The diversity of Urban Growth Centres

The study areas investigated illustrate the different categories of mixed-use concentrations of activities within the GGH that will be called upon to become the cores, or part of the cores, of UGCs. These study areas are differentiated by their history, morphology, location within the GGH, the nature of the activities they host, travel patterns, and the socioeconomic attributes of their residents. Each category of UGCs will require a planning treatment that addresses the specific issues associated with its core area and surrounding territory. A brief overview of the main issues confronting the different categories of study areas will illustrate the need for diversified planning interventions when dealing with UGCs.

The problems and potential of different nodes

The main problem facing the Yonge-Eglinton node is the adverse reactions of residents of surrounding low-density neighbourhoods to its further extension. The proliferation of high-rise residential buildings within formerly low-rise neighbourhoods has been curbed since the 1970s by a stricter adherence to zoning regulation in response to well-organized protests from residents attempting to preserve the low-rise and residential character of their neighbourhoods. Yet pressures for further redevelopment persist. The Yonge-Eglinton node is perceived as an attractive place to live, and it attracts well-to-do residents lured by its lifestyle. But attempts to meet the demand for more housing confront objections from politically sophisticated residents, who were initially successful in convincing the City of Toronto to turn down the 39- and 54-storey towers of the Minto Midtown condominium project. But in 2005, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB)18 overturned the City of Toronto's decision and the development is now in progress. Still, future proposals, particularly if they encroach on surrounding neighbourhoods, will likely be met with energetic opposition by residents.

Changes in provincial legislation make it difficult to forecast how neighbourhood resistance will affect intensification efforts. Bill 51, which received royal assent on October 19, 2006, requires the OMB to have regard to municipal decisions and to the supporting information and material that municipal councils considered when making these decisions. By virtue of their political might and capacity to weigh on municipal administrations, neighbourhood organizations will thus enjoy indirect influence over the OMB. At the same time, Bill 51 stipulates that municipal decisions must be consistent with provincial policy statements and conform to provincial plans (Ontario, 2006b: 3). Legislation is already in place that requires municipalities to amend their official plans to assure conformity with the Province's Growth Plan (Ontario, 2005b). In future, conflicts involving residents may affect not so much whether intensification will take place, but where it will happen. The delineation of the cores of UGCs and of the borders of density corridors will then be the major objects of contention.

In the early stages of its development, North York Centre faced similar obstacles to its development as those encountered in the Yonge-Eglinton node. North York Centre is the result of redevelopment and it, too, is surrounded by low-density neighbourhoods. Residents have used all the political resources they could muster to prevent traffic and land speculation generated by nearby development from encroaching on their neighbourhoods. These actions could have stunted the growth of North York Centre. But a compromise was reached, which took the form of a ring road and a system of street diversions, which prevent traffic from the node infiltrating residential neighbourhoods, as well as strict protection of these low-density areas through zoning. Meanwhile, high-density development can proceed within one or two blocks of Yonge Street. If this balance between development and the interests of residents has permitted the accelerated growth of North York Centre, it is also responsible for the problems associated with its elongated form: long walking distances between its different components, which impede interactions between its activities, and an overreliance on Yonge Street, a wide, heavily travelled arterial, as the pedestrian corridor linking the different parts of North York Centre.

Attracting growth is not a problem for North York Centre. Thanks to the combination of exceptional accessibility and plentiful redevelopment sites, it has the highest concentration of office space of all the nodes studied and ranks second in terms of population. It is the creation of an environment that is, despite its length and high traffic automobile levels, hospitable to pedestrians and thus conducive to the inner synergy that is the foremost challenge facing North York Centre -- in other words, being able to use development to pursue pedestrian friendliness and synergy.

Unlike Yonge-Eglinton and North York Centre, Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre were developed on greenfield sites, at a distance from low-density residential neighbourhoods. There is still abundant empty land in both locations for further development, so both can accommodate substantial growth before reaching the edge of neighbourhoods and facing "NIMBY" reactions. The major challenge for these nodes concerns the ongoing need to attract development to fill available sites. This growth should be carefully planned to achieve an optimal functional mix, whereby different activities benefit from each other's presence, and to foster a pedestrian-friendly environment. To prevent traffic congestion and consequent objections to further development, growth should be accompanied by measures to promote transit use, cycling, and walking for trips between nodes and their catchment areas.

