A Regional Perspective on Canadian Suburbanization: Reflections on Richard Harris's Creeping Conformity

By McCann, Larry | Urban History Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

A Regional Perspective on Canadian Suburbanization: Reflections on Richard Harris's Creeping Conformity


McCann, Larry, Urban History Review


Abstract

Richard Harris's recently published Creeping Conformity offers a carefully reasoned interpretation of the country's evolving suburban landscape from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. In particular, Harris argues that Canadian suburbs have passed from a state of diversity to one of conformity. No longer are suburbs a jumble of land uses and social classes. Instead, through the initiative of large, vertically integrated corporations, supported by federal mortgage and other fiscal policies, suburbs have become more middle class, yielding to a "conformity" in the shaping of their physical design and social make-up. This paper suggests that factors of a distinctive regional character--for example, corporate land development in western Canadian cities before World War I and provincial town planning and zoning legislation in the 1920s--require elaboration within the "diversity to conformity" model. Once done, we can then speak more assuredly about how, when, and to what extent "conformity" has emerged to distinguish Canada's suburban landscape.

Resume

L'ouvrage recent de Richard Harris, Creeping Conformity, presente une interpretation bien argumentee de l'histoire de la suburbanisation au Canada, de la fin du XIXe au milieu du XXe siecle. Plus particulierement, Harris allegue que les banlieues canadiennes sont passees de la diversite a la conformite. Elles ne sont plus desormais un enchevetrement d'affectations du sol et de classes sociales variees. A l'initiative de grandes societes verticalement integrees, beneficiant d'hypotheques federales et d'autres politiques fiscales, les banlieues sont plutot devenues representatives de la classe moyenne et se sont engagees dans un processus de <> en amenageant leur environnement physique et social. L'article suggere que les facteurs specifiquement regionaux--par exemple, l'amenagement de terrains relatifs a une societe dans les villes de l'Ouest canadien avant la Premiere Guerre mondiale, de meme que la planification urbaine et la legislation provinciale sur le zonage au cours des annees 1920--ont du s'elaborer dans le cadre d'un modele evoluant de la <>. Cette demonstration nous amene a mieux determiner comment, quand et jusqu'a quel point la notion de conformite est apparue pour caracteriser le paysage suburbain au Canada.

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Creeping Conformity is an important book, a tightly argued interpretation of Canadian suburban development to the mid-twentieth century. Written clearly and with aplomb, Harris's most recent undertaking provides researchers, teachers, students, and others with a valuable introduction to Canada's evolving, ever-changing suburban landscape. Its well-respected author, historical geographer Richard Harris, is brave indeed for embracing the challenge to write a history of Canadian suburbs--and in 204 pages, no less! But more than anybody else, he is certainly prepared for the task. Harris is well known for previous and award-winning studies of self-builders, home ownership, political activism, and Toronto's evolving landscape--all of which have established important benchmarks for those researching Canada's suburbs. So, too, will Creeping Conformity. The book is a major work of synthesis that offers, as its centrepiece, an interpretation of how Canadian suburbs evolved from a state of diversity to one of conformity.

Harris argues that by the 1960s, conformity in the physical design and social make-up of suburbs, to cite just two traits, replaced the diversity that distinguished the suburban landscape of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. To explain suburban change, Harris argues that conformity--sameness, uniformity, call it what you will, whether of form, function, or processes shaping suburbia--was spurred on initially by the federal government's fiscal policies during the Depression era; and after World War II, by the rise to prominence of large-scale, vertically integrated land-development and house-building corporations. …

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