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.

Southern Ontario’s Geography of Innovation

Comparison of Toronto Waterloo Region and Silicon Valley San Francisco Corridors

Click to Enlarge

The cities of Southern Ontario are doubling down on innovation clusters and commuter rail to help drive the growth of downtown’s and meet the employment and density targets set out in the Places to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

A City of Guelph business case to invest in a two-way urban commuter rail line between the City of Toronto and the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener, and Guelph focuses on supporting and developing innovation clusters.

The business case draws parallels to the  Silicon Valley regional economy, which led to the very interesting map above that shows the similar geographic size and scale of both clusters.

The most significant noted difference between the two regions is that Silicon Valley has a two-way commuter rail service, while the Toronto-Waterloo corridor does not.

The City of Guleph argues that  to truly compete with Silicon Valley the Province of Ontario must invest in regional transit to improve regional connectivity:

Two-way GO Train service would be a catalyst in converting the current, disconnected startup ecosystems into one large and internationally competitive corridor of innovation. This connected supercluster would have the capacity to compete head-on with not only Silicon Valley, but other global markets. It would generate sufficient productivity and employment gains, and related corporate and personal income tax growth, to finance the capital and operating cost of the required rail infrastructure. It would also accelerate urban intensification and enhance sustainability — both key provincial objectives.

The plans below show that the cities of Guelph, Waterloo, and Kitchener expect that regional rail and the Region of Waterloo’s LRT (ION), which is now under construction, will anchor their city centres and lead to a significant redevelopment of vacant and underutilized land.

(Click the Images to Enlarge)

Why is transit and rail such an important part of the plan to support the innovation clusters?

Planning scholars Daniel Chatman and Robert Noland  have shown that there is a strong relationship between wage increases and the availability of transit. Specifically:

“wage increases range from $1.5 million to $1.8 billion per metropolitan area yearly for  a 10 per cent increase in transit seats or rail service miles per capita”

As a result the City of Guelph estimates that investing in full-day, two-way regional rail service between Waterloo and Toronto will have a regional impact of $838 million in personal income tax annually. In addition to those benefits it will help these cities develop their downtowns.

Whether that would lead to more vibrant downtown is still a matter of debate.  But overall, the business case for improving connections in the region is very compelling and worth exploring.