E-Commerce and Land Use


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.


Suburban Growth in Ontario’s Mid-Sized Cities


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.

Better Streets: Indianapolis Cultural Trail

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I’m always amazed at the variety of projects that are in the works in cities across North America to improve the public realm and make cities more vibrant and walkable. For example, in May of this year, Indianapolis put the finishing touches on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail:  A Legacy of Gene & Marilyn Glick. The trail, pictured above, is a 13km greenway through the heart of downtown Indianapolis. Project for Public Spaces describes the project as “what may be the boldest step of any American city towards supporting bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Rundell Ernstberger Associates designed the trail to be a major pedestrian and cycling route as well as a significant piece of storm water infrastructure. The swales and trees planted along the trail’s route provide significant environmental benefits.

What is most incredible is the trail, which cost $63 million to build, was largely financed by private donations, including a $15 million donation from Indianapolis developer Gene Glick. Clearly, Mr. Glick, a housing developer, saw value in improving walkability and public space in downtown Indianapolis.

A study by university students from Butler University attempts to quantify some of the trail’s early environmental and economic impacts. The study found that planting a significant number of trees, over five hundred, provides energy conservation benefits, improves air quality, and raises property values along the trail. However, while most businesses interviewed along the trail did not see a significant increase in sales, they also did not see a decrease. In this case, there was no evidence that removing traffic lanes to widen the sidewalks and add bike lanes and swales negatively affected businesses.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is an excellent example of how private and public investments in streets can improve the qualify of life and the quality of public space in cities. For a better sense of some the trails features check out this video on The Magnificent Bioswales & Stromwater Treatment Along the Indy Cultural Trail.

The Magnificent Bioswales & Stormwater Treatment Along the Indy Cultural Trail from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Remember when Toronto wanted to Build a Highway through Little Italy?

By Matthew Burpee

Little Italy and Little Portugal By Matthew Burpee

As a follow up to the previous post, Toronto did have expressway plans in the 1950s as ambitious as most American cities, it just didn’t implement them. Get Moving Toronto has a good overview of the various plans, as does Transit Toronto. The most famous unbuilt expressway is the Spadina Expressway, which was partially built.

For me however, the craziest project would have been the Clinton-Christie expressway, which would have been an extension to Highway 400 and was meant to connect it to the Gardiner. The expressway would have swooped through the Junction Triangle, followed Dupont until it got to Christie and then would have cut through the heart of Little Italy, along or through (plans were never finalized) Trinity Bellwoods Park and right down to the lake.

A good look into the thinking behind the expressway plan that would have destroyed a great part of Toronto is provided in the “The Changing City: A Forecast of Planning Issues for the City of Toronto 1956-1980.”

Good planning practices in the 1940s and 1950s dictated that downtowns be served by a ring of expressways. The report provides the diagram below of the proposed expressway ring that inspired the need for the Clinton-Christie expressway and provides an example of what other cities had actually built.

Even the planners in the Changing City were skeptical that the Clinton-Christie corridor was the best choice.

“On the west side of the loop, the North-South Expressway near Christie and Grace Street is too far west to serve downtown well. Would an alignment on Spadina Avenue be more satisfactory? Perhaps the North-South Expressway could be best built on Spadina Avenue as an extension of the Spadina Expressway, making a direct connection with the Gardiner Expressway on the lakeshore. This would take the place of the proposed alignment near Christie and Grace Street, which would…run through an almost totally residential area.”

In the end, the extension never became a priority and wasn’t seriously considered. When Spadina died so did the plan to extend the 400. The only part to survive became what is now Black Creek Drive, built in the 1980s.

Could the Airport Corporate Centre be Toronto’s Tysons Corner?

Photo by ammiiirrrr

Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre, Photo by ammiiirrrr

One of the reasons so few people outside of downtown walk to work is that they live too far from work to walk. Largely, this is because over the last thirty years a significant number of new offices have been built in isolated former industrial lands where people are forced to drive to work. Strategic Regional Research released a report, A Region in Transition, that explores office growth in sprawling business parks and makes recommendations to break their isolation.

What really jumped out to me from the report was that the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre, a major regional business park, is the same distance from downtown Toronto as Tysons Corner is from downtown Washington D.C. This invites a great comparison because Tysons Corner is implementing a bold transformation from a sprawling business park, similar to the Airport Corporate Centre, into a mixed-use, walkable community. It’s starting by building sidewalks, breaking up large blocks, connecting to the regional transit system, and even changing its name. Could the Airport Corporate Centre follow Tysons’ lead?

