From Suburb to City: An Opportunity Born of Necessity

An article entitled “transforming suburbia” runs the risk of suggesting a known and relatively constant urban configuration is either in the process of, or more proscriptively should be, changing. In 2006, The Globe and Mail reported that “the suburbs have undergone sweeping change and bear little resemblance to the enduring Leave It to Beaver stereotype.” In addition to a radical diversification of the suburban population such that it increasingly mirrors that of surviving urban centres, “many have downtown cores, thousands of jobs and even high-rise condominiums.” In fact, what we broadly call suburbia has been in a constant state of transformation since the post-war double diaspora out of both city centres and rural villages radically transformed urban life. The archetype configuration of post-war residential suburbia is still being reproduced every day, albeit with densities now rivalling city neighbourhoods. But this continual suburban growth, now referred to simply as “sprawl” by planning professionals, politicians and critics (if not the development industry) has been significantly transformed by the intrusion of changing models for retail services and employment.

How the continually expanding yet frequently changing form of urban sprawl impacts a region’s viability is one side of the current urban planning debate. The other side are the implications for how we organize our public and private lives within this form or its alternatives. In the same year the Globe redefined suburbia, Robert Beauregard suggested in When America Became Suburban that the post-war suburban revolution was about more than just built form. It was about institutionalizing a sociopolitical configuration centred on an individualized “way of life” that differed radically from that of the more integrated life of the city. Retrofitting suburbia, therefore, is about social as well as built form change.

A short history of suburbia

Simon O’Byrne, managing principle and practice leader for Urban Planning at Stantec Inc. in Edmonton, points out that many prewar suburban developments still adhered to the urban grid form and were organized along emerging public transit lines, such as the linear villages still discernable along long-gone tram lines. While these areas are candidates for retrofitting, he argues, the street configuration of the post-war suburban model creates enormous problems. The core planning elements for the suburban explosion from the 1950s through to the end of the century created a complex form difficult to remodel.

In 1998, Ken Snyder and Lori Bird defined sprawl by three distinguishing characteristics that have remained relatively constant over the last 50 years. First, residential densities below 12 people per acre has meant the rate of land use has exceeded the rate of population growth; second, there has been rigid compartmentalization with homes segregated from commercial and industrial activities; and third, urban form has been defined by branching street forms and cul de sacs that make “connectivity” problematic, public transit prohibitively expensive and walkability difficult. Professors Reid Ewing, Rolf Pendal and Don Chen add a fourth element, the lack of strong activity centres or downtowns.

The earliest suburbs up into the 1960s were primarily a residential response. Indeed, much of early freeway construction focused on access to and from the city where work and shopping remained concentrated (Building, February-March 2010). A new retail model, however, soon emerged. Small strip malls were first imbedded onto the periphery of developments in response to immediate needs and these were soon followed by enclosed regional shopping malls that accelerated the decline of urban cores. The migration of employment followed with the development of low-density greenfield business parks, suburban “back offices” and eventually large campus-style complexes. As countless writers have pointed out, the dominate characteristic of this development remained the core role of the car.

Over the last decade, two new trends have redefined the relationship between these common components of suburban sprawl. Big box retail has all but curtailed new “traditional malls” as well as precipitating the accelerated closing or retrofitting of those that already exist. By physically stretching out and separating development along long stretches of commercial roadway, the big box model has increased greenfield conversion while making public transport more problematic and increasing the need for a car as destination shopping disappears. At the same time, residential suburbia is undergoing unprecedented densification. Row housing, stacked townhouses and even mid-to high-rise condominiums are resulting in densities often higher than older downtown neighbourhoods. Single family houses, with minimum separation, now lack the spacious yards once associated with the suburban life style. None of this, however, is taking place with a corresponding change in street configurations, not surprising perhaps as studies have shown that this model produces the highest number of units per hectare for any prescribed density.

O’Byrne also believes that municipal authorities have begun to introduce changes to the suburban form with multiple family units increasingly finding their way onto arteries and transit stops being required within 400 metres of all residences. But lack of connectivity — “the bones are not right,” he states — and a powerful suburban-based NIMBY-ism backed by the organizing power of the Internet makes the retrofitting of existing suburban communities difficult. He might well add that despite 50 years of criticism, over three decades of “neo-traditional urbanism” and, more recently, political commitment to “smart growth” there is only limited evidence of a paradigm shift in how cities should be expanded rather than sprawled.

