After decades of being in downtown’s shadow, Toronto’s suburbs are finally getting their time in the sun. When many people talk about how Toronto is changing, we often focus on new skyscrapers going up downtown and ignore the transformations taking place in our suburbs – where most of us actually live.
If the recent Chief Planner’s Roundtable at Toronto City Hall is any indication, that’s about to change. The Roundtable centred on how the suburbs represent some of our region’s greatest challenges and how they are also places of amazing opportunities to transform the Greater Toronto Area into one of the world’s greenest, healthiest and most economically competitive regions.
The discussion closely aligned with our recent report, The High Cost of Sprawl: Why Building More Sustainable Communities Will Save Us Time and Money. At the Roundtable, some of the best minds in planning agreed we need to invest in new transit to get people out of cars, promote sustainable neighbourhood development that saves green space to reduce tax bills, and foster the development of complete communities – places where we can live, work, shop and play all within a short walk, reducing congestion across the region.
In the twentieth century, the evolution of the city and surrounding suburbs saw planners repeatedly try to tie a protected green belt around the expanding city. Poor development controls and the explosion of car-dependent neighbourhoods meant the region expanded beyond each attempt. Only recently have provincial governments representing all major political parties put in place rules, such as the Places to Grow and the Greenbelt Act, that actually have a chance of protecting our valuable wilderness and countryside for future generations while helping us shape our neighbourhoods into the types of communities most of us say we want to live in.
If we are going to avoid repeating mistakes, we need to learn from the past. An insight from John van Nostrand (the Roundtable’s first speaker and founding partner of planningAlliance) is essential to unlocking the potential of the suburbs. He explains that those suburbs which were planned to never change are at the heart many of our social, economic and environmental problems today. As outlined in our report, the development of residential-only communities has forced residents to drive everywhere, surrounded them with car-oriented commercial strips that are dangerous for pedestrians, produce few local job opportunities, worsen air quality and increase economy-killing gridlock.
As our report shows, the solutions to these challenges don’t have to be drastic, or costly. Governments can start by loosening their grip on zoning controls and allow small businesses and employers to establish locations in what are now primarily seas of car-dependent bedroom communities. Without really altering the character of our leafy suburban streets, this small step would enable our neighbourhoods to adapt and evolve gently into complete communities. It would encourage new public and private investments on our busy streets, making them more pleasant for drivers and non-drivers alike.
We’ve been fortunate in the Greater Golden Horseshoe that governments have understood the economic, environmental and social reasons for protecting our valuable wilderness and farmland, and creating a coordinated approach to growth in the region to create one of the world’s most livable urban areas. Our suburban communities deserve a high quality of life, in safe and walkable complete neighbourhoods. The way forward is to unlock the potential of our suburban areas, allow them to evolve like every other part of the city and respond to what their residents want and need their communities to be.