Life on the edge a satisfying affair

Wednesday, March 13, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A7

When Ted and Susan Spence moved to Markham, Ont., last year, they got their wish list: a smaller house, a lot with mature trees in a historic quarter, and an easy walk to shops, the library and local pub.

Sounds urban? Increasingly, the answer is yes for Canada's fast-growing suburban communities, perched on the perimeter of the country's biggest cities. The suburbs are drawing people, industry and amenities with an urban feel, even as they grapple with transportation and social problems familiar to a big city.

According to census data released yesterday by Statistics Canada, the population of Markham, on the northeast edge of Toronto, jumped 20.3 per cent to 208,615 in 2001 compared to the last census count in 1996. By contrast, the city of Toronto grew by 4 per cent, to 2,481,494, last year over 1996.

"These are citifying suburbs," said Raphaël Fischler, a professor of urban studies at McGill University. "They are old enough and dense enough to be urban in character."

Other examples are the city of Longueuil, near Montreal, with a population of 128,000, and Surrey, B.C., now the 11th-largest city in Canada, with 347,800 people.

Urban economists say the maturing suburb trend in Canada differs from the U.S. phenomenon of "edge cities," where fast-growing suburban communities in the 1990s sucked jobs and people from the downtown core.

"You don't have an edge-city phenomenon comparable to the United States, where you have a new downtown being created in the suburbs," observed Mario Polèse, an economist at the University of Quebec's Institut national de la recherche scientifique.

While Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary are not growing as fast as their immediate neighbours, Canada's big cities are still attracting people and new kinds of employment into the downtown core.

What's more, Prof. Polèse says, the economic and social fabric of big cities and their suburban regions is becoming more interwoven, with areas of industrial specialization and new commuting patterns. In addition to the traditional rush-hour flow of traffic from the suburbs into downtown, some commuters now travel between suburbs or from their city residences into the outlying region for work.

For Mr. Spence and his wife, who both work at York University, Markham offers a mix of local amenities, including quick access to a toll highway and gradually improving transit between Markham and the university and from their home to the cottage. But they also have easy access to culture and other aspects of big-city life in Toronto.

"We're getting a very pleasant, mature neighbourhood with a lot of the services we want," said Mr. Spence, whose home is tucked in with century-old houses in old Markham.

Even for successful communities such as Markham, which brands itself as Canada's high-tech capital and last year added 10,000 new jobs and 6,000 new residents, growth comes at a price.

The biggest challenge, said Markham Mayor Don Cousens, "is the shortage of money for the infrastructure to build roads and transit."

And, echoing his big-city counterparts, Mr. Cousens says towns like his do not have enough fiscal tools -- such as a share of federal or provincial gas taxes -- to pay for the growing demand for transportation and other services.

Notably, in a recent poll conducted for the town, 62 per cent of Markham residents surveyed said they would pay more taxes to improve local infrastructure.

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