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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Suburban evolution

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The neighbourhood of Lawrence Heights is scheduled for revitalization. “Revitalization” means, literally, to bring back to life, but there’s a lot of life in Lawrence Heights already. On a Jane’s Walk there in the spring, half a dozen high school students, all of them male and black, gave a group of largely white, middle-class downtowners a tour of their neighbourhood. They talked with enthusiasm about its vibrant life — about the strong sense of community, how everyone knows each other, how kids always have someone looking out for them. They described how each of the courtyards, around which the community’s townhouses are built, has its own character — one is quiet and dull, but another is the social one, where kids from the entire community come to play, and adults are always socializing around the BBQ.

The reason for the revitalization project is that the big Toronto Community Housing complex at the core of Lawrence Heights, straddling Allen Road between Lawrence Avenue and the Yorkdale Shopping Centre, is suffering from ageing, declining housing stock that needs to be replaced. But behind the concern about the buildings lies concern about the community itself — about poor social indicators such as unemployment, single-parent families, dropout rates from school, and high rates of crime and drug use.

Yet the young men make it clear that their neighbourhood is full of character, of life, of a sense of place. They are deeply suspicious of revitalization, knowing people will have to move away, fearing its strong sense of community will be shattered. What if, one of them says in horror, they end up living in Brampton?

As a social housing project, Lawrence Heights might not seem like a typical suburb, but in some ways it simply illustrates their problems more dramatically. Its poverty is a more concentrated version of the challenges facing Toronto’s “inner suburbs” of Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough, which are increasingly the home of Toronto’s low-income population and recent immigrants. And while geographically it hardly needs to be suburban at all — there are two subway stations within walking distance, and three substantial malls nearby to serve retail needs – the access to all of these amenities, as well as to neighbouring communities, is awkward and unpleasant, cut off by indirect routes, unappealing paths, and fast arterials with dangerous crossings.

Some of the the difficulties experienced by the neighbourhood have been blamed on this physical layout, which is based on the suburban ideal of the mid–20th century that emphasized a single type of use, buildings set back from the street, and a reduced number of roads that are largely cut off from the street grid that surrounds them. It sounded great at the time, a kind of Garden City, but now it is accused of isolating people from the city and its services, and turning them inward. Yet as Toronto has expanded into its hinterland, this ideal has been the basis for organizing every new community that’s been built. As the young Jane’s Walk guide knew, suburbs like Brampton face the same problems with their layout, but are even more spread out and isolated.

It’s easy to decry the suburbs, but the simple fact is that most of the Greater Toronto Area was built on a suburban model, for better or for worse. Not everyone can live in traditionally urban areas — the supply of these spaces is limited to that part of the city that was built before the middle of the 20th century, and the demand for this limited supply is rapidly rendering it unaffordable to most. Even with infill, there is only space there for a million or so people — and that means the other 4.5 million and growing in the GTA are going to live in suburban areas, built to suburban patterns and scales.

The people of Lawrence Heights have made the best of their situation. If the revitalization is done well, it will keep the benefits of a suburban community — its greenery, kid-friendliness, peaceful residential areas, and sense of community — but add the benefits of denser, more integrated urban infrastructure, such as easy pedestrian and cycling access to retail and transit, and a greater and more varied population supporting more services and opportunities close at hand.

It’s a microcosm of what needs to happen across the GTA. In recent years, more and more attention has been paid to the major issues facing Toronto’s suburbs. Studies by University of Toronto scholar David Hulchanski and his collaborators on the growth of income disparity, by the United Way on Poverty by Postal Code, and by the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences on the “Toronto Diabetes Atlas” have brought media attention to the difficulties being suffered by the inner suburbs. Former mayor of Toronto John Sewell has just written a comprehensive history of how Toronto’s suburbs took their shape (see review, p. 71), while on a more upbeat note, a major exhibition last year titled “Fringe Benefits” showed how new immigrant communities are reshaping the suburbs in their own image.

Governments, too, are paying attention. The City’s massive new transit plans — the Transit City light rail network and the subway extension to York University and the Vaughan Corporate Centre — focus on bringing transit to underserved suburban areas. Likewise, the municipal government’s Priority Areas and Tower Renewal plans (see p. 56) aim directly at poor areas of the suburbs. The provincial government’s comprehensive “Places to Grow” initiative and Greenbelt Act seek to control sprawl at the edges of Greater Toronto, and its new Metrolinx agency is dedicated to solving the area’s transportation problems.

There are good reasons for all this attention. While Toronto’s inner suburbs are faced with economic and social challenges, the outer suburbs beyond the city’s borders have experienced extraordinary growth in recent decades. Their combined population is starting to outstrip that of the City of Toronto itself. The problem is that this growth has been destructive and unsustainable. It is paving over Ontario’s best farmland, and it is making terribly inefficient use of this prime soil — using twice as much land to house the same number of people as Toronto, with a density one-quarter that of the oldest part of the city, and services, jobs, and shopping all at great distances from homes and from each other.

