Richard Harris, Creeping Conformity

I thought I had a pretty good sense of how suburban life developed in Canada. In a dilettantish way, I've been kind of a social development geek, but this was a really good book.

Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban, 1900-1960 followed up on some of the ideas raised in Heath and Potter's Rebel Sell. Among other things, it argues that suburban life in Canada didn't begin to develop the conformity we associate with suburbia until the 1950s. Until that point, there were several different "classes" of suburb. The more affluent ones were developed intentionally to avoid similarity, though building restrictions meant that they had to share common elements. The last affluent ones were built without restrictions and in many cases without developers, so each house would be built by an owner/dweller free to follow individual tastes.

Canada didn't have the very large developers that the US did, and its finance system didn't support the evolution of large developers until after the Second World War. As a result, Canadian suburbia followed a different path than did American, so we need to be careful about how we think about suburbia.

Fun fact: many of Canada's old, elite suburbs -- like Victoria's Uplands and Calgary's Mount Royal -- were laid out by John Olmsted, grandson of celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who laid out Central Park in New York, Boston's Emerald Necklace, and the Biltmore Estate.


Kate S. said…
I picked up a copy of this one at the Goodwill not so long ago. I'm even keener to delve into it now after reading your report on it.
richard said…
It's an interesting one, Kate - tell me what you think once you're through.

It all seems so logical, from my "outside the history academy" perspective: of course subdivisions (before large developers existed) were built house by house by occupiers of various socioeconomic strata, so of course subdivisions weren't monocultural until the 1960s were approaching. The extent to which its ideas count as "novel" worries me a bit about the practice of urban history in Canada....

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