Toronto’s next mayor must recognize that together, Transit City and Tower Renewal could be so much greater than the sum of their parts.
During Mayor David Miller’s second term, significant progress was made in planning for two potentially transformative projects for the Toronto suburbs: Transit City and the Mayor’s Tower Renewal project. While there has been a lot of discussion and rivalry among the various mayoral candidates about the future of public transit in the city, there has been scarcely a word about the equally important Tower Renewal plans, and the potential synergies between these two projects have been largely ignored. This is unfortunate, as these two initiatives together have the potential to be much more than the sum of their parts. Transit City should energize Tower Renewal, and Tower Renewal should focus reinvestment in the suburbs not only on re-skinning buildings and intensification, but also on creating improved pedestrian realms and land-use patterns that feed the logic of a transit-oriented city.
The transformation of the Toronto suburbs built during the 1960s and 70s is undoubtedly the single greatest opportunity and challenge Toronto faces over the next decades. There is a very real potential to fundamentally remake vast stretches of Scarborough, Etobicoke, and North York into much more livable, vibrant, transit-oriented, and walkable places. In this regard, Toronto has a much greater opportunity than most other cities in North America, because our inner suburbs are already relatively dense, already have a decent transit system with significant ridership levels, have a basic urban form that was designed to accommodate both cars and rapid transit, and are well connected to a vibrant high-density mixed-use transit-oriented core area in the inner city of Toronto. This makes the project of suburban transformation into more livable and more urban places much more possible than in cities like Phoenix, Atlanta, and Houston, where the inner city has been in long decline, and suburban transit systems are practically non-existent. Those cities are starting from scratch, but we are already halfway there.
Toronto’s suburbs were carefully planned for relatively high overall densities that would allow travel by both automobile and public transit. But there were two major failures in how we built our suburbs. First, promises of major investments in new rapid transit were repeatedly deferred or cancelled from the days of Bill Davis in the 1970s until the present. Suburbs that were built with population densities to support high levels of transit use ended up with a sub-standard transit system. For 30 years, we have failed to adequately invest in public transit, and now we are paying the price, as Toronto is judged to have one of the highest levels of automobile congestion in North America. According to the Toronto Board of Trade’s 2010 Scorecard on Prosperity, Toronto embarrassingly now has the longest average commuting times of all 20 comparator global cities, and congestion cost $5 billion in delays last year.
The second problem is that the highest density areas of the suburbs, the clusters of high-rise residential towers, were designed with the assumption that most people would travel by car. This is not surprising, as the transit systems were not built in advance, and most people did in fact have to travel by car. The result, however, is that it is now often extremely inconvenient and unpleasant to walk around in these neighbourhoods, as Paul Hess and Jane Farrow’s suburban walkability research has shown so convincingly. This creates a significant problem when it comes to improving the public transit system, however, as virtually all transit trips begin and end with a pedestrian trip. If people can’t walk easily and enjoyably from home to the nearest transit stop, and from another transit stop to their destination, then the new transit lines will not reach their full potential.
That is why it is so important to link these two projects together – conceptually, politically, and in implementation. Fundamental improvement to the livability of Toronto’s suburbs must rest on the twin priorities of improvements to public transit, and improvements to the public realm and in particular the pedestrian environment. Although scaled back and stretched out because of budget cuts, Transit City is proceeding, and the Tower Renewal project, set in motion by faculty and students at the University of Toronto Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design and pushed forward by the Mayor’s Tower Renewal Office, has achieved significant milestones through pilot projects and the publication of the Tower Renewal Guidelines. But implementation will be critical, and the risk remains that a new mayor and council will see them as separate and independent projects. So it is worth reviewing the potential synergies between the two.
First, it is clear that the Transit City project is tremendously important for Tower Renewal. By improving the speed, convenience, and comfort of public transit services, and improving connectivity to the rest of the city, Transit City promises to accelerate the rate of investment in the Tower Renewal projects, delivering more attractive neighbourhoods, increased property values, and greater opportunities for intensification and mixed-use infill projects, and making reinvestment in ageing buildings more attractive.
Transit City projects also have the potential to strongly reinforce local shopping nodes and centres that are connected to the transit system, as they will be accessible to more people. If you are in a car, it is just as easy to travel another 10 minutes to a box store in Vaughan, but if you are on a light rail car you are much more likely to want to shop near your regular transit route. Improved public transit will also encourage a lot more pedestrians in public spaces and on the sidewalks, which will improve the market for commercial strips along the new transit lines and will also make the streets livelier, safer, and more interesting places to be.
At the same time, the Tower Renewal projects can potentially contribute greatly to making the Transit City LRT lines a success. Just building better transit is not enough. It is also essential to carefully plan the intensification of the areas adjacent to and near the new lines, many of which are dominated by the clusters of high-rise residential towers that are the target of the renewal project. Key priorities in areas near the transit lines should be to improve the public realm, especially for pedestrians. Better walkability and connectivity should be a top priority in planning the tower renewal projects, particularly as this is the part that private investors are least likely to pay enough attention to themselves. Projects also need to be carefully designed to increase the mix of uses near the new transit stops and along the lines with the addition of more shops, community facilities, and space for services such as dentists, health clinics, daycare centres, and other such uses. Tower renewal projects will contribute to increases in the numbers of households living near the transit lines through intensification, but that intensification needs to be carefully planned to contribute to vitality and livability, not just result in more density.
Toronto’s next mayor must recognize these projects as the two potentially transformative priorities for Toronto during the next two decades. The potential gains are huge in terms of livability, new investment, environmental improvements, energy saving, reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, and improved accessibility. But it is very unlikely that either the Transit City or the Tower Renewal projects will reach their full potential if they are not thought of as linked projects with important synergies.
This is Toronto’s most important opportunity to jump-start the process of transformation of its suburbs into more livable, energy-efficient, attractive places for the 21st century. We need to hear what the mayoral candidates will do to ensure that they are conceived as a joined-up and integrated program of revitalization and reinvestment.