New Urgency Needed to Lead Regional Change

The Province needs a new 'Greenbelt Moment' in which it commits to implementing its regional growth plan with the urgency needed to achieve real progress.

By Richard Joy
Published September 07, 2016

Mixed-use transit hubs are a key element of our broader regional land use strategy. We are heading in the right direction in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). We are striving to be a greener, more livable, more socially equitable, more mobile and economically prosperous regional economy. We have policies in play that are aligned to achieve these things.

What we are lacking is the appropriate level of urgency needed to get there. This needs to be addressed, and that it needs to be a bigger priority of our provincial government in particular for this to happen.

The story of Mixed-Use Transit Hubs needs to improve significantly, notwithstanding the great local leadership advanced by the municipal planners of Burlington and Hamilton.

Let's go back a little over a decade when regional land use bells were ringing loudly at Queen's Park. Despite talk of "Smart Growth," low-density urban sprawl was expanding out of control.

Transit infrastructure construction had come to a complete halt (never mind operating subsidiaries), and the Toronto Region's commute times had slipped to second worst in North America.

It was an urgent moment that required immediate and bold action by the Province of Ontario, and just such boldness was delivered.

GO Train leaving Hunter Street Station in early morning (RTH file photo)
GO Train leaving Hunter Street Station in early morning (RTH file photo)

Province Delivered Bold Action

In under two years, the new provincial government legislated the Greenbelt, a nearly two-million-acre urban containment zone around the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Next came the Regional Growth Plan, a sweeping provincial planning document that required all municipalities to align their Official Plans toward modern urban form and density.

The regional transit agency, Metrolinx, was created, followed soon after with the Big Move plan to guide massive new commitments to building transit infrastructure.

Ten years later, there is a lot to show for the turnaround in public policy. Sprawl is now at its slowest rate since World War II. Significant urban and suburban densities are being achieved - not just in downtown Toronto, but across the 905. Burlington and Hamilton are among North America's leaders in this regard.

The most ambitious regional transit infrastructure program in decades is well under way, with projects in play across the entire region. Walking and biking numbers are rapidly climbing and transit ridership is at its peak after a twenty-year slump.

Bike share station at West Harbour GO Station (RTH file photo)
Bike share station at West Harbour GO Station (RTH file photo)

Crisis Not Averted

But the alarm bells should still be ringing. The crisis is far from averted.

Notwithstanding my previous points, gridlock has worsened still, while transit projects lumber along behind schedule - or never get off the ground. Commitments to finance regional transit for decades lack any serious dedicated funding plan.

Meanwhile, population growth continues to be predominantly at the urban edges - only 15 percent of which is located along subways, GO Rail, or planned high order transit lines and stations.

And new urban issues have taken on significant urgency. Affordable housing for low income residents is now a bona fide crisis on its own. Meanwhile, spiralling market housing prices are threatening to deny home ownership to a whole generation.

On the economic front, there is no indicator more chronic than our low productivity levels. Our regional metropolis is the only one of comparable size in North America to witness decline over the past ten years.

Not all, but much of this productivity decline relates to our epic gridlock, the second worst in North America in terms of commute times. This robs our economy of close to $13 billion a year in productivity.

Meanwhile, in the past decade transportation - mostly cars and trucks - has slipped to become the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings are number two.

Another 'Greenbelt Moment'

We need another 'Greenbelt moment' in terms of land use in the GTHA. By this I mean we need a definitive, absolute and unequivocal expression of provincial interest on matters that are larger than the interests of any single municipality.

And nowhere could I see the need to advance such a provincial interest more than the intersection of massive provincial (and increasingly federal) transit infrastructure investments and land use.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is the most effective land use tool available to us to address some of the most major challenges facing our region.

I don't need to explain how TOD can help tackle commute times and climate change by offering fast, low carbon alternatives to the automobile. TOD also offers opportunity for public (and private) value creation that can be harvested to deliver a range of community benefits - especially affordable housing.

And TOD is at the heart of what Millennials are seeking in terms of urban livability.

