9 November 2017

Eight Lessons from Toronto

Planning expert, Jennifer Keesmaat shows how Toronto is resolving its affordability versus liveability dilemma to point the way forward for Auckland.


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Despite the Economist’s vote of confidence for Auckland as the Eighth Most Liveable City in the World for 2017, we who live here know city planners must do better.

Frustration with our infrastructure, traffic and affordability problems are mounting. Unfortunately, lists like this aren’t that helpful. The further word spreads of our attractiveness, the more popular we are, and the worse it gets. Catch 22.

The good news is, we’re not alone. Other great cities face exactly the same challenges.

Last month Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner from the city of Toronto breezed into Auckland to address issues that come with being recognised as one of the world’s most liveable cities. Toronto has much to share with Auckland. We both struggle with rapid population growth, urban redevelopment and renewal, traffic problems, housing affordability and community change. But Toronto has advanced much further along the road to overcome many of these issues.

As keynote speaker at the RMLA conference, Jennifer shared some poignant lessons on how Auckland could do the same so the city remains accessible, affordable, and more liveable - not just for tourists and the rich – but everyone.

“There are a tremendous number of similarities in the way we’re changing,” she says.

Just as Auckland is growing, Toronto is increasing by 100,000 annually. Auckland was 9 cities before the super-city - Toronto also amalgamated 7 cities. It now has 250,000 people living downtown. Toronto also suffers from all the constraints that come with this growth yet both cities are committed to using that growth to transform into something better.

Toronto, left, and Auckland, right.

Toronto, left, and Auckland, right.

For the past 30 years, just like Auckland, Toronto has sprawled outward. Ten years ago, the Canadian Government brought in a green belt plan to protect its agricultural land. The aim was to drive growth into existing built-up areas.  As a result of planning policy, Toronto has attracted huge growth into most urban areas with decline in suburban growth.

In the last fifteen years, Toronto has embraced new kinds of built forms to ensure a smaller environmental footprint and to build a stronger sense of community. The skyline is becoming denser.

“You don’t get growth on a significant scale unless you limit what’s happening on the edges. You can’t grow up and out at the same time.”

Now, 90% of the growth in Toronto is higher density housing rather than single family homes and there’s very little suburban sprawl. Between high density downtown and low-density suburbs – Toronto is bridging the gap with mid-rise density. “All sorts of benefits come with this level of density.”

"It’s about creating critical mass" explains Jennifer.

“You cannot grow up and out and offer a high quality of life. If you add more people and cars, your environmental footprint will only get larger. Your quality of life will decline as the long commute becomes part of everyday life. And it’s expensive to drive everywhere as opposed to cycling and walking.”

Higher density living.

Higher density living.

Research has shown that across the city – even in suburban areas – people in Toronto want complete communities. “They want the option to do a whole variety of things within walking distance of home.”

High densities enable a sophisticated network that lets you get anywhere on public transport. Otherwise you can’t get the frequency of service or cost efficiencies to be able to provide that consistent service which makes public transport a true option. By intensifying the city, Toronto is driving growth to the main traffic corridors and to places where they already have infrastructure.

“We want to get those densities to a point where transit (public transport) becomes a viable alternative.”

Catering to young people is also essential. Without them, cities go into decline. “Young people are no longer getting licences by the time they are 16. They want to walk and bike to work. Toronto is changing the city for walking, cycling, and living close to where people work. It’s fabulous from a sustainability perspective but also from a quality of life and affordability perspective because these people don’t need to own a car, pay for parking, insurance, or gas” says Jennifer.

So, this is what Toronto is doing:

1. Transforming the suburbs to become walk-able linear neighbourhoods with new levels of density.
Toronto is urbanising its avenues and wide arterial roads by building mid-rise linear neighbourhoods with walk-able environments and wide cycle paths right up against housing and retail. These walk-able communities all connect to new subway stations.

2. Ditching cars.
Parking requirements are being forgiven because people who live here won’t need cars. You can cycle to work or connect to the city on the city’s broader network of Light Rail.

3. Adding gentle density and new housing types in the suburbs
This gives everyone – all sorts of different people - choices so they can live in the same community at different stages of their lifespan. The new communities mix up community housing and housing for the elderly. Parking has been put underground and all buildings require green roofs.

4. Design precinct plans that create true mixed-use communities with a high quality of life.
In a CBD area by the waterfront, they’ve protected the heritage character, required 20% of all units to be affordable. They’ve mixed up student housing, university uses, housing for the indigenous community, first home buyers and private market housing.

5. Making vertical neighbourhoods a first choice for families.
Parents can drop children off in the day care in the communities then walk 5 minutes to work. Parents no longer must live out in the suburbs to find affordable homes and compromising their families by sitting in a car 45 minutes each way.

6. Creating areas where pedestrians belong and feel comfortable.
Art installations within these pedestrian realms are in the heart of the community, starting at the corner of public transport stations and ending at community centres, schools, and pools etc.

7. Adding private market buildings adjacent to affordable buildings.
In exchange for density, developers must give the Council money to revitalise the existing affordable housing. It’s been a win/win.

8. Investing in the public realm by creating quality spaces for public life.
Orphaned spaces alongside infrastructure like super highways have been reclaimed by turning them into walkways that link neighbourhoods. They’re investing in parks and they’ve bumped up abandoned industrial places with public amenities adding in new office and residential uses. They think about infrastructure in multiple ways, turning it into art. By investing public money they’re attracting private investment and working out ways to create extra hard-working infrastructure – functional facilities that double as artworks. 

The hook on which this whole vision hangs is in the public transport network plan. Jennifer asserts intensification and growth in public transport is inseparable. “You have to add the density where you’re putting the transport. Transit (public transport) riders should be able to get anywhere on one transit line, using one transfer. The idea is you can travel anywhere in an L-shape, if you have the right network.

Auckland's transport options need to grow and upgrade with the city.

Auckland's transport options need to grow and upgrade with the city.

It’s also about changing the conversation……to transform the city, we need to change our minds. We must think differently. We need to move people not cars. That’s another lesson for the Council’s PR machine. People are talking and listening in all sorts of ways. Toronto has embraced a whole raft of new initiatives to transform the discourse.

Ultimately, says Jennifer, affordability is a choice. Liveability and affordability are fundamentally joined. The risk is that the city gets better in an exclusive, more expensive way. “If we’re truly committed to be an inclusive city, we will choose cities that are affordable and liveable for all.”

Auckland too has that choice.

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