Lessons from Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre are relevant to the new UGCs slated for greenfield sites. The primary objective must be to secure growth. But initial growth must take place in a fashion that endows these areas with a comparative advantage, which will in turn encourage further development. Mistakes made in Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre must be avoided. From the start, development should respect the planning objectives associated with UGCs, particularly the encouragement of public transit use.

Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre are distinguished from the multitude of nodes designated over the last 25 years by their advanced level of development. Most of the planned nodes either contain a reduced concentration of activities or have yet to take off. The danger is that the longer a site earmarked for nodal development fails to attract growth, the greater the chance that it will revert to conventional suburban land use patterns.

Ensconced as it is within low-density residential neighbourhoods, configured as a traditional main street within a suburban landscape where such a form is unusual, downtown Oakville may be a district whose built environment is best left as is. Lessons from this district are most relevant for other traditional main streets within the Toronto built perimeter. Downtown Oakville is designed to attract consumers seeking an environment that departs from the usual suburban formulas. Its economic performance demonstrates the existence of such a market, even if the size of this market is unknown; therefore, it is impossible to tell how many times the achievements of downtown Oakville can be reproduced. From a planning perspective, the success of downtown Oakville translates into an economically optimal use of a traditional built environment, which contributes to the preservation of a heritage district while containing activities that could have opted for greenfield sites. But there is a disadvantage to relying on a market that is scattered over a large area. Downtown Oakville is heavily dependent on the automobile.

The circumstances faced by downtown Kitchener differ markedly from those experienced by the other study areas. Like most traditional downtowns of self-standing communities within the GGH, the retail function of downtown Kitchener and, to a lesser extent, its employment base have been in decline since the 1960s. There is a need to identify and implement measures that will reverse this downward trend, because the presence of a vital downtown is critical to UGC strategies aimed at self-contained, medium-sized communities. Only a strong concentration of mixed uses in a pedestrian-friendly, transit-supportive environment can anchor forms of redevelopment that break from the dispersed and automobile-dependent model prevalent in such urban areas.

Abandoning unsuccessful approaches in downtowns of mid-sized cities

Issues confronting the downtowns of self-standing, middle-sized urban areas demand particular attention, because these downtowns represent the largest category of UGCs designated by Places to Grow (8 out of 24). The first step in the search for measures to promote revitalization is to avoid the interventions that have been tried repeatedly in the past and that have repeatedly failed. Since the 1960s, planning agencies in mid-sized urban areas have tried many forms of downtown revitalization strategies, with limited success (Burayidi, 2001; Filion and Bunting, 1993; Filion at al, 2004; Gratz and Mintz, 1998; Robertson, 1999). In some instances, public interventions have even accelerated the decline of downtowns. For example, attempts to reproduce formulas that were successful in the suburbs, such as indoor shopping malls, have proven disastrous in some locations.

Recently, the focus has been on the downtown location of public and subsidized cultural facilities. Since 1990, a new city hall around a civic square, a theatre, a children's museum, and a farmers' market have been added to downtown Kitchener. There are currently discussons about a new library beside the city hall. Postsecondary educational establishments have also been given a key role in downtown revitalization strategies. Downtown St. Catharines has a Brock University student residence, parts of downtown Brantford have been taken over by a satellite campus of Wilfrid Laurier University, and downtown Kitchener is about to become the site of the Wilfrid Laurier University School of Social Work, a joint University of Toronto-University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy, and a satellite of the McMaster University School of Medicine.

It remains to be seen whether these measures will bring a sufficient number of people downtown to ensure the revitalization of districts that were once the main retail centres of their urban areas. It is also uncertain whether students will partake in downtown activities, or spend most of their time and money within the new educational facilities, or leave the downtown area when their classes are finished. To date, adding public and cultural facilities has had little positive impact on the retail and hospitality functions of the downtowns of self-contained, mid-sized urban areas, causing these facilities to stand out as islands of revitalization in a sea of decline.

Better connections among the different functions of these downtowns are required. Retailing and hospitality services need to be adapted to the new public and cultural facilities and the increasing presence of postsecondary educational establishments. But above all, revitalization strategies should seek complementarity between a much-expanded residential presence (which could take advantage of abandoned industrial land and former manufacturing structures) and the nature of downtown stores, restaurants, and entertainment premises. A survey of Kitchener residents revealed that many people want to live in central areas, where dependence on the car would be reduced, but at the same time they were reluctant to move downtown because of an absence of stores and other activities they would patronize (Bunting et al., 2000; Filion, Bunting and City of Kitchener Planning Department, 1998).