But perhaps most germane to our challenges is the economy of TOD in the context of mixed use transit hubs. Mixed Use communities - blending commercial and retail, and even some industrial, with residential - have become the leading opportunity for economic growth in North America.

What I can say anecdotally is that in my fairly extensive travel across urban North America, it seems that almost all the economic excitement in terms of land use relates to mixed use intensification. This is especially true in the area of what Richard Florida calls called the creative class economy.

Municipalities Must Deliver

But achieving urban and commercial densities along transit infrastructure, notwithstanding all the compelling reasons for doing so, is very, very challenging. And the bulk of this challenge falls to municipalities to deliver.

To the credit of Burlington and Hamilton, they have become leaders in advancing mixed use intensification along transit corridors and station hubs in the GTHA.

By extension, this makes them leaders in North America, most of which has struggled to truly deliver on this vision.

Yet local resistance to achieving appropriate densities on transit corridors and hubs remains a major barrier to delivering the kind of urban growth we require into the future.

And other public policy barriers, most notably the protection of single-use employment lands, have sterilized most opportunities to create mixed use intensification on high order transit infrastructure.

Provincial Leadership Boldness

So what might the new 'Greenbelt Moment' - the careful assertion of the provincial interests in matters beyond the municipal - look like with respect to Mixed Use Transit Hubs?

For my part I would advance that such provincial leadership boldness could include:

Also, hearkening back a decade or so, I would also like to call for a 'Metrolinx Moment.' Metrolinx was a huge breakthrough and should be credited for much.

But ten years in, do we also need to examine its governance structure and powers, including land use authorities? Let's put that idea on the grill too, please!

This essay is adapted from a talk prepared for the panel discussion on mixed use transit hubs at the 2016 Bay Area Economic Summit.

Richard Joy is the executive director of the Urban Land Institute Toronto District Council.


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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted September 07, 2016 at 09:28:56

As a urban planner I agree with everything in the article but reality has a way of making things a little more difficult. The First Law of Urban Planning is same as Newton's 3rd Law of Motion. Every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. Many of the "Bold Actions" delivered by the province have happened because there has essentially been no effective provincial opposition to the Liberals at Queens Park. As long as the Liberals stay in power things stay more or less the same. If the Conservatives get in, many although not all of these initiatives would disappear in a puff of political smoke, never to be seen again. Not that I am pro liberal or pro conservative for that matter. The reality is just that, many of these programs would have to go away because of the political need, good or bad, to be different. The new provincial government's need to be different from the old one to be as doing something by its supporters.

The article mentions building densities increasing. This is difficult in the real world as well because any time you mention that a building of increased density in comparison to what is around it is proposed, most of the residents around it don't want it at all. The people who build most buildings in this province are for profit developers. They are doing this to make money, they have to literally. I can't tell you how many times I have been at public meetings in a professional capacity and heard a resident speaking against a new development and asking me, "why do these buildings always have to be so big and tall? Why can't they just build little 4-6 story walk-ups like they used to build?"

The answer is simply profit. 4-6 story walk-up buildings would increase density and not greatly strain existing residential neighborhoods, right? However, developers need to make profit to survive. The banks whom loan the developers money demand a certain percentage profit or they will not get the loans in the first place. The building code in Ontario makes 4-7 story residential buildings almost impossible to build and make any money at all for numerous reasons. Zoning like it or not, also adds significant costs as well. The basic land price also effects things. If a land parcel is valuable enough to make multistory multi-residential buildings on it in the first place, it means that the land is too valuable and costly to build townhouses or smaller buildings on it. Sometimes in fact, well nearly all the time, developers have to add significant number of floors to developments just to make the individual units affordable to attract the target market they want to lease the buildings.