A study in 2007 by Stephanie Bophanie identified only 42 New Urbanist communities in Canada, a drop in the proverbial development bucket according to O’Byrne. Even more telling, most were small greenfield projects with densities below 12 units per acre favouring single family housing. While most had some mixed use, only half had a main street. In Ontario, 13 out of 22 were in the single municipality of Markham. These results are backed up by Jill Grant’s research published in 2009 on the words and actions of Canadian planners, politicians and developers. What she found, despite a significant decade-long acceptance by both planners and politicians of the principles of Smart Growth, was a wide “say-do gap.” In summary, “the study shows that weak political commitment and market pressures frustrate planners’ desires to create accessible and open communities.” As an urban design practitioner who continues to work on both New Urbanist projects and suburban retrofits, O’Byrne concedes that “changing the development industry’s approach is tough.”

But there are some, such as the ultra-conservative Heritage Institute in the United States, who bluntly question the need for change as the current model would appear to respond to the market as defined by both consumers and developers. Indeed, even Grant appears to reinforce the argument that suburbia remains the preferred model for consumers. In response, critics pose two broad arguments why development must change and why the market defence rationale is less than compelling.

The unsupportable cost of business as usual

The most compelling argument for change may simply be the increasingly unsupportable cost of urban sprawl. Some costs are “soft” not because they do not have a real impact but because they are difficult to quantify. Snyder and Bird, along with many others, identify the loss of open spaces, agricultural land and environmental quality as well as a greater reliance on vehicles as costs. In terms of car dependence they found that miles driven from 1970 to 1996 grew twice as fast as the number of drivers and four times population growth. Suburban families
, according to Peter Calthorpe’s studies, typically drive twice as many miles as those in older transit oriented areas. According to the Canadian Automobile Association’s 2008 estimates, the annual net cost for a Canadian family to sustain two cars exceeds $20,000. In addition, Ewings, Pendall and Chen cite as costs increased levels of ozone pollution and a greater risk of fatal crashes without any evidence that suburban growth reduces congestion levels below that of urban neighbourhoods. Most recently, some medical practitioners have laid the blame for the obesity crisis, in part, on how suburban form impacts lifestyle

More tangible, however, may be the growing fiscal crisis facing cities. It was obvious even by the late 1950s that suburbanization was having a devastating cost on city centres (Building, February-March 2010). At the same time, it also emerged that the public cost of this outward expansion was not being financed by the increased tax revenues generated by growth. As a result, impact charges were introduced in an effort to cover the immediate cost of infrastructure. During the 1970s, pressure to increase such charges grew, particularly in the United States where federal subsidization of infrastructure construction decreased significantly. By the 1990s, mounting evidence had been published to demonstrate that the initial cost of putting in place suburban infrastructure was considerably more than in already developed areas. Because property values in suburbia are lower — thus resulting in relatively lower property taxes — and because impact charges, it is argued, do not reflect this higher incremental cost, new suburban home buyers are frequently subsidized by urban tax payers. Indeed, since 1997 Ontario municipalities have been limited to charging developers only up to 90 per cent of some major infrastructure costs. Last year, politicians and planners in that province’s Halton Region proposed a 65 per cent increase in development fees arguing that existing home owners can not be expected to subsidize development.

This initial cost premium associated with urban sprawl, however, is only part of the problem. By the 1990s, extensive research had already detailed how both distance from existing infrastructure as well as the specific physical form of sprawl impacts on long term operating costs. A 1989 study argued that servicing suburban developments costs three times that of compact areas. Even the significant increased densification of suburban developments has not solved the problem. Jonathon Ford’s 2009 study compared communities with similar densities but different forms. “Conventional Suburban Developments (CSD) with separated land uses, residential product type pods and disconnected auto-focused transportation” produced costs 40 per cent higher than comparable Smart Growth/Traditional Neighbourhood Development forms.

