The Recession has Changed the Geography of Growth

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The great recession appears to have had a significant affect on how North America’s major cities are growing. Since 2009, more growth is happening in walkable transit oriented communities than on the edges of metropolitan areas.

Christopher B. Leinberger & Patrick Lynch, from the George Washington University School of Business, have tracked growth in major cities the United States and have found that growth patterns have shifted significantly since the recession. For example,

“Both Metro Miami and Atlanta sprawled faster than most metro areas for decades. In this real-estate cycle, which began in 2009, these two metros indicated a fundamental shift from drivable suburban office development to walkable urban, as their [walkable neighbourhoods] are rapidly increasing their share of the office market.”

The same trends observed by Leinberger and Lynch in the United States can be observed in Toronto. People increasingly want to live in walkable neighbourhoods. The Pembina Institute in a recent survey found that an astounding 81% of people in the Greater Toronto Area would prefer to live in a neighbourhood where they can walk to stores and had frequent and reliable transit service.

This stated preference is playing out in what is happening on the ground. Construction has shifted from the drivable suburban developments to walkable urban development. For example, over the last four years, over 40% of all new units were built in the city of Toronto, a significantly higher percentage than at any time in the last 30 years.

GTA-Toronto Completions

Downtown Toronto has become the fastest growing area in the Greater Toronto Area. Between 2006 and 2011 downtown grew at four times the rate of the rest of the city of Toronto.

In addition to the significant amount of residential development, there is 5.2 million square feet of office space being built in downtown Toronto, which is slightly less then one-third (31%) of all office space currently under construction in all of Canada. This is a significant change from the early 2000s when downtown Toronto was experiencing almost no office growth. CBD Office Space Construction

Five years is not a lot of time. Yet, it is becoming clear that in Toronto, and across North America, the geography of growth has fundamentally shifted. People want to live in neighbourhoods where driving is a choice and where you can take transit or walk to work. These people are now transforming the geography of growth in the Greater Toronto Area, and across North America.

E-Commerce and Land Use

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Most people don’t equate e-commerce with land use planning, but as more people shop online it is going to have a huge impact on our cities. For example, North America is undergoing a massive boom in warehouses and “fulfilment centres.” As the Economist writes:

Such modern structures usually lie within 100km (60 miles) of a big city and are near sea- and airports, highways and sorting hubs for couriers like FedEx and UPS. They are much bigger than older types of warehouse: often more than 100,000 square metres (1.1m square feet, or 14 football pitches); and they have high ceilings to further increase their volume. At Dotcom Distribution’s cavernous New Jersey warehouse, pickers ride “reach trucks” up to three storeys above ground to fetch 50,000 different products for 15 e-commerce clients. Such fulfilment centres also employ far more people than older warehouses: around Christmas each may have up to 3,000 staff working on shifts.

We can already see how the rising demand for fulfillment centres is playing out at the local level in British Columbia where there is a brewing battle between conservationist and developers for land.

The Globe and Mail reports that the demand for new industrial land required in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland is already far more than what is available. Paul Tilbury, the Chief Operating Officer of an industrial developer in the Lower Mainland argues that demand for industrial land can’t be served “by intensification or telling distributors to go to Kamloops or Calgary, as local politicians have suggested. A lot of the new demand comes from the e-commerce section. “They measure their success in delivery time,” Mr. Tilbury says. That means they want to be as close as possible to the big population centres.

E-commerce is going to significantly affect land use policy as we grapple with preserving agricultural land and reducing sprawl. It is also likely to create a mismatch between retail space and industrial space. We’ll need fewer stores and more storage. Will this mean that eventually big box centres will be converted to warehouses? It’s hard to say, but what is clear is that fulfilment centres are becoming an integral part of the economy and will shape the future geography and economy of cities and regions.

Who Lives Where?

I’ve always been interested in how researchers sort and label neighbourhoods. That is why the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre report, Eight Canadian Metropolitan Areas: Who Lived Where in 2006?, caught my eye. The report uses statistical analysis to pin down what kind of common neighbourhood “types” exist in Canadian cities.

