The Recession has Changed the Geography of Growth


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.


Who Lives Where?

I’ve always been interested in how researchers sort and label neighbourhoods. That is why the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre report, Eight Canadian Metropolitan Areas: Who Lived Where in 2006?, caught my eye. The report uses statistical analysis to pin down what kind of common neighbourhood “types” exist in Canadian cities.

Looking at the maps below, it’s obvious that the authors found cities that are far more complex than the urban/suburban view of cities would suggest.


The authors identified six broad neighbourhood typologies in Canadian cities:

  • Older Working Class, generally found in the inner suburbs;
  • Urban/Suburban Homeowner, located in stable residential areas constructed after 1945;
  • Old City Establishment, situated in older high-income, inner city areas associated with gentrification;
  • Young, Single, & Mobile Renters, which are found downtown;
  • Disadvantaged Groups, exhibit the most complex and diverse clusters around city regions; and
  • Family Ethnoburbs, which are found in the suburbs of only four of the cities studied.

The researchers use these typologies to highlight the complexity of social geography in Canadian cities.  A scan of the maps reveals quickly that the social geography of Canada’s largest cities is more complex than that of its smaller cities.

For example, the city regions that are attracting the countries  most immigrants, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary,  also have a unique neighbourhood typology called the “Family Ethnoburbs.” The Ethnoburbs are located in newer neighbourhoods on the cities edges.  The existence of this typology is a powerful indicator urban growth over the last two decades has become critical for our big cities to attract global talent and the importance of new housing to accommodate growth and attract immigrants.

What I find most interesting is that these maps are not static. Twenty-five years ago we would not have had Family Ethnoburbs, or an identifiable group of Young, Single, Mobile renters located downtown.

It will interesting to see how this social map of Canadian cities will change over the next twenty-five years. These categories are very much a product of Canadian cities today (do American cities have similar ethnoburbs?). The social structure and population of our cities is constantly changing, so these maps provide an interesting perspective of our complex and always changing city regions.

Take a look at the full report here.



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?

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?

What I’m Reading: Weathering the Present and Future

There is a lot of great stuff being written every day.  I can’t blog about it all. But I do want to highlight some themes that emerged from this week and then provide a brief summary below. This week’s theme:

Weathering the Present and the Future

Last week the self stylized capital of the world, New York, was hit by Hurricane Sandy. National Geographic discussed why New York City is one of the worst places for a Hurricane to hit. Not only is it the densest place in North America, but its tall buildings and bridges are vulnerable to high winds, there is a lot of underground infrastructure, and the New York Bight (a “bight” is a curve or bend on an open shoreline) traps millions of gallons of water. So:

When all of this water slammed into New York’s Bight, the water got trapped where the legs of the L form. With nowhere to go, water then spilled onto the land… Waves from this excess water piled up and formed storm surges of dangerous height.

Scientific America had some excellent reporting on the storm and its aftermath. There were the small issues, like the United Nations being damaged by flooding and a storm related fire, and more serious issues, such as the need to evacuate a major hospital.  Yet, the main theme emerged was how we are going to protect cities and infrastructure from similar weather events in the future?

Matthew Yglesias, writing for Slate, offered some suggestions, proposing a system of dams and flood control devices in New York that the Dutch have pioneered. Meanwhile, shoreline activists in New Jersey argue the state really only has three ways to protect the its shore from extreme weather when it rebuilds:

build more jetties and seawalls, keep beaches replenished and relocate homes and businesses.

Underlying these discussion about Sandy is the acceptance that events like this will be more common in the future as we begin to feel the effects of climate change.

For example, Scientific America reports how:

Once rare, flooding is now so menacing that the Guna have agreed to abandon ancestral lands for an area within their semi-autonomous territory on the east coast of the mainland.

The City of Toronto meanwhile received a report this week about how climate is expected to change by 2040. Torontoist summerized the following predictions from the report:

  • We will have 26 fewer snow days per year, 9 fewer in December.
  • There will be more rain and less snow in winter; overall precipitation will increase slightly.
  • The average annual temperatures will increase by 4.4 degrees.

Finally, Asian cities are really worried about future big storms:

“These cities are undergoing very rapid expansion and they are not only exposed to sea-level rise, they are also exposed to tropical cyclones,”

To summarize, I read this week that Sandy was bad, New York is vulnerable, climate change will make flooding more common in coastal cities, and there are no easy solutions.

What I’m Reading: Downtowns Booming

Photo by simon.carr

There is a lot of great stuff being written every day.  I can’t blog about it all. But I do want to highlight some themes that emerged from this week and then provide a brief summary below. This week’s theme:


Downtowns rental markets are growing in the US. The IndyStar and Pittsburgh Post Gazette both wrote this week about the high demand in rental construction:

In Indianapolis:

“The reality is….. we’ve never seen (so much new development) concentrated in a small market like Downtown before. Never had this many units at once,” said George Tikijian of Tikijian Associates apartment brokerage. “But Downtown is very popular. I do think they will be absorbed.”

