Siloed in Suburbia: Reflecting on isolation and our relationship to land

I was nearing the end of my undergraduate degree this spring when a global pandemic struck. With a heavy heart, I packed my bags and made the grudging move from Vancouver—the place I’d called home for the past four years, nestled on the coast of the Pacific Northwest, with its fresh cherry blossoms and vast blue ocean—back to my family home in Calgary, surrounded by the dry, grassy prairies.

My family moved to Calgary in 2016 and settled in Sherwood, a small suburb in the northwest corner of the city. This coincided with my departure for university, which meant I didn’t spend much time there, save for a summer or two.

At the time, our neighbourhood didn’t feel like a neighbourhood at all: we were one of two families on the entire street, and the other houses were either wooden skeletons or empty shells standing solemnly with “For Sale” signs out front.

Our neighbourhood reflected Calgary’s expansion northwards, with residential developments encroaching on the once far-flung farmland. My dad would often take me on drives through the sloping countryside nearby where we’d see herds of grazing cows and the odd darting fox. I took in the scenery, but was always most taken by the contrasting ruins of an overpriced farmers’ market, the Symons Valley Ranch, that had caught fire in 2017.  

Because Sherwood was on the very edges of the city, owning a detached house was no longer an unattainable, unaffordable dream. After 20 years of renting tiny apartments in cities like Lahore, Singapore, and Toronto, my parents finally bought their first family home, complete with its own backyard—a middle-class immigrant’s dream realized.

For my Pakistani parents, who endured childhoods devoid of luxuries like fruit or milk, the pride of this moment shone on their faces for months.

After moving in, the barrenness of the landscape finally hit me.

There was no grass to be seen anywhere. Although our house was completed, we still lived in the heart of a construction site, with builders hard at work erecting new houses around us.

When the workers finally left, we began to grow grass in our backyard ourselves, a strange task that required paying deliberate attention to something I had always taken for granted. Truckloads of garden soil arrived, and we scattered handful after handful of grass seeds. After weeks of watering—despite its initial patchiness—our lawn was a lush green.

We walked, barefoot, relishing the soft, warm grass beneath our feet.

A suburb on the edges of Calgary is not where I would have chosen to settle—to lay down our roots, as my once-nomadic parents called it. For most of my life, I lived in dense urban centres characterized by mixed housing units, like apartment buildings, townhouses, condos, and bungalows.

I was used to seeing people get creative within the constraints of urban living, plastering haphazard art in the oddest corners of downtown streets, draping waterfalls of leaves over apartment balconies, and developing a sense of community in daily routines constructed around each other.

The first thing that was difficult to get used to in Sherwood was the homogeneity—and while suburbia is often associated with whiteness, I don’t mean race. In fact, according to the 2019 Sherwood Community Profile published by the City of Calgary, 57 per cent of this up-and-coming suburb is made up of immigrants and 77 per cent are members of visible minorities, compared to 30 to 36 per cent in the rest of Calgary.

The immigration status of Sherwood residents compared to Calgary overall. Tables courtesy of: The City of Calgary

Instead, the homogeneity that struck me was in the very landscape. Sherwood has rows upon rows of the same designs of houses, alternating only between shades of cream, black, and grey. When we first moved, we quickly learned that our entire street had been built by three companies, explaining the overlapping designs.

Building in the suburbs is more cost-effective than building in inner-city areas, where developers need to conduct consultations and consider zonal restrictions. In new suburbs, builders can simply design a few house plans and replicate them across entire neighbourhoods.

Suburban neighbourhoods tend to be spread out and sparsely populated—at least in their initial years—making it less cost-efficient to have networks of public transport service them. They quickly become “auto-suburbs,” requiring a car to complete ordinary tasks like going to the gym, grabbing groceries, or having a meal with friends.

Especially in Calgary, with its bitterly cold winters and dirt-cheap gas prices, alternatives to car usage are hardly ever considered by those who can afford to overlook them.

Each time I return to Calgary, I can’t help but miss living in cities like Vancouver, B.C. and London, England. There, I could walk almost everywhere, always within reach of new places to see, like bookstores, cafés, bars, theatres, museums, and parks.

If I wasn’t walking, I was connected to the most far-flung corners of the cities by accessible and widespread networks of public transport. My places of recreation, work, and living all seemed integrated, offering a subconscious sense of wholeness I didn’t recognize until I didn’t have it anymore.

This summer, our street has finally filled up. Being in a distant suburb during a global pandemic can feel especially isolating at times, but we’ve been finding solace in walking greenways—winding trails surrounded by wildflowers that now connect our neighbourhood to others—and closing our eyes for hours on end in the backyard in the sunshine.

It is a privilege to be able to experience the quiet of the suburbs in this way, especially given how COVID-19 has rendered the city experience even more difficult. Plenty of individuals in urban centres are being forced to limit their usage of public transport due to safety concerns, and often—due to other confounding factors like race, gender, and income—are having to bear the brunt of the virus.

Given the ample surrounding farmland, the city has been able to expand land development cheaply to meet the manufactured needs of its residents. These “needs” seem to be an integral part of what we consider the “Canadian Dream,” which itself includes having a well-paying job, plenty of leisure time, and of course, owning a home.

It turns out that immigrants like my own parents are more likely to believe in these ideals than people born in Canada. When a detached suburban house becomes a reward for years of hard work, can we really blame individuals for wanting to own one?

We clearly need to think critically about our typical markers of success. However, the city is also responsible for expanding land development almost indefinitely, paving the way for these cheap houses to be built. Calgary isn’t surrounded by mountains or waterfront in the same way as other Canadian cities like Vancouver or Toronto are, and that has facilitated its rapid growth.

