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.


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.

Can we expect everyone to walk to the grocery store?

There are many things in Naomi Lakritz’s article on walkability in the Calgary Herald that I disagree with, but it was her quote “We can’t have a society where everyone walks to the grocery store.” that bothered me the most. The reason? It fails to acknowledge that we live in a society where not everyone can drive to the grocery store. Furthermore, the statement implies that because not everyone is going to walk to a grocery store we shouldn’t bother paying attention to the many things that could improve walkability and city streets. As the Toronto Star declared last year “Walking to the Grocery Store Shouldn’t be an Extreme Sport

The reality is that 33 percent of Canadians do not even have a driver’s license. That’s over 11,000,000 people. Furthermore many people who do have a license may not own a car or have regular access to one. And this number of non-drivers is going to get bigger. Much bigger.

Fewer young people are driving, and the demographic that is most likely to live without a car, single-person households, is the fastest growing in Canada.  Should we expect that these people will never walk to the store and buy milk cartons, glass jars, cans, ice cream or other frozen food, as Lakritz would have us believe?

It is articles like Lakritz’s that remind me why I feel compelled to write about walkability. There is a general belief that everyone everywhere has access to a vehicle. This is not true. The result is we have built most neighbourhoods since the 1950s to exclude those who do not drive. Seniors and young people deserve to be a part of the city and move around it freely and safely even if they have lost or have not yet earned the right to drive. People who work and have families should not need to feel compelled to buy a car.

For those of us who advocate for more walkable cities, it is not about building a society where everyone must walk to the grocery store, it is about building a society where everyone has the choice to walk to the grocery store.

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.

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?

Better Streets – Knox Street, Dallas

Knox Street Before Transformation. Photo by Team Better Block

In September, the Dallas Team Better Block re-engineered a three block stretch of  Knox Street for four days. The project successfully calmed traffic, create more opportunities for pedestrians to safely cross, and made a historic business district into a more comfortable and vibrant place. How?

The demonstration project involved converting:

the four lane auto-dominated street into a two lane complete street. Parking was changed from dangerous 90 degree head-in to 45 degree angle, a center turn lane made it easier to turn and reduced lane widths from 12 feet to 10 feet and improved traffic calming. A dedicated two-way cycle track further reduced the width of the street, making it easier for pedestrians to cross.

The project on Knox Street was the first demonstration of a Complete Street in Dallas. Dallas launched a Complete Streets Initiative in June 2011, with the goal of instituting a new approach to designing and building streets. They are planning a least a dozen more demonstrations.

Knox after Transformation. Photo by Team Better Block

What I like most about the experiment was the Team Better Block not only re-engineered the street, they created economic activity by converted a vacant gas station to a market and outdoor beer garden, and created new ‘green’ space through the incorporation of parklets and additional public seating.

Parklette. Photo by Team Better Block

A great example of how we can experiment with streets. Not every project needs to cost millions.  Experimentation and flexibility are the key building better streets.

Infographic: Health and Transportation

I enjoy a good infographic and NewPublicHealth has created an excellent one. As NewPublicHealth explains the infographic:

tells a visual story on the role of transportation in the health of our communities.

Some Highlights:

  • Public transit users walk an average of 19 minutes getting to and from public transportation.
  • Countries with lower rates of obesity tend to have higher rates of commuters who walk or bike to work.
  • The risk of obesity increases 6% with every additional mile spent in the car, and decreases 5% with every kilometer walked.
  • Lengthy commutes cost $100 billion each year in excess fuel costs and lost productivity.
  • More than 30,000 people died in car wrecks in 2010.
  • Strong seatbelt and child safety laws resulted in a 25% decrease in car accident deaths since 2005.

Continue reading below to see the full size infographic

Continue reading

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.

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.