The OGTA nodal policy

Of the sub-centres designated in Metro's Plan for the Urban Structure, the two major ones, North York Centre and Scarborough Town Centre, were successful in attracting employment during the 1980s. Mississauga City Centre was also successful in this way (see Part Two of the report). The experience of the minor nodes, however, was not as positive. True, Yonge-Eglinton and Yonge-St. Clair were already largely developed by the 1980s, so continued high rates of growth were unlikely. But the other ones, Islington-Kipling and Kennedy-Eglinton, failed to emerge. Still, the example of the successful sub-centres confirmed the feasibility of mixed-use centres as a planning tool and raised the interest of many suburban municipalities in this form of development.

Spread, central, and nodal development forms

The Office for the Greater Toronto Area (OGTA), a provincial government agency set up in 1988 by David Peterson's Liberal government, commissioned the IBI Group, a consulting firm, to forecast the consequences, over the 1990-2011 period, of different growth concepts for the Greater Toronto Area.2 The report advanced three concepts:

* the spread concept, which was a continuation of prevailing trends;

* the central concept, which concentrated a substantial share of future growth within the extant urbanized perimeter (Metro and adjacent built-up areas);

* the nodal concept, which as a hybrid of the two previous concepts channelled future growth to and around various existing communities (IBI, 1990a: 5.2).

The study compared the three concepts along eight dimensions: urban structure, economic impacts, transportation, hard services, the environment, human services, external impacts, and overall infrastructure costs.

Differences in overall transportation infrastructure costs between the three scenarios were found to be negligible, even if the distribution between road and transit varied considerably between the scenarios. In the spread concept, the lion's share of costs went to roads rather than public transit ($19.9 billion on roads vs. $7.2 billion on transit between 1990 and 2011), whereas the central concept involved more spending on transit ($14.4 billion) than on roads ($13.2 billion). The nodal concept's allocation was in between ($11.6 billion for transit and $17 billion for roads) (IBI, 1990b: 33 and Exhibit 4). There were, however, important differences in the cost of water and sewer mains and in local services and roads; the spread concept was 54 per cent more expensive than the central concept for these elements of infrastructure. Transportation operating costs were also significantly lower for the central and, to a lesser extent, nodal concepts than for the spread concept (IBI, 1991b: 53). And, as expected, the three concepts represented considerable differences in the additional amount of land to be developed between 1988 and 2021. Under the spread scenario, the GTA urbanized surface would increase by 34 per cent, whereas this growth would be 26 per cent under the central scenario. At 29 per cent, the nodal concept was in between the other two (IBI 1991b: Exhibit 10).

After comparing the three concepts, the report recommended adoption of the nodal concept. The spread scenario was deemed unacceptable because it would lead to severe deterioration in environmental and traffic conditions. The status quo was seen as too damaging to the quality of life and economy of the GTA. At the same time, however, the report depicted the central concept as too ambitious and too opposed to prevailing development patterns. The obvious compromise was the nodal concept.

As the Metro Official Plan had done a decade earlier, the IBI report proposed a hierarchy of nodes, this time consisting of three levels. So-called "A" nodes were to be located on major commuter rail or rapid transit lines in communities "that are already reasonably well established" and where development and redevelopment possibilities favoured such nodes (IBI, 1990a: 20). Their eventual population was to exceed 75,000 and they were to accommodate 50,000 jobs. The population of "B" nodes was to range from 25,000 to 75,000 and of "C" nodes from 5,000 to 20,000, and their employment was to reach 25,000 and 5,000, respectively. Although it would be preferable for them also to have access to rail transit, "B" and "C" nodes could be served by express bus (IBI, 1990a).

With the IBI report, the term node gained currency, replacing sub-centre, which had been used in Metro Toronto's Plan for the Urban Structure. Also, in comparison to the sub-centres of the Metro Toronto plan, the nodes in the IBI report had a substantially larger purpose. The prevention of a downtown over-concentration of office employment was no longer a preoccupation. Nodes were presented as the linchpin of a metropolitan planning strategy to reduce the surface taken by urban development and residents' reliance on the car, while increasing transit patronage and walking, and lowering some of the costs associated with urban development and the operation and maintenance of urban infrastructure and services. Nodes were seen as an instrument of sustainable development.

The word node in the report was never precisely defined, however. The term nodal was used for development that built on existing communities and infrastructure, and allowed growth both in the suburbs and the central city, but at a higher density than before (IBI, 1990b: 52). In this light, nodes as dense mixed-use centres were simply one component of the nodal scenario. Nodal development could be seen as a medium-density pattern of metropolitan development or as a type of growth focused on high-density mixed-use centres. In addition, the report was pitched at a metropolitan scale -- following its mandate -- and said little about the actual form nodes would take: their layout and design or the integration of their activities. The IBI Group report was the first, however, to use combined job-and-resident density targets to define nodes (IBI Group, 1990a).

Too many nodes?

The nodal perspective was adopted wholeheartedly by the OGTA, which broadcast it in two documents widely distributed in the early 1990s (OGTA, 1991; 1992). One contained a map of the GTA that identified 29 potential nodes. It confirmed the dominant position of nodes within the OGTA's regional policy and depicted the nodes as hubs of metropolitan-wide transportation corridors.

