Kurtis Chen


Smart growth strategies in toronto: form over function

“Smart growth” strategies have played a major role in Canadian urban planning and North American planning at large. It is especially relevant to the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area, which contains the largest urban population in Canada. By examining the unique history and extent of smart growth strategies in Toronto, we can see its impact on urban and suburban development, its effect on the social fabric of neighbourhoods, its troubled relationship with localized communities and, ultimately, how Toronto has generally followed the form of smart growth but has failed to follow its function.

“Smart growth” refers to a set of urban planning strategies that aim to generate compact city geographies through intensification and revitalization of existing urban forms. The result, theoretically, is reduced sprawl (unnecessary development of agricultural land) and reduced environmental impact. In practice, this often means the construction of higher-density housing — such as apartment buildings — and the creation of new public transit infrastructure to support increased populations. However, as is usually the case with anything in the public sphere, these forms of renewal and change face fierce civic scrutiny.

Toronto the Good

Number of Multi-Unit Housing Starts in Sydney and Toronto. From Fillion & Searle,  Planning Context and Urban Intensification Outcomes: Sydney versus Toronto .

Number of Multi-Unit Housing Starts in Sydney and Toronto. From Fillion & Searle, Planning Context and Urban Intensification Outcomes: Sydney versus Toronto.

The Official Plan released by the City of Toronto in 2000 echoes the notions of smart growth strategies by aiming to intensify the downtown core, rezone commercial land for mixed-use purposes, and improve access to public transit. While such objectives may have only recently been penned in the vernacular of smart growth (they sound pretty obvious today), many of these ideals have been part of the Torontonian planning discourse for decades. Toronto has been historically denser and more connected than its American counterparts, who have struggled with unabated suburban sprawl.  Unlike the fragmented and diffuse outer edges of American cities, Toronto’s outer suburbs see sharp divisions between rural and urban. The construction of high rise apartment buildings in Toronto’s suburbs through the 1960s and 70s reflects Toronto’s interest in creating density.

Compare this to Sydney, Australia, which suffered from crippling community opposition to higher density development.

You can attribute Toronto’s favourable high-rise development conditions in the 1960s and 70s to the formation of Metro Toronto in 1954, which created an official regional planning entity for Toronto and its surrounding municipalities. As observed by an article written by Filion and Searle in Urban Studies, the presence of larger, “supramunicipal” government entities proved vital in overcoming the difficulties of localized NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) sentiments both in Toronto and Sydney.

The presence of larger, “supramunicipal” government entities proved vital in overcoming the difficulties of localized Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) sentiments both in Toronto and Sydney.

Transit infrastructure projects such as the Yonge subway line were also deployed at this time, representing a significant departure from the unilateral investments other cities were making in highways, especially in the US.

Toronto the Bad

Unfortunately, these good years were short lived. The dissolution of Metro Toronto is evidenced in the graph above by an obvious waning in the development of multi-unit dwellings post-1970. Why might this be the case? While the prose of smart growth strategies — which emphasize environmental sustainability, quality of life and diversity — may sound appealing to most who happen upon it, many communities adversely respond to the idea of smart growth activations happening in their own backyard... NIMBYism. Without a higher level regional planning agency, local planners are more susceptible to the push and pull of public discontent. This invariably leads to some sort of unsatisfactory compromise and inadequate co-ordination in regional planning.

Jean-Paul Addie in Urban Geography points to this lack of regional oversight for the TTC's weak connection to Toronto Pearson Airport, despite it being a major international hub for Southern Ontario.

Examining the Toronto planning discourse through the lens of transportation is a good analogue for the effects of NIMBYism on smart growth objectives. First, consider again the development of the TTC's subway system, which promised to beckon new urban developments around its stations. Obviously, such transit-centric intensification would have proved beneficial for both the TTC’s ridership as well as the residents and businesses that existed nearby. However, as evidenced by the continued existence of low-density suburbia around subway stations — take Lawrence, St. Clair West and Dupont, for example — such development dreams have failed to materialize. Only North York Centre and Scarborough Town Centre have experienced any substantial intensification. Strong resistance to high density development from residents living around the TTC’s subway stations can be blamed for the lack of progress.