Meanwhile, until a new client base settles in, it is too costly and risky for retailers and service providers to adapt to potential customers. There may be a case for public intervention to launch a virtuous cycle whereby the presence of stores and services that are attractive to potential residents would fuel residential development, which in turn would bring about a further expansion of such activities and contribute to downtown revitalization. Such intervention could take the form of a short-term subsidy.

A corridor-based strategy

The two corridors considered in this report are very different from one another. The Yonge Street corridor shares the features of its inner-city setting: retailing and services aligned along a main street and high connectivity provided by a tight grid. The level of its public transit services -- the Yonge Street subway line -- is exceptional, even by inner-city standards. The Mississauga East corridor, by contrast, is distinctly suburban. Its land uses are highly segregated, as are its different forms of housing, the cause of fluctuations in density levels. Adherence to the superblock formula results in sharp transitions between quiet neighbourhoods with curvilinear streets and high-capacity arterials. Still, the Mississauga corridor confirms that it is possible to achieve high residential density in a suburban context.

As with the Yonge-Eglinton node, further development along the Yonge Street corridor may be restricted by objections from the residents of surrounding neighbourhoods. Rush-hour traffic saturation on the Yonge subway line may also limit additional growth along the corridor. Although the Yonge Street corridor is often hailed as a model to be imitated by future corridors, it would be difficult to replicate its features within a suburban context -- where new corridors will be created. Lessons from the Mississauga East corridor would be more useful. They indicate that even in a "raw" form, residential density can produce advantageous outcomes. Despite the absence of rail service or rapid bus transit and of an environment hospitable to pedestrians, transit and walking modal shares in the Mississauga East Corridor are above suburban averages. In the case of transit use, these values can be attributed to the low socioeconomic status of residents and the relatively frequent service of buses along its two main east-west axes. Presumably, socioeconomic status also plays a role in the walking modal share, but its effect is no doubt combined with the relative proximity of educational establishments and workplaces.

Observations from the Mississauga East corridor also indicate that even in high-density areas, the use of public transit is limited by the level of service. To maximize the impact of corridors, it will therefore be imperative to organize them around frequent public transit service. In fact, the presence of public transit of a sufficient quality to attract those who would otherwise use the automobile may be essential to the development of high-density corridors. Without such service, the corridors will experience traffic congestion due to their high residential density. Objections by residents to such adverse effects might prevent further growth.

The adoption of a multi-scalar planning approach to ensure that the land use and design features of corridors are consistent with walking and reliance on transit is needed. If it is possible to produce a suburban corridor by concentrating density, it should also be possible to organize density in ways that foster pleasant walking environments and transit patronage along mixed-use boulevards. Like nodes, corridors that are configured in this way would reward people who live in high--density residential areas by choice or necessity, by offering a stimulating environment and easy access to varied activities.

It is important to recognize the difficulty of implementing a star-shaped combination of nodes and corridors. If such areas are to flourish, it will take consistency between macro-, meso- and micro-level planning and require a coordination capacity well beyond what has been achieved in the past.

This section has exposed substantial differences between the categories of the study areas, and by extension, categories of UGCs. It has also demonstrated the need for policy responses tailored to different locations, layouts, travel patterns, and potentials for economic development. Clearly, one-size-fits-all approaches to UGC development and planning are unlikely to succeed. Of course, difficulties would be exacerbated in built-up areas where intensification attempts would confront fractured property ownership, NIMBYism, the profitability of existing establishments such as big-box stores and strip-mall retailing, and the resulting absence of incentives for redevelopment.

Statistics cited in Part 2 of this report revealed the existence of two major socioeconomic profiles in nodes and corridors: relatively high incomes and small households in the inner-city study areas, and lower incomes and larger household sizes in suburban areas (Oakville and Kitchener presented more idiosyncratic profiles). The question is whether future development should build on prevailing trends by targeting populations with characteristics similar to those of present residents of the nodes, or try to attract a broader spectrum. The second approach would require the creation of affordable housing in downtown Toronto, the Yonge-Eglinton node, and the Yonge Street corridor, and the attraction of affluent households to suburban nodes and corridors. The arrival of such households in these suburban locales would depend on their capacity to replicate, or find some alternative to, the street life found in inner-city study areas.

18. The Ontario Municipal Board is a provincially appointed quasi-judicial tribunal that, among other activities, hears appeals of local planning decisions.