If a neighborhood would rather see a 5 story residential building instead of 15 story building on a valuable piece of land and end up getting their wish to limit that development to the lower floor height well, better get used to a building where each residential unit is significantly more expensive to own or rent than what would be possible in a larger building! When that does happen, the existing residents often find that the new residents of that building don't want the existing residents around because they are too poor and not a good fit with the people in the new building. When the residents really get what they want and many new buildings have been limited in height and density, they find that prices in the neighborhood stores start going up because the new residents can afford more expensive things than the original residents. These original residents, often the same ones who fought to stop the bigger buildings in the first place are ironically, usually the first ones forced out of the neighborhood because of the effects of gentrification their efforts helped to create.

Many of the ideas in this article are great but many that I read here would have some people up in arms. Actually so far its the ultimate anti reaction to many of the things in this article. This particular example occurs more often in the US but I have seen milder versions of it here in Canada. There is apolitical fringe that sees things like smart growth, more environmentally and economical sustainable communities, complete streets and increased community densities to help induce better standard and rapid transit services, the shift away from driving to more transit, cycling and walking all as a conspiracy or an outright social, political and economic attack on their lives, lifestyles and beliefs. The Agenda 21 people or really the anti Agenda 21 movement is a weird reactionary reality that we planners have to now deal with. To be quite honest, the internet makes it far worse because now these people can organize more effectively.

These people believe that Agenda 21 a report by the UN outlining things that could be done to make building cities more sustainably is really a blueprint to change the western civilization (primarily the US). They believe the ultimate goal is to have the United Nations take over control of everything and enslave the population in some type of Socialist or Communist system, under the guise of the Environmental Movement. These are extreme people with fringe views but they are very good at blocking projects and developments that many in this group would see as positive. Yes, I have seen mild versions of it here in Ontario as well. From my experience in Ontario it is usually present in rural areas that are quickly suburbanizing or have practices (usually farming practices of some type) that the new suburban residents don't like or morally approve of. Thus conflict has risen out of the perceived need by the newer suburban residents to regulate the activity or in the case of the rural residents, overregulate an activity that is by them, considered perfectly normal. The more fringe rural residents see this an attack on their beliefs and lifestyles and will now block any activity, plan or project positive or not that, changes the status quo. They can be very effective at it as well! Their tactics can range from the very creative to out right violent, or just incredibly obnoxious. For example, shouting and screaming and blocking all activity at a council meeting, so no work can be done at all until their particular problem is dealt with to their satisfaction, whether it is on the meeting's agenda or not. Even if they are ejected from the meeting you can find them outside constantly throwing rocks at the building and its windows to make their point and continue the disruption until the council gives in. Any attempt to stop them directly by use of even mild force is seen as an attack on democracy and is proof of their beliefs. Many honestly believe that the thing they are fighting (whatever it is) is just part of the ultimate plan the will lead to the take over of their country by some group(socialists, communists, even aliens, take your pick)! The ultimate action and reaction situation in Urban Planning.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 08, 2016 at 10:18:27

I have to agree with the general thrust of Haveacow's comment. The province is pushing an intensification/TOD agenda, but there is always a limit to how far, how fast changes can be realized in a pluralist, multi-stakeholder system in which property-rights dominate land-use planning.

My experience is that even the most modest forms of intensification are strongly resisted by what might be called "near neighbours" ... mainly the property owners adjacent to the property.

The most dangerous and counterproductive arguments against intensification via selective redevelopment and infilling relate to traffic. In the immediate term virtually every new development will increase traffic, but if the aim is to increase TODs and the viability of the overall mass transit system (among other benefits), then more compact built form and higher densities is absolutely necessary. The interim problem of increased traffic is potent if a statutory planning process is involved, because it can be used at the OMB to demonstrate harm to property values and enjoyment of property. For dedicated urbanists the threat is obvious: if density increases are straightforwardly tied to traffic impacts on immediately surrounding areas and accepted by the OMB then continued sprawl is basically a mandated result.

Where I disagree with Haveacow is with regard to the needs of developers and land speculators as relates to height and density needs to make projects "work". I don't feel that it is up to residents to accept excessive spot density increases or tall buildings for that reason. There may be other justifications that I would accept. And the question of what is an optimal density for a site and area is not a science in my view of planning and urban design ... indeed what is desperately needed is a recognition that height and density is also a political question that involves trade-offs of various sorts -- a lot of value judgments are embedded in planning and urbanistic discourse.