Strong resistance to high density development from residents living around the TTC’s subway stations can be blamed for the lack of progress.

Elsewhere in Toronto, NIMBYism has shown its strength in hindering progress. Chronicled by an article in the Canadian Journal of Urban Research, residents in the former City of Scarborough were dismayed and angered when they learned of infill development plans along the Ontario Hydro corridor. Protests followed, with citizens fearing that new neighbours might, “be the wrong kind of people”. Unfounded anxieties fuelled a misguided backlash against urbanization of otherwise unused land, but city planners forged ahead anyways, and the brownfield strips were developed into additional single dwelling units. While this type of housing start might not be ideal for intensification, sprawl was diverted nonetheless.

In addition to NIMBYism, economic peaks and valleys similarly hold city planning and any subsequent smart growth strategies hostage. Returning to the public transit analogue, we can see the effects of neoliberal policy erode the foundation of mass transportation.

Chicago’s rapid transit system, plagued with insufficient funding and declining ridership, failed to provide transit services to “new population and employment centres”; similarly, Toronto’s TTC had its Transit City development plans threatened and eventually decimated by a $4 billion deferral and the objectionable actions of the late Rob Ford.

Seemingly never-ending periods of austerity have worked to reduce government transfers and ridership subsidies necessary for municipal transit systems, resulting in inadequate access to transportation.

Residential density and walkability. From  Density, destinations or both? A comparison of measures of walkability in relation to transportation behaviors, obesity and diabetes in Toronto, Canada .

Residential density and walkability. From Density, destinations or both? A comparison of measures of walkability in relation to transportation behaviors, obesity and diabetes in Toronto, Canada.

Of course, a city’s walkability must also be considered in the context of transportation. And on this front, the Toronto region hasn’t faired that well either; as illustrated by the map above, high walkability and high residential density are distinctly concentrated in Toronto proper, while the rest of the city is plagued with low density and low walkability. Once again, we can go back to a lack of regional planning oversight to blame for this pattern.

The tenants of smart growth, which aim to reduce low-density automobile-dependent development, requires supportive development strategies from regions and municipalities outside of a city’s core. Otherwise, citizens suffer from a poorly connected metropolitan area crippled with automobile-driven congestion. Toronto’s surrounding suburbs have experienced development in the form of discontinuous “islands” of density.

So, what is the Goal of Smart Growth?

Of course, Toronto's planning with regards to smart growth is not doom and gloom. Let's not forget the efficacy of early Metro Toronto’s planners and their forward-thinking development of transit and intensification, minimizing sprawl and creating a vibrant downtown core.

Ultimately, however, the practical aim of smart growth is to produce an efficient city: efficient in land use, efficient in resource consumption, efficient in infrastructure allotment and efficient in supporting commerce. In this view, Toronto may have satisfactorily taken on smart growth’s physical forms — relatively high density and a vibrant, intensifying downtown — but little of its functional forms. Sporadic blocks of high density surrounded by larger areas of low density in Toronto’s outer suburbs is more conducive to automobile usage than efficient public transit.

An overall lack of “supramunicipal” planning governance has also contributed to creating a disjointed Greater Toronto Area (GTA) by failing to realize a more centralized, compact urban form where residences and places of employment and recreation are more closely linked to lines of high-quality transit. Even more, neoliberal public policies have only served to ebb the progress of regional transit development, as in the deterioration of Transit City, further contributing to the lack of quality connectivity in the region. Toronto has had a good entry into the principles of smart growth development, even a head start, but further transportation development will be necessary if we are to see the full working effects of smart growth strategies.

I'm no urban planner, I'm just curious about how cities work.

I try my best to be factual in my observations. If there's errors or points that don't make much sense, please, let me know!