With the mindset that we can encroach without limit on the environment in order to provide an endless supply of large, low-cost houses for a rising population, what kind of relationship to the land are policymakers and corporations cultivating?

This sort of relationship to land evokes memories of the arrival of European settlers in the 1600s that created the settler-colonial state of Canada in the first place. These settlers were driven by the notion of terra nullius—the idea that the natural landscape is barren, of little inherent value, and must be developed. Today, we act this out by paving roads and building pipelines.

This violent narrative of extraction consequently portrays the Indigenous peoples who live on these lands as culturally barren, ignoring the historical and spiritual relationships they’ve had with the land for hundreds of years. Not only does this justify the exploitation of Indigenous lands and the dispossession of Indigenous communities, but it also stops us, as settlers, from imagining ways of living where we see land as more than just a resource to exploit.

Recently, I’ve been taking long walks through parts of the Rotary/Mattamy greenway in my neighbourhood—a 138km urban pathway that branches off all over Calgary, forming over 1,000km of trails.

This greenway eventually snakes its way across several sites of significance to the Blackfoot and other First Nations communities. The Indigenous-settler treaty governing Calgary is Treaty 7, which came about when the Blackfoot Confederacy was backed into a corner by European settlers, who had killed large numbers of their bison and threatened their traditional ways of living.

Colonial dispossession effectively coerced the Blackfoot Confederacy into the Treaty, as they believed it was the best way to preserve the culture and existence of their peoples under settler-colonial occupation.

While this treaty relationship allows me to enjoy the Rotary/Mattamy greenway today—and, more significantly, to live where I do—the colonial mindset that led to its signing continues to uphold our city-wide development, not to mention the ongoing dispossession of, and violence against, Indigenous peoples all over Canada.

For example, it is the belief that the government is entitled to Indigenous land and its resources that has led to the ongoing controversy over the proposed Coastal Gaslink pipeline on Unist’ot’en territory, which will introduce environmental risks to the communities living on those lands.

It is necessary to engage in meaningful and transformative reconciliation efforts, such as learning from the “Land Back” movement about how the exploitation of land is central to ongoing Indigenous dispossession.

Relatedly, my time in these rapidly-expanding suburbs has made me think about how often we put the consequences of expansive land development on the back burner. I wonder how we can learn from Indigenous peoples to better rethink our relationship to the lands that we live on, and to better sustain our communities for future generations.

Many months ago, I chanced upon a beautifully illustrated children’s book called The Legend of the Buffalo Stone by Dawn Sprung. It is a story of how the powers of a special stone helped restore a dwindling buffalo population to a Blackfoot community, and dares to imagine an alternative reality—one not marked by violence, nor tragic exploitation, but by regeneration and a spiritual trust in nature’s generous cycles.

Two lines in particular stuck with me: “With great respect for all that nature provided, the Blackfoot were most careful to take only what they needed. They moved their camps as the herds of buffalo moved.”  

This willingness to listen to and respond to nature, to take only what one needs rather than seizing control over more, reflects a very different relationship to the environment from the one that spurs the expansion of our cities and continues to marginalize Indigenous communities on their own lands.

Now that nature has a home in our backyard, my parents and I are learning to understand and care for it far more intimately than we’ve ever done in the past. We’re learning the various needs of different trees, herbs, and flowers, dealing with problems like powdery mildew, and recognizing the seasonal fluctuations in climate.

Recently, we stopped planting non-native species, and have taken to planting hardier native seeds that are accustomed to the province’s fleeting, warm winds—which, in February, fool non-native plants into thinking spring has arrived, subjecting them to a fatal frost. These winds are called Chinook winds, and Blackfoot communities also call them “Snow Eaters” for their ability to melt a considerable amount of snow in one night.

I am certain some people have cultivated a sensitivity to the cycles and needs of nature, even without the private responsibility that comes with “owning” a backyard in the suburbs, something quite embarrassing for me to admit. Still, I wonder why paying communal attention to nature is not a greater part of our culture.

When I lived in downtown Toronto as a kid, I loved spending time in rooftop gardens, which felt like sanctuaries from the greyness of the skyline around me. But how do we make such community gardens a part of our daily routines, rituals, and ways of living, rather than treating them as something we venture into when we desire respite?

With COVID-19, people have been on the hunt for new hobbies, and my social media feeds have been flooded with photos of friends growing herbs and vegetables in their own private spaces, including the tiniest of urban apartments.

I wonder if this attention to nature, this slowness and investment in the life cycles of other living things, will enable us to reimagine our own needs in ways that respect the environment around us. I don’t think there’s a better time to start putting pressure on policymakers to rethink the notion that public landscapes are always available, cheaply, for developers to turn into spacious suburban neighborhoods.

Rather than using up more land just to build homogenous homes, I think we could use a little imagination to make the most of our existing spaces and to build more sustainable cities.

As more people have moved into Sherwood, I’m seeing some semblance of individuality spring up—young trees freshly-bought from plant nurseries peek over backyard fences, shrubs and gnome statues stand in front yards, and there’s even the odd basketball hoop in front of someone’s garage.

Taking responsibility for nature has helped me feel more at home in suburbia, particularly in a neighbourhood that has been a construction site for so long.

These small acts of conservation may not halt rapid suburban expansion, but, at the very least, I’m learning that this relationship to the earth and its species can be a valuable way to feel whole and connected to my environment—no matter where my restless self will eventually end up.

Fatima Aamir is an emerging writer, University of British Columbia graduate, and incoming University of Toronto Comparative Literature Masters’ student. She’s previously written for The Talon, UBC‘s alternative student press.

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