Modern planning has a mixed history. Though I find the local resistance to good intensification projects frustrating, I'm more strongly opposed to a return to the technocratic style of planning that resulted in citizen revolts in the 1960s and 70s ... I live in a neighbourhood in which the grand planning scheme resulted in the expropriation of over 600 houses. At a recent community meeting about a 4-storey project one elderly resident yelled 3 stories and no higher, that was the agreement we made with the City after urban renewal (that a new secondary plan has superseded that if it was indeed the case is another story ... the current plan permits up to 4 storeys on the site in question, while the outdated zoning doesn't).

If we introduced mandatory minimum zoning the problem would be determining the appropriate heights and unit densities ... that is probably a conversation we should have, but won't because it is too risky politically. Outside of urbanist circles intensification is generally unpopular and the Liberals are already feeling vulnerable on a number of fronts.

Comment edited by RobF on 2016-09-08 10:23:35

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 08, 2016 at 11:08:55 in reply to Comment 119946

Simple solution to the "NIMBY" problem: pay off the neighbors. Realistically, do people actually directly reap any local benefit from intensification? No. They get all the negatives, and the additional property taxes collected go directly into the public city coffers to be spent city-wide.

Given that, is it any wonder that neighbours of intensification developments bristle? The pain is local, while the benefits are city-wide or even global or are multiple decade down the road when the intensely-slow wheels of city planning notice that service-needs within the neighbourhood have risen.

So pay them off. Either directly with cash, or indirectly by offering upgrades to local amenities as part of the new development.

Of course, it would be hard to craft policy for this and fair negotiating is hard, but most things are.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted September 08, 2016 at 14:04:04

I'm not against intensification but it has always been my experience that if you want a real fight, putting up anything in an existing community that isn't exactly like what has already been built is nearly impossible. Even then, most would still complain about why a new building would have to go in at all!

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 08, 2016 at 14:39:05

I've been involved in attempts to work with a developer to find a reasonable compromise that involved significant intensification, including increases in density and number of stories compared to the existing site plan. Unfortunately, even in cases where the community tries to work with the developer all too often the developer says whatever he needs to say to get support, and then does something completely different when he feel it is in his interest.'betrayed'_by_new_horizon_rezoning_application

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 09, 2016 at 09:20:12 in reply to Comment 119947

Realistically, do people actually directly reap any local benefit from intensification? No. They get all the negatives, and the additional property taxes collected go directly into the public city coffers to be spent city-wide.

In a nutshell this is bang-on. The real winners are people who live close enough to enjoy the benefits of intensification, but aren't directly impacted by it ... i.e. shadows aren't cast on their gardens, they don't have big walls to look at in place of a view, they don't have to deal with the increased traffic in-and-out of a new building, and so on. But they do benefit from transit improvements, infrastructural upgrades, and other new amenities that flow from intensification.

It is a classic case of what is good for the whole, isn't borne equally by the parts in terms of costs. Impacts can be very finely felt ... I live just outside the 200m zone of the West Harbour GO station. Close enough for a convenient walk to it and the proposed LRT, but not where most of the changes from intensification are planned to be most intense ... at least in the foreseeable future.

In my experience that is the difference between good "NIMBYism" and bad "NIMBYism" ... there are legitimate local concerns and interests that need to be advanced in relation to planned changes via intensification. Otherwise, the City gets its assessment growth, developers/land speculators make their money, planners/architects/urbanists get "vitality", people in construction get work, and the next door neighbours feel it has come at their expense.

I realize, of course, not everyone feels the same way. It depends on what you envision as a good place to live, and whether you see bigger buildings and less open space as inherently undesirable regardless of the benefits/tradeoffs involved. That's why it is a political question ultimately ... intensification creates winners and losers and that needs to be managed.

Comment edited by RobF on 2016-09-09 09:24:28

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 09, 2016 at 09:30:50 in reply to Comment 119949

Sadly, this is true.

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