In Pittsburgh:

“From working with developers and folks from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, there’s a clear demand and need for more housing Downtown,” he said.
“At this point, we can’t build it fast enough.”

Meanwhile here in Toronto, the Star is doing a great series focused on Density and Toronto. Toronto is coming to the end of an intense decade long condominium boom, yet the applications for taller new building keep on coming. In the last month three 80-85 storey and two 70 storey condominium towers were announced. The Star investigates the causes and discovers:

“It’s a trend fuelled in part by large swaths of the population wanting to live downtown.
‘People are willing to pay for luxury apartments in the urban centre in a way they weren’t a few years ago,'” .

Personally, I fear it is connected to Barclays Skyscarper Index study which showed “an unhealthy correlation between construction of the next world’s tallest building and an impending financial crisis: New York 1930; Chicago 1974; Kuala Lumpur 1997 and Dubai 2010.” But the Star did not take that line of investigation.

Back to the theme, having more people moving downtown is great, whether its here in Toronto or in Pittsburgh.  However, there are challenges in creating a high quality of life for downtown residents. Luckily the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City posted an excellent interview with Jeff Speck, author of the Walkable City, who highlights the economic, health, and environmental benefits for residents by creating walkable downtowns.  A great article, please do read it.

To summarize, downtown living is popular, but effort is required to ensure that with growth there must also be an improvement in quality of life.

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.


What I’m Reading: History and the City

There is a lot of great stuff being written every day.  I can’t blog about it all. But I do want to highlight some themes that emerged from this week and then provide a brief summary below. This week’s theme:

History and the City

From Horse Power to Horsepower is an article I stumbled upon. Its an engaging look into urban life in the pre-automobile age. The article is a trove of stats. For example, almost 3 billion flies hatched per in horse manure in the US in 1900, or in 1880 New York City carted 15,000 dead horses from the street everyday.  I highly recommend you give it a read. It will cure any nostalgia you might have about living in a 19th century city.

The Global Urbanist calls for looking into the past for lessons on urban reform.  argues that the means and ends of 20th century reforms resemble are own. For example, tactical urbanist has much in common with the early 20th century playground movement who similarly attempted to convert under utilized space for neighbourhood needs. Take a look and discover what we have in common with reforms a 100 years ago.

Lastly, an article on Denver’s LoDo provides a great example of how historic preservation can be used to create a sense of place and generate real estate value and economic growth. LoDo (Lower Downtown) went from being systematically demolished for parking in the 1980s to one of the most popular and successful urban neighborhoods in the Rocky Mountain region.

So to sum it up, this week I learned the past was harsh, has much to teach us, and left us a flexible and valuable legacy.

Planners, Parking Lots, and Condos

Inspired by the BlogTO post “That time when Toronto was a city of parking lots” I wanted to look into parking in Toronto. I started by looking at creating my own gallery juxtaposing the images from BlogTO’s post to screen shots I took with AirPano.

When I looked at these photos, the parking lots of the 60s and 70s on the left and the same areas in 2011 on the right, I was shocked. What could create such a transformation? As I dug a little deeper I found these six images told the story of two very different planning policies.

I discovered those parking lots, pictured on the left, were part of a deliberate City policy to focus parking on the edges of downtown. The 1959 Department of Planning report, A Changing City, explains:

The plan for downtown will aim to keep auto traffic within the core at a minimum. If parking facilities are located around the edges of downtown, most daily traffic need use only the main roads around the centre. These parking areas or garages will be but a short walk from anyone’s downtown destination

In short, tearing down buildings and replacing them with parking lots were explicitly encouraged at the edges of downtown!

The redevelopment of these neighbourhoods since the 1990s is also a direct outcome of a City policy to revitalize the neighbourhoods on the edge of downtown. The Kings Regeneration, as the policy was called, focused on revitalizing and drawing investment back into those neighbourhoods devastated in the 1950s and 1960s.

The main components of the policy was to remove traditional land use restrictions and to encourage reinvestment and new housing opportunities. Quickly new businesses moved in. Media, technology, architecture, fashion and entertainment clubs, leading to the birth of the Entertainment District. Not long afterward, these two neighbourhoods became the epicentre of the development boom in the 2000s.  In ten years, the population of the downtown neighbourhood that contained the Kings increased by 133% to over 40,000 residents.

I wanted to post those six images because I felt they could tell many stories. When I look at them I saw a story about how two policies were able to transform two pockets of Toronto. What stories do those images tell you?