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Plan hinges on breaking our car habit
Coping with growth means steering people toward transit use


Saturday, September 30, 2000

To envision how the city of Toronto will grow in the future, look at the suburban-style homes for families being built on the weedy west-side site of a former tractor plant.

Look at tall condominium towers rising in the former downtown rail yard and ponder the townhouses growing incongruously between high-rises in Don Mills.

The Toronto you will see in 30 years may be home to as many as a million more people, and to find places for them to live, planners are looking to transform such unlikely spots as waterfront parking lots and abandoned brown fields into attractive, bustling neighbourhoods.

Unless planners keep an eye on where the increased population lives, Toronto and its four surrounding regions will sprawl out of control. Millions more cars will fight for space on the roads every day and an unprecedented need to build new homes could gobble valuable green space from Barrie to Hamilton and east to Port Hope.

With an eye to attracting more residents and offering them a healthy urban environment, the city is preparing a new official plan.

Its goals include much more than cleaning up and reusing unsightly, unoccupied land. The plan discourages unprecedented sprawl into the suburbs, said Paul Bedford, the city's chief planner.

"All the new growth in the regions has been 100-per-cent car-dependent. That's why we've got the problems of traffic congestion and lousy air we are facing now," Mr. Bedford said. "We obviously can't continue like that."

Even the most conservative projections show that the Greater Toronto Area's population will grow by about two million over the next 30 years. At current rates of growth, about 500,000 of the newcomers will settle in Toronto.

The city's optimistic goal is to increase its proportion of the area's growth, to attract as many as a million more residents by 2031.

While there has so far been no opposition to the growth goal, the city expects there will be challenges over the next few months from community groups when the plan is discussed in public meetings.

"We're not saying, 'just put more people in the city'; we want to direct the growth so that existing neighbourhoods won't be affected," said Kerri Voumvakis, manager for the official plan.

Steering more people toward transit is a large part of the planning.

"We know the growth is going to happen and we don't want to see one million people with one million cars," Ms. Voumvakis said. Arterial roads with good transit, and unused industrial land where transit links can be developed, feature heavily in the thinking.

If a large proportion of city dwellers can use the city's extensive transit system, it would prevent adding to the daily crush of traffic on increasingly jammed roads, Mr. Bedford said.

There are less altruistic goals, of course. A healthy population base assures more political clout, and Toronto has already slipped below 50 per cent of the area's total population. Since 1970, the city has grown by fewer than 400,000, while about two million people have settled in the surrounding regions.

At current growth trends, the population of the four surrounding regions would rise to 60 per cent.

The city also wants to attract a bigger base of skilled workers that would stimulate growth of new technological businesses.

Steering so many people to the city, particularly families who make up a large proportion of buyers in the suburbs, is a tall order.

"Trying to create density by fiat is like pushing on a rope," suggested urban planner Lee Parsons of the firm Malone, Givens, Parsons.

No matter what the official plan says, people will still pick a place to live because of jobs, transportation and attractiveness of the home and neighbourhood, Mr. Parsons said.

But if you create attractive neighbourhoods with these goals in mind, the growth will come, Mr. Bedford insisted.

Mr. Bedford noted that giving the private market more flexibility has already led to remarkable regeneration of areas in Toronto that stagnated under the burden of land-use restrictions. As part of the proposed official plan, 112 different land-use categories would be reduced to seven, most of which would allow housing as part of the mix.

Loosening up on zoning in the underused warehouse districts east and west of downtown has already proved effective, said Robert Glover the city's director of urban design.

A good example has been in the area around the St. Lawrence Market, which 25 years ago was nearly deserted by day or night. Because the neighbourhood had been zoned for industrial use, there was no incentive for anyone to invest in improvements, so solid old buildings sat empty.

That was a mistake, Mr. Glover said. It became obvious that industry wasn't interested in coming back downtown after moving to suburbs with cheaper land and easier highway access.

But the housing boom, financed almost exclusively by private developers, is also bringing restaurants and new businesses to the city.

