Coordinated multi-scale planning

The purpose of the UGCs within the Places to Grow strategy is to absorb a high proportion of growth and reduce outward development while, at the same time, generating a dense mixed-use environment that encourages transit use and thereby reduces reliance on the automobile. Of course, to attain these objectives, UGCs must first attract development. What is more, as they are intended to mix different land uses, UGCs must simultaneously appeal to office, retail, and residential developers, as well as to the markets associated with these functions.

The planning and development objectives of UGCs are closely interrelated. To affect density and transit use throughout the region, UGCs must succeed in concentrating development; faltering centres have minimal, if any, influence on region-wide trends. Conversely, a public transit orientation and intense pedestrian movements within a high-density and activity-rich setting will be an important asset to UGCs in their attempt to draw growth, while assuring conformity with Places to Grow's land use and transportation goals.

Achieving these planning and development objectives requires a planning approach that is consistent at all scales, from the location of UGCs within the GGH and their connection to metropolitan-wide transportation networks, to the details of their street-level environment. The history of node planning in the Greater Toronto Area suggests a tendency to emphasize metropolitan-wide objectives at the expense of other planning scales.

Disproportionate attention on metropolitan-wide objectives stems from the key role Metro Toronto and, subsequently, provincial agencies and ministries played in formulating nodal strategies. Municipalities also planned for nodes, in some instances independently of metropolitan-wide strategies. But apart from common references to multi-functionality and density, early municipal plans did not adhere to a shared model of how nodes should develop and function. What is more, local plans and forms of nodal development were often inconsistent with metropolitan-scale objectives. Indeed, the layout of Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre exhibits a strong automobile orientation, despite the public transit patronage goals advanced in Metro Toronto and provincial nodal strategies.

The macro-scale approach

The first attempt to create nodes was Toronto's efforts to redevelop the surroundings of subway stations to provide markets of residents and workers to the newly created subway system. A subsequent purpose was to relieve a perceived overconcentration of offices in downtown Toronto to safeguard its many other functions and relieve pressure on transportation infrastructure. Over the last 25 years, however, nodes have been given the role of agents of suburban intensification, sprawl containment, and heightened public transit use -- the major macro-scale, that is metropolitan-level, planning objectives of the period (see, for example, IBI, 1990a). The Places to Grow strategy, which also concentrates on regional objectives, is fully consistent with this tradition of nodal planning.

Defined in such broad macro-scale terms, the nodal concept has proved to be highly popular with regional and local administrations. These governments perceive nodes as planning instruments allowing them to pursue their own objectives -- to create a symbolic core and lure class-A office buildings, for example -- while appearing to support metropolitan-scale planning objectives. The catch is that for nodal development to take off and meet planning objectives, measures must be taken to favour public transit ties between nodes and their catchment areas, and the inner configuration and design of nodes must encourage transit use and walking while promoting inter-relations among their different functions.

The small number of successful nodes within the Greater Toronto Area, compared with the numerous nodes proposed by local and regional administrations and the province, and the lacklustre performance of suburban nodes in terms of modal choice and inner synergy can be blamed on the absence of a multi-scalar approach to node planning. The placement of nodes within the metropolitan region may be consistent with their macro-scale planning objectives, as are their links with rail transit systems or bus service hubs, but the experience of existing suburban nodes has demonstrated that, without adequate meso- and micro-scale planning, the objectives for development and macro-scale planning are unlikely to be achieved.

To be sure, observed failures are not exclusively a consequence of node-related planning. The ongoing emphasis in land use and infrastructure decisions on standard suburban-type development has been the foremost impediment to nodal-type development. But we will see that a full tri-scalar approach to nodal planning would result in a profound redefinition of development trends within the GGH.

The need for meso-scale planning

The relative failure of meso-scale planning, the level that concerns ties between nodes and their catchment areas, is illustrated by the way in which automobile travel dominates trips in and out of existing nodes. Even in nodes with frequent and high-quality public transit services, modal shares reflect the influence of the transportation conditions that predominate within their catchment areas. Despite the availability of rail transit in North York Centre and Scarborough Town Centre, these districts draw most of their workers and shoppers from their automobile-dominated suburban environment.

Accordingly, for nodes to fulfil their role in lowering dependence on the car, more attention must be paid to the nature of connections with their catchment areas. Nodes need fast and frequent transit links with these areas, and these services should run through high-density corridors to attract sufficient riders to justify their existence. Ideally, corridors would also contain pedestrian-oriented retailing. Meso-scale planning would recast the concept of circumscribed, compact nodes into that of star-shaped developments, with mixed-use nodes at the centre and high-density and transit- and pedestrian-oriented branches radiating outwards. In a sense, star-shaped developments would contribute to the creation of realms of high density that support transit use and walking within the suburban environment, and would be conducive to high levels of intra-realm interactions. Such arrangements would reflect the disproportionate reliance of downtowns on high-density and transit-oriented sectors for their trade areas (Filion, 2000; Pushkarev and Zupan, 1977; Thomson, 1977).

