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.




Melbourne is Counting Pedestrians in Real Time

You can’t manage what you don’t measure is an old management adage. In many ways the way we have managed our streets has proved this point. Every time a new building goes up, or a transportation project is proposed the number of cars are counted and projections for the number of cars in the future provided.  Yet, cities traditionally have done a pretty poor job of keeping track of how many people get around on foot or by bike. What we get then are streets that are really only designed for people in cars.

An example of one City that is filling this void is Melbourne, which has developed a sophisticated 24-hour pedestrian counting system. The City has set up 28 sensors installed under an awning or on a street pole in the city centre. The sensors, pictured below, counts all pedestrian movements, in two directions, passing through the counting zone.


Not only are the pedestrians counted, but the data is shared in real time on a snazzy looking site.  From the website, you can drill down and see exactly how many people walk down a given street in Melbourne at a given time of day. This shot was taken today at 5pm Eastern or just after 8am in Melbourne.


Accurate counts of pedestrians and cyclists is very important in order to influence policy, inform transportation planning, and support investments in infrastructure that support physical activity, such as walkways and bicycle facilities.  I hope to see systems like the one in Melbourne in cities across Canada soon!

Measuring the Suburbs


David Gordon, the Director of Urban Planning at Queen’s University has worked over the last five years to find out how many Canadian’s live in the suburbs. His conclusion, about 80% of Canada’s urban population and 66% of the total Canadian population live in suburban areas.

So what is a suburb? How is a suburb defined and measured?

While there have been many definitions, traditionally, in the North American context it has meant white, middle class, nuclear family, that owns a single family home and drives to work. Gordon’s research shows that after fifty years this traditional definition is essentially meaningless. Canadian cities and society have moved past those stereotypes.

To develop a measurable  definition of suburbs Gordon had to reduce the suburbs to one variable, whether people drove to work or not. This means that everything else we traditionally associate with suburbs is no longer true.

For example, Canadian suburbs are no longer white. Suburban communities are now among the most diverse and multicultural communities in country. In certain suburban cities, such as Markham and Brampton, over 50 percent of the population identify as visible minorities. This has lead to what is now being called the “Ethnoburbs, ” a whole new type of social community.

Suburbs are also no longer bedroom communities. More people in our major cities work in postwar neighbourhoods than downtown. So many people have moved into the city and so many jobs have moved outside the city, that commuting patterns are reversing. The traffic leaving downtown in the morning is almost as heavy as traffic into downtown.

Suburbs are also no longer dominated to the same degree by single family homes. Gordon found that townhouses and apartments were much more prevalent in modern suburban communities, making it difficult to define suburbs based on housing type.

A middle class suburb is also a rare sight these days. As the middle class disappears so have many middle class suburban neighbourhoods. In 1970, 66 percent of Toronto’s neighbourhoods were middle income, in 2010 only 20 percent qualified as middle income. By 2020 it is projected that only 10 percent of Toronto’s neighbourhoods will be middle income.

Defining and measuring the suburbs is not an easy task. A word that has taken on so much social, political, and economic meaning over the last century is bound to frustrate and confuse anyone trying to pin it down. Therefore, I hope Gordon research can contribute to a measurable and workable definition of the modern suburb: a community where driving to work is the main form of commuting. 

Suburban Corporate Wasteland


Good piece on WNPR radio in Connecticut about the future of suburban office parks. There is a growing concern in the United States about large office parks built during the 1970s and 1980s. Many businesses are moving downtown and leaving their old headquarters vacant, leaving fears of a “Suburban Corporate Wasteland” in their wake.

While the piece focuses on a handful of sites in Connecticut, Toronto has recently seen high-profile businesses move to core from the suburbs. For example, Coca-Cola is moving downtown, leaving its “mad men” era building in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. Other companies that have made or are about to make the move include SNC-Lavalin, Google, Deloitte, and Telus. This has lead to articles such as “Why corporation are flocking back to downtown Toronto.”

The Urban Land Institute has picked up on the trend and is bearish on suburban office markets in Toronto. Their 2014 Emerging Trends in Real Estate states that:

“‘Related to the trend of urban intensification, suburban office is a declining commodity that has no staying power,’ says an interviewee. Suburban office is becoming less competitive as companies return to the urban core and companies take less space. As this space becomes vacant and needs to be refurbished to be competitive, the suburban market softens even further.”

