CanU 6 Toronto (2014)
Cities at the Edge: Urbanizing Suburbia
CanU6 “Urbanizing Suburbia” Summit: Some Conclusions
After three whirlwind days of walking/bus tours, presentations, panel discussions, working sessions and debate, CanU6 echoes are still lingering in many participants’ minds. It is also time to draw some conclusions, think about the lessons learned, and look ahead at the work coming out of the Summit that is yet to be done.
CanU6 proved that the “urbanizing Suburbia” theme is one of the key issues in our efforts for sustainable, healthy and liveable Canadian cities, towns and villages and CanU rightfully chose it as one of the organization’s priorities. All too often it is easier to focus on urban cores to look for solutions, but the dilemma of the separated land uses, land density, and car-dependent suburbs remains a significant challenge.
Although the “Cities of the Edge” expression may have been more relevant to the GTA and perhaps the Greater Vancouver Area, the topics, issues and lessons are of value to all Canadian regions and cities as well as to other countries as well. The fact that over 80% of Canadians live in car-oriented, suburban-type developments*, and that this is still the form of most of the new development, and that this is where an increasing number of newcomers settle, underlines the importance of suburban development. This also shows the magnitude of the huge task of making these areas truly urban, walkable, transit supportive and ultimately more liveable, more sustainable and healthier.
The Summit had a very extensive and ambitious program with a variety of events and sessions which in my opinion managed to capture the most important issues relevant to the theme, and to highlight key initiatives and projects which set the tone for work across the country. The Summit moved as a group from Canada’s first suburban Centre in North York to the retrofit of the landmark Don Mills Centre, to transit development in York region, the new Markham Centre, Mississauga’s efforts to develop an urban downtown, as well as Brampton’s new model for transit oriented, sustainable and healthy urban extensions. CanU6 presented a cross section of trends and projects which at the end indicated that suburban areas in Canada are indeed urbanizing, and are emerging to become truly urban centres. It also became apparent that there are specific Canadian trends in this process that are shaping these evolving urban places.
At the end I think we’ve managed to fulfill our goals – to understand the origins and evolution of suburbia, to identify the current issues and trends, to study the most relevant case studies and projects in the vast GTA urban laboratory, and to discuss solutions to ensure the true urbanization of suburban development in Canada.
There were a few issues and threads that emerged as key throughout the Summit:
The importance of the economy is paramount in the challenging urbanization process. This is often underestimated in the efforts to plan for complete, urban communities and forgotten in the rush to design and build. Employment areas are integral to the health and structure of city areas. While they provide jobs and income they require vast systems of transportation, resources, and human capital. It is crucial that a “balanced” live-work relationship has residential areas that are efficiently connected by transit, vehicular, and active transportation systems within a regional urban structure. The Summit visited a handful of these areas (such as Meadowvale/West Brampton), where it was obvious that they benefitted from the high-order connectivity of regional and local transit and roadway systems. At the same time we touched on the broader view of employment beyond traditional understanding – not only office or logistics but also major institutional clusters, and emerging mixed use and live-work, small enterprise, entrepreneurial areas.
The crucial role sustainable mobility has in dealing with the main issue of congestion and the very significant efforts at all levels to deal with its challenges. In the GTA efforts to develop transit and transit oriented development and active transportation have been in place for some time but the Big Move Regional Plan and the intense work to implement it and further developed it are essential for the functionality and urbanization of the region, for the success of implementing the growth plan
There are significant global, national and regional problems – climate change, energy crisis, gas emissions, pollution, serious public health issues — and the urbanization of suburbia could play a major role in dealing with them. There are efforts throughout the region and country to use better urbanism as a solution to this problem, to promote more sustainable and healthy development
The importance of denser, compact, complete development, of growth through truly urban forms, with the challenges of forms such as mid-rise developments, corridor TOD in suburban context in competition with lower density, car-oriented forms and in the context of prevalent suburban standards. While the Summit demonstrated clearly that urbanizing suburbia is not just about high rises, they remain a key form for intensification.
The importance of placemaking, of stronger character and identity based on local conditions and traditions, of planning, designing and developing for people. In the context of conventional suburban development dominated by sameness and lack of character, the efforts to create places for people, to establish local identity are even more important to support social sustainability and true urbanization.
CanU6 Summit demonstrated that “suburbia” is more complex, more diverse, more dynamic that many think, and that there are sufficient examples to allow us to say that it is urbanizing. The process is perhaps slower than we would like, and it is up to us – urbanists, developers, politicians, activists to advance the agenda of change. Perhaps it is not the most “sexy” topic in urbanism today but if we are truly committed to a sustainable, healthy, liveable, authentic Canadian Urbanism it is the main issue to focus on despite the many challenges.
The Summit also demonstrated CanU’s ability to take the lead on main urban issues in Canada, to use its advocacy power for change, bring people together to advance solutions.
CanU is ideally positioned as a national organization, with its mandate, its multi-disciplinary participation, the knowledge and experience of its membership on the most important aspects of urbanism, to deal with such important issues as the urbanization of suburbia.
Alex Taranu and Dan Leeming on behalf or the CanU6 Organizing Committee