They may not be seen as exciting, but the ‘burbs need a Christian presence, too.

Suburbs are the place not to be. In conversations around creative cultural engagement, I’ve noticed suburbs are viewed as boring, a kind of anti-culture to be avoided if at all possible.

Defined by car dependence, generic housing, sprawling development, big box business stores, and a host of other negative characteristics, many see suburban culture as unappealing, repulsive even. In these places of hyper-consumerism and selfish isolation, any grander vision of a flourishing social culture seems lost. Sociologist John Macionis describes the ‘burbs with unflinching candour:

Gobbling up the land are strip malls and large suburban tracts of cookie-cutter housing of such striking similarity that they are creating an unvarying sameness everywhere, blurring traditional regional differences. Within this vast homogenous panorama, one could be almost anywhere on the continent and find few visual clues as to locale.

The suburbs are seen as cultureless, or at best, bland and unattractive.

Greater Vancouver suburbs carry these same stereotypes, which is why living in the city is such a draw for many. Vancouver is “cultured”—restaurants, entertainment, diversity, natural beauty, public transit, accessibility, neighbourhoods—and it draws people to the life of the city. In the city you can avoid the pitfalls of suburban culture and find meaning in the diversity of people and experiences. The city is the place to be.

But what happens when cities—and suburbs—change?

For many, the city, at least in Vancouver, has become the unattainable culture—the place you can’t be. And so people are leaving for the suburbs.

In Vancouver, housing costs continue to push people out, including the very people drawn towards this dynamic urban culture. As I’ve written previously, Vancouver’s “unaffordable housing has created a culture of unease, a lack of personal and social peace.” For many, the city, at least in Vancouver, has become the unattainable culture—the place you can’t be. And so people are leaving for the suburbs.

Hope for the ‘Burbs

As a suburban Vancouverite myself—I live and work in the suburb of Abbotsford (“the City in the Country”)—I’ve observed two perspectives on the exodus from Vancouver. The first perspective approaches any move out of the city with resignation—to leave Vancouver is to leave culture behind, compromising ideals for the affordability of suburbia. Many new suburban residents sound the lament, “It’s sure not Vancouver, but we had no other options.” With this mindset comes a resistance to call the suburbs home. If suburban living is a compromise of urban values and identity, to call the suburbs home is to lose part of your identity. Unsurprisingly, this first perspective finds little hope for the suburbs.

A second perspective still values many aspects of urban culture and decries many of the suburban realities. But in leaving the ideal of the city, many Vancouver residents are bringing their ideals with them into the suburbs. Suburban life isn’t a compromise of culture but an opportunity to create a new kind of suburbia, one that values community and diversity. These people embody urban values in a suburban context, championing what sociologist Louis Wirth called “urbanism as a way of life.” These people are choosing city living in the suburbs. It’s too early to gauge the long-term impact of this approach, but Vancouver’s suburbs are showing signs of change.

One example is the increased political engagement, particularly in areas of sustainable development and social inclusion. Whether it’s addressing pipeline development in Burnaby, gang violence in Surrey and Abbotsford, or agricultural land-use in Chilliwack or Delta, residents are participating in community development with grassroots efforts that are having a concrete impact on the political process. Welcoming refugees and advocating for people who are homeless has become a regular part of Vancouver suburb’s ongoing development, where the suburban stereotype of homogeneity no longer holds true. There is a growing neighbourly responsibility amidst diversity often taken for granted in cities but previously lacking in suburbs. Hyper-individualism is no longer a primary value in Vancouver suburbs.

Another area of hope for Vancouver’s suburbs is the development of new community plans. These plans recognize much needed shifts in suburban development that address the challenging issues of environmental and social responsibility. My own city of Abbotsford is a great example of this shift. Abbotsford is in the process of developing a new Official Community Plan (OCP)—Abbotsforward—which is structured around six key ideas not typically associated with suburban development:

  1. Create a City Centre
  2. Establish Distinct and Complete Neighbourhoods
  3. Make Walking, Biking, and Transit Delightful
  4. Make Places for People
  5. Improve Natural and Built Systems
  6. Enhance Agricultural Integrity

One local news outlet summarized the plan:

The contents of Abbotsford’s new OCP represent a fundamental shift not just in city policy, but in how the city thinks of itself and its place in a quickly changing and increasingly crowded Lower Mainland. The consequences that could flow from it—from small initiatives like urban beehives to larger dreams, such as a rapid transit connection to Vancouver—will likely drive conversation and debate for decades to come (Abbynews).

Hope is also found in the energy of entrepreneurs leaving Vancouver to develop sustainable local businesses in and for the suburbs. But they are doing this without compromising the values of creativity and quality often associated with urban business. Craft breweries, artisan bakeries, and farm-to-table agriculture are growing industries in Vancouver’s suburbs bringing diversity and innovation, challenging the assumption that one has to leave the suburbs to experience quality.

But as Vancouver is experiencing, suburbs aren’t just a place of hopeless resignation; they can bring opportunity for change and innovation filled with hope.

As Christians, we tend to associate Jeremiah’s cultural admonition to “seek the welfare of the city” as impetus to engage major city centers—and we should. But as Vancouver is experiencing, suburbs aren’t just a place of hopeless resignation; they can bring opportunity for change and innovation filled with hope. We can also seek the welfare of the suburbs.

There is still uncertainty, no doubt: will these examples of cultural innovation actually change Vancouver’s suburban communities? Or are they values that will remain at the margins of suburbia? Attending the preview of my own city’s Official Community Plan, I was underwhelmed with sparse attendance, even if the vision was inspiring. I wonder, can the ideals of urban life translate into the reality of suburban culture? Time will tell, I suppose. But in a time of soaring housing costs, increasing cultural diversity and political uncertainty, the Vancouver area is changing, suburbs along with it. And with this change, I believe, there is hope for the suburbs.