Updated: Feb 14, 2022
Originally published in 2018
Why Urbanizing Suburbia ?
In the context of current concerns about climate change, peak oil, sustainability, public health, cities and urbanism are emerging as “convenient solutions” (1). The urbanization of suburban areas is a key issue in contemporary urbanism in particular in North America where suburban, car-oriented development was prevalent in the last 60 years. Concepts and terms such as Remaking Suburbia and Sprawl Repair are the subject of books, studies, presentations, lectures in particular in US New Urbanist circles (2, 3).
In Canada we have similar patterns of development as in the US with recent studies indicating that based on transportation modes almost 85% of Canadian cities could be considered suburban and only 15% of areas (mainly historic areas built before 1945) walkable (4). It’s been said that we are an urban country – in fact we are a suburban one, as the United States is a “Suburban Nation” (5).
There are significant differences between US and Canadian suburban development – many coming from the roots of development of the country, national identity, governance and tradition:
Most Canadian cities and regions have urban growth boundaries and exurban sprawl is far more limited. Suburban sprawl mainly happens contiguous to the existing cities
Densities are in general higher, with smaller lots, a much higher mix of residential development types beyond large single family homes including semis, townhouses and apartments.
There are very significant differences related to economic, social and racial dimensions of urban/suburban development.
There is a history of high rise developments in many inner suburbs.
The planning process is much more government led and includes regional planning and design.
At the same time it is important to notice that:
Canadian urban centres have not been abandoned to the same extent as in other countries, US in particular, they are healthier and have a significant residential population.
Most of the urban population is concentrated in the 3 major city-regions in a mix of downtown urban, centres and nodes, inner and outer suburbs.
The change in suburbia started in the 1990s and it is accelerating.
The issues related to the urbanization of suburban areas have been raised and presented at numerous professional events, in particular at the Council for Canadian Urbanism and CIP events (5). A number of projects were showcased from across the country demonstrating that the urbanization of suburban areas has begun, is ongoing, has a number of specific Canadian aspects and has accumulated a strong body of knowledge and experience.
Some of the main trends* of this urbanization process of suburbs and suburban cities are the following :
1. The emergence of a stronger, more urban structure including: revitalized historic downtowns and areas, new urban centres, urban nodes, intensification corridors
Historic downtowns are being revitalized in cities like Hamilton, Oakville, Burlington, Oshawa and Brampton, becoming real centres and attractions for the region.
New urban centres are being developed or intensified in North York, Scarborough, Markham, Vaughan, Mississauga, Surrey, Burnaby.
Existing large commercial sites are being intensified and urbanized as mixed use nodes with transit hubs in Don Mills, Oakridge, Bramalea City Centre in Brampton.
Corridors like Highway 7 in the York Region, Hurontario in Mississauga/Brampton or Queen Street in Brampton start to take shape.
These are just a few examples based mainly on the Greater Toronto/Golden Horseshoe examples believed to be the best “urban laboratory” for this phaenomenon.
2. The rise of sustainable mobility – high order transit and active transportation
The Viva rapid transit system in the York region (now in its second, true BRT phase) has triggered important travel mode changes, and a series of transit based developments. Similar investments like the Zum rapid transit system in Brampton (triggering significant modal split changes and the doubling of non-car transportation in a few short years), the BRT in Mississauga and the expansion of the LRT system in suburban Vancouver have all made important changes in the way people move and live.
3. The arrival of transit oriented development (TOD) in suburbia
With the rise of sustainable mobility, in particular high order transit new market segments have been created. Denser, compact, mixed use, transit oriented developments, people friendly places have been planned, designed and developed successfully in suburban contexts.
Developed based on transit, often around mobility hubs and along transit corridors and in conjunction with major public investments, with reduced parking, these examples include Markham centre, Port Credit in Mississauga, Collingwood Village in Burnaby, and greenfield TODs like Mount Pleasant Village in Brampton. They have been very well received by the public.
4. Increased interest and focus for sustainable and healthy development
With the rising importance and impact of climate change, more resilient and sustainable developments integrating and expanding natural environment, having reduced impacts, are planned around sustainable mobility.
