Australia has proved me wrong; I came here with the impression that I would find the cityscapes to be very similar to those of Canada. Instead, I have found a place that is even more reliant on the suburban landscape than North America.

In Australia, especially in the city of Canberra, there is hardly any urban residential development. In 1913, Canberra was designed as a well-functioning and beautiful place. One hundred years later, it is an ever-sprawling agglomeration of people from the city centre — or lack thereof. Canberra is essentially a large suburb. For me, this raises an important question: are suburbs actually bad for the environment?

The commonly cited issues with the suburbs spring from the way in which they are designed. Large box stores are located far away from people’s homes, which inherently makes the residents more reliant on their cars. Cars are a major contributor of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, directly causing warming climates.

The urban lifestyle is very different. In urban populations, there is often a heavier reliance on public transportation, bicycles, and pedestrianism. Steep parking prices have provoked some suburban drivers to argue that “downtown elites” are waging a “war on the car.” People in the city commonly claim that they are living a more sustainable life than those in the suburbs.

However, suburbanites often argue that suburban living gives a better sense of the environment because of the proximity to “green spaces” such as parks and large yards; they hold that cities lack this green space.

If you look at Toronto’s downtown, you will notice that there are many beautiful parks and green places for people to enjoy. Interestingly, greenhouse gas emission levels in the city of Toronto are actually lower than those in the GTA suburbs — especially those in Whitby, Ontario.

Taking a look at the contrast between Japan and Canada provides another interesting perspective on urban design and the environment. In Tokyo and other Japanese cities, compactness is a fact of everyday life. Having high-density neighbourhoods in the cities of Japan actually helps support the need for better transportation and allows for agricultural lands to remain in use.

Interestingly, some of the best agricultural land in Ontario is within the GTA, but it is lost to suburban development as cities sprawl outwards. This usage is counter-productive because, as worldwide populations grow upwards to a projected ten billion people by 2030, it is becoming increasingly difficult to feed the population.

To compensate, many people have been investigating urban agriculture. Sky Garden, a U of T-run urban farm, raises awareness of the importance of local food and inspires new ways of thinking about agriculture. The initiative produces around 500 pounds of organic vegetables yearly from the rooftop of the Galbraith building. Other research has looked at how cities could potentially become completely self-sufficient. I think this is the way cities need to grow: smart and sustainable.

Will there ever be a decline in the popularity of the suburbs? In Australia today, it appears as if large suburban areas are truly the future, and urban expansion creeps outwards and onwards. In Canada, there is at least a small glimmer of hope that urban design will help bring people closer together — possibly literally — and that this proximity will inspire innovation and new environmental attitudes.

Andrew E. Johnson writes about science abroad.

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