The result is that sprawl does not have a neutral impact on municipal costs. In a rational market, the tax rate on a specific unit would reflect its costs but this has been found to be true in only the highest end, low density developments. In Canada, initial consolidation of “regional governments” followed by an eventual forced amalgamation into super-cities, such as by the Ontario and Quebec governments in the 1990s, may be seen as one attempt to “socialize” development costs across the larger geographic region.

Ottawa has been a classic example of the fiscal squeeze created by sprawl. For example, in the 1990s the then Region of Ottawa Carlton “harmonized” garbage collection rates even though the actual cost for suburban municipalities were double. In its most recent budget, the now single city of Ottawa, which has permitted significant urban sprawl over the last decade, raised municipal taxes by more than double the rate of inflation. As each housing unit added through sprawl increases the average cost per house in the whole city, this is not simply a function of overspending by the council. Ironically, as urban residential prices have risen considerably faster with the rebirth of city living and tax rates based on house valuations, the level of subsidy paid by the lower cost to the high cost suburban residents is increasing.

The fiscal crisis is likely to become more acute. In the past, municipalities have controlled deficits by a slow erosion of some services and the putting off of infrastructure renewal. There is evidence that the limits of these solutions have been reached at a time when resistance to further tax increases is mounting. As one writer has pointed out, the victory of tax propositions in California has left many municipalities who are addicted to sprawl caught in a fiscal trap.

Is there a market for change?

Perhaps the most frequently heard defence of suburban development upholds the market as the best arbitrator. Notwithstanding the evidence that the market fails to price suburban housing at its appropriate cost, this position maintains that this type of development continues to be the preferred option for home buyers. This ignores, however, that residential suburban development has changed significantly with increasingly high densities, more multiple family buildings and much smaller lot sizes. The “product” has actually changed significantly; but what has not changed is the uniformity of the product on offer. In other words, people must select from within a limited product range in which price often plays the strongest role. There is little opportunity to test whether or not alternative residential/urban models could capture a significant market share.

There is, however, some evidence that there is no uniformity in demand. The rapid increase in downtown living costs in many Canadian cities is itself an indication of market pressures. O’Byrne points out that in 2008 the number of housing starts within the Toronto urban area code of 416 exceeded the number for the surrounding suburban 905 code for the first time in years, in part because, as Richard Florida famously argues, the so-called “creative class” seeks a vibrant urban life style.

There is also increasing empirical work that supports an argument that demand is considerably more diverse. American business professors Mark Eppli and Charles Tu compared house sales transactions in the neo-traditional urban developments of Kentlands and Lakelands in Maryland against those in similar surrounding conventional developments. They found that even with tight controls to ensure comparability there was a significant initial sales premium for the former and this was sustained, even grew over time. A 2009 report by Robert Charles Lesser, LLC concluded conservatively that “at least one third of the consumer real estate market prefers smart growth development,” and this percentage is growing. The authors site a 2004 National Survey on communities by the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth that found 61 per cent of those surveyed who were considering a house purchase within three years, would prefer to purchase in a smart growth community.

Demographic changes support these findings, especially the fact that “31 per cent of the growth of homeowners in this decade is expected to be home buyers aged 45 and older, many of whom have indicated a preference for denser more compact housing.” Younger buyers are also more diverse and, in line with Florida’s findings, more attracted to an urban lifestyle. Finally, any alternatives that decrease commute times are heavily preferred.

As the statistics on the number and size of smart growth initiatives in Canada indicate, as well as Grant’s findings on the “say-do” gap, there is not a significant evolution much less revolution in terms of alternatives to the suburban forms available to the consumer. This being said, there are a number of significant exceptions, whose progress bears monitoring. Two of the most significant efforts to retrofit suburbia are taking place in the Fraser River delta municipalities on Vancouver’s southern flank.

