Undoubtedly, noticeable changes are happening when it comes to urban design and what that means to Torontonians. Not unlike other parts of the world, the needs of the people are reflected in the planning, urban design, and architectural choices made in neighbourhoods and community settlements. Unprecedented growth is, as the name suggests, something you can’t always plan for, but certainly something we can try and prepare for. How are we doing this while at the same time addressing sprawl, a prime issue in almost any major city?
Some like it… some don’t
Toronto Star reporter Brian Dexter described Markham as “one of Ontario’s nicest-looking suburban cities, even though the place is growing like crazy. … with New Urbanism-style planning, the city is trying to tackle urban sprawl while making new communities more compact and pleasant for residents.” But this isn’t enough for everyone. Numerous critics have noticed an unflattering, almost mechanical, uniformity to the Toronto region’s (at least some areas) New Urbanism take on things. So what’s all the griping about? The diversity that has so much been a jewel-like quality, praised for its rarity in this increasingly homogenous world, is slowly fading – thanks to the dozens of builders involved in the process. Nearly all offer a sort of faux Victorian style-home, each one with a surplus of what appear to be poorly executed details.
Michael Morrissey, a new urbanist Toronto architect who has worked in Markham and throughout North America says, ‘It’s not vernacular — it’s some kind of plastic composite builder special.’ As a specific example, he names Cornell, a Markham development area teeming with new urbanist elements in a more obvious way than others. ‘The main street, a curving street, leading into the town square couldn’t be more than 400 feet long,’ he says. ‘There must have been 100 gables on that street. There’s absolutely no restraint.”
The pro side accounts for some of the upsides to New Urbanism and why it works just fine for Toronto. Dan Leeming, a planner active in and around the Toronto area, notes that Markham and other neighbourhoods taking a similar cue around Toronto are achieving higher density, more walkable streets, a degree of mixed-use, good-looking public spaces, and strong home sales — all while city officials are planning a major downtown and pushing for a light rail line. Those are some pretty strong counter-arguments.
Regardless, at the end of the day only a few things really matter. At the regional scale, the Toronto region is still growing predominantly in the form of sprawl. Counterbalancing the sprawl is Toronto itself, one of North America’s biggest and most burgeoning cities, where a lot of transit-accessible infill development is taking place. Markham is working on plans to build a large, walkable downtown with 25,000 residents, 17,000 jobs, four million square feet of commercial space, and rail connections. No doubt, this case study shows how suburban growth can achieve a denser, more walkable form.
Any complaints about the lack of diversity may be silenced if we understand the importance of the need for pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods and greater intensification. Moving in this direction, for Markham and other suburbs of Toronto, might silence those protests and offer a workable plan that offers some attractive benefits.