Improving ties between nodes and their sub-metropolitan regions has two critical implications for the planning of UGCs. First, it calls into question the emphasis in the Places to Grow documents on the interconnection of UGCs by high-quality transportation links (rail transit, bus rapid transit, and expressways). Findings from existing nodes suggest that many trips to and from these centres do not originate in other nodes, but are of intermediate length, originating from or ending at a destination within nodes' respective catchment areas.

It is thus legitimate to assume that origins and destinations of UGC trips will mostly be in their largely low-density and functionally segregated sub-metropolitan regions. There is little reason to expect high levels of inter-centre traffic, since each UGC will likely mirror to a large extent the range of activities of all the others, as existing nodes already do. Links with their catchment areas will be much more important to the development of UGCs and the attainment of high transit and walking modal splits, than inter-centre connections would be. However, if properly planned, inter-centre links can double as public transit, walking, and density corridors reaching into UGCs' catchment areas.

Second, given the size of UGCs, many of the linkages between nodes and their catchment areas are likely to happen within the boundaries of UGCs. It will thus be important to plan UGCs in a way that acknowledges the presence of areas that play different roles: at a minimum, a mixed-use core, a residential district, and a corridor linking the two. Planning should be tailored to the distinct nature of these components: compact cores that encourage interaction between their different functions (including high-density housing), medium-density housing areas in quiet residential neighbourhoods, and transit and density corridors offering a transit- and pedestrian-friendly environment.

The contribution of micro-scale planning

Similar neglect is observable at the micro scale, in the morphology and design of nodes. To date, suburban nodes developed on greenfield sites have been unable to foster an environment that is inviting to pedestrians. Poor walking conditions reduce inner synergy and deprive these sites of a potential comparative advantage relative to other suburban locales. While there is no evidence of stunted economic development as a result (office growth declined for other reasons), socioeconomic evidence does suggest that people choose to live in these nodes more for reasons of housing affordability than lifestyle, in contrast with the situation prevailing in downtown Toronto, the Yonge-Eglinton node, and the Yonge Street corridor, all of which are pedestrian-friendly districts. Another consequence of the morphology and design of suburban nodes is their relatively high dependence on the automobile for intra-nodal trips, which negates the objective of a reduction in car use associated with nodes.

Planning efforts have been made to improve the conformity of suburban nodes to land use features commonly associated with pedestrian-friendly environments. North York Centre has been most successful in assuring the street alignment of new developments (North York, 1994). But this node was developed within an existing street grid, and already included many street-oriented facades inherited from the 1950s. The situation is more difficult in Mississauga City Centre. Despite efforts to orient development to improve connection between different sectors of the centre and to ensure that new projects are built out to the sidewalk, it is proving difficult to overcome the overwhelming automobile orientation of its landscape (Mississauga, 1994a). Among all the study areas, in Scarborough Town Centre it will be most difficult to generate the sense of enclosure that encourages walking because of the campus style of much of its layout and the long distances between its different activities.

To become hospitable to pedestrians, these relatively recently built areas would have to be redeveloped. The large surfaces given to parking would need to be built on or transformed into green spaces or plazas, which would raise the issue of who would pay for the required underground or decked parking. A related difficulty would involve overcoming suburbanites' expectation of finding free parking. The lesson for the core areas of future UGCs is that stress should be placed from their very inception on the pedestrian-friendliness of their morphology and design.

The features of pedestrian-friendly environments are well known. In theory, such environments could simply be created by replicating the morphology and activity distribution found in older districts where pedestrian circulation is heavy. However, it is difficult to achieve such an outcome in a contemporary context characterized by high automobile use, big-box stores, and lower tolerance than in the past for a mixture of functions. Nodes have been more successful at attracting a mixture of activities with a strong potential for interactions than at producing a pedestrian-hospitable environment.

Overcoming the problems of coordination

We can expect interjurisdictional conflicts to flare over issues of macro-, meso- and micro-scale planning coordination. At first, the macro-scale planning of nodes was the responsibility of the regional level of government, essentially Metro Toronto, but it was subsequently taken over by provincial agencies and ministries. Meso-level planning, when it received any attention, was mostly undertaken by regional and local governments, and micro-scale planning was the responsibility of local municipalities. To achieve inter-scalar coordination, while minimizing the risk of interjurisdictional conflicts, the Province could set UGC performance objectives -- not just density, as is already the case, but also walking and transit use targets and criteria for the mixture of land uses.

In addition, the provincial government could provide guidelines on how to reach these objectives, as it did for transit-supportive land uses (Ontario, 1992). But the Province would need a way to ensure compliance with UGC performance objectives. No doubt, the adoption of transit-supportive land uses would have been more widespread had the Province forced lower levels of government to achieve targets for public transit service and use.

Ultimately, however, regional and local governments would be in charge of meso- and micro-scale planning. It would be up to them to determine how performance criteria can be met. For example, in some cases, density and the creation of pedestrian-friendly environments would rely on the presence of high-rise buildings erected on podiums, as is the case in new condominium developments on the former Expo 86 site in downtown Vancouver. In other circumstances, similar results could be achieved with medium-rise buildings with a strict street alignment, as in Markham City Centre. However it is achieved, interscalar consistency is essential for UGCs to meet their development and planning goals.