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.


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 Urban Footprints Around the World

Matt Hartzell had done a very cool comparison on urban footprints around the worldWhat he is able to show is that there is almost no link between the geographic size of a city and it’s population globally. 

Urban Footprints by Population by Matt Hartzell

Urban Footprints by Population by Matt Hartzell

Also not surprising is that American cities are huge. In fact, Hartzell is able to fit 100 million people into the space that occupies Atlanta.

Visualizing Atlanta's Sprawl by Matt Hartzell

Visualizing Atlanta’s Sprawl by Matt Hartzell

Did the government create the suburbs?

South San Jose, Photo by Sean O’Flaherty

Is one piece of legislation the root of the modern suburban landscape? Writing in a series about laws that shaped Los Angeles Jeremy Rosenberg argues that yes, one law led to the suburbs. The law? The National Housing Act, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934.

How did this one law create the suburbs? The FHA is important in the history of the suburbs because it was the agency that established the design guidelines that qualified subdivisions for federal financing. For example, some of these guidelines include;

  • Layout should discourage through traffic
  • Minimum Width of a residential street should be 50 feet, with 2.4 feet of pavement, planting/utility strips and walks
  • Cul-de-sacs are the most attractive street layout for family dwellings
  • Minimum setbacks for houses should be 15 feet
  • Front yards should avoid excessive planting, for a more pleasing and unified effect along the street

These guidelines set the standard for suburban design across North America. To illustrate, it is not difficult to see how the same guidelines are still visible in the new San Jose suburb pictured above.

While I agree with Rosenbergs premis that the FHA guidelines had a significant role in codifying the design for the modern suburb, is this one law the root of the suburbs? I would argue no. Why?

First, because suburbs are not a modern invention. I am sympathetic to Robert Bruegmanns’ arguments in Sprawl: A Compact History that suburbs are created as part of a process ‘that affects every part of the metropolitan area.” As cities grow and become wealthier they expand outward. This process is generally limited only by the geography of a place, the available means of transportation, and the affluence of residents.

Second, the FHA did not invent the design of the suburbs.  As Robert Fishman persuasively demonstrates, the suburb, as we picture it today, emerged in 18th century London. It was at that time and in that place that the nuclear family originated  and along with it the idea of creating a domestic home and community separate from working districts. As a result, the first middle class residential districts emerged at the edge of the London and were designed to emulate the lanscape and homes of upper class British estates and country houses.

Therefore, I do not believe one law lead to the suburbs. The process of suburbanization was well underway by the 1930s and the design principles of the modern suburbs, codified by the FHA, had already existed for nearly 200 years in England and North America.

Suburban Ideal 1839 – Photo from Jane Austen’s World

The Suburban Ideal 1882 – Photo from London Architecture