A move away from the suburban edge in Canada
ROBERT STEUTEVILLE    JUN. 1, 2001
New designs north of the border focus on infill and sustainability. Canada saw rapid growth in new urbanist projects in the late 1990s, when more than 20 traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) began construction, primarily in greenfield locations. Markham, Ontario, was, and still is, the epicenter of new urbanist planning, but significant projects also emerged elsewhere in Ontario, in British Columbia, in Alberta, and in Quebec. A year and a half into the new century, indications are that the growth in large new urbanist neighborhoods and towns has slowed, and many designers are concentrating their efforts on smaller infill products. In Toronto, the shift is partly driven by a strong demand for new housing downtown. In British Columbia, which was booming 10 years ago, the economy has weakened, and many developers are hedging their bets. Moreover, since the Canadian system of planning is generally more receptive to smart growth ideas, New Urbanism in Canada tends to draw less attention than in the US. “Suburban densities here, even in the worst cases, are twice what they are in US suburbs on average,” says Patrick Condon who heads the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments at the University of British Columbia. Moreover, most first ring suburbs are in better shape, in part because the investment in limited access freeways has been more restrained than in the US, particularly in the Vancouver region, Condon says. Urban designer Ken Greenberg of Greenberg Consultants Inc. in Toronto, says that “the key things that were done here [in Toronto] from a policy standpoint were done before the term New Urbanism was invented.” He maintains that progressive policies of the 1970s preserved urban neighborhoods and limited office expansion, setting the stage for the “extraordinary amount of housing construction going on in downtown today.” Whether or not they are tagged with the New Urbanism label, new designs that follow the spirit of the Charter of the New Urbanism continue to be proposed in Canada. The following is a brief look at a few of them. Toronto revitalization and infill Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympic Games has added momentum to the city’s plans for a transformation of the Lake Ontario waterfront. Last year, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Task Force released a strategic master plan which proposed reconnecting the industrial waterfront properties to the city’s street grid. In the concept plan, Olympic facilities are integrated with housing, retail, and employment in a high-density, street and block environment. New urbanist design firms Urban Strategies and du Toit Allsopp Hillier were among the consultants on the plan. Central to the concept is a radical redesign of the elevated Gardiner Expressway, which today acts as a barrier between downtown and the central waterfront. The task force report suggests bringing the expressway to the street level throughout downtown, with some stretches built below grade. Among the other development priorities in the report is the creation of up 100,000 new housing units and 10 million square feet of commercial space in mixed-use neighborhoods, a waterfront walkway and new parks, improvement of public transit, and an environmental clean-up of the mouth of the Don River. The city, provincial, and federal governments have pledged $1.5 billion (Canadian) to launch the revitalization and recently announced plans for forming a permanent Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation. This entity will have a mandate to prepare a detailed development plan. In March of 2001, an interim corporation announced initial projects worth approximately $300 million, including extending streets, preparing waterfront lands for development, and increasing public transit capacity. While the precise nature of the waterfront plan is still unclear, and while the speed of development will partly depend on the success of the city’s Olympic bid, it is significant that the largest and most ambitious revitalization program in Toronto’s history is founded on new urbanist principles. “In terms of the agenda of New Urbanism there has been a major shift in land use, bringing people closer to where they work, bringing down commuting distances, and bringing buildings to the streets,” Greenberg says. Among the city’s infill neighborhood developments, the Greenwood Beach Community is often cited as one of the better examples. A redevelopment of a former racetrack, the project is located in the heart of the popular Eastern Beaches neighborhood. The northern edge of Greenwood Beach is defined by five mixed-use buildings, which extend the main street character of the busy Queen Street commercial corridor. Two additional multifamily buildings are located along Lakeshore Boulevard to the south, but the bulk of the project consists of single and semidetached houses and townhomes on narrow lots. Most homes are set back more than 20 feet from the sidewalk, but part of that area is public right of way, and trees are planted between homes and the sidewalk. Greenwood Beach’s street pattern is designed to promote primarily north-south vehicular