in no small part because long work commutes are overwhelmingly linked to lower happiness.

High-density towers are much more efficient and have a smaller environmental footprint than housing the same number of people in detached homes, but they introduce problems of their own.

One is crowding. Putting thousands of people on a single block without a commensurate investment in surrounding infrastructure can strain the very services they are meant to take advantage of, such as transit and public green spaces. Another is affordability. Condo towers in particular are typically profit-seeking corporate projects that often price out existing residents. Municipalities increasingly mandate developers to provide affordable units, but the thresholds remain above what lower-income households can pay.

And then there are social obstacles. For example, tower living is not very attractive to some families, many of whom desire a yard and more space than an apartment can provide.

Today, only 20% of Canadians live in what experts call the “missing middle” of low-rise apartments and multi-unit houses. Advocates point out that these kinds of buildings solve many of the problems with both low-density sprawl and high-density towers.

For example, they offer residents adequate living space and (often) a front door to the street without the cost and land use of a detached house. Medium-density housing is also more material-efficient than towers (low-rises can be built mainly with wood, rather than steel and concrete) while being more land-efficient than houses.

European cities have long taken this approach. Berlin has a comparable population and population density to Toronto yet its skyline is remarkably flat thanks to a preponderance of 3–6 story buildings. Walk through any neighbourhood in Paris, Amsterdam, or Athens and you’ll be hard-pressed to find towers or detached houses at all.

Not only do these cities fit more people comfortably into less space, they use the space better. The first floors of many low-rise buildings on main streets are reserved for commercial use—an uncommon practice in Canada and one often limited to high-rise buildings in downtown cores. Every neighbourhood can have its own grocery stores, offices and other amenities, freeing residents from traveling to a designated commercial area for daily necessities.

How we got here is a function of history; cheap cars and cheap land encouraged a particular model of urban development. Why our cities aren’t moving away from this approach is a more pernicious question.

While these cities do have downtowns, they don’t have the same hub-and-spoke feel as most North American cities. Suburbs still exist, but they are not sprawling areas designed solely to house commuters. Instead, neighbourhoods are often self-contained and self-sufficient with public transit links to other areas. People can drive but rarely have to.
There’s an important economic logic to this sort of city design that is often lost on North Americans. We spend so much time and money trying to transport people from their far-flung homes to the opportunities and amenities of the city when we could be bringing more of the city to where people already live. Mixing homes, businesses and public services, so that people can walk or bike everywhere they need to be on a daily basis, is even more efficient than moving people around with public transit, which itself is dramatically more efficient than relying on personal vehicles.

The case for mixed, medium-density cities is even stronger in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which demonstrated how much work can be done outside of a traditional office environment. Urban cores still have an economic and cultural appeal but are less necessary than before. On the other hand, we must avoid pressures to increase sprawl simply because more workers can do their jobs further afield.

Another important consideration is, of course, climate change. More frequent extreme weather and the imperative of net-zero building emissions means the vast majority of buildings across Canada must be retrofitted or rebuilt as infills in the next 20–30 years. That will involve insulating, flood-proofing and replacing gas-fired furnaces with heat pumps as well as finding ways to fit more homes into less space to take advantage of district heating and other energy efficiency technologies that work best at scale.

We also need to recognize that not every internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle on the road is going to be replaced by a zero-emission alternative. The economic and environmental cost of getting 34 million zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) on Canadian roads within thirty years is untenable, but getting ICE vehicles off the road is non-negotiable. Many people who once drove won’t be able to anymore, especially as our population grows, and our cities need to be prepared.

How we got here is a function of history; cheap cars and cheap land encouraged a particular model of urban development. Why our cities aren’t moving away from this approach is a more pernicious question and one that’s long frustrated housing advocates and environmentalists alike. 

Municipal zoning rules are often held up as the culprit. Many Canadian communities cordon off different areas for single uses—businesses here, houses here, towers here. We also place counterproductive limits on new developments (e.g., requiring a minimum number of parking spaces for homes). Those rules need to change. Most neighbourhoods of single-family detached homes in medium-to-large Canadian cities can and should be rezoned to allow 4–6 unit homes and 3–5 story mixed-use apartment buildings.

A secondary obstacle is the current for-profit property development model. New supply is prioritized where it will make the most money (hence the surfeit of downtown luxury condos and cheaply-made suburban houses) and not where affordable homes and accessible commercial spaces are needed, such as around transit hubs. Although rezoning will help open up the missing middle to private development, a greater emphasis on and funding for non-profit and public development can help jumpstart vibrant, affordable medium-density neighbourhoods.

Any way you slice it, the obstacle is fundamentally an issue of politics. Our leaders at all levels of government have been content to facilitate a version of the city that, if it ever served people well, is no longer fit for our zero-carbon future.

While achieving a climate-safe city will involve challenges, it will create opportunities, too. The sooner we get compact, walkable and sustainable communities, the better off we’ll be. 

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