15 November 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Time to re-think the way we build cities

Comments from me: This article was originally posted in the Globe and Mail December 3rd, 2009. I saved the article and was reading it yesterday and thought it brings up some interesting points to discuss. What are your thoughts?

It may be time to ask a key question: Are Canadian cities marching in the right direction? Many very smart people say no.

And it is not just academics either. About this time last month, IBM Canada, a company not known for taking a keen interest in housing, decided it was time for all stakeholders in the future of this country to start talking about the issues we face when it comes to building cities that will maintain top quality of life as they grow.

It conducted a cross-Canada survey about the issues surrounding cities that people are most concerned about. Not surprisingly, about half rated traffic and public transit as No. 1. Almost one-third said their city was not on the path of long-term livability and nine out of 10 said we have to change the way we manage cities.

So why would the company want to raise these issues?

“We think it is time we start discussing the future of our cities,” says Pat Horgan, vice-president of operations for IBM Canada. “By 2050, almost 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban centres, compared with about 50 per cent today.

“That means making big changes and IBM thinks we all have a responsibility to work together to ensure their future as livable places.”

James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business, says hats off to IBM for wanting to generate discussion but he thinks the company is placing the focus in the wrong direction.

“Talking about roads and traffic is the wrong paradigm,” he says. “That places the focus on the old way of growing cities in North America. To ensure livability, we have to embrace an entirely new model.”

That new model means growing up and not out, and swapping private space for public spaces, says Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

As he explains it, North America is unique in that its growth was based on huge tracts of available land for housing and a dependence on the gasoline-driven vehicles to get from place to place. We did not have to be economical in our use of land; we had so much of it.

The result was a continent-wide dream of owning a home with a private backyard. Parks were nice but not a fundamental part of life.

“In the city, they were places you walked the dog,” he says.

A combination of factors now seems certain to shatter that centuries-old dream. First, cities are running out of land for single-family housing. The Greater Toronto Area alone has a steady flow of about 100,000 new immigrants a year and they all need places to live. Surrounded by a green belt, there is finite land left for low-rise housing in bedroom communities.

That means, by necessity, city dwellers must learn to embrace a more European and Asian view: They have to switch from the notion of private back yards as the focus of their lives to public parks.

Second is the inevitability that gasoline prices will again rise into the mid-triple-digit price a litre. As we come out of the recession, global bidding for oil will again drive prices up. As oil prices escalate so will gasoline prices.

Even if people can afford homes in the suburbs, they will not be able to pay the cost of driving to work, to go shopping, to take the kids back and forth to school.

So the future demands a new approach. Look on it as blended neighbourhoods where housing goes up instead of out. There is retail and office space as part of the mix. You can walk or cycle to work and to shop, and neighbourhoods are linked with reliable, affordable public transit.

Affordable is the key word for both housing and the buses, subways and light rail transit that links it together. Conquering affordability is going to require all levels of politicians and policy makers to be a lot more farsighted and considerably braver than they are today.

The fastest rising component of the soft costs of new housing is municipal development charges. They have become a back-door way of raising revenue, Prof. McKellar says. He has research that indicates as development charges rise, new housing construction drops.

And as for public transit in the GTA, he says, the model on which the Toronto Transit Commission is based just does not make business sense. The TTC relies on raising fares when it runs into rising costs and yet every time it raises fares, ridership can be expected to drop, and affordability – especially for low-income individuals and families – becomes an ever-receding dream.

“You can’t put progress on hold,” Dr. Stolarick says. “But you can manage it for the best outcomes, and if we want cities to maintain quality of life, we have to find the will to start acting now.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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