Photo by Strategic Regional Research

Photo by Strategic Regional Research

Strategic Regional Research thinks it should. The report advocates for transforming areas like the Airport Corporate Centre into neighbourhoods to deal with the Greater Toronto Area’s terrible congestion. Because transit access is poor and the area has no amenities or residents, the only way to get around, even for a bite to eat, is to drive. As a result, 55,000 people drive into and out of the Centre every day. As Glenn Miller, a contributor to the report, argues:

Most new transit proposals, including the downtown relief line, will do nothing to connect suburban workplaces to where workers live. Nor will they ease the congestion that’s now strangling areas outside the core, said Miller.

By looking at the Airport Corporate Centre as a neighbourhood which is part of the city, instead of an isolated employment ghetto, Mississauga can cut gridlock, dependence on cars, build new places to live, and encourage walkability.

Is this vision possible? Could thousands of people be able to choose to live and work in the Airport Corporate Centre? The challenges are significant. A recent City of Vaughan Study (focused on building a more urban Vaughan Centre) concluded,

Despite the prestige associated with the employment area, it would be extremely difficult and cost prohibitive to transform the Airport Corporate Centre into a more walkable, compact urban place due to the existence of large surface parking lots and industrial buildings.

It may be extremely difficult, but it is not impossible. Investment in transit is crucial, and Mississauga is already taking the first step. The City is preparing to open a new Bus Rapid Transit line which will pass through the Airport Corporate Centre by the end of 2015. As a result, new types of development are being proposed.

The most ambitious new development is Spectrum Square, which aims to be “Mississauga’s Premier Sustainable Corporate Community.” As a sustainable community, it is selling transit and walkability. The renderings clearly portray an urban setting, while the promotional material states:

Spectrum Square, Mississauga

At Spectrum Square, there will be inviting places to gather both inside and outside. You can take a break and enjoy the outdoor amenities in the central square, or discuss the latest project with fellow colleagues over espresso. The Mississauga BRT and the Spectrum Square shuttle will provide door to door connections to the Mississauga and TTC transit systems. Spectrum Square will also be a venue for special events and outdoor festivals.

Clearly, office developers are following Tysons’ lead and seeing the advantage of promoting a more walkable, active and transit oriented workplace. Now its Mississauga’s turn. The City should follow Tysons’ lead by providing a new name for the Airport Corporate Centre (I suggest Elmbank), better streets, and places to live.

Walkability in Dense Places

by bennylin0724

Photo by bennylin0724

Living in Downtown and the Centres is a detailed survey produced by the City of Toronto City Planning Division.  The intent of the study is to take a measure of what people in Toronto’s Downtown and four Centres think about their neighbourhoods. Of particular interest to me is the section on why people choose to live Downtown and in the Centres.

reasons for living downtown or centres

What I find so compelling about the chart are the similarities between the reasons for living Downtown and in the Centres of the former cities of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. The Centres were planned as transportation hubs, so it is not a surprise that access to transit is the primary reason for choosing to live in them. Being close to work and to shops is also a major advantage of living in denser neighbourhoods.

However, there is one glaring difference between Downtown and the Centres, walkability. The “ability to walk everywhere” is the fourth reason for choosing to live downtown. In the North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke Centres, the ability to walk everywhere does not even crack the top 15.

Why? Probably because you cannot walk everywhere. 45 percent of Downtown residents walk to work versus less than 10 percent of residents in those Centres. Clearly a missing ingredient in the Centres is employment density.

Despite this difference, there are many commonalities with how residents in the Centres and Downtown perceive walkability in their neighbourhoods. Overall the impression is that neighbourhoods are not pedestrian friendly, despite them being some of the most accessible and densest neighbourhoods in the city. Furthermore, residents in every neighbourhood, when asked about neighbourhood amenities and services, were least satisfied with pedestrian walkways, public spaces, and bike paths. This represents a significant failure to leverage density and access to public transit to build attractive and inviting walkable places across the city.

The Cost of Fringe Living

Photo by wyliepoon

A lot of people enjoying living in lower density communities. There are many perceived advantages, including less traffic, less noise, improved safety, and lower costs of buying a house (i.e. Drive Until You Qualify). Yet, it is important to recognize that living in lower density communities comes with significant long term additional costs.

This is remarkably illustrated in an article this week from Minneapolis StarTribune that looks into the cost of exurban development in that metro region:

the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, an obscure state agency that dished out nearly $350 million, mainly in low-interest loans, to help exurban cities build sewer and water projects.

When home sales plunged, cities found themselves with fewer-than-expected residents to help foot the bill. That’s forced many of them to jack up their water and sewer rates for current homeowners and businesses.

Closer to home, the City of Mississauga is raising taxes significantly as three decades of rapid growth winds down:

The city was forced to take on its first external debt in decades this year to deal with the budget crunch, as reserve funds and development dollars dwindle following three decades of explosive growth.

