What Vancouver can teach Toronto about urban smarts: Cohn

Toronto Star Queen's Park columnist Martin Regg Cohn highlighted Growing Pains, the latest report from Neptis as part of his weekly column titled: What Vancouver can teach Toronto about urban smarts.

In his column, Cohn interviewed Marcy Burchfield, Executive Director of the Neptis Foundation who co-authoured the new study with Anna Kramer. The column focused on how the "seductive image of urban renewal in the heart of the GTA is more mirage than miracle."

This report's findings show, growth in the GTHA is still tilted towards greenfield development. Ontario could learn from Metro Vancouver, by introducing a more strategic approach to growth that directs more new residents to areas with frequent transit service. This comparison of how the two regions have grown over a 20-year period is timely, as both jurisdictions are reviewing their respective land use and transportation plans.

Cohn wrote in his column:

"The downtown boom captured barely 5 per cent of the population growth across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) from 2001 to 2011," wrote

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."

Cohn identified two major challenges facing policymakers:

"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."

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