Are suburbs the new downtown?


Shawn Micallef @TEDxToronto (Photo: Lana K. for Parasol Photo)

Jane Jacobs would have been 100 today. If you’re about to Google her name, you’re already one step ahead of yourself: she’s todays Google Doodle. Jacobs, an author and activist, is known for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she made the case for a more pedestrian-friendly city that celebrated density. Get back to that Google search to find plenty of stories about her on the Internet today. We also have a short TEDxToronto talk to share given by Shawn Micallef who argues that a more productive city includes the acceptance of our suburbs.

Are suburbs the new downtown? Shawn Micallef thinks so. “These strip malls have really become like old fashioned main streets,” Micallef says about commerce in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. “You can get clothes; you can get checks cashed; you can make a sign; you can get gum; you can park your bike out front and not lock it; there’s wool shops …you can get your picture taken, get your taxes done, you can get bakery items …you can get more food, you can get a drink,” he says.

There’s something for everyone in the suburbs, says Micallef, including a diverse population. Micallef is the co-owner of the Jane Jacobs Prize-winning magazine Spacing that “uncovers the joys, obstacles and politics of Canada’s big cities by cutting through the cynicism that often pervades any discussion about urban issues.” He says that today’s suburbs would have appealed to Jacobs’s sensibility, “these really dynamic urban strips where anything can happen and culture mixes and economy mixes.”

So, why are we so against the concept of suburbs? Micallef says part of it stems from an emotional suburban/urban divide. Even though many of us were raised in the suburbs, he says, we hold onto an element of self-hatred about them.

“We’re dismissing an entire part of the city based on how it’s built, based on its geography and swooped up in that dismissal are the people,” he says. Micallef believes that the truly successful cities of the future will be those that embrace not only downtown centers, but also surrounding suburbs.

Watch his talk below:

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