Looking at the maps below, it’s obvious that the authors found cities that are far more complex than the urban/suburban view of cities would suggest.

 

The authors identified six broad neighbourhood typologies in Canadian cities:

  • Older Working Class, generally found in the inner suburbs;
  • Urban/Suburban Homeowner, located in stable residential areas constructed after 1945;
  • Old City Establishment, situated in older high-income, inner city areas associated with gentrification;
  • Young, Single, & Mobile Renters, which are found downtown;
  • Disadvantaged Groups, exhibit the most complex and diverse clusters around city regions; and
  • Family Ethnoburbs, which are found in the suburbs of only four of the cities studied.

The researchers use these typologies to highlight the complexity of social geography in Canadian cities.  A scan of the maps reveals quickly that the social geography of Canada’s largest cities is more complex than that of its smaller cities.

For example, the city regions that are attracting the countries  most immigrants, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary,  also have a unique neighbourhood typology called the “Family Ethnoburbs.” The Ethnoburbs are located in newer neighbourhoods on the cities edges.  The existence of this typology is a powerful indicator urban growth over the last two decades has become critical for our big cities to attract global talent and the importance of new housing to accommodate growth and attract immigrants.

What I find most interesting is that these maps are not static. Twenty-five years ago we would not have had Family Ethnoburbs, or an identifiable group of Young, Single, Mobile renters located downtown.

It will interesting to see how this social map of Canadian cities will change over the next twenty-five years. These categories are very much a product of Canadian cities today (do American cities have similar ethnoburbs?). The social structure and population of our cities is constantly changing, so these maps provide an interesting perspective of our complex and always changing city regions.

Take a look at the full report here.

 

 

Suburban Growth in Ontario’s Mid-Sized Cities

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Photo by Samuel Bietenholz

Mid-sized cities are having trouble keeping people downtown and encouraging denser living. The Martin Prosperity Institute issued a report analyzing growth patterns for  six Ontario cities: Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Windsor, Hamilton, and Oshawa. They found the following:

From 2001–2006 (this is the most recent data available for community profiles) most of the population growth taking place in these municipalities occurred in outer suburbs.

 

Percentage of population change, 2001-2006 by area.  Source: Martin Prosperity Institute

Percentage of population change, 2001-2006 by area. Source: Martin Prosperity Institute

Even more discouraging for urbanists is that the report found that in the five year period, the population of these city centres and inner suburbs was declining. The author concludes:

This discovery runs counter to the provincial policy put in place to stem sprawl in the past decade, and indicates that something is awry with Ontario Smart Growth policy implementation.

While these findings are interesting, I wouldn’t rush to judge the Smart Growth policy implementation. The Growth plan was only implemented in 2005. Looking at data from 2001-2006 would therefore not have captured any significant changes in growth patterns caused by the Growth Plan. Growth patterns take decades, not years to change, and many municipalities only implemented new growth plans in the last four years.

Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ontario’s mid-sized cities will continue to grow outward instead of upward. There are several reasons for this. First, mid-sized cities tend to be far less dense compared to large urban centres. Therefore, the amenities and employment opportunities commonly associated with density in larger cities are less likely to exist.

Lower densities also mean that public transportation systems in mid-sized cities tend to be far smaller and less convenient. Congestion is relatively mild and commuting by car is quick and convenient. Commute times in these six cities averages 24 minutes (Toronto is 33)  and only an average of 8% of people get to work using transit. Because most commuting is by car, employment and shopping is centred around locations that are easy to get to by car, not downtown. This encourages growth at the fringe were land is cheap and accessible and makes attracting jobs and residents to mid-sized downtowns far more challenging.

While I wouldn’t rush to judge the outcome of Ontario’s Smart Growth policy in mid-sized cities, it is clear that the challenges facing Ontario’s mid-sized cities in promoting smarter communities and reducing auto dependence are significant.

Get Ready For a Planet of Suburbs

Photo by urbanfeel

The planet is going to need a lot more room for cities and suburbs. The Lincoln Institutes’s report on “Making Room for a Planet of Cities” illustrates this vividly. The report  examines where and how quickly cities have and will grow in the past, present, and future.