“Island City by Nature”

The City of Richmond, with a
current population of 188,000 and which gained city status in 1990, is composed of two islands that include Sea Island, home of the Vancouver International Airport, and the larger Lulu Island. The latter is a mix of farmland, classic suburban development and an emerging urban town centre along No. 3 Road. In 2009, Richmond approved its City Centre Area Plan, a bold refinement and extension of its 1996 plan that is designed to direct future growth and development into a “mixed-use, transit-oriented village framework.” The plan, developed with the help of IBI Group associate Gary Andrishank, sets as its objective a significant reduction of pressure for new suburban development as well as protecting farmland and industrial areas by developing a series of compact and engaging higher density “urban villages” supportive of a broad range of high-quality amenities. By creating the opportunity for “healthy urban living” in which people can live, work, play and learn in a sustainable environment, the plan envisages a tripling of the city’s current urban-based population from 40,000 to 120,000 over the next century without further sprawl. This includes mandatory developer-provided affordable housing that must equal five per cent of any development.

Terry Crowe, manager of the city’s Policy Planning Division, is optimistic about the urban living option but also blunt about those who want the old suburban experience. “We cannot say yes to everybody anymore but we will ensure quality over quantity in the new urban Richmond.” The city, he says, is being organized around six “urban transects” ranging from natural, rural and suburban to general urban (four storeys), urban centre (four to six storeys) and urban core (over six storeys). While the planning response to the first three will be largely restricted to consolidation, the last three constitute the City Centre continuum in which a “form-based code” will support sustainable, mixed-use strategies — “everything is multi-use,” Crowe emphasizes several times during our interview — for organizing community development as opposed to the now largely discredited functional segregation.

Key to the new plan is the completion of the elevated Canada Line of the Skytrain that not only links Richmond to Vancouver and the airport’s employment zone but also runs down No. 3 through the heart of the City Centre. As a transit-oriented development (TOD), five Canada Line stations will create a network of “urban villages that will break the City Centre into identifiable, pedestrian-scaled communities and create a network of focal points for the delivery of community services.” Although council preferred a street level system, the elevated train has helped promote a more vertical urban form and the plan includes considerable working solutions on how to integrate such a system into a street-based, pedestrian friendly city. “We have invested heavily in urban design modeling so developers can see what we want,” states Crowe. The major villages will be complemented by the development of a series of smaller, minor village centres to serve already built-out residential communities within the urban centre boundary.

A sixth focal community, Olympic Gateway Village, is already under development around Richmond’s spectacular Olympic Oval that is now being transformed into both a local and national centre for sport and healthy living (Building, October-November 2009). Located on the banks of the Fraser River’s middle arm and within walking distance of the new transportation spine, the Oval is only part of an extensive and carefully considered plan to create a vital urban waterfront based on the slogan “island city by nature.” In addition to serving as Richmond’s “gateway” and “front yard” for residents and workers, the aim is to create a 24/7 international quality destination.

Based on my visit to Richmond in March 2009, there is a lot of work to do before the city’s ambitious plan produces the “world class” destination city politicians and planners are promising. Indications, however, are promising. The powerful consortium of Pinnacle International, Concord Pacific, and Sun Tech City Developments, authors of some of Vancouver’s top end developments are proposing to develop a 17.2 acre parcel of land adjacent to the Capstan Village station at the north end of the City Centre. This will include 16 buildings up to 14 storeys including live-work units as well as green roofs, geothermal heating, 100 social housing units, a 25-space daycare, hotel, retail and commercial space, and a 1.4 hectare city owned park. Last April, Aspac Developments unveiled its plans for the first phase of River Green, a massive billion dollar development embracing the Oval. When built out in 10 to 15 years, the 17 hectare mixed-use waterfront development designed by architect James Cheng will include up to 2,600 residential units. Not incidentally, points out Crowe, the unexpected $141 million received from the sale of the land to Aspac went a long way to paying for the Oval. In addition, the RFP for the sale requires LEED Silver for the development.

Major urban plans have a history of promising much and delivering little. For example, both Ottawa’s 1990 progressive official plan to create urban villages in suburbia and its 2001 Smart Growth plan came to naught, brought down by recalcitrant developers aided by the powerful Ontario Municipal Board’s veto powers. British Columbia, points out Crowe, has no such appeal process to counter what has been an emerging political consensus on the future of the suburban city. He also boasts that instead of the one urban designer for every nine zoning planners typical of western cities, Richmond has 10 of each.