So are Toronto’s office parks likely to become corporate wastelands?

I’m not ready to write them off yet. A recent Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) report provides a very detailed assessment of the evolution of the office market in the GTA. The CUI argues convincingly that the statistics do not prove that the 25 year trend of significant office growth in the suburbs is slowing. 

While demand is shifting to the core it hasn’t disappeared from Toronto’s suburb. Yes, vacancy rates are higher in the suburbs than downtown, 7.8% versus 4.6%. But as seen in the chart below most of the new office space built since the 1990s has been in the suburbs. With so much growth in supply it’s not surprising that vacancy rates are higher.

Cumulative Totals of GTA Office Space 1910-2010 by the Canadian Urban Institute (Click to Enlarge)

Cumulative Totals of GTA Office Space 1910-2010 by the Canadian Urban Institute (Click to Enlarge)
Note: 905 and 416 are Torono Telephone Area Codes. 905 is shorthand for those areas that have grown quickly since the 1970s. 416 for those areas that grew from the 19th century to the 1960s . 

Furthermore, while major moves to the core are attracting attention, building has continued in the suburbs. Major companies such as SNC-Lavalin, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Novartis Animal Health have been expanding or adding new offices in suburban centres such as Meadowvale and in Mississauga Town Centre.

While suburban office parks are becoming corporate waste lands in Connecticut, in Toronto it looks as if they are here to stay. The challenge in the GTA won’t become how to deal with large vacant office campuses, but how to bring transit and amenities into these areas so they can stay competitive and become more adaptable, diverse, and accessible.

Amalgamated’s Top Posts of 2013


Finished my first full year of blogging, hope you enjoyed. Granted I took an almost half-year break.  I lost some of my inspiration for writing and time for extra curricular reading after a stressful move and starting a new job.

I love my new job, but as a result I don’t have as much time or energy to focus on this side project. Writing has never come naturally so it’s always a significant effort to put a post together. I will have to see how 2014 plays out. My plan is to focus on shorter and more pithy posts to keep the project alive.

As for 2013, here are my top five posts:

5. The Pattern of My Dialect – The quiz on the New York times website was an end of year hit. 

4. Elevator Suburbs – On Canada’s dense suburbs. Doug Saunders gave this one a boost over twitter. 

3. Why has Toronto Overtaken Chicago – My explanation for why Toronto’s population edged out Chicago’s in 2013. 

2. Better Streets: Fountain Place, Poynton – The amazing transformation of Poynton place in England is popular. Good to see that lots of people interested in better streets. 

1. Blaming the Victims – After a horrific crash that injured 10 people this summer on Lakeshore I wrote a reply to the Toronto Star’s incomprehensible coverage of the crash. My most passionate post of the year clearly resonated and tops the list for 2013.

Thanks for reading!

America’s Super-Sized Cities

Brian Lee Crowley wrote a piece advocating for more road construction to ease traffic congestions. He points to the example of American cities, which he claims reduced congestion by building more roads. What he fails to mention is that as a result American cities are super-sized, struggling with the cost of maintaining large spread out cities and an already overbuilt road network.

A report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy shows that American cities take up way more space than cities in any other country by a significant margin.

Twenty Countries with the Largest Areas of Urban Land Cover, 2000

Crowley laments the costs of transit but fails to point out that it is also very expensive to build enough roads to relieve congestion. Using the same Texas Transportation Insitute data referred to by Crowley, researchers analyzed traffic conditions in 70 metropolitan areas and found that regions that spent a lot on road capacity expansion did no better than those regions that spend far less. The researchers estimate that households would need to spend thousands of dollars annually to realize reductions in congestions.

The costs are starting to catching up to Phoenix, Arizona, Crowley’s model of how building roads can reduce congestion. Arizona is currently booming, and spending far more on the construction of new highways than maintenance. The result is a significant and growing state of good repair backlog and higher road costs for residents in Arizona. Just to maintain the current pace of construction, the state needs to spend $62.7 billion over the next 25 years. This does not seem sustainable and eventually the cost to maintain existing roads will eat into the cost of building new roads.