movement, resulting in long, narrow blocks. According to Steven Wimmer, a principal with the MBTW Group, the project’s designer, this pattern is consistent with surrounding neighborhoods. Pedestrian circulation is facilitated by an east-west spine of walkways that runs through the entire neighborhood. The walkways also provide access to the newly completed public park on the western edge of Greenwood Beach. The park, one of the largest new open spaces in the city, occupies 30 acres out of the site’s total 86 acres. Three mixed- use buildings and about half the single-family homes are built, and the lakefront condominium buildings are under construction. Wimmer estimates that Greenwood Beach will be completed in three years. Vancouver region In Canada’s western provinces, Ekistics Town Planning has long been the foremost new urbanist firm, having designed the major greenfield projects Terwilligar Towne in Alberta and Auguston in British Columbia, as well as the infill community Murray’s Corner. According to principal Kent Munro, traditional development principles are increasingly accepted, though not spreading rapidly. “Eight years ago when we designed Murray’s Corner, people were laughing at us, but they no longer do that.” He adds, however, that no other western firms have committed themselves wholeheartedly to designing new urbanist neighborhoods and towns. Many design firms refer to New Urbanism more as a style than as a set of principles, he contends. One of Ekistics’ latest designs is for Sawyer’s Landing, a riverfront village planned for Pit Meadows, a municipality east of Vancouver. The plan includes a small main street commercial district linked to a waterfront green and boardwalk. The community will have around 420 dwellings, 60 of those in apartments and live/work buildings, and home-based businesses are allowed in all residences. Saywer’s Landing would redevelop an abandoned lumber yard site. Though the project and its zoning has been approved, Munro says the developer has delayed the start of construction, waiting for an upturn in the economy. On a larger scale, one of the most significant new plans to come out of British Columbia is the proposal for adding mixed-use neighborhoods to the campus of Simon Frasier University in Burnaby, within the Vancouver city limits. The university’s unique location — it sits on the top of a mountain — poses both topographical and ecological challenges. Early plan concepts featured many apartment buildings with a tenuous relation to the streets, but the final plan improves on this point. “We understand that on this site we need to build a street wall, and not towers in the park,” says Michael Geller, CEO of the Burnaby Mountain Community Corporation, a development company created and financed by Simon Frasier University. At buildout, the Burnaby Mountain Community will have approximately 4,500 homes, an elementary school, as well as a main street with apartments, retail, and offices. The proposed densities are between 20 and 60 units/acre, with buildings ranging from 3 to 10 stories. Many of these will take the form of hillside terrace housing, but no single-family homes are planned. The university has transferred part of its property to the municipality in exchange for higher densities. Energy efficient building design and advanced stormwater management are central to the goals of sustainability in the project. The city has approved the use of pervious paving, and stormwater absorption is also enhanced by biofiltration swales lining access roads. According to Geller, the water management plan became the guiding framework for the overall community plan. The Burnaby Mountain Community design charrette was led by Hotson Bakker Architects, who will also create architectural guidelines for the project. The university and the city have approved the plan, which is now in the platting stage. Geller expects the project to break ground later this summer and building construction to begin in the spring of 2002. Sustainability is also the watchword for the East Clayton Neighborhood Concept Plan, which is the result of a partnership between the City of Surrey and the University of British Columbia’s James Taylor Chair. To guide the development of this 460-acre model community, the City Council adopted a set of principles that reflect core new urbanist values: walkability, mix of housing types, interconnected and narrow streets, as well as a special emphasis on natural drainage systems. “There’s a lot of debate up this way about whether you can have new urbanist densities and still save the fish,” Patrick Condon says. “It is possible if you get the water to go back into the ground, taking the load off the receiving streams, and make sure your development emulates the way the landscape operated prior to development. So it’s not rocket science.” The plan calls for a up to 5,800 residential units, up to 650 live/work units, and commercial space totaling 540,000 square feet. The wide range of housing choices would result in densities ranging from 2 units/acre up to 45 units/acre. According to Condon, the East Clayton plan is the region’s foremost blueprint for reducing infrastructure cost and environmental impact through a combination of new urbanist and sustainable principles.