Mississauga’s and Minneapolis’s experiences have also been demonstrated in research which has consistently shown that lower density communities have to pay more taxes to provide new infrastructure and that there is more of that infrastructure. More land is dedicated to roads, and there are more sewage and water facilities on per capita basis than in higher density communities.

Higher densities are simply more efficient and make infrastructure more financial sustainable. If we want to get serious about tackling debt, keeping taxes low, and building healthier communities, a good long term step would be to build denser communities and allow low density communities to become denser.

Redefining the suburbs: Tysons

Washington Metro Silver Line Extension in Tysons Corner photo: Better! Cities & Towns

“I think somebody really needs to go look up in a dictionary what the definitions of suburban and urban are… And then maybe we can have a discussion.” – Pedro Ribeiro, Spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

The above quotation is a response by Pedro Ribeiro to a claim by Tysons, a booming Washington suburb, that it is now the economic centre of the D.C. region. Washington D.C.’s leadership clearly don’t buy it. They argue they are competing in a different league, with New York and San Francisco, not mere suburbs like Tysons.

I love the quotation because Tysons is the prime example of why defining suburbs has become so hard.  By the late 1980s, Tysons was already a significant regional employment centre 20 miles from downtown D.C. It defied the traditional stereotype of the suburbs as bedroom communities and inspired the concept of the Edge City. Today Tysons is the 12th largest collection of commercial and office space in the United States.

Amazingly, Tysons is again redefining suburbs by beginning a transformation into a dense, mixed-use, walkable community. With 167,000 parking spots and only 19,627 residents this will not be an easy task, yet if successful will establish a new type of community.

How will the transformation to a walkable community begin?  As the Washington Post reports “paramount to that effort will be sidewalks“. The Fairfax county is beginning a long and expensive effort to build a grid of small blocks. The county recognizes that streets are important to creating a sense of place, and necessary to define and attract future development. The extension of the metro, which will be complete by 2014, will support redevelopment and likely affect the future development in the community.

Looking at the dictionary will not help if you’re trying to define the ‘suburbs’ or tell us much about them. Communities are never static. Tysons will certainly evolve over the next 50 years into something very different from the edge city it was in the 1990s and the employment centre it is today.

Atlas of Suburbanisms

by sssteve.o

I recently discovered the University of Waterloo School of Planning’s Atlas of Suburbanisms. I’m very excited to have found this fantastic resource. The Atlas is meant to provide a better understanding of the suburbs as a place.

The primary challenge most people who want to analyze the suburbs face is that it is a very hard term to pin down. The University of Waterloo researchers, Markus Moos & Anna Kramer, take an innovative approach. They took three assumptions about suburban living: single family housing, home ownership, and automobile oriented commute patterns and mapped where they were more prevalent than the metropolitan average. The results therefore show us  where people are generally living in way that is commonly understood as a suburban way of living. The conclusion:

The maps point to the inherent fuzziness of the spatial boundaries of different aspects of these three specific definitions of suburbanisms, and their combinations. The analysis also evidently points to the fact that suburban ways of living as defined by single-family dwellings, home ownership and automobile commuting are to some extent more prevalent in areas at some distance from the downtown in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. But in all three metropolitan areas there are pockets of suburbanisms in central areas and pockets of urbanism in outlying areas.

So here is Toronto’s map of Suburbanisms, where pockets of suburbanisms pop up in Rosedale, and pockets of urbanism pop up in Mississauga and Oakville:

There are other great maps on the  Atlas of Suburbanisms project site. Prof. David Gordon, from Queen’s university, focused on two variables to define the suburbs, density and transportation. These indicators enable him to identify four regions in Canada’s largest cities, the Active Core, the Transit Suburb, the Auto Suburb and Exurban.

What is fascinating about his maps is that they show how there are pockets of the Active Core and Transit Suburban in unexpected places. For example, central Mississauga has the density to be characterized as a Transit Suburb, while I assume thanks to York University, the Active Core has a pocket up by Steeles and Keele.

A third map on the site I want to highlight is the Ten Cities of Toronto. This map takes a sociological approach, unlike the other two that focus on density, transportation, and housing type. Liam McGuire from the University of British Columbia, splits Toronto into three sub regions, the Inner City, The Hedged Communities, and the Borrowed Frontier. As he explains:

Inner City Polarization is characterized by inner city and inner suburban neighbourhoods with high levels of income polarization. Hedged Communities are defined by relatively static, high income households employed in managerial roles and the financial sector. Lastly, the Borrowed Frontier refers to suburban areas with more recent periods of construction.

These maps continue to tells us that suburbs are diverse places that cannot be reduced to one variable. It really depends on what lens you are using and what you want to learn. There is a lot going on in Canadian Cities, the Toronto Region, and within each community. Thanks to the Atlas of Suburbanisms, we can try to make a little more sense of it all.