Crowley is right however that North American cities have not successfully reduced congestion using transit. So why is transit investment not a viable fix for congestions in North America, when it has clearly worked in other places? Basically it’s because we haven’t really invested in transit and built land use patterns that support transit. Our cities may build one or two lines, but no city outside of Toronto, Montreal, Mexico City, or Washington has really invested in a comprehensive transit network on the continent since World War Two.

Even in the first two of those cities, investment essentially stopped 30 years ago. For example, Toronto has built half a subway in a generation, the bus network is static, and their are fewer streetcars plying downtown routes than in the 1980s. We haven’t done anything to increase transit capacity so no wonder congestion is getting worse in Canadian cities.

The truth is that reducing congestion, whether by building roads or transit is expensive. Just as regions need to spend thousands of dollars per household on roads to reduce congestion, regions would need to spend thousands of dollars on transit to achieve the same ends. It’s very difficult, in fact almost impossible, to build your way out of traffic. The fact that households are not willing to cover the costs makes it a lot harder. That is why most policy makers now focus on far more cost effective transportation demand management strategies instead of building more kilometres of transit and road.

It’s no surprise that in North America we see highway construction as being the answer. As can be seen in the chart below, it is where we have put our money. If we start really investing in transit I know we would see results without having to supersize our cities.


Toronto in a deep freeze

Stunning image by Scott Rogers of Toronto yesterday following this weeks devastating ice storm. Ice as far as the eye can see. It’s also a quintessential image of Toronto, with its strong contrast between low rise and high rise postwar neighbourhoods.

My uncle, grandmother, and father are still without power four days later. Christmas service at my church was in the dark. Luckily we’ve been able to find a warm space for our family and we were able to enjoy a peaceful and warm Christmas. I hope power is restored soon to those without it. I am also very thankful to all the people working over the holidays to restore power.


Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Given my slight obsession with maps here is Map of Christmas Dinner Across the World:


Click Image to Enlarge

For some holiday enlightenment I suggest checking out this fascinating article on the economic history of Christmas from Marginal Revolution. Here is the first paragraph:

While “Christmas” is new, the notion of a consumption splurge after the fall harvest, followed by a lean late winter-early spring season (Lent/Ramadan) before the spring harvest is deeply rooted in pre-modern agricultural reality. When you have an abundance of perishable goods it makes sense to consume them before they go bad, and then to string out the more limited supply of durable foodstuffs when fresh foodstuffs are scarce. In the same way, summer vacation is rooted in the need to free up children for agricultural labor at times of peak demand. As noted above, spring weddings supply a consumption boost after the Spring Harvest and also are timed to minimize the likelihood of critical parts of a first pregnancy taking place during the lean late winter-early spring (although these days it has more to do with the end of the school year).

– See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/12/from-the-comments-on-seasonal-business-cycles.html#sthash.TjS6Kvnf.dpuf


Better Streets: Vanderbilt Avenue, New York City

The New York City Department of Transportation has released a report on the economic benefits of its better streets. The report has seven case studies which provide evidence that there is a real economic benefit to improving streets.

For example, Vanderbilt Avenue was retrofitted to create a dedicated cycling space, improve pedestrian safety, calm traffic, and improve the streetscape. The transformation can be seen below:

Vanderbilt Avenue Before and After

Vanderbilt Avenue Before and After

Vanderbilt Avenue performed much better than two similar sites in Brooklyn. The authors argue:

It is reasonable to conclude that the improved safety, shortened crossings, and new landscaping all combined to increase foot and bicycle traffic and enhance the sense of place, creating a virtuous cycle of retail development that was greater than it otherwise would have been.

As can be seen from the chart, the combined retail sales on Vanderbilt Avenue outperformed both the borough as a whole and two comparison sites. This shows at the very least that a significant transformation of a street won’t necessarily hurt business or retail.

Comparison of Combined Retail  Sales

Comparison of Combined Retail Sales

Check out the report to see some of the other case studies. The methodology is definitely one that should be examined by cities implementing street transformation in order to gather evidence and build the case for better streets.