In reports produced in 1991 (for Metro Toronto) and 1992 (for the OGTA), the consulting firm of Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg explored the concept of nodes further. These reports stressed the importance of design in the success of nodes, a reaction to what they described as the poor configuration of the nodes that had developed around shopping malls and their large parking lots (such as Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre). The firm emphasized the importance of a high-quality public realm similar to the liveable urban environments found in central areas. The 1991 report recommended reliance on both nodes and corridors to heighten density and transit use (Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg, 1991). Concerned about an over-abundance of nodes, which would prevent the achievement of the critical mass needed for any one of them to become a major pole of attraction, the firm called for a hierarchy of nodes in its 1992 report (Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg, 1992). The order of nodes it defined and their features for the most part replicated the IBI Group proposals.

The concept of nodes met with enthusiasm on the part of local and regional administrations. For example, in accordance with the OGTA urban structure proposals, the 1994 Metro Toronto Official Plan identified many more centres than the 1981 plan (14 major, intermediate, and local centres vs. 6 in the 1981 plan) (Metro Toronto, 1994). In 1997, a Canadian Urban Institute report identified no fewer than 47 nodes designated in various official plans for municipalities throughout the GTA (Miller, Emeneau and Farrow, 1997). This report criticized the proliferation of nodes, and the effect this proliferation would have on infrastructure priorities, especially public transit development. The authors recommended concentrating new public transit investment on a limited number of large nodes instead of attempting to provide services to a multitude of nodes (Miller, Emeneau and Farrow, 1997: 3-4). They also investigated the similarities and differences between nodes as defined in the different official plans. Although all plans subscribed to common principles of mixed use, compactness, and reliance on transit and walking, there was considerable variation in the scope of their objectives. For example, transit modal shares for nodes projected by regional administrations ranged from 15 to 40 per cent (Miller, Emeneau and Farrow, 1997: 12).

Nodes in regional and municipal official plans

The urban structure strategies of all recent GTA regional plans emphasize the creation of nodes (Durham, 2001: 42; Halton, 1995: B3a, B3b3; Peel, 2001: 59-9; York, 2002: 44, 47). Over previous decades, municipal plans had considered the possibility of developing nodes, focusing on local conditions essential to their emergence, such as the presence of necessary infrastructure and appropriate zoning bylaws (for example, North York, 1991; Pickering, 1996; Richmond Hill, 1991; Vaughan, 1994). Overall, the nodes in the regional plans across the GTA correspond to those in OGTA documents, with the addition of some extra nodes (Miller, Emeneau and Farrow, 1997: 22). However, reacting to criticism about the proliferation of proposals for nodes, the 2002 City of Toronto Official Plan reduced the number of centres it designated from 14 to 4 (Toronto, 2002:17).

Three municipal plans particularly emphasize the design of nodes and the integration of their activities in a fashion that is conducive to walking and transit use. The 1994 North York Downtown and Uptown Plan insisted on uninterrupted sidewalk-aligned facades, which incorporate retail, and encouraged the addition of arches projecting from the buildings to cover sidewalks. The plan also expressed commitment to the quality of urban design to make the environment more appealing to pedestrians (North York, 1994: D1-3, D1-14, D2-9, D2-10, D2-13). After years of opposition from residents over the impact of high-density development on nearby neighbourhoods, the plan prescribed a ring road to separate the high-density centre from its low-density surroundings (Toronto Star, 1 April 1989; 19 July 1989; 12 February 1993). Limited street access to the ring road would prevent non-local traffic entering these residential areas.

That same year, the City of Mississauga carried out a design exercise on how to transform its City Centre from a predominantly automobile-oriented to a -pedestrian-friendly environment (Mississauga, 1994a). With the help of computer-generated simulations, the exercise demonstrated how space, especially surface parking lots, could be filled in with medium-rise structures, and how facades could be extended to the street line. The outcome was a layout that was drastically different from the existing one.

Even more ambitious than these two plans was the design for the projected 364-hectare (900-acre) Markham Central Area Planning District, inspired by the principles of New Urbanism (Malone Given Parsons, 1994; Markham, 1994). The Markham Centre plan, on which the Duany Plater Zyberk (DPZ) firm collaborated, involved for the most part medium-rise structures distributed along a wide boulevard. Consistent with the principles of New Urbanism, retailing and hospitality services were to front on sidewalks. The plan entirely ruled out surface parking lots and proposed that the centre be occupied mostly by buildings and green space. The natural features of the centre, the Rouge River and its tributaries, were to provide the basis of a vast green space system (see also Schollen and Company, 2004).

Apart from North York Centre, where new developments have aligned their facades to the street, and some infill on former parking lots in Mississauga City Centre, the design guidelines meant to enhance pedestrian-friendliness have proven to be difficult to implement. Nowhere is this more evident than in Markham, where early centre development has tended to opt for a campus-like rather than street-oriented layout. This is notably the case of the 54,000 m2 IBM Canada office complex, which is expected to grow to 130,000 m2. Still, this development has not compromised the character of the New Urbanism-inspired portion of the centre, which has now reached the development stage.

Bold modal share objectives were formulated for suburban nodes. The goal in North York Centre was to reduce the rush-hour automobile modal share to 33 per cent. In Scarborough Town Centre planners aspired to raise the transit proportion of commuting journeys to 55 per cent, and the objective in Mississauga City Centre was to achieve a 50 per cent overall transit modal share (North York, 1991; North York, 1994; Scarborough, 1996; Mississauga, 1994b).

2. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) refers to municipalities surrounding and including the City of (formerly Metro) Toronto -- the Regional Municipalities of Halton, Peel, York, and Durham. There is not and has never been a unified administration covering this area.