One of the most interesting findings is that cities all around the world are becoming less dense. In fact, average global urban densities peaked in 1894! Densities have been falling for a very long time, and many decades before the car really began to dominate.

However, not only are densities falling, but cities are growing. Almost three billion people are expected to move to cities by 2050, doubling the number of people in cities globally.

The Lincoln Institute estimates that anywhere between an extra 600,000 to 2.6 million square kilometres of land will be urbanized by 2050, up from 600,000 square kilometres today.

Looking at those numbers and the history of urban growth the authors conclude that because so many global cities are growing very quickly, growth boundaries, like green belts, are a bad idea. They may work in the rich and slower growing places, but in regions where the population of cities is expected to double and triple they make no sense. Greenbelts would only make sprawl worse by forcing people to move outside the green belt creating a city that would sprawl even more. 

One surprising recommendations for a Toronto reader to note is that the authors suggests that Toronto, a city with one of the largest greenbelts in North America, is a model for responsible sprawl because the city has grown along a regular grid of arterial streets. The report says:

For an arterial grid to function as the road network for a public transport system three conditions must hold: (1) residential densities must be sufficiently high to sustain public transport; (2) the roads need to be spaced not more than one kilometer apart, so the great majority of people can walk to a bus stop from any location in less than 10 minutes,… and (3) the width of the rights-of-way for the roads needs to be on the order of 20–30 meters.

The model:

Toronto is one city that has been able to build and maintain an effective public transportation system that extends along an arterial road grid far into the suburbs, and it now boasts the third-largest transit system in North America

Toronto a model for global suburban growth? What do you think?

Comparing Density in Cities

LSE Cities is an ambitious project focussed on how the design of cities impacts society, culture and the environment. As part of their mandate they are releasing some visually compelling work, like the  chart below. 

 

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I enjoy the program emphasis on highlighting the diversity of cities and built form around the world. The chart above is an excellent sample of how each cities unique topographical constraints, systems of public transport and infrastructure, and traditions of urban culture and development shape residential densities. As LSE Cities writes

Density differs widely, from the high densities of Hong Kong, Mumbai and central areas of Istanbul and Shanghai to the much lower density pattern of London. Johannesburg shows limited areas of higher density set around a downtown that no longer has a residential population, in the midst of a very low-density sprawl. Istanbul, New York and Hong Kong show how topographical constraints drive densities that rise to ‘spikes’ in Manhattan and parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens in New York, and in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon in Hong Kong. São Paulo is multi-centred and similar in its overall density pattern to Mexico City, yet São Paulo’s skyline is dominated by high-rise apartment blocks, while Mexico City’s is consistently low-rise, demonstrating that high-density can be achieved with different types of built form.

Looking forward to seeing more from LSE Cities project.

200 Years of Urban Growth

The New York University Stern Urbanization Project is putting together visualizations showing the expansion of cities over the last 200 years. The animations were created using information from The Atlas of Urban Expansion

It’s really interesting how each of the three cities in the video’s below grows differently. Sao Paulo really explodes, like a mushroom from a solid core. Meanwhile, Los Angeles it’s easy to see how larger scattered settlements joined, reflecting that cities weaker core and stronger sub-city centres.

 

 

Predicting Canadian Urban Growth Using Two Simple Rules

Recently, Alberto Hernando de Castro, a physicist with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Paris, and his colleagues wrote a paper reporting to have found two simple rules that explain how cities grow.

Hernando, after examining the growth of 8,100 Spanish cities, proposed that the future growth of a city depends on how the city grew in the past and that the growth of a city depends on the growth rates of neighbouring cities.

The Cities Centre at the University of Toronto released a report by Jim Simmons and Larry S. Bourne this summer, “The Canadian Urban System in 2011: Looking Back and Projecting Forward.” The report manages to provide similar insights, which suggests that there may be a degree of universality to Hernando’s two rules.

