Last fall I went on a big road trip – actually a series of little ones – that took me to the offices most every senior municipal planning official in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Other than talking up the Urban Land Institute’s global mission to advance urbanism, I had no specific agenda. I went to listen. Ten years after major provincial planning policy reforms, the introduction of the Greenbelt, and the creation Metrolinx, what was the greatest urban development challenge facing them?
What emerged was a dominant theme: we are doing well at curbing urban sprawl, but we are not doing well at building homes and employment around our transit infrastructure. With plans to electrify most of our regional commuter rail network, the failure to develop these transit nodes could be a crisis of missed opportunity. Too many stations are little more than desolate parking lots with the narrowest of social or economic utility.
This is a fact collaborated by recent study by the Neptis Institute that showed that while rate of greenfield land consumption in the past decade is about a third of the previous, most development is going to areas without transit and outside the provincially designated Growth Centres. And the failure to develop our transit infrastructure, existing or planned, was the dominant theme of ULI Toronto’s major fall symposium this past fall.
There has never been a greater consensus that urbanizing our region around our transit nodes is the most important land use challenge of our time. Economically, our region’s epic commute times (second worst in North America according to the Toronto Region Board of Trade) is robbing our economy’s productivity – approaching $11-billion a year. Socially, transit desserts and poverty are synonymous. Environmentally, the leading contributing sectors to greenhouse gas emissions are buildings and transportation. From a public health perspective, the inverse relationship between mobile, walkable, transit supported neighbourhoods and obesity and diabetes rates is alarming.
Encouragingly, our governments are part of this consensus. Provincially, our now a decade old the Provincial Growth Plan, Greenbelt and Metrolinx Big Move plan are under review. The expectation is that new policy rigor and infrastructure investment focus will align with the objective of transit oriented development. And the 2016 Federal Budget will direct historic levels of transit infrastructure funding toward the region, accelerating the pace the provincial government’s ambitious transit investment agenda.
Against this optimistic backdrop, ULI Toronto recently launched its “Electric Cities” initiative. Its premise is that more enlightened planning policy and increased transit infrastructure funding are not enough to turn the corner on how we responsibly urbanize our region. Getting things rights at 30-thousand feet is important, but it is on the ground, at the community level where land use successes are best achieved. The transit funding and policy renaissance underway will have no meaning if we can’t figure out how to get communities to support urban intensification around our transit nodes.
Another premise of Electric Cities is that communities will embrace urban intensification if they are afforded the opportunity to genuinely lead the visioning of their neighbourhood’s future. What is required to make their community more liveable? More park land, community centres or trails? Better library? A community hub? Increased retail? Improved streetscaping?
A growing city can achieve these things.
In the coming months I hope to share with you how a commitment to community respect can unlock the local resistance we have come to understand as the biggest barrier to city building.
Our plan is to achieve this by listening more.
Listening is possibly the most powerful tool in the city building tool kit. Electric Cities emerged by listening to our urban planners. And its future will be defined by our ability to listen to our communities.