CanU WP1 Suburban Nation 2006-2011 Text and Atlas comp.pdf - Adobe Acrobat ProA new report by David Gordon and Isaac Shirokoff at Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning has found that the majority of population growth in recent years has been in suburban neighbourhoods–even in our largest cities where condo starts greatly outnumber those for detached houses. This research implies major challenges for environmental sustainability, public health, and infrastructure investments.

In Suburban Nation? Population Growth in Canadian Suburbs, 2006-2011, released as a Council for Canadian Urbanism Working Paper, the authors use Census data from 2006 and 2011 and suburban classifications “active core”, “transit suburb”, “auto suburb” and “exurban”:

  • Exurbs were defined as very low density rural areas (<150 people/sq km) where more than half the workers commute to the central core and commuters live in low-density estate subdivisions or houses scattered along rural roads
  • Auto suburbs were defined as the “classic suburban neighbourhoods” where almost everyone commutes by car (density >150 people/sq km)
  • Transit suburbs were defined as neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people commute by transit (>150% of the metro average for the journey to work and >50% of the national average for transit use, <150% of the metro average for active transit )
  • Active cores were neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people use active transportation to get to work (>150% of the metro average for the journey to work and greater than 50% of the national average for active transit)

The classifications were developed by testing scores for different suburb definitions using Google Earth and Street Views, and a structured sample of Census Agglomerations.

Overall, 90% of population growth in Canada’s 33 Census Metropolitan Areas from 2006-2011 was in auto suburbs (80.1%) and exurbs (9.5%), with only 10% of growth in active cores (5.6%) and transit suburbs (4.3%). In 2011, 8% lived in exurbs, 69% lived in auto suburbs, 11% lived in transit suburbs, and 12% lived in active cores. About half of the metro areas had slight declines in their inner city populations as the new apartment construction failed to keep up with declining household sizes in central cities. Overall, 67% of the Canadian population in the 33 CMAs lives in suburban areas.

The authors suggest a “multi-pronged planning approach” to the problem including economic incentives that discourage sprawl and encourage compact development, better intensification in existing urban areas (e.g. secondary suites, laneway housing), redevelopment of formal industrial areas and brownfields on the edges of inner cities, waterfront redevelopment, military base and inner city airport redevelopment, TOD, street corridor redevelopment plans, retrofitting exiting suburbs, greyfield redevelopment of suburban shopping centres, and better design of new suburban development. The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and built on an earlier examination of 1996 and 2006 data.

This trend, and the aging population in many suburban areas of the country with transit services ranging from none to 30-minute frequency, makes me wonder whether we need a massive rethink of the types of transit that can work in suburban environments. At least in exurban and auto suburbs, where the densities are often too low to support traditional bus service at a 30-minute frequency. New York City’s “dollar vans”, informal services that often fill in gaps in the municipal provision of transit, are an example of this. Many immigrant workers find the services travel to parts of the city where they work, or operate during off-peak hours when municipal services stop running early. In countries such as the Philippines, jeepneys (informal vans or jeeps) and tricyles (small vehicles holding two passengers plus the driver) run even in suburban and exurban communities, are often operated by neighbourhood residents. In both cases, the services run so frequently that planning trips is unnecessary, and operators often speak local languages.

It’s clear that most Canadians are still choosing suburban lifestyles, including commuting by car, but there is still the 10%–and that is often enough to catalyze change.

 

Planning transportation and land use at a regional level is something that very few urban areas have done well. It’s recognized in The Netherlands that this type of collaboration among municipalities, land use and transportation authorities, regional and provincial governments is difficult, but needs to be done to achieve sustainable, compact urban growth. On November 27, the Province of North Holland launched a new program called Maak Plaats! (or, “Make Way!”) which will attempt to develop a provincial strategy for public transit and the areas within 1200 meters of railway stations. Click here to download a copy of the report (the only English text appears on p230-231, “English Summary”).

No doubt inspired by StedenbaanPlus, the integrated regional strategy and co-operative agreement between TOD actors in the Rotterdam-Den Haag region, Maak Plaats! has integrated the plethora of transportation and spatial analysis provided by Deltametropolis. Deltametropolis has done detailed analysis of each node in the North and South Wings of the Randstad which make it easier for the various levels of government to visualize which areas would be the best for future TOD. Below is some of their work for the South Wing.

StedenbaanPlus analysis of station areas

Deltametropolis analysis of station areas for StedenbaanPlus showing the potential for each node

For detailed analysis of each node in North Holland, see p235-363 in the Maak Plaats! report.