As a result, the average driver in the outer suburbs drives 23.2 kilometres a day, compared to just 6.8 kilometres for drivers in the centre of Toronto. And in Toronto’s core, drivers are a minority — the majority take transit, walk, or bike, whereas in the outer suburbs these options are unfeasible and almost nine out of every ten commuters drive. In a report on “smart growth” for the Neptis Foundation, planner Pamela Blais notes that the longer drivers are on the road, the more road space they need, so that the outer suburbs need 5.5 metres of road space per person, compared to 1.7 metres per person in the old city. The obvious results are massive pollution (the air quality in the outer suburbs is often worse than in downtown Toronto), huge amounts of wasted time, and poor health.

The less obvious result is much higher public costs, as massive amounts of infrastructure such as roads and sewers have to be built and maintained to support fewer people. These costs can be hidden as long as a city is new and growing, but once growth eases off, the costs begin to catch up. That’s what has happened to Toronto’s inner suburbs. Once they were fully built up, they no longer had the cheap land and continuous new development to keep costs and taxes down. Then, in the late 1990s, the provincial government downloaded social service costs and amalgamated them with the old City of Toronto. Suddenly these suburbs faced big-city taxes, but without the amenities and services offered by the old city.

Nor did they have the old city’s lifestyle attractions. In Toronto in the 1990s, like all over North America, middle-class households rediscovered the appeal of urban living and began moving back into older neighbourhoods. In many ways this new appreciation of inner cities is a good thing, because dense urban environments have been shown to be healthier and more sustainable. But while some of these new urban dwellers took over largely abandoned industrial areas, they also took over once-affordable old housing stock.

The effects jump out in Hulchanski’s reports: a steady decline in relative income levels in the northwest and northeast of the city since 1970, as new immigrants and the working poor were pushed into the ageing dwellings of the inner suburbs. What’s worse, these neighbourhoods were not designed to meet these people’s needs. The 2004 United Way study that identified priority neighbourhoods in the inner suburbs showed how lacking they were in community services. And the Toronto Diabetes Atlas showed how obesity and adult-onset diabetes are far more prevalent in these neighbourhoods, where it is difficult to walk anywhere, compared to equally poor but more walkable downtown areas.

There is no going back for the inner suburbs. They have lost the bloom of youth, now being enjoyed at the outer fringes of the GTA. Their only way forward is to move towards the mature appeal of the old city — to become more urban.

Fortunately for the inner suburbs, they have a significant asset. Thanks to the strong planning of the old Metro government (see p. 58) they are twice as dense as the newer outer suburbs (if only half as dense as the old city), largely thanks to clusters of apartment towers. The population of these towers give the Transit City light rail plan the potential ridership to make it feasible. And Transit City, in turn, makes the “Avenues” strategy in the City’s Official Plan — the aim to tranform suburban arterials into walkable main streets lined with mixed-use, mid-rise buildings — more viable. Hulchanski’s maps show that subway lines make adjacent property more valuable, and therefore worth redeveloping. Building additional residences should also ensure that the existing population is not pushed out in the process.

This process of urbanization by adding density and transit is the natural evolution of any urban space. Much of the old city was itself built over again at least once. As the city expanded and transit lines were built, the initial lower-density and low-quality buildings were torn down and replaced by better, higher-density structures.

Unfortunately, the suburbs have been laid out in a way that makes this process more difficult than it used to be. The tower neighbourhoods provide clear urbanizing potential, as do limited parts of the outer suburbs around transit hubs such as GO stations and newly intensifying “downtowns.” But much of the inner suburbs, and most of the outer suburbs, are made up of low-density housing subdivisions with indirect, dead-end road patterns that are deliberately designed to not connect well with neighbouring arterial roads. They can’t become traditionally urban, but while their need might not be immediate, they are still not sustainable in the long-term. For these areas, cities need to open up possibilities that let subdivisions find their own way to becoming more self-sustaining.

For example, a first step is to make subdivisions more walkable. But the obvious solution, to put in sidewalks where they are missing, gets a lot of resistance. When I’ve talked to people who live on these kinds of streets, they’ve told me they don’t want sidewalks because the street feels shared at the moment, a sheltered space where people can walk, kids can bike, and drivers are aware of them.

Rather than putting in sidewalks, such streets could build on this sentiment by being formalized as “shared streets.” These originated in dense Dutch residential areas, but they might well be adaptable to typical winding subdivisions. After all, the purpose of the suburban cul-de-sac design, with its restricted entry points, is specifically to avoid excessive vehicle traffic in residential areas.