In regards to the first rule, that how a city will grow in the future depends on how it grew in the past, seems consistent with the Canadian context. Despite all the changes that have swept Canada in the last 100 years, the way Canadian cities have grown has been remarkably steady with only a few changes in the urban hierarchy in the last 100 years.

Of course there are differences between now and 100 years ago, the most obvious being that Toronto is now the dominate Canadian city. One hundred years ago it was Montreal. This is because the rule has about a 15 year lifespan. Hernando found that cities in Spain have, on average, a “memory” of 15 years, meaning that 15 years of past growth can reliable help predict the outline of the next 15 years of growth.

I’m curious about what is the “memory” of Canadian cities. With fewer and younger cities I suspect the cities “memory” is longer. The biggest cities have been growing relatively consistently over the last 30 years and tend to dominate their regions, which is related to the second rule.

The second rule that “cities within about 50 miles of each other are entangled… so that if one of them grows, the other also grows in the same proportion”  also plays out in Canada.

Simmons and Bourne call the observed entanglement “Megaurban Regions.”  They identify eight Canadian Megaurban regions where roughly 64 cities and 21 million people are entangled. Within those eight regions cities and population tend to grow at similar rates.

Megaurban Regions

Click Map to Enlarge

Canadian Megaurban Regions

Simmons and Bourne argue that primary driver of growth in each Megaurban region is dependent on the size and rate of expansion of the market in which the metropolitan region is embedded.

For example, Halifax is limited by the slow growth within the Atlantic region and Montreal is hampered by the slow growth within Quebec.

Toronto, on the other hand, is not limited to Ontario’s market but embedded in the national market, a role formerly held by Montreal. Because Toronto region is so large it also attracts much of the investment in Ontario.

As a result, smaller cities and regions in the Province, such as Kingston and Southwestern Ontario region, are growing far slower.  My previous post on the Southern Ontario’s Geography of Innovation, touches on this theme as well. Many smaller Southern Ontario cities are trying to deepen their “entanglement” with Toronto through improved rail service (Note: In my post I’m using a different definition of Southern Ontario than Bourne and Simmons) .

I would be interested to see Hernando’s computer model applied to Canada and see how well it meshes with Simmons and Bourne’s analysis. What are the unique Canadian twists to a global model of cities? Or are Canadian cities, and all cities, merely following some basic  global rules?

The suburbs aren’t great for small business and free markets

DSCF2529Prewar neighbourhoods are better suited for migrant entrepreneurs than postwar neighbourhoods. That is the conclusion of a fascinating new study by Pascal Beckers and Robert C. Kloosterman, which looks at the link between the design of neighbourhood, zoning, and it’s effects on local migrant businesses.

What Beckers and Kloosterman find is that the urban design and zoning has an impact on the chances of setting up a business and the success of that business in the five Dutch neighbourhoods that they studied.

Prewar neighbourhoods have more commercial spaces (55 vs 31 firms per 10 hectares of built-up area) and less restrictive zoning regulations. This was found to offer more choice to local entrepreneurs and more flexibility to adjust to changes in the market and the business than to entrepreneurs who were operating in postwar neighbourhoods. 

Prewar neighbourhoods also have more businesses that are non-neighbourhood oriented, which means that they serve a broader market than just the immediate area (35 vs 16 firms per 10 hectares of built-up area). This is because local regulations in postwar neighbourhoods restrict commercial activities to those that serve the needs of local residents. Therefore, they have a commercial base that is more localized and less diversified

Existing businesses in postwar neighbourhoods also have less competition than those in prewar neighbourhoods. This protects local businesses and enhanced their chance of survival, but more restrictive zoning meant it is harder for businesses to expand if they became more successful. As a result, residents in postwar neighbourhoods have fewer choices when it comes to shopping and services and successful businesses have a harder time building on their success.

On the other hand, businesses in prewar neighbourhoods can be much more flexible. It is easier to convert buildings from residential to commercial and there are fewer restrictions on what can be done in those buildings. Businesses in prewar neighbourhoods also benefit from more policies that focused on creating new commercial space and supporting new businesses.  

More evidence that if you’re looking for competition, choice, and diversity you are much more likely to find it in the city than in the suburbs.