North Holland corridoroverzicht

The eight designated corridors in North Holland

In North Holland, eight corridors have been designated:

  • Heerhugowaard-Amsterdam (pilot)
  • Enkhuizen – Amsterdam
  • Daman – Alkmaar
  • Amsterdam – Leiden
  • Amsterdam – Amersfoort / Utrecht
  • Amsterdam – Utrecht
  • Amsterdam – Uitgeest / Zandvoort / Leiden
  • Amsterdam – Lelystad

The goals are to locate at least 50% of new housing around public transit nodes, prioritize plans that occur within the built-up area, reduce surplus office space in areas that are not transit-accessible, locate regional services in transit-accessible locations, and improve trip-chaining facilities. These are not surprising considering the previous policies such as A-B-C location policy (introduced in 1989), which aimed to concentrate employment growth at station locations but had disappointing results.

Starting in 2014, the province will monitor urban development around public transit nodes, prioritize location of new housing within station areas, and facilitate regional consultations and alliances between public and private actors. Specific grants or investment programs may be used to develop key Provincial Nodes. Partners include municipal and city-regional governments, regional bus provider Connexxion, national rail agency NS, rail infrastructure provider ProRail, the OV office, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, the Universities of Amsterdam and Nijmegen, and Deltametropolis.

As StedenbaanPlus was the first regional collaboration and agreement between transportation and land use actors in The Netherlands, Maak Plaats! can be seen as building upon this success. Deltametropolis has also done a lot to familiarize planners with TOD concepts, mainly through their SprintCity gaming sessions.

So far, the willingness to collaborate on regional TOD strategies has been developed through informal cooperation networks, but not a lot has actually been implemented. Rotterdam-Den Haag is making some progress with the RandstadRail corridor and projects, which include integrated LRT and BRT linking Rotterdam, Den Haag and Zoetermeer.

For the past three years, SCARP has been honoured to have high-profile planning scholars with us for one week under the Amacon-Beasley Scholar-in-Residence program. Our 2011 scholar is Dr. Susan Fainstein of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Dr. Fainstein has also served as Acting Director of the planning program at Columbia University and as professor of planning at Rutgers University. Her many publications include the comprehensive edited volumes Readings in Planning Theory (2003, Blackwell) and Gender and Planning (2005, Rutgers University Press). She will be here from January 31st until February 4th, and will do a number of guest lectures at SCARP, Geography and Landscape Architecture. She will also be here for SCARP’s 60th Anniversary Gala and this year’s student symposium: Metropolis: Growing Just or Just Growing.

The Scholar-in-Residence program offers a great opportunity for students in related disciplines to chat informally, learn from, and become inspired by academic planners. Our first such opportunity came in 2009 with Dr. Tom Campanella from University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). His path through landscape architecture to planning, and his interest in urban history and redevelopment, made him a very engaging and personable speaker. His interests in publishing for both academic and general audiences were also inspiring: his latest book, The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), tackled the rampant redevelopment taking place in China’s major cities. Our 2010 Scholar-in-Residence was Dr. Emily Talen of Arizona State University, who has written extensively on urban design, New Urbanism and socially mixed neighbourhoods.

Today, SCARP is hosting a “teach-in” of Fainstein’s latest book, The Just City (2010, Cornell University Press). Faculty members Penny Gurstein, Leonie Sandercock and Tom Hutton, along with PhD candidates Silvia Vilches and Victoria Barr, will discuss and critique The Just City in preparation for her visit. Three of us (Victoria, myself, and fellow PhD Candidate Jennie Moore) have also organized a roundtable discussion on justice and equity in planning (“Theorizing Growth in the Just Metropolis”) during the upcoming symposium where we will discuss the questions:

  1. How can planners adrress issues of justice/ethics in their day-to-day work?
  2. Is “justice” simply about equity or should it include notions of the “good,” democracy, sustainability?
  3. What is the scale of the Just City? (Is it only within urban boundaries or in articulation to hinterlands and other cities as well?)

Susan Fainstein and John Friedmann will be joining us for this workshop. Here’s to an intellectually stimulating few weeks!

Bill Rankin's map of Chicago

A couple of years ago, when I attended the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning annual conference in Chicago, I was stunned to hear that Cleveland and Chicago are the most segregated cities in the US. As I’ve written before, Canadian cities simply don’t have these levels of segregation; obviously not for African American and Hispanic populations, but also not for other groups. Recently, I’ve come across a series of maps illustrating the difference between American cities that are more segregated vs. more integrated, thanks to some enlightened cartographers. It is very interesting to compare these maps to the (albeit simpler) maps of visible minorities in Canadian cities recently published by the Globe and Mail.

Bill Rankin‘s map of Chicago illustrates the sharp divides between white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and other ethnocultural groups. It was originally published in Perspecta, the journal of the Yale School of Architecture; Rankin is a PhD candidate in architecture and the history of science.

After seeing this, Eric Fischer produced similar maps for the 40 largest American cities. He used the same process as Rankin (one dot for every 25 people and same colour code, using the 2000 Census data).

We can see some segregation in New York City, but there are zones of integration.

Eric Fischer's map of New York City

Detroit’s 8-Mile district stands out as an example of entrenched segregation. Many of the maps of smaller cities, like Buffalo, Toledo, and Raleigh, highlight inner city concentrations of African Americans.

