When the Ontario government passed Greenbelt legislation in 2005, with the stated goal of protecting sensitive, beleaguered forests and waterways surrounding the Greater Toronto Area, it marked a defining moment in municipal planning. Stretching from Niagara’s Golden Horseshoe to Durham Region, the 1.8-million-acre buffer rebuffed the kind of suburban cookie-cutter sprawl that placed the automobile in the fast lane and shuttled pedestrians to the shopping mall. Nowadays, with the single-family house, manicured lawn, and four-car garage losing star status and the shift toward increased population density, planners and developers have an opportunity to rethink urban living.
Post-war planners and their immediate successors may not have foreseen downsides to the luxury of individual space—increased obesity rates, shuttered downtown storefronts, and carbon-crunching commutes. A report by Sustainable Prosperity, Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations, explores the costs of sprawl and identifies approaches to address it (see “Stand Up to Sprawl,” bit.ly/sprawlstand). Indeed, condo booms in Toronto and other cities suggest a spirited rush to respond to pressing contemporary problems such as suburban isolation, climate change, and rising energy and infrastructure costs.
Michael Gordon, president of the Canadian Institute of Planners, teaches housing policy at the University of British Columbia and says changing demographics and economics have helped intensify demand for a downtown lifestyle. “Younger people aren’t necessarily sold on the idea of spending a lot of time paying for that car. They want to walk more, because walking is a delightful thing to do, and they realize that if they focus on a house, they’re going to have to live way on the edge of the city and there won’t be a whole lot going on out there that doesn’t involve a 10 to 15-minute drive.”
A key ingredient for Gordon is aesthetics. “When you walk by a building, it should be an enjoyable experience. Bad density is when you’re met by a blank wall, or when we create wind tunnels, or if you have nothing but commercial in one area and nothing but residential in another. People need pleasurable places to go to, areas to sit in the sun, so they don’t just go home and watch television or log onto their computers. You want people outside, seeing other people—that’s part of urban life.”
It’s important to pay attention to detail, but Gordon says what’s needed from the outset is vision. Municipal councillors, planners, and other parties need to analyze demographic data and consult with locals in order to understand individual neighbourhoods and any potential impacts. That’s easier said than done, though. Gordon says people who attend zoning meetings tend to be middle-aged, with young parents noticeably absent—not to mention future buyers who might consider the area. “This means you tend to hear primarily from people who are resistant to change, so you have to think about how to engage all ages,” he says, advocating drop-in sessions at schools, daycares, and community and cultural centres, and explaining that it takes time and patience to engage people meaningfully into the planning process. “You have to build trust and keep sharing ideas, and you need to go back with something that shows you’ve listened. You also need to be mindful of how many people will eventually live in the area and then plan the kind of mixed use that places goods and services within easy walking distance.”
Don’t force it
Glenn Miller, VP of education and research with the Canadian Urban Institute, says intensification is one of the most difficult challenges cities currently face. “One of the hardest things is the disconnect between where policymakers think we should go and where the market is willing to go. The potential to go wrong is when policymakers try to force density where it isn’t welcome. You see that in some of the responses to the growth plan here in Ontario, where the conversation is about meeting targets rather than about the quality of development.”
Miller points to revitalization that began more than a decade ago in Port Credit just west of Toronto as instructive. The developer took a former starch plant, cleaned up contamination, and held focus-group sessions and other consultations before coming up with a multi-faceted plan that projected ahead in time to consider what community needs might be down the road. “They took a long-term view and only proceeded when they were sure they were on the right track,” Miller says. The research proved fortuitous. Some of the empty nesters who bought townhouses later switched to mid-rise developments, and a few have even moved into retirement residences that were subsequently built there. “It’s all in one neighbourhood, and it’s a successful example of densification that meets the needs of an aging population and is attractive over the long term.”
Rethinking existing systems
Planning for density also stands to benefit from rethinking existing systems to maximize their efficiency and cost-effectiveness. By centralizing heating and cooling in a central place in a neighbourhood, district energy could free space in buildings for other amenities. Another advantage of district energy, Miller says, is that once it’s in place, a community becomes flexible in terms of its source of energy. “You (a community) can change from natural gas to renewables,” he explains.
Food distribution could also be more easily localized with a larger population to serve. With only a handful of commercial producers of fresh produce operating in North American cities, urban agriculture is in its infancy. But Miller sees supermarket rooftops as potentially ideal for greenhouses. “It would affect the structures to some extent, but I’m sure the economics would work out over the long run,” he says, adding that local availability could increase urban resiliency in the event of catastrophe. In the days immediately following 9/11, for instance, border delays left the Toronto area with just a few days’ supply of fresh produce. “Just as we’ve become used to having a complete menu available in our local supermarkets, we’ll get used to actually seeing some of that grown around the corner,” he says.
Of course, communities vary considerably, so planners need to understand their market. Antonio Gomez-Palacio, an urban planner and principal with DIALOG in Toronto, says some cities are looking to densify specific areas, such as their downtowns. “In some instances, it’s surgical infill, finding sites here and there where you can build. In other instances, it’s hidden density, allowing secondary units and work-from-home types of scenarios where you can increase the actual population without actually changing the built form. And in a few instances, it’s an orchestrated, strategic growth-management strategy like one the City of Toronto is undertaking to direct growth to avenues where it’s also directing transit services and mixed uses with a view to coupling all these things together.”
To that end, Gomez-Palacio says the debate should veer away from individual technological preferences—witness the either-or debate about subways, light rail, and streetcars—and more toward achieving the critical mass of users needed to support public transit in general. Furthermore, municipalities do not enjoy unlimited resources to spend freely on infrastructure. “We’re living in a very different decade than we did a generation ago,” Gomez-Palacio says. “In the ’70s, there seemed to be money aplenty to build all kinds of infrastructure and to grow cities outwards and at low densities. We’re now in a downward spiral where the cost of providing those services is becoming increasingly unaffordable. This is where the conversation about density becomes timely because we need to identify what per-capita density we need in order to sustain the services we want.”
While the vagaries and complexities of modern-day planning might seem daunting, he is optimistic. “The fact that it’s a difficult conversation should not be a reason to stop having that conversation. In fact, it’s probably an indicator that we’re doing the right thing.” <>
Planning for Density: A Tale of Two Cities
Michael Gordon, a Vancouver-based planner who teaches housing policy at the University of British Columbia, says a new dedicated arts district with galleries and a theatre, a waterfront path with abundant green space, and zoning for mid-rise-scale condos and hotels immediately north of the downtown made perfect sense for this medium-sized city.
Kelowna’s experience underscores the importance of recognizing the value of existing amenities. It helped, for instance, that the water’s edge was publicly owned. “As soon as you privatize a waterfront, you’re taking it away from the general public,” Gordon says. “Either you work with the amenity you’ve got, or you create an amenity.”
“It was really difficult to think about how to increase the quality of life for an underserved population and break up a stigma that existed in the area and do all that working within market forces,” says Antonio Gomez-Palacio, an urban planner with DIALOG in Toronto.
Through extensive consultation with the community and other parties, the city came up with a strategy that tied in with its overall plan to densify the downtown, a plan that has seen Regent Park integrated into the broader population to create economic diversity.
“It’s about extending the streets (which had been blocked off) and restitching it with the city environment,” Gomez-Palacio says. “It’s a great example of turning something around, using density in its best way possible, and maintaining a robust, diverse population.”
Saul Chernos is a Toronto-based writer specializing in environmental issues and a regular contributor to ReNew Canada.