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Urbanizing the suburbs

The belief that the city is the wrong place to raise a family is well-cemented in Canadian culture; relocating to the suburbs upon having a child remains a common course of action for many.

However, recent Statistics Canada projections the population of Ontario may grow by an estimated 4.2 million people indicate it will be necessary for all of us to rethink Canada’s suburbs as the country’s population continues to rapidly grow. 

Toronto’s suburbs must be urbanized if we are to house future generations while mitigating the negative environmental impacts inherent to suburban living that result from car-dependant urban sprawl.

Compact, dense urban environments are a far more effective form of land use than the development patterns traditionally found in suburbs.

If you love nature, don’t live in it

Sprawl is harmful for two reasons: it requires expanding urban boundaries by pushing into nature and it increases the distance between urban areas.

The most critical solution to this is also the most obvious – growing upwards and inwards by increasing density in both urban centres and suburbs. 

The detached single-family homes typical in suburban areas result in too little urban density to support enough public transit ridership and the frequency of trips necessary to make it efficient.

This results in suburbs that are impossible to navigate without access to an automobile. 

Hamilton City Council voted against expanding its urban boundary last year, an important decision to combat urban sprawl that all suburban municipalities should consider.

While this is an exemplary first step, such decisions must be paired with policies that permit greater densities or else the housing supply, and subsequently housing affordability, may suffer.

Gray is green

Comparing the most prevalent housing types in downtown Toronto with the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) illuminates the reality that, despite the concrete grey appearance of more urbanized spaces, downtown boasts a much more environmentally friendly form of development.  

46.7% of Torontonians live in buildings with five or more storeys compared to 13.6 per cent of the GTA. Downtown Toronto has a compact-built form that encourages people to walk or bike.

This is reflected in the main mode of commute people use to go to work. 48 per cent of Torontonians either take public transit, walk, or bike to work compared to 16 per cent of the GTA. 

While Toronto’s downtown is doing well compared to its suburbs, the city has much room for improvement. Even now, about 50 per cent of Torontonians get to work via a car, truck or van.

Toronto has been working to address this and shift away from car dependency. In 2021, Toronto removed parking minimums for residential developments.

Since then, further investments have been made in transit and cycling infrastructure. 

Transit-oriented communities

Some exciting changes are coming to the Greater Toronto Area.

The most exciting of these is more transit-oriented communities. As transit-oriented community goals have been written into policy at both the provincial and municipal levels, subway and GO stations across the GTA will begin seeing intensification.

After all, transit is an expensive investment. It would be wasteful to not have density around it. 

Some of the big transit projects coming up include the GO Expansion, Eglinton LRT, Ontario Line, Finch LRT, and Yonge Expansion.

Of these, the GO Expansion is particularly exciting. Costing only a fraction of the other projects, the GO Expansion will upgrade 42 stations, add new tracks and electrify some GO rail networks.

This project will increase regional connectivity and be a catalyst of change across the region. 

Master planning for communities as destinations

Urbanizing the suburbs does not mean simply increasing densities, but planning for the right mix of uses and a vibrant public realm.

Suburbs must become destinations for people to travel to, rather than places that empty out after 9 a.m.

Instead of people driving to city centres for culture and entertainment, suburbs can also become thriving communities and destinations in their own right. 

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