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Love thy neighbour: Suburban versus urban and the place-based resentment

Urban and suburban citizens tend to resent each other more than they do their rural counterparts, according to a new paper co-authored by a University of Calgary political scientist.

The next step is finding out why.

UCalgary political scientist Jack Lucas, along with Sophie Borwein from Simon Fraser University dug a bit deeper into the rural versus urban phenomenon and added in another group: Suburbanites. (Full paper at the end of the article.)

“The focus of the paper is to try and understand place-based resentment in Canada,” Lucas said.

“And what we mean by that is just how people feel about other kinds of places that are different from the places where they themselves live.”

The paper mentions that recent studies have shown “profound urban-rural divides across a range of political attitudes and behaviours.”  Recent elections in Canada, the United States and Europe have shown these “dramatic” divides.

“A number of recent studies have shown that many people do identify strongly with their local communities, and that these place identities structure their political attitudes and preferences,” the paper reads.

The data comes from two surveys of the Canadian public. One was the Municipal Attitudes and Identities Survey done by Abacus data. They received a total of 3,026 complete responses for analysis. The second data set was the Multilevel Democracy Project’s survey of Ontario voters during their 2022 provincial election.

Rural residents show the highest level of resentment, most often directed at urban areas, but also at suburbanites. Conversely, urban and suburban resentment towards rural is relatively low, according to Lucas.

“People in urban and suburban Canada, to the extent that they have strong resentment, that resentment is toward each other, not toward rural places,” he said.

“There’s a kind of a complicated interplay of the way people in each of those three kinds of places feel about the others.”

Who makes up the resenters?

The paper shows that there are correlations between demographic and issues views and the resentment.

Higher resentment among urban residents is associated with increased support for the environment, pro-immigration, and less traditional family values and equal right.

“That is, more progressive policy attitudes,” the paper notes.

Among rural and suburban, high resentment is associated with lower support for the environment and immigration and higher for traditional family values.  

The paper also notes those who harbour the highest resentment tend to be mirror images of each other. 

“Older and more conservative residents in rural and suburban Canada whose resentment of urban places is most strongly reciprocated by young, well-educated, relatively wealthy, non-white urbanites,” the paper reads.

Applying this in a Calgary context

A motion arising at a July Calgary city council meeting around the blanket rezoning of 30 established communities may have been a symptom of the resentment that exists among some urban and suburban residents in Calgary.

It is, of course, around the ever-popular topic of development – suburban greenfield growth versus urban redevelopment and densification.  

Ward 2 Coun. Jennifer Wyness, who represents a primarily suburban and new growth ward, brought forward the motion. Her close on it may have provided some insight into how the urban/suburban resentment manifests itself.

“Really, where this came from was, I’ve spent so much time listening to the inner-city councillors and communities telling greenfield and the burbs just how bad and ineffective we are at building and how bad we are for the climate…,” Wyness said.

The paper didn’t dig too deep into the why the resentment exists. And, in Calgary, it isn’t just around development.

When asked, Lucas said there’s a complexity to who is differing on issues. It’s compositional—different people live in different parts of the city. They can differ by age, level of education, children, etc., and those in different demographics can have different policy views. 

People also sort into different parts of the city, Lucas said. As Calgary has grown and people move in, they often move to an area where they’re surrounded by like-minded people.

“If you live in a particular community, you realize the challenges of living there, the frustrations, the advantages, and that can shape your attitudes as well,” he said.

The final layer is what this paper identifies: place-based identity and resentment.

“When social identities become engaged in these debates, that can make things harder and more divisive and perhaps more polarized,” Lucas said.

“It’s no longer just about recognizing that different parts of the city have different perspectives or priorities or preferences and we’ve got to kind of argue it out. But it can become about feeling that other parts of the city are unfairly advantaged and don’t deserve what they get.”

‘Sibling’ rivalry

Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian said the different parts of the city are sort of like a family.

“It’s almost like a family and your siblings have a certain variety and you have to share resources, but you have potentially different priorities and different ways of living that I think elevate some of those feelings of resentment,” she said

There’s a stage of life aspect to this as well, Mian said. Urbanites tend to be younger with higher incomes. As they age, they consider a family, they may migrate to the suburbs for more space or affordability.

“I think then your priorities are a little bit different,” she said.

“You want to see investments more in roads and in snow clearing. Whereas your urbanites who are younger, might want to see investments in things like climate change or things that contribute to inner city vibrancy like cultural and artistic investments.”

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer, who represents a predominantly suburban, new growth area, concedes that when he’s talking to citizens they’re not as interested in bike lanes, built form in established areas and climate change. Those may be the things urban citizens care about.

“I also choose to believe that’s not everyone,” Spencer said.

But, the first-term councillor said that the world you interact with every day shapes what you care about.

“There’s a whole lot of folks down in Ward 12 that really care about a weed called foxtail that has sent a bunch of their pets to the vet,” he said.

“They would not care necessarily the same way about issues of growth strategies and redevelopment.”

Quality of information

Coun. Terry Wong represents a predominantly urban Ward 7. He went back to the conversation on development for his take on the resentment.

“I think it’s a lot of misinformation quite frankly,” he said.

The conversations around the Guidebook, inner-city development and the economics of development, he said, are rife with incomplete information.

“It’s the myths and realities and perceptions versus the lived experience,” he said.

Interestingly, all three councillors—and Lucas—mentioned bike lanes as one of those civic issues where priorities differ. It’s fair to say there’s resentment that lingers as a result of those conversations.

That’s where the place identity is pronounced, Wong said. In downtown, or urban areas, it’s more compact, the services are relatively close, but it may not be convenient to get there with a private vehicle.

He said there’s a push-pull on bikes lanes.

“In Sage Hill, Nolan Hill, they don’t care because they’re going to live in a car-centric community,” Wong said.

“They know the nearest strip mall is over a kilometer-and-a-half away and they’re not going to walk there, type thing.”

Wong also said it may not be a question of suburban versus urban. Citizen priorities may be driven by the accessibility of amenities.

Driving a better conversation

Future research will likely dive deeper into the issue of suburban and urban.  It was a big step to identify and quantify that suburban Canadians deserve to be separated out, Lucas said.

“This paper is really kind of the beginning of the story, right?”

We asked him to hypothesize why this resentment might exist. He said it could be that the different groups don’t understand what it’s like to live in the other places.

“My hypothesis is that there is a feeling that a person’s way of life and the choices available to them are misunderstood and misrepresented by people in other kinds of places; whether it’s urban or suburban is an important source of where this resentment comes from,” he said.

For Lucas, examining this phenomenon has a bit of a personal backstory. He grew up in rural Ontario, outside of Waterloo. Many of his closest friends still live in rural Canada. 

As a result of schooling and his job, he’s moved to the big city. He’s “come to love that,” he said.

“Having had that experience, I really see so, so much similarity between urban and rural Canada,” he said.

“I have personally friends and family who lived from one end of the spectrum in the very, very centered very, very biggest cities in the country all the way to the other end of the spectrum, in very remote and rural parts of Canada.”

As a result, he’s wondered about the urban and rural divide and why it exists.

He wants to know why the disagreements exists. By showing where we agree can it counterbalance the emphasis on where we disagree, Lucas said.

“I’m trying to understand this stuff so that we can sort out where we really do disagree from where we don’t disagree and focus on having productive debates and moving forward,” he said.

Place-based identity and resentment paper – Sophie Borwein, Jack Lucas by Darren Krause on Scribd