How the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) manages its suburban growth over the next 25 years is critical to the sustainability and future livability of Canada’s most populous region, a new report contends.
Titled Suburbs on Track, the report explores the benefits of transit-oriented communities and is the joint work of the Ryerson City Building Institute (CBI) and the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lay the groundwork for how we want to live, work and play in the future,” says CBI Executive Director Cherise Burda.
“Our regional municipalities can get on track and generate transit ridership, provide options for commuters, and create affordable housing for current and future residents.
Growth outside the City of Toronto
The population of the GTHA is expected to reach more than 10 million by 2041, with 79 per cent of that growth taking place outside of the City of Toronto.
At the same time the Ontario government is investing over $32 billion in new subways, light rail, rapid busways and regional express rail throughout the GTHA over the next 10 to 15 years.
Will this growth lead to more congestion, longer commutes and sprawl? Or does this present the opportunity to build transit-connected neighbourhoods with amenities that support healthy lifestyles are a couple of questions the report poses.
According to the report, building better suburban and regional transit is just a start.
Rather, it says it is equally important to build better neighbourhoods along the transit lines and around stations to maximize the utility of the multi-billion-dollar investments.
The “missing middle”
The report refers to what it calls the “missing middle,” a range of housing for family sizes and budgets. Currently, high rise condo towers are being built in downtown Toronto and suburban centres, but those don’t always offer units suitable for all family sizes.
And many of the region’s suburban residents live in car-dependent communities with long commutes and where family-sized homes are more affordable.
The report advocates for a more diverse supply of housing in urban and suburban centres that would suit a range of family sizes and budgets. In particular it calls for more multi-unit homes such as townhouses or mid-rise homes.
Such housing options would be well-suited for main street transit corridors and around transit stations outside of downtown Toronto and would provide the density need to support transit and businesses while creating more of a village feel.
These walkable communities would end up being affordable for families in other ways than just housing as well.
The report maintains that a two-car family would potentially save up to $10,000 annually on transportation costs related to car payments, fuel, insurance, registration and maintenance if they were able to downsize to one vehicle.
The report offers four recommendations when it comes to building transit-oriented communities in the GTHA.
1. Identify priority transit station areas for higher density development
It says the province needs to be more assertive in ensuring that population densities that support transit and land use plans are approved and enforced. That includes having municipalities update their zoning to make sure intensification takes place along the transit corridors before they receive their provincial funding for “higher-order” transit projects.
2. Fast track rezoning for transit stations and corridors
Planning needs to be fast-tracked for transit station areas and corridors and municipalities should be required to identify priority transit station areas where market interest exists for higher density development.
Once that’s been done, action plans should be put in place that allow transit-oriented development to proceed as quickly as possible, the report recommended.
3. Provide support for local municipalities
The report also recommends that the province provide technical and financial support for municipalities to carry out a rezoning process for transit station areas and corridors.
As well, it calls for a number of changes to help spur intensification. They include encouraging car sharing, and “unbundling parking,” meaning fewer parking spots are built and sold separately from condo units.
4. “Sharpen tools” for intensification
The report also noted that the province’s climate change action plan includes policies to eliminate minimum parking requirements in municipal bylaws over the next five years.
Such alternatives are necessary because “In many locations, it costs more to intensify development near transit stations than build low-density development in auto-oriented suburbs, because of higher land costs, expensive underground parking, and the lengthy approval process for multi-unit buildings,” the report notes.