The 24-hour grocery store that opened recently in the centre of the St. Lawrence Market area shows that most people are using transit and walking rather than relying on cars to get there, real-estate consultant N. Barry Lyon said. The store included underground parking, but most customers arrive on foot.

Mr. Lyon said he thinks that kind of construction is just scratching the potential of downtown. A condominium boom is reversing a decades-long trend toward decreasing population in the core.

He estimated that there are more people wanting to move downtown than the amount of housing available would suggest, and they are not only empty nesters looking for a life outside the burbs.

The number of people moving to the core is rising at a phenomenal rate, said Eric Wegler, president of the Greater Toronto Home Builders' Association. This year's eight-month total of 28,008 new home and condominium sales in the city already surpasses the 12-month total for most of the past 10 years.

But Mr. Wegler warned that the city's plan to raise development charges could have the effect of driving people back out to the suburbs. "These cost increases will ultimately drive prices up and people out of the core, which is the opposite of what the city says [it] really wants," Mr. Wegler said.

The bulk of new housing under construction in the city continues to consist of one- and two-bedroom condominiums, which appeal most to young singles and couples or to people in their 50s and 60s looking for a more simple lifestyle, said Tom Bosley, president of Bosley Real Estate.

Toronto officials want to see a wider spectrum of housing, including much more housing for families.

They acknowledge that they also have to address such issues as the quality of schools and lack of open spaces for children to play.

As part of the discussion for an official plan, the city commissioned a team of consultants to set the directions. The report issued last month recommended that the city upgrade the appearance of streets and create more public spaces where people can congregate and feel part of a neighbourhood.

The report also urged the city to boost efforts to create the affordable housing and social services that the most vulnerable members of the population required.

For the future, a major focus will be on reuse of abandoned waterfront lands and polluted former industrial sites in the city that are all but useless today for a mix of residential and commercial uses.

The idea got a boost last week from provincial Municipal Affairs Minister Tony Clement. He and other cabinet members have asked a task force to advise them on ways to attract private development to brown fields across the province.

But even convenient and affordable homes won't compete with the open space of the suburbs if neighbourhoods are not appealing.

"I worry that intensification will overrun the scale of neighbourhoods," said Rollo Myers of the preservation group Citizens for the Old Town.

"The problem with giving developers a free hand is the first thing they seem to say is we need to build the maximum size," Mr. Myers said. "What you get is buildings crowding right to the street and no parkland or places for people."

Making what's built as attractive as possible has become a prime concern, said Mr. Glover, the city's urban designer.

"Small and ugly is bad enough. Big and ugly is a lot more visible," he said. "You don't get people to want to live in a city unless it is attractive, and to keep them there you have to glue it together with comfortable spaces and places."

To stay healthy, Toronto and its regions must start thinking of themselves as a single city of five million, soon to be seven million, and work to stay compact and transit-oriented, said Gardner Church, a consultant with the Canadian Urban Institute who has studied the city and its suburbs for 30 years.

That is the only way to avoid the problems of urban decay, air pollution and impacted pockets of poverty that have plagued U.S. cities that staked their future only on cars, Mr. Church said.

"Toronto is on the edge of a precipice. It can either turn around and come back as a livable city or it can fall off the edge and splinter like many American cities."

The series

Can anything be done to stop sprawl in the Toronto area from becoming even more disfiguring and uncontrollable, steadily driving down the quality of life in the city?

The Globe and Mail asked planners, environmentalists and urban thinkers whether we are learning from our mistakes quickly enough to survive as a livable urban area.

Over the past week, this series of stories has focused on flash points in the city and its regions, where officials are trying innovative approaches to grow in a smarter way in the future.
Monday: Paradise or parking lot?
Tuesday: York's green strategy.
Wednesday: Durham -- small town, big plans.
Thursday: Parallel universe in Peel.
Yesterday: Halton's development showdown.
Today: Toronto opens for growth.

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