Corp Comm Connects

What Vancouver can teach Toronto about urban smarts

The flight from suburban cores to the fringes of bedroom communities creates a mass transit mismatch.
May 25, 2015
By Martin Regg Cohn

In a sea of suburban sprawl, there’s something comforting about downtown Toronto’s condo boom: All those construction cranes are carving out highly desirable density next to subways and infrastructure.

But that seductive image of urban renewal in the heart of the GTA is more mirage than miracle.
The downtown boom captured barely 5 per cent of the population growth across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) from 2001 to 2011.

Where did the rest of the GTHA’s 950,000 new residents settle?

Most were sucked into the cascading suburban sprawl that increasingly defines our megacity - and drains it. While Toronto’s downtown got denser during that decade (along with North York Centre and Mississauga Centre), other suburbs kept sprawling - often at the expense of their hollowed out cores.

Brampton is typical of bedroom communities where people are fleeing the old core and flocking to the furthest reaches. Suburbanites are relocating from traditional suburbs to new “greenfield” (undeveloped) land where developers build bigger homes far from transit.

The consequences are costly, as a new report by the non-profit Neptis Foundation think-tank makes clear. The bleeding of bedroom community cores in Durham, Hamilton, Halton and Brampton leaves existing infrastructure dormant while new sewers and schools must be built for outlying developments.

Even more vexing, the flight from suburban downtowns to the fringes of bedroom communities creates a mass transit mismatch: As planners try to connect various GTHA hubs with expensive rail networks, residents are moving further away from GO stations to cookie cutter developments that are as automobile-centric as ever.

In 2006, the provincial government promised to curb decades of unrestrained sprawl across the fertile farmland of the Golden Horseshoe with a three-pronged regional planning process: The Greenbelt would set geographical limits; the Places to Grow Act introduced intensity targets; and a regional transit authority, rechristened Metrolinx, would connect the dots.

A decade later, the government is taking stock of the sprawl with a public review, and the early reviews are mixed. The Neptis report, being released this week, is instructive because it contrasts the GTHA’s shortcomings with the long view adopted by Metro Vancouver long ago.

Vancouver was first out of the gate in the 1970s with a regional growth strategy while Toronto’s planning process languished. Its Green Zone took root in 1996, a decade ahead of our own Greenbelt. And Vancouver designed a regional transit strategy that is integrated with its growth strategy.

The Neptis report notes that Ontario’s 2006 Growth Plan is “premised on the assumption that intensification - no matter where it is located ... will result in smarter growth.” Not so fast.

Intensification worked in some areas - downtown Toronto, North York Centre and Mississauga Centre. But together they accounted for only 13 per cent of GTHA population growth of 1 million over the decade, with everyone else gravitating to greenfield sites.

If new intensification takes place on the fringes, far from transit stations or other infrastructure, we will be locked into perpetual automobile dependency. It’s not just about intensity but integration, location and co-ordination.

The region remains ill-equipped to resist sprawl because it is fighting the last war instead of the next battle. Neptis notes that Ontario’s planning process uses many of the same “generalized intensification” targets that B.C. did decades ago, instead of focusing on truly smart and integrated growth.

All that wasted (and belated) effort points to a planning deficit at the provincial level, but also a governance deficit across the region. Vancouver long ago figured out a regional government framework that allowed various municipalities to talk, plan, and co-ordinate. Yet the GTHA is still at sea on governance, Neptis notes.

“The GTHA has no formal convening body that requires elected representatives ... to think and act as a region; municipalities tend to act in isolation from one another rather than working co-operatively to shape the future of the GTHA.”

Marcy Burchfield, who runs the Neptis Foundation and co-authored the study, “Growing Pains,” says the regional governance deficit creates a disconnect.

“I certainly think it’s an obstacle to achieving a regional vision,” she told me. “The provincial government is the ad hoc regional body.”

Last March, Premier Kathleen Wynne tried to make up for that lack of local governance by bringing together more than two dozen GTHA mayors and regional chairs for the first time. But it remains an ad hoc talk shop, lacking in cross-pollination and co-ordination.

Metrolinx remains the only truly regional body that straddles the GTHA. But its mixed track record suggests it is largely out of the loop.

The GTHA needs a stronger voice. Regional leaders can’t continue to count on Queen’s Park to do all the deep thinking and heavy lifting on their behalf.