Things Are Getting Spiky

June 9, 2014

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– Our final installment of our series on The Big Review –

We live in spiky times. That’s Richard Florida’s latest message and the next round of GTA growth planning would do well to take heed.

Places to Grow identifies 25 urban growth centres in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, marked as an array of little orange circles on the plan. A romantic and perhaps political proposition of its times but not one that corresponds to the reality of the contemporary urban economy. What Florida has identified for the global urban economy, that fewer and fewer cities are becoming more and more important, that the urban hierarchy is turning from a pyramid to a spike, is also true within our metropolis. Half the growth in jobs is being concentrated in fewer and fewer centres with the rest remaining stubbornly dispersed. It’s a pattern of growth the first round of Places to Grow didn’t anticipate, with a document that in retrospect was far more concerned about residential intensification than about where office jobs should be located or retail activity focussed.

So the vast majority of the urban growth centres have been still born, with varying degrees of residential development but next to no employment concentration. For one primary reason; the quality of transit accessibility to most urban growth centres is inadequate to provoke a significant change in travel behaviour. Parking demands therefore remain stubbornly high, especially as office floor area is more and more intensively used. Suburban rents are unable to support underground or often even structured parking, requiring large sites that cannot be found in the urban growth centres. So where is office growth happening? Along the 400 series highways and in downtown Toronto; roughly half and half. And that’s about it.

Places to Grow was ground-breaking in terms of spatial growth management, with defined boundaries and clear strategic targets. The next round has to deal with the management of growth within the urban boundary, which will require different tools.

The connection between transit and land use planning, never fully established in Places to Grow, has to be fully articulated in policy and properly informed by the realities of the suburban office market. If the pattern of dispersed office location is to be corrected it can only occur where transit is good enough to persuade significant numbers of time-pressed and multiple trip workers out of their cars. Places to Grow assumed that it was the residential location that determined travel behaviour, hence the emphasis on housing intensification in the urban growth centres. It now seems clearer that it’s more where you work than where you live that determines whether you take transit. So if we want a more sustainable metropolis, to have any impact on congestion levels or GHG’s, we need to do what it takes concentrate employment.

Which is where the spikes come in.

Only a few urban growth centres have any chance of achieving the radical reductions in car use needed to reduce parking and associated land requirements, for which you need either subways or optimal GO service, with high quality feeder routes. Even then it’s tough; clever municipal strategies, like the creation of large common parking garages, car-share programs and workplace day-care will be required to establish competitive advantage over cheap and simple highway location alternatives. The objective has to be to establish a spike in office rents capable of supporting the underground/structured parking still required regardless of what kind of modal split improvement is achieved. It sounds extremely un-romantic, but that market change is the key to the structure of our future metropolis.

At the same time we will need a more focussed transit plan, one that provides really high quality service to a select number of centres. Fifteen minute all-day GO service is an essential start, but express service would be essential to get commute times down between the major growth centres. To make a real difference, let’s start with a high speed line connecting Downtown, Pearson Airport, Mississauga City Centre and Oakville Midtown with 15 minutes between stops, and an express Hamilton/Toronto service taking half an hour and stopping only at Oakville and Port Credit. That would fix the west end of the GTA, which is where most employment growth is occurring. And the transit deficiencies of two of the critical centres, Mississauga and Markham – where rail transit service just misses the emerging cores – have to be more aggressively addressed. The rail system was historically created to service industrial rather than more urban uses. We may need to build some more track.

So which are the spiky centres of the future? Outside of downtown Toronto, which will continue to increase its dominance at the expense of suburban office development, my sense is that only Hamilton, Oakville Midtown, Mississauga and Markham have the transit and established locational advantage to become major employment centres, with Pickering and Vaughan having the required transit but having to start pretty much from scratch as office districts.

So just six big red dots on the new growth plan, please, connected by some fat green lines. Properly accommodating the 3.0 million people and 1.5 million jobs coming over the next three decades is going to need a few big spikes, not a bunch of bumps.

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About The Big Review 

We are almost 10 years into the legacy set of provincial legislation and Plans that have changed the planning and development landscape in the Greater Golden Horseshoe in Ontario. The time has come for policy makers to reflect on the effectiveness of those cornerstone planning documents, and a major review period is now underway – priorities identified in the Big Move have recently been revisited, and the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Plan will soon be under provincial review.

Urban Strategies has a thorough understanding of these Plans and policies, because we have played a role in their development or implementation from all perspectives and at all levels – from provincial, regional and local municipalities to private and institutional development.

On this basis, we hope you’ve enjoyed our insight on the Plans, their review processes, and how their evolutions can help us better manage community growth and sustainability.