The basic steps for creating residential shared streets are simple: narrow the entry points and sign them so that cars know they are in a special zone, and implement a super-slow speed limit (20 kilometres an hour). In Europe, such streets are indicated by a sign that combines together pedestrians, cyclists, children playing, and a car. In his book Street Reclaiming, Australian activist David Engwicht proposes a range of ideas to signal to drivers that space is shared, such as making the entry points an attractive public space by painting the street — an idea implemented successfully in Portland, Oregon by local organization City Repair. A Canadian twist could be to specifically allow street hockey to be played at all times of the day, with appropriate warning signs for drivers (or even painted street markings).

People also need destinations to walk to. Subdivisions are not dense enough to support nearby retail, but they could support itinerant vendors, like people who drive a van to a community at a set time every week to sell fresh fruit and vegetables. Some people already do so, but clandestinely, because City regulations forbid it. What if the City instead actively encouraged this activity? Rather than driving, residents could walk to get fresh produce. Once the habit was established, perhaps vendors would begin offering other staples as well, such as bread. The newly narrowed and beautified entrances to “shared streets” neighbourhoods could include spaces where the vendors could set up, turning them into public gathering places.

Intensification, which would make such projects more viable, could also happen naturally if the City allowed it. Already, many single-family-home neighbourhoods are becoming more densely populated than expected as immigrant families house not just a nuclear household, but a whole extended family. Many also cover their costs by renting rooms to lodgers. Eventually, they may want to expand their homes with an apartment, or maximize the value by selling the lot for someone to build two semi-detached houses. Such piecemeal intensification is a natural process that cities should encourage.

People may also want to start running businesses out of their homes. Traditional planning, with its separation of uses, frowns on this, but the close proximity of work and residential is one of the keys to the success of old downtown neighbourhoods. By encouraging this mix, cities can make more efficient use of road space throughout the day.

In many ways, cities need to get out of the way of people who will naturally want to engage in this gradual urbanization. But cities do need to provide key infrastructure to encourage walking or cycling out of subdivisions to nearby destinations. Where distances to destinations are too far to walk, they may be perfect for cycling, and some arterials have enough space that separated walking and cycling paths can be built to make cycling a safe and appealing option. Cities may even need to expropriate and demolish a house here and there to provide direct walking and cycling paths to malls, parks or transit stations.

These kinds of steps are just the beginning. A much bigger problem lies in what to do with the arterial roads around subdivisions. Unlike main streets in old cities, which serve as a focus for the neighbourhood, suburban arterials divide communities. It’s not just that they are wide; it’s also that they are designed to be fast. That makes them intimidating to cross, which creates a kind of arterial box around each community that discourages walking or cycling beyond its bounds.

The ideal solution is to turn them into main streets in the Transit City/Avenues mode — narrow them, slow them down, built light rail transit, and line them with buildings that connect to the sidewalk. But while this might be possible in the inner suburbs, it’s a much bigger jump for arterials in the outer suburbs. For example, suburban employment districts are spread-out business parks, rather than the concentrated office buildings of central Toronto, which means that not only the origins, but also the destinations of commuter trips may be too dispersed for heavy transit.

As the outer suburbs become fully built, however, these cities are going to realize that once outwards growth has been exhausted they are not sustainable in their current form. Mississauga has recently come to that realization, and is trying solve it by building upwards in its designated “downtown” areas (see article, p. 43). That brings density, certainly, but it’s not clear if it is being matched by the creation of the kind of public and private services that make a really coherent community.

The elusive final ingredient is a “sense of place.” An area the size of the GTA cannot rely on a single downtown for its centre. Many transportation, sustainability, and community issues would be solved if the GTA was truly a series of cities, each with its own centre and sense of identity. It’s a process many of the GTA cities are trying to foster through big projects to create new city centres, but they are not always convincing. The best civic focal points still tend to be based on former small towns with small, tight urban footprints (see Port Credit article, p. 42).

As the young men of Lawrence Heights demonstrated, though, forming a sense of place comes naturally to people; observing our environment and connecting with our neighbours is built into humans’ DNA. The 2008 “Fringe Benefits” exhibit showed how immigrant communities across the GTA are stamping the suburbs with their own identity. But suburbs have been held back from developing the private retail, services, and community organizations that fill out a sense of place by outdated street layouts, misplaced regulations, and bad development habits based on impractical ideals from the last century (see sidebar, this page).

The challenge of the suburbs is vast, but it has to be faced. They are neither sustainable, healthy, nor efficient over the long term, yet they house most of the population of the Toronto area. Major projects such as Tower Renewal, creating new city centres, and ambitious transit initiatives are a necessary component, but only the tip of the iceberg. Cities also have to find ways to enable communities to evolve themselves, to provide their own services, intensify gradually, and develop their own sense of place. The ideal to aim for is a region that is no longer the “Greater Toronto Area,” a downtown surrounded by ever-more distant suburbs, but rather a series of interlinked cities, each self-sufficient with its own strong identity and vibrant urban life.