Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Growth in Medium-Sized Cities

This week TVO's The Agenda is "On The Road" visiting Barrie, Ontario. Last night on the program a lot of the conservation surrounded the issues of growth Barrie has experienced. Since 1961 Barrie has added over 100000 people to go from 21000 to over 136000. This accelerated particularly in the 1990s. Barrie, unsurprisingly, has experienced quite a bit of growing pains. Making sure services keep up with needs, building up infrastructure and helping to transform small cities into medium-sized ones. Barrie is not unique in Ontario. Oshawa, Ajax, Pickering, Markham, Vaughan, and Cambridge are just a few examples of small cities that have grown into medium sized (100000+ people) cities in recent decades.

While watching The Agenda last night I was impressed to hear Barrie's mayor Jeff Lehman talking in a way that suggested that roads, highways and sprawl are not the answer the Barrie's problems. As he stated, more complete neighbourhoods with services provided at a community level is a better solution. I do not know his entire platform, but his comments during the program suggested that he is trying to guide Barrie's small town roots towards its new urban realities.

Barrie's difficult transition is mirrored in many other communities. A town simply cannot quintuple in size without major difficulties. Sadly, many of these towns doubled down on the suburban sprawl style of development. Their modest urban elements have been swamped by detached single-family homes. Barrie has the good fortune of being a long-established regional centre and urban, others lack a true urban core to build around.

Sprawl is not sustainable economically, financially, or environmentally. It's not an efficient use of land and there is growing evidence for the negative impact on our health and social fabric. One of the things I thought of while watching the discussion on Barrie is if you knew a town was going to grow to quintuple in size, or transform from a small city to a medium-sized one, how would you plan for it? It's not an idle question. Cities such as Markham are preparing to grow to that point. Pickering and Barrie are expected to grow from their current numbers to each around 200000 by 2031. My hometown of Brampton is expected to grow from the current population of around 500000 to 725000. Despite current economic hardships the cities in the GTA are still growing, and in some cases quite rapidly.

The pressure to rapidly grow leads to cities adding fresh stretches of hundreds of houses in subdivisions. This is antithetical to incremental growth that is more integrated into the community that allows more time for services to catch up. Markham stands out in the GTA for being one of the few areas trying to constrain sprawl. As far as I am aware Markham is having mixed results. Barrie's mayor mentioned some basic plans, including that an area for new development will be using a grid instead of twisting cul-de-sacs, which seems like a basic fix that cities should adopt.

Ultimately perhaps the most important thing that civic leaders must do is convince the citizens of these changing cities that they are in fact cities. They are no longer small towns or cities but growing urban centres. The traffic-less, transit-less, low-rise style can no longer be applied. Growth needs to be joined by intensification. Looking at other cities in Canada that have undergone such rapid expansion I think it's clear that many have made errors. These up and coming cities should learn from these errors and not continue the bad habits of the twentieth century.

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