This commitment has emerged for a number of disparate reasons, both historical and geographical. In the interwar years, conforming to O’Byrne’s argument, the island community produced a number of small, grid based suburban developments. In the 1950s, however, particularly after the construction of the Oak Street Bridge linked Richmond to the airport, the new ferry terminal at Tsawwassen and easy access to routes to the U.S., suburban development took off. Interestingly, by 1957 the municipality had already approved a Civic Centre concept and allowed for a form of mixed-use development. Richmond’s first city planner, the visionary William Kerr, spearheaded the purchase of the Brighouse Estate for the development of a town centre, advocated for residential infill to ensure more compact development and argued for the protection of farmland from further suburban development. Despite his foresight, the regulations that emerged required minimum 66 ft. x 125 ft. lots that, along with an economic policy that enticed firms with large cheap greenfield sites, only encouraged sprawl. “The result,” writes historian Denise Cook, “was mixed-use development over large areas of land, which outstripped the municipalities ability to service it in an economic way.” Richmond, however, has a high employment-to-resident ratio as well as a daily net inflow of workers.

Another anomaly to the suburban model was the pre-existing grid of section line roads on the flat delta lands. Thus, while existing suburbs tend to have the prototypical non-directional street plan surrounding a school or park “commons,” observes Cook, they are contained within a grid of arterial streets and this, Crowe points out, offers some promise for retrofitting the transportation system in existing communities.

But perhaps the more decisive moment was the introduction in 1972 of the Agricultural Land Reserves (ALR) by the one-term New Democratic government of Dave Barrett. While the Social Credit opposition promised to undue the reserves, 50 per cent of Richmond today remains restricted to agriculture. Indeed, a recent attempt to release what is know as the Garden Lands for inclusion in the City Centre was rejected by the ALR review board. Simply put, Crowe states, “there is no more land for suburban development.” Thus, “vision trumps everything, and that vision is compact, urban and green.”

“Strategy for a sustainable city”

The City of Surrey is Richmond’s larger river delta neighbour to the east that is wrestling with many of the same issues as it updates its Official Community Plan. Suburban development came earlier with the construction of the Pattullo Bridge over the Fraser River in 1937. Subsequent expansion of Vancouver-directed highway infrastructure, the completion of the Port Mann Bridge and the arrival of the Sky Train in 1993 has produced decades of sustained growth. As a result, its current population of 461,000 makes it the second largest city in British Columbia after Vancouver and the 12th overall in Canada. Yet, according to Blake Laven’s 2007 overview of the city’s development, “it serves as a bedroom community for the Lower Mainland’s employment centres.” Its employment patterns, he continues, reaffirms many suburban stereotypes with over 50 per cent traveling to work outside the city, overwhelmingly by car.

Like Richmond, by the mid-1990s provincial legislation required Surrey to respond to the four fundamental strategies contained in the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s Livable Region Strategic Plan through its Official Community Plan. These included protecting the green zone, building complete communities, achieving a compact metropolitan region and increasing transportation options. Also like Richmond, the larger city faced an increasing shortage of buildable land for suburban development. But unlike its western neighbour, Surrey’s agricultural land reserves that constitute 40 per cent of its area weaves through the municipality creating three distinct urban/suburban areas. An industrial zone further cuts the largest north-eastern area into two distinct sections.

Surrey’s Official Community Plan was passed in 1996 and revised in 2001. It establishes 10 planning strategies, notably including managing growth for compact and “complete” communities with an enhanced “city image and character” based on increased transportation alternatives. The plan establishes, in dry planning language, a “nodal development pattern” that is a hierarchy of mixed-use urban centres. These include the Surrey City Centre as the region’s major urban destination in the northwest district, linked into the Sky Train. Five smaller Town Centres are also envisaged along with multiple Neighbourhood Centres.