Awareness of built environment impact on public health is increasingly important with work in Toronto, Peel Region, Simcoe County, Waterloo Region in particular.
Walkable, transit-oriented, developments with reduced impact on the environment are being developed in Markham, Mississauga, Oakville, Brampton.
5. New, more urban forms of development/redevelopment
Urban forms are spreading throughout inner and outer suburbs :
denser, more complete, walkable greenfield developments including mixed use, mid–rise forms in Cornell (Markham), Mount Pleasant Village (Brampton).
New mixed use, street related high rise developments in infill, intensification, of the Toronto’s inner suburbs (North York, Scarborough), Mississauga, Markham
Urbanization of the suburban high rise communities with street related developments in Forrest Parkway (North York), Bramalea (Brampton).
6. The importance of placemaking, of stronger character and identity
Long known for their sameness and lack of identity, suburbs have now a strong desire for people-friendly places, for stronger character, local identity.
New places – squares, streets, neighbourhoods define local identity and bring people together using existing heritage elements, focus on better design, human scale, landmarks, edges, gateways, special character areas, defining views, principles of placemaking.
7. Better planning and design tools for urbanization
The urbanization process requires specific tools including policies (see Ontario’s Places to Grow), enabling and mandating true urban development, quality focus of the more conventional planning tools such as zoning, indicators, performance related incentives and implementation tools.
The increased importance of urban design as integrative discipline is demonstrated by design-focused tools like guidelines, design review, visualization and participatory tools.
It took 60 years to get us where we are. Although there are good signs and increasing number of projects showing that the urbanization has begun and it is on its way, the sheer magnitude of the problem shows that it will take quite a lot of time and considerable efforts to change suburbia, to make it more liveable, sustainable, healthy, and urbane. Our parents’ generation created suburbia. We have identified it as a major problem and are trying to change and retrofit it, working on a number of ground breaking projects. It is up to the next generation, today’s young urbanists, to focus on it and hopefully to achieve the desired change. It is a huge task and challenge but with the energy and enthusiasm of youth, with the interest and commitment to make the world and our cities a better place we can do it.
Since its inception the Council for Canadian Urbanism has focused on this key issue of urbanism in Canada. A series of presentations on this topic have been brought for discussion at various professional conferences across the country. In 2014, an entire CanU Summit has been organized on this topic in the Greater Toronto Area. Currently CanU is organizing a specific Caucus to focus on this issue.
For more information on this and to get involved please contact Alex Taranu
Alex Taranu, FRAIC, OAA, FCIP, RPP is an urbanist and architect with extensive experience in Canada and international in government and consulting practices. He is founding Director and Corporate Secretary of CanU and organized numerous events and presentations at national and international conferences on current topic of Canadian urbanism.
1. “An Inconvenient Truth” - Gore, Al (2006); “Urbanism, a Convenient Solution” - Benfield, K (2007)
2. “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs” – Dunham-Jones, E (2011); “Sprawl Repair Manual” – G. Tachieva, G (2010)
3. “Suburban nation the rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream” – Duany, Plattter-Zyberk (2010)
4. “Suburban Nation? Population Growth in Canadian Suburbs 2006-2011” Council for Canadian Urbanism/Gordon D. (2014) Working Paper #1
5. Selected presentations and lectures : - “Remaking Suburbia” – A. Taranu, D. Leeming, CIP Conference, Winnipeg (2008) - “Urbanizing Suburbia – Towards a regional City in the GTA” – Taranu A, CIP Conference, Banff (2012) - “Urbanizing Suburbia – the Canadian Way” – CanU (A. Taranu, D. Leeming, R. Freedman, M. Guslits, R. Merrill, E. Turcotte), Buffalo, NY (2014); - “Cities at the Edge: Urbanizing Suburbia in the Regional City” Council for Canadian Urbanism Summit, Greater Toronto Area, Sep. 2014 - Transforming and Urbanizing Suburbia – The Canadian Experience, A. Taranu, CIP Conference, Québec City, 2016 - Urbanizing Suburbia, Innovation in the Regional City – A. Taranu, RAIC/OAA Conference, Ottawa (2017) - Redesigning Suburbia – World Design Summit, A. Taranu, Montreal, 2017