This blog post was originally published under the same name in the Toronto Star on Saturday August 16th, 2014. Click here to go to the original article.
As one columnist recently put it, the suburbs can be a “snooze fest” for the younger generation. Echo boomers, loosely defined as those between the ages of 16 and 34 and the fastest-growing demographic in Toronto, are choosing urban over suburban and are forgoing a driver’s licence in favour of walking, cycling and transit. Our data confirms this trend in Toronto.
There are many differing reasons why, including the high cost of driving, greater awareness of environmental impacts, a rejection of the quality of life, costs and sacrifices that accompany a long commute, and importantly, it is increasingly possible to live without a car.
To do so, they are also choosing to live in neighbourhoods different from the ones in which they were raised. They want the food, culture, people, job choice and activities that come with a neighbourhood that thrives on diversity. And they want to be in active places where a lot is happening just steps from home.
Given that the downtown is growing at four times the rate of the rest of the city, it is fair to say that this demographic is driving a gravitational shift in economic growth. Large employers like Coke and Google are moving to the core as they clamour to be near this future workforce.
Part of the appeal of the downtown is that it represents our most mature “complete community,” defined in our official plan as places where it is possible to live and work, and/or undertake the activities of daily life within walking distance or a short transit ride from home. Some would argue that downtown is in fact creaking under the strain. I don’t disagree, and this is where a “complete community” lens becomes useful in assessing how to plan moving forward.
While there are ways that the downtown needs to become more complete (more park space!), a clear opportunity for our city are those places where there is primarily one use (residential), catering to one housing type (single family homeowners) that have been designed for residents to move around in one way (driving).
Here is why.
Complete communities provide options for getting around both your neighbourhood and the city. You don’t need to drive or even own a car in a complete community, and it is possible to have a high quality of life without one. The downtown currently bears this out: 41 per cent of downtown residents are likely to walk or cycle to work while 34 per cent take transit.
In contrast to more contemporary suburbs, which have been designed for getting around in a car, complete communities cater to pedestrians and are supported by exceptional public transit. They are great places to walk and cycle, not just for recreation but as a form of transportation. In these communities, you can walk to do your groceries, go to school, get your hair cut or undertake everyday tasks. Transit is frequent and abundant for longer trips. They are ideal places for car share services, since using a car is one of a handful of movement options.
Why do these options work in complete communities, but not elsewhere? Complete communities are planned and designed with a mix of uses, combined or in proximity. At higher densities that make local retail and services viable, the “nearness” of many uses makes walking pleasant, and makes it more likely that you will know your neighbours. Pedestrians are expected and they are treated as a priority.
Complete communities also provide a range of housing options that accommodate a range of incomes and household types for all stages of life. For example, in the downtown, 40 per cent of condos are rented, whereas 60 per cent are owner occupied. There is almost an even split between condos and non-condos (houses, co-ops and rental apartments). This housing variety allows aging in place.
This is the emerging opportunity of infill development in our suburbs: to add more housing types to increase choice. The Humbertown development in Etobicoke will add a significant pedestrian destination with shops and public spaces for the surrounding suburbs, while also adding seniors housing and a diversity of new unit types in an area that can support growth. Regent Park, the West Don Lands and East Bayfront are more urban examples that will also deliver on the quality of life promise of walkable neighbourhoods.
By planning the city so that we can choose and organize our lives to travel less, we can offer an alternative to long commutes. Some will continue to choose the long commute because it is linked to a larger house on a larger lot, or because a house is preferred to a condo or to be in a desired community.
But by seeking to build complete communities, we ensure that we are increasing choice and not consigning another generation of Torontonians to the long commutes we have all come to abhor.