10/07/2013 05:30 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

A Suburban Revolution?

Suburbs. This is a word that usually conjures up certain images, of green lawns and tree-lined streets, an idyllic vision of family life; of sprawl, generic strip-malls and cookie-cutter homes. While these elements are part of suburbia, the suburbs are much more diverse than the stereotypical landscapes of single-family homes and middle-class lifestyles.

The Suburban Revolution conference held at York University in Toronto highlighted the diversity of suburbs in the Greater Toronto Area and around the world, emphasizing an area too often neglected by policy-makers, academics and journalists.

"Bringing the periphery to the centre" and truly examining and understanding the suburbs is essential to understanding the social, political and economic dynamics of where people live and work in the 21st century. Suburban areas include areas of high poverty, often in massive tower blocks isolated from proper mass transit or walkable streets, something that poses a challenge to low-income residents who cannot afford a car. The suburbs also include areas of affluence -- the much derided "McMansion" -- and of course the middle-class homes with the green lawns.

Suburbs -- in North America and around the world -- are highly diverse areas, facing issues of inequality, transportation, and land-use/conservation. The Suburban Revolution conference is part of a seven-year international research project, Global Suburbanisms, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It is providing essential insights into the composition of -- and issues facing -- suburbs around the world. Many of the current findings are contained in the recently published book, Suburban Constellations, edited by York University's Roger Keil, a key person in both the Global Suburbanisms research project and in the Suburban Revolution conference.

Among the highlights of the conference was the release of the report of the Greater Toronto Suburban Working Group, a collaboration between diverse actors in policy, advocacy, and academia with the common purpose of raising awareness about the issues facing Toronto's suburbs. Among concerns cited in the report were land use and sprawl, poverty, the challenges of governance, and the challenges of an aging suburban population, in particular for elderly people who no longer drive but live in areas that are highly car-dependent. As well, the challenge of attracting and retaining young people -- attracted to mixed-use downtown-like areas -- was also discussed in the report.

The conference also featured a powerful interactive documentary, Out My Window, on the lives and experiences of residents of suburban tower-blocks around the world, places that are often sites of poverty and social isolation.

My own presentation was part of a panel on governing mega-regions. The theme of my presentation was different models of governing metropolitan regions, including regional amalgamation in Winnipeg, decentralization and fragmentation in Michigan vis a vis Metro-Detroit, and New Brunswick's model of centralization.

The last one in particular gave me an opportunity to present New Brunswick's Equal Opportunity model to an international audience at York University.

Overall, this conference provided valuable insights and discussions on regions -- the suburbs -- that warrant serious attention. An anecdotal account of the importance and immensity of suburbs, when flying over Toronto by plane, one sees a dense cluster of highrises, the city centre, the hub of business and finance, notably marked by the CN Tower. However, surrounding this cluster of highrises is a vast sprawling landscape -- more immense than the cluster of highrises in the city centre -- consisting of many low-rise buildings, warehouses, office parks and residential subdivisions.

This suburban landscape is punctuated by tower-block high-rises -- some high-end condos, some tower-blocks of abject poverty. There are also some notable landmarks, the curved towers -- dubbed the "Marilyn Monroe Towers" -- marking a small cluster of highrises in the area where Mississauga is trying to establish a downtown, to move beyond its reputation as a bedroom community of single-family homes and strip malls.

While Toronto's city centre is experiencing an influx of commercial investment and new residents -- notably a condo-boom that makes downtown Toronto look like a giant construction site -- it is notable that the fastest growing municipality in Canada is Milton, an agricultural town that has been rapidly transformed into a suburban edge city of the Greater Toronto Area.

As another example, the industrial City of Saint John in New Brunswick experienced population growth for the first time in four decades as per the 2011 Canadian census, a testament to the popularity of urban neighbourhoods such as the city's dense and mixed-use Uptown. However, at the same time, the fastest growing municipality in the Saint John Census Metropolitan Area (Greater Saint John) was suburban Quispamsis which grew by 17.4 per cent between 2006 and 2011.

Across North America, city centres are becoming increasingly popular sites for venture capital and start-ups, increasingly popular among young professionals and entrepreneurs. Urban San Francisco now exceeds suburban Silicon Valley in venture capital investment, as shown by research from the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute. However, it would be erroneous to say this spells the "end" or "death" of suburbs, which continue to be dominant features of metropolitan regions in North America and internationally, oftentimes vastly outflanking the city centre in population and area.

Toronto's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, has asserted that suburbs are not dying, but rather changing, and that suburbs warrant attention from policy-makers, hence a series of roundtables on suburbs she has been hosting. Any understanding of city-regions -- big and small cities, cities in Canada, the United States, and around the world -- must include a clear understanding of the suburbs. The Suburban Revolution conference and the Global Suburbanisms project are important initiatives in attaining this understanding.