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?


Stop Eulogizing the Suburbs

Condo Advertising: The suburbs are not for me

Christopher Sellers, an urban historian, takes suburban doomsayers who are eulogizing postwar neighbourhoods to task in an article in newgeography. Commenting on the reams of new books and articles predicting the end of the suburbs, Sellers asks:

“When you declare the “ending” of a place where you acknowledge over half of Americans now live, just what does that mean?”

It appears that most writers mean not the end of a place, but the end of an ideal and stereotype. New economic trends, social values and ideals are transforming every community in North America and hitting ageing postwar suburbs particularly hard.

Changing demographics, growing income inequality, and ageing infrastructure and housing are hurting older postwar neighbourhoods in the same way similar factors hurt central neighbourhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.

As a result, many urbanist see a narrative of prospering and growing cities, in contrast to one of declining suburbs and conclude that as a result the suburban dream and the postwar neighbourhoods are doomed.

While discussing many of these issues, Sellers ends the article on a positive note. He imagines that suburbs that are more diverse will also be more inclusive and open to progressive politics. I am not as optimistic.

Our neighbourhoods and cities reflect the growing inequality and poverty in our society.  Cities like Toronto are becoming more segregated by wealth and income. Poverty is concentrating in the postwar neighbourhoods, while the centre of the city is becoming wealthier, and the middle is melting away. In my opinion, the rhapsodizing about the end of the suburbs is really masking a far more real concern about the decline of the middle class. My fear is that will lead to less inclusive neighbourhoods, not more inclusive as Sellers argues.

The allure of the suburbs may be fading, but does this call for the end of the suburbs? No, but it does mean that postwar communities need greater investments to adapt to a new time. These communities need new social services, transit, better housing, and jobs as they age. Our suburbs and the people who live in them deserve much more than eulogies.

The Great Recession and the Suburbanization of Rental Housing

The great recession has led to the increasing suburbanization of America’s rental housing, especially in southern and western cities. Since 2007, a recent study by Harvard reports more than 3.0 million single family homes in the United States have been converted from owner-occupied to rental stock, many of them in the suburbs.

Since the great recession, some large scale investors have each bought up to 10,000 – 20,000 single family homes, mostly in the Sunbelt to manage and rent. The Harvard study notes:

While systematic information is hard to come by, CoreLogic found that institutional investors (defined as those acquiring at least five foreclosed properties or using a corporate identity) were most active in 2012 in Miami, where they bought 30 percent of foreclosed properties, followed by Phoenix (23 percent), Charlotte (21 percent), Las Vegas (19 percent), and Orlando (18 percent).

In the South and West, where cities are newer, have been growing the fastest, and where the great recession hit the hardest, rental housing is now predominately in the suburbs and exurbs, not in the central city.

Occupied Rental Units

What is also interesting is a lot of suburban rental housing is “hidden.” Nearly four in ten rental units in American suburbs are in single-family homes and small buildings with fewer than nine units. Forget about the image of towers in the park, more people rent a house than an apartment in a tower.

Occupied Rental Units (Thousands) in the Suburbs, 2011

The variations in the type of housing and location are yet again another reminder that the 21st century “suburb” are diverse places and becoming increasingly more diverse as investors and owners build new rental housing  and convert and renovate older housing.

Unfortunately, the growing number of rental units is not nearly enough to match the demand for rental housing, especially affordable rental housing.  According to the report there is an astounding shortage of 4.9 million affordable units in the United States. In 2011, 11.8 million renters with extremely low incomes competed for just 6.9 million rentals affordable at that income cutoff.

As the report concludes:

It is hardly hyperbole to call the growing lack of rental affordability a crisis. More than half of all renters pay more than 30 percent of income for housing, including more than one in four that pay more than 50 percent. For the nation’s lowest-income families and individuals, the situation is especially dire, with more than seven out of 10 paying more than half their income for rent.

Towers and Malls

Cavendish Mall

In my last post I explored the idea that “apartments are just as lucrative in the US as Canada, but the US did not experience the same kind of suburban apartment boom.”  In trying to understand why, I pointed to planning culture  and the nature of each countries development industry. One area I didn’t explore was the difference that the municipal tax structures might have played in encouraging Canadian suburbs to go denser.

Canadian municipalities are far more reliant on property taxes. That means that one of the few ways they can collect more revenue is to grow the property tax base. Looking at the chart from Cote Saint-Luc I used in my last post, apartments made good sense as a revenue generating tool.


American municipalities do not have the same dependency on property taxes. Sales taxes are an important  revenue tool for many American cities. This means that the incentives in Canadian and American cities are different. In a study on the effect of the sales tax on development, the Public Policy Institute of California writes:

The survey results provide strong evidence that city governments do favor retail development over other land uses when developing vacant land or pursuing redevelopment.

