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.

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?

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.

 

 

Suburban Corporate Wasteland

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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.

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?