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A roadmap to effective transit-oriented communities

The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) has been among the fastest-growing metropolitan regi...

IMAGE: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is one of North America's fastest-growing urban regions. (Google Maps)

The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is one of North America’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. (Google Maps)

The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) has been among the fastest-growing metropolitan regions in North America, which is creating challenges for efforts to boost housing supply, reduce congestion, bolster economic development and reduce environmental impact.

Placing a greater emphasis on the connection between infrastructure and land use through the development of transit-oriented communities is seen as an opportunity to deal with these issues.

Transit-oriented communities are higher-density, mixed-use developments that are connected, next to, or within a short walk of public transit stations and stops.

They’re designed to increase transit ridership and reduce traffic congestion, create housing supply and jobs with access to transit, build complete communities based on good planning principles, and provide positive value capture for governments to maximize transit investment while reducing taxpayer burden.

$60B commitment to transit improvements

More than $60 billion of federal, provincial and municipal funding has been committed to expanding service on the regional rail system, new and expanded subways and light rail lines, and enhanced bus services in the GTHA as part of this. Another $145 billion is being spent on other infrastructure.

Urban Land Institute Toronto and the Future of Infrastructure Group collaborated to organize workshops and create a report offering insights on unlocking the potential of transit-oriented communities. The Future of Infrastructure Group brings infrastructure companies together to provide a collaborative voice to governments across Canada.

This working group also received a grant from the Curtis Infrastructure Initiative, which was launched by ULI Americas in November 2020 to identify and promote infrastructure solutions that make cities more equitable and resilient and enhance long-term community value.

A Jan. 13 webinar to share findings from the Getting To Transit Oriented Communities: Experience in Canada report attracted more than 350 registrants. Rowan Mills, vice-president of infrastructure advisory for Colliers Project Leaders, provided an overview and then moderated a panel of four fellow working group leads.

Collaboration is crucial

“We’d really like to see investment in transit infrastructure lead to really complete communities being built, and how that can catalyze that growth,” said Mills.

“There is just massive growth and opportunity for revitalization and renewal of what communities want to be and where they want to go and, as we see broader and broader parts of the GTA start to get connected to higher order transit opportunities, to rethink some of the things that have happened traditionally.”

The report identified several items that need to be addressed as part of this.

“We found that municipal governments, provincial agencies, provincial governments and regional authorities need to really come together and develop a shared vision, and that shared vision can actually lead to efficiency and delivery,” said Mills.

“Going along with that, we found that clear governance and dedicated resources were required by each of those groups coming together. We found often that while one party could be very well-resourced, other parties were unable to keep up in the conversation, which leads to timing issues.”

“No one party acting alone can create a transit-oriented community,” said Greenberg Consultants Inc. principal Ken Greenberg. “It takes extraordinary partnerships and collaboration among the private sector, the transportation authority, the city and the municipality.”

Flexibility needed in approvals processes

Mills would like to see approvals processes have a degree of flexibility and adaptability to account for changes so developers, municipalities and communities can shift and change their minds without huge cost impacts.

The integration of transit stations into communities is very important. These sites enable more people to get on transit more easily and help build complete communities where people want to live, work and spend their time.

“Historically, what happened was the transit went in and then all of the development and density happened, and then very quickly we tried to retrofit those communities and shoehorn in all of the civic spaces that turn a development into a community,” said University of Toronto professor Matti Siemiatycki.

“I think what’s happening in this region now is a much more strategic rethink about how you accelerate the community features and bring them forward to the beginning so that people can see themselves in those communities earlier on.”

Randy Pettigrew is the senior vice-president of land development for The Remington Group, an active developer in Markham, the Greater Toronto Area’s fourth-largest municipality with a population of about 330,000.

The area around Markham’s Unionville GO Transit station is largely undeveloped and offers 700 acres of development land and 300 acres of greenways and parks. That land is owned by Metrolinx, the City of Markham, three main developers and a YMCA.

“What I want to see is that someone’s decision to live in those buildings, around a transit station, is not because they want to commute,” said Pettigrew, “it’s because there’s something else in that community that is attracting them to want to live there.

“And, it just so happens that there’s a great transit system that they can get on and go to Mississauga, Brampton and the City of Toronto.”

Reducing traffic is a priority

Suburban locations have traditionally been planned around the car, with transit stations surrounded by surface parking. The working group believes stations need to be better integrated with communities to make it easier and safer for people to walk or cycle.

Requirements also need to be updated to reduce minimum parking requirements in new buildings to encourage people to take transit and walk.

“Municipalities now have to start changing standards and being a little bit more flexible and understanding that city-building is not a static process,” said Pettigrew. “There’s a lot of organic growth in developing these communities that you will have to allow to happen.”

Siemiatycki said traffic on some local highways has increased while public transit ridership has dropped significantly during the pandemic.

“We are really in a moment of flux and a moment of risk, a risk that we will end up with a car-based recovery and a recovery that is based around land-use patterns that we know have caused challenges in the past around eating into farmland.”

Brampton and Markham

Brampton, a rapidly growing city of approximately 650,000 people located northwest of Toronto, pioneered a “living plan” so developers could see how the area around a transit station was coming together in order to build a more coordinated experience.

City of Brampton urban design manager Yvonne Yeung said representatives from recreation, culture, library, economic development, public health, transportation and transit organizations share information so everyone can use a common platform to think ahead. This information is shared with developers and has helped speed up the process for delivering building permits, according to Yeung.

“What we hear is that they (developers) find this enormously beneficial to them because it provides certainty. It helps them to understand certain things that they can leverage on, and they can feel the temperature of the room because those are decision-makers that are constantly trying to innovate and drive better change.”

The timing of approvals can often make or break a development, Pettigrew noted. Remington has benefitted from having a shared vision with City of Markham officials.

“We’ve had a very cooperative approach from staff to council to even the people who live in the area,” Pettigrew said. “I’m very sensitive to people who were there first, because we are coming in and developing in a community that was there long before we started this.”

Affordable housing

The longer it takes to get a condominium approved and built, the more money it costs and the more expensive the units are to sell, said Pettigrew. He emphasized the need to streamline approvals to get product on the market quicker to move supply closer to demand, which he said would help moderate housing prices.

“In my view, transit-oriented communities, in and of themselves, will not provide affordable housing,” said Siemiatycki.

“This will not happen naturally. This has to be explicitly and intentionally planned for, and this is where that collaboration that everyone has been talking about is going to be so important.”

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