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Just beyond the fringe: Churchill Park garden suburb in St. John’s Newfoundland (Sharpe)

In “Just beyond the fringe” (2005), Christopher Sharpe discusses the “Garden City” movement in suburb development which became popular in the 20th century. Unlike earlier suburbs, which were diverse and home to working class populations, these modern suburbs became increasingly segregated and inaccessible to low-income families. For this article Sharpe looks specifically at the Churchill Park development in St. John’s. According to Sharpe, Churchill Park had several objectives:

to advance the cause of social welfare and justice, to introduce modernity to the Avalon peninsula, to provide housing for returning veterans, to facilitate the orderly future expansion of the city and to restore the battered self-confidence of the people of the city” (400)

The contextual factors from which Churchill Park grew included: the Commission of Government which controlled the Dominion of Newfoundland between 1934 and 1949, the presence of some wealth in servicemen and wartime prosperity in the formerly bankrupt country, and the appointment of Justice Brian Dunfield to oversee the development. The Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning in St. John’s (CEHTP), headed by Dunfield, undertook a study of the slum problem in St. John’s and its potential solutions, eventually proposing a “garden suburb” plan for a series of linked villages at the edge of the then-current city. The plan was adopted quickly and progressed with surprising speed:

19 July 1944 – The St. John’s Housing Corporation was established.
25 October 1944 – A “circumferential highway” (Elizabeth Avenue) was began.
6 July 1945 – The foundation for the first home was poured.
5 June 1946 – The first 30 homes hit the market.

To keep land costs reasonable, Dunfield proposed an expropriation scheme for landowners which would pay out far less than the traditional methods, based on the idea of the community good. The payout schedule, quickly adopted by government, saw a total of $673,689 paid, still almost $10 million today. The land was then leased for $1/year on 999-year terms (converted to freehold in 1986). The design of Churchill Park was based on the “Radburn” plan, a system of “superblocks,” culs-de-sac, and walkways favoured by Dunfield. The units built, 233 houses and 92 apartments total, were modern in style and outfitted with central heating, basements, kitchens, and medicine cabinets at a time when bathrooms were considered (by some in power) a luxury.

The Churchill Park development, Sharpe concludes, did not, and could not have, solved the city’s inner city slum problem, though it did result in a unique and identifiable neighbourhood within the city. Costs, partly due to material and labour scarcity, meant that homes were sold at higher prices than intended (or palatable). Based on public backlash, some homes were built at reduced prices without such luxuries as a furnace; this likely did not help the development’s image. The post-Confederation government eventually halted the SJHC’s home-building program, though the Corporation did continue to work in land-development.

In post-Confederation years, five of the first six Canadian Federal-Provincial public housing projects were constructed in or just outside of Churchill Park, and by 1961 5% of Canada’s public housing stock was located in St. John’s (and 0.5% of its population).

Further reading:
On “filtering” – Ratcliffe, “Filtering down…” (Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics 21, 1945) Winter (personal interview, 1999)
Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning in St. John’s, Interim Reports (The Newfoundland Gazette, 1943, 1944)
Dalzell, To the Citizens of St. John’s, Is All Well? (The Ryerson Press, 1926)
Todd, “Though slums are bad, the cure is simple” (The Municipal Journal of Canada 26(4), 1930)
Neary, “Like stepping back” (Newfoundland Studies, 1995)
On the St. John’s Housing Corporation, the St. John’s Town Planning Commission
Expert Committee on Compensation and Betterment/Uthwatt Report
Barnett, The Elusive City (The Hebert Press, 1896)
Meschino (personal interview, 2000)
Denhez, The Canadian Home from Cave to Electronic Cocoon (Dundurn Press, 1944)
Vardy, “The Housing Corporation success story” (The Book of Newfoundland IV, 1967)
Lewis and Shrimpton, “Policymaking in Newfoundland…” (Canadian Historical Review, 1984) and “‘The New Jerusalem'” (presented to Cdn. Assoc. of Geographers, 1983)
Bland, “St. John’s, Newfoundland” (Journal of the RAIC, 1946)
Bourne, “Reinventing the suburbs: old myths and new realities” (Progress in Planning 63, 1997)
National Housing Act (1949)
Dunfield in the Daily News (8 Sept, 1943, 18 Sept. 1943, 4 Jun. 1945) and Evening Telegram (8 Aug. 1946)
Hall, Cities of Tomorrow (Basil Blackwell, 1988)
Johnstone, “Newfoundland…” (The Standard (Montreal), 23 Nov. 1946)
McCann, “Suburbs of desire…” (Changing Suburbs…, E & FN Spon, 1999)
McKellar, “Building technology and the production process” (House, Home and Community, CMHC, 1933)
St. John’s Housing Corporation, Churchill Park (Evening Telegram, 1951)
Stein, “The Commission of Conservation” (Plan Canada, 1994)
Strong-Boag, “Home dreams…” (Canadian Historical Review 72, 1991)