Essentially, the sales tax made really good sense because you collected the new property tax revenue and more sales tax.  The outcome is that American municipalities encouraged and approved the development of a lot more retail instead of apartments than Canadian cities. So perhaps our municipal tax structures can help explain why generally Canadian cities were more favourable to suburban apartments, and the American cities to more retail.


Source: The International Council of Shopping Centers via ForeXLive

Elevator Suburbs

Photo by Author

Photo by Author

Doug Saunders wrote about the uniquely Canadian phenomena, in North America at least, of having so many people live in suburban apartment buildings:

Forget the U.S.-generated image of suburban lawns versus downtown density: We’re a nation of peri-urban apartment dwellers. Ottawa has more apartment buildings than Dallas, and most are midtown; Edmonton has more than Boston. Toronto’s outskirts are the North American leaders in elevator suburbia: Between Hamilton and Ajax, Ont., there are more than 2,000 of these cement towers, housing more than a million people; one in five residents of Canada’s largest urban area lives in one.

Today’s suburban condo boom is in many ways related to yesterday’s apartment boom. Many of today’s large development companies got their start in the 1960s and 1970s. Canada’s planning culture also continues to play a role in encouraging intensification and denser communities.  I would argue it’s not a coincidence that the region that experienced the continents largest apartment boom in the 1960s and 1970s is experiencing the continents largest condo boom in the 2000s and 2010s.

Why did apartment buildings become so popular in Canadian cities? University of Toronto Professor Paul Hess argues that it was more lucrative to build apartments. Subdivision developers would have to build local streets, public infrastructure and sidewalks according to strict rules and regulation. But suburban apartment developers were not required to install such amenities. Apartment buildings also generated a lot more tax revenue per hectare than single-family homes.

RevenueSeveral years ago I examined the town of Cote Saint-Luc on the island of Montreal and found that apartment buildings brought in four times as much revenue per hectare than single family homes (see chart). Therefore, the suburban apartment became an attractive alternative for speculative builders and municipalities desperately looking to increase their taxes revenues and subsides the amenities and quality of life of the single family homes.

However, this isn’t the entire story. Apartments are just as lucrative in the US as Canada, but the US did not experience the same kind of suburban apartment boom. This is because the structure of the development industry and the planning cultures in Canada was much more favourable to high-rise living. Greg Stuttor writes, the US had more diverse range of companies in the development industry who focused mostly on suburban housing. Meanwhile, Canadian markets, such as Toronto’s, were dominated by half a dozen large companies that built apartment blocks for both the private and public sectors. Canadian developers also operated under a planning regime that was more influenced by the British vision of towers in the park. Graeme Stewart does an excellent job documenting the relationship and influence of British expats on Toronto’s post-war suburban development in his article on The Suburban Tower And Toronto’s First Mass Housing Boom.

The legacy of the first generation of builders and planners remains with us. The Canadian landscape, from Quebec to Winnipeg has been shaped by their ideas and choices. The pattern continues today. Instead of rental apartments Canadian cities have been rapidly building condominiums in the suburbs, guaranteeing that Canadian cities will continue to lead North America in elevator suburbs.


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.

Politics and Sidewalks in Canada

Photo by Loozrboy

During the election Nate Silver tweeted

“Heuristic: if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.”

The presence of sidewalks is also a pretty good indicator of how someone will vote in Canada. The trend can be seen clearly in the graph below with the PC/Reform/C.A. getting more of the  suburban (i.e. no sidewalk) vote and the NDP more of the urban  (i.e. sidewalk) vote. This trend has clearly been growing since the 1970s.

Source: Walks, Alan (2007) “The boundaries of suburban discontent? Urban definitions and neighbourhood political effects” The Canadian Geographer, vol 51. No. 2

The divide was also pretty stark in the last Toronto municipal election between the older and newer neighbourhoods:

Map by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

Why the divergence? Bill Lindeke at Streets.MN provides two explanations about why sidewalks make a good political litmus test. First, that individuals tend to sort themselves so they live closer to like minded people; with people on the political left moving into older neighbourhoods and those on the political right moving into newer neighbourhoods.

The second, and more controversial explanation is that sidewalks and denser urban environments actually change the way people think. As Lindeke muses,

Might sidewalks foster tolerance? Do they actually have an effect on people, changing how they think about their neighbors?…Does walking around one’s neighborhod increase tolerance? Does walking your dog make you more likely to talk to, and try to empathize with, your neighbors? Does having a corner coffee shop foster social capital?

Personally, I  feel it has more to do with life cycles, demographics, and housing type than sidewalks. Household tenuredwelling type, and commuting behaviour are very different in older and newer parts of the city, and families and income rise as you move away from the city centre. These factors surely explain a significant amount of the divergence.

Clearly there is some link between built form and political values. How much do you think your politics are a product of the neighbourhood you live in?

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.

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.