The predominant form of urban development in the Fifties was the suburb. Low-density subdivisions were not a new invention, but became the norm in most of North America for urban housing after World War Two, viable due to widespread automobile ownership. Consumers equated a modern house in the subdivisions with security and success, and swath of green lawn as an affordable version of country living.
Housing was a major issue confronting post-war governments. The Depression and wartime economising had created a desperate shortage across Canada. The federal and provincial governments decided that post-war stability would be best served if everyone had a reasonable chance to own their own home. The federal government provided low interest loans to returning veterans after the end of the war; an initiative formalised by the National Housing Act and the formation of what is now known as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Government incentives, especially mortgage insurance, made loans available to a much larger number of prospective homeowners, while a booming post-war economy provided people with the resources.
Government may have helped provide the means: the marketplace determined the direction: acres of low density, detached houses. The single family home had always been the ideal for Canadians. After years of inadequate housing, homebuyers wanted the space to breathe both inside and out. With land cheap in the post-war period, developers responded by expanding yards dramatically. Even modest homes were situated on lots of a size that had formerly been restricted to upscale suburbs in Calgary, such as Mount Royal or Elbow Park.
The bungalow that dominated new subdivisions reflected the demands of homeowners, the needs of homebuilders and the post-war obsession with being modern. Standardised plans made bungalows cheap to build, and their size - generally 1200 square feet with an undeveloped basement - was the minimum acceptable for mortgage providers but still affordable to the average buyer. Interior plans emphasised open space and reflected more relaxed informal lifestyles. Architects theorised that this style of bungalow enhanced family interaction and created a more hygienic living environment. Every house had its picture window, creating a bright cheery atmosphere in the "living room". Gone were the parlour and formal dining area of older houses. Now there was a den for Dad, a basement rumpus room for the kids and a "scientific" kitchen for Mom.
The suburb was predicated on the car: it made expanses of low density housing possible; and sprawling subdivisions made the car necessary. In Calgary, subdivisions at first continued the grid street pattern, but soon increasingly self-contained neighbourhoods appeared. Imitating older upscale neighbourhoods, streets were irregular and only some connected to major thoroughfares, and the centre of the community was usually a school. Commercial activities were segregated to a small strip mall on a major access road, or as the decade progressed, to larger shopping centres. Suburbanisation helped create a whole new discipline, urban planning. Builders discovered that larger residential developments created profitable economies of scale while cities and towns applied "rational" planning principles to manage the transportation issues created by the sprawling suburbs.
By the end of the Fifties, Calgary had rings of new neighbourhoods, with names like Cambrian Heights, Spruce Cliff, Thorncliffe and Chinook Park. Broad streets of sometimes nearly identical houses perched on re-sodded prairie. There was nary a tree to be seen. In some areas, only colour schemes or the occasional gable roof distinguished one house from another. Critics - including some residents - denounced the blandness of the post war subdivision as stultifying. For most people, however, the material comfort of a good home and a big yard for the kids was more important. And the suburbs quickly became places of "coffee klatsches", block parties, barbecues and gaggles of children. Fifty years later, now with mature trees and gardens and not that far from downtown, these neighbourhoods are some of the most desirable in the city.