Despite the plan and such major award winning projects as East Clayton Village, Laven’s 2007 field research indicates progress has been erratic. The lack of consistent political commitment, the intransigency of large developers and even city planners’ aversion to using such terms as Smart Growth and transit oriented development have meant that despite considerably denser development, “the suburban model is still being advanced” including an increasing percentage of quasi-gated, “privatized” communities. Similarly, in her multi-community study, Grant uses a developer’s quote, “a bit of a free-for-all” to introduce Surrey. “Interview data revealed the complex compromises that planners made because Surrey council did not always stand behind plan principles…. Widespread development of condominium townhouse projects in Surrey contributes to a privatized landscape that may have the architectural trappings of new urbanism without many other smart growth principles…,” she writes.

Despite this criticism, two key developments suggest Surrey’s commitment to transformation is rapidly evolving. First, the city is moving quickly ahead on phase one of its City Centre plan which will see urban densities twice that proposed in the current plan. Seven key principles are guiding this ambitious development including an architecturally bold civic centre precinct anchoring street-based shopping, commercial and urban residential development of “beautiful city form” on finer grained, integrated streets. Sustainable design and a network of green spaces and public venues round out the prime objectives. That the city is serious about built form is illustrated by the February 2010 announcement of the winners of its international design competition called “Townshift: Suburb into City.” The five projects are each intended to transform a “suburban condition” in five Surrey communities.

Phase one includes the $500-million civic centre comprising a city hall (Kasian Architecture and Moriyama and Teshima Architects) for which the final design is about to be released with construction to start early in 2011, a central library (Bing Thom Architects) now in construction, and a performing arts center, all surrounding a civic plaza. To the south, Simon Fraser University has applied to the province for funding to expand its existing facility into a major urban satellite campus. Jim Cox, CEO of the Surrey City Development Corporation told me “we have a young population and the intent is to have them educated in our own university and then find jobs in Surrey.” The goal, he continues, is to move from 0.6 jobs per resident to a 1:1 ratio which is why the city is working on securing high-end commercial buildings into the civic centre and working with Simon Fraser University to develop quality student housing.

To the east, the area along King George Highway will be transformed into a major commercial, retail and high-density residential areas including transforming the street into an elegant urban boulevard. At the same time, the Sky Train station will be enlarged and better integrated into the Bus Transit interchange on City Parkway, itself slated to emerge as a secondary “high street.”

Equally important, since 2007 the city has been in the process of significantly revising its official plan. While not yet complete, gone is the dry planning vocabulary of the earlier plan, so too any ambiguity about Surrey’s commitment to Smart Growth, TOD and a vibrant urban future. The catalyst is the September 2008 approved Sustainability Charter, an elegant 71-page manifesto that Mayor Diane Watts introduces as the “comprehensible lens through which we will view all future initiatives, programs and plans.” Not surprisingly, Cox has a different view than Laven and Dale, believing Surrey’s mayor and council are so progressive and committed to fundamental change that “the message is starting to get out.”

Perhaps inspired by Copenhagen’s three-prong approach (Building, February-March 2010), the Charter establishes three “pillars of sustainability” — the socio-cultural, the economic and the environmental — that must be considered together to ensure the highest future quality of life. And it also makes clear that “‘quality of life’ does not have the same meaning as ‘standard of living’ and does not imply promoting increases in quantity of goods and resources consumed.” In response, Surrey has shifted to “triple bottom line accounting” that addresses all three pillars of sustainability while striving also to obtain a zero-carbon footprint. A progress report for 2009 delivered to Council in March of this year indicates that a Sustainability Indicators and Targets Task Force will complete the process of defining precise measures to be used to assess development and monitor progress in 2010.

On the cusp of transformation?

More than a decade ago, architect Gregory Henriquez told me that Vancouver’s explicit policy of choking off easy access to the downtown (a policy confirmed by one-time co-director of Vancouver planning Larry Beasely) was forcing suburban communities to urbanize. At about this time, Richmond and Surrey were approving their 1996 plans for people-friendly urbanization. But change has been far from overnight. Politicians and developers, even the planners, have not always been prepared to make the shift to significantly transformed communities. Both, however, may be on the verge, forced by evaporating cheap land, escalating public costs, changing demographics, and worsening transportation congestion but also by a social evolution to more emphasis on quality of life over quantity of goods and an environmental sensibility. Over the next couple of decades, Richmond and Surrey will
provide a fascinating Canadian laboratory on the viability of suburban transformation.

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