Eric Fischer’s map of Detroit

Eric Fischer's map of Los Angeles

On the other hand, check out Riverside, CA, which looks very integrated. Los Angeles also has a lot of integration, and San Antonio is very integrated.

Eric Fischer's map of Riverside

A couple of weeks ago, the Globe and Mail posted a series of “heat maps” showing the concentration of visible minorities in Canadian cities. They don’t break down the statistics (from the 2006 Census) into specific ethnocultural groups, as is the usual Canadian trend; there are simply too many groups to map. But they are interesting nonetheless. The maps are interactive, allowing you to zoom in, so I can’t reproduce them here. Check them out at www.globeandmail.ca under Multiculturalism.

Vancouver’s map shows that in most census tracts in Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond and Surrey, over 30% of the population are visible minorities. Toronto has a similar pattern: over 30% of the population in Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, Richmond, and Ajax are visible minorities. The central Toronto map shows some interesting areas of lower concentration: areas around the subway lines, west Toronto and the Beaches. In Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa, the census tracts with over 30% visible minorities are mainly in the suburbs.

Montréal is even more fascinating because it shows a very different pattern. The visible minority population there is almost exclusively concentrated on the island of Montréal, with lower rates of concentration in the suburbs: the older pattern of immigrant settlement that we still see in smaller cities. This is likely due to sheer numbers: Toronto and Vancouver receive tens of thousands more immigrants each year than Montréal.

Obviously, the American maps show that not all cities south of the border are sharply segregated, but even in the smaller cities, like Toledo, Ohio, there are lingering segregated African American populations. This in itself is not an issue; the maps of Canadian cities show lots of neighbourhoods with high concentrations of visible minorities. The real issue is when these concentrations are due to poverty or discrimination (either societal or institutional, such as in the housing market). American housing research seems to indicate that much of the segregation is in fact due to these two factors. Entire programs are devoted to fixing this problem: Housing Choice Vouchers, for example, aim to remove people from entrenched areas of poverty into neighbourhoods where they may have better educational and job opportunities.

I think these maps illustrate again how different Canadian and American cities are in terms of ethnocultural groups: both in terms of their composition and their spatial dispersal. This continues to create policy differences between the US and Canada, not only in my own research areas of housing, transportation, and immigration, but in many other areas affecting municipalities: welfare provision, health care, and education to name a few.

Many researchers in Toronto have become experts at mapping the city’s spatial, cultural, ethnic, and political trends. A few years ago, the Globe and Mail even published a language map of Toronto based on the 2001 Census data for mother tongue. Richard Florida is now one of the latest to use the excellent mapping and research resources available at the Centre for Urban and Community Studies (CUCS).

Florida’s map shows the same differentiation that David Hulchanski did three years ago in his excellent report Toronto divided: A tale of three cities. This report received a lot of media attention, in part because its complexity and rigor left little doubt in its findings: Hulchanski, Associate Director (Research) of CUCS, carefully mapped many different characteristics using Census data spanning a thirty-year period, including income, housing tenure, transit use, ethnicity, immigration status, household size, and employment. The carefully-worded report raised some red flags: the decline of the middle class, the decrease in housing choices for low-income households, the shift of poor neighbourhoods from the inner city to the outer suburbs.

It’s common to say that people “choose” their neighbourhoods, but it’s money that buys choice. Many people in Toronto have little money and thus few choices…When most of the city is in a middle-income range, city residents can generally afford what the market has to offer…It is only when the percentage of those in the middle declined that we began to hear about “housing affordability” problems. If the incomes of a significant share of people in a city fall relative to the middle, the gap between rich and poor widens. Those closer to the bottom are more numerous and find it increasingly difficult to afford the largest single item in their budget–housing (either in mortgage payments or rent).   J. David Hulchanski, Associate Director (Research), CUCS

Hulchanski, who has written volumes about affordable housing policy in Canada, wrote persuasively of the policy options that can help reverse these trends, and many writers echoed his concerns. Florida himself wrote an article in response in the Globe and Mail.

Florida, on the less thorough end of the spectrum, mapped “creative class”, “service class”, and “working class” occupations in the Toronto CMA. The Geography of Toronto’s Service Class, published by the Martin Prosperity Institute at U of T, shows how the “classes” were defined. Artists, doctors, teachers, managers, architects and computer programmers were all considered “creative class”. Cashiers, salespeople, police officers, food preparers, medical assistants, and administrative assistants were “service class”. And miners, welders, carpenters, truck drivers, production workers, and construction workers were in the “working class.” If you know Florida’s work, you know that he is preoccupied with class and that he tends to use loaded terms; “class” is not a casually-used word in the Canadian research arena.

The kind of work people do is the hallmark of social-economic class and the map shows a city where the dominant classes occupy, literally, two different social, economic, and geographic spaces.  Richard Florida, www.creativeclass.com

Map from www.creativeclass.com

It is true that Toronto’s postindustrial shift has led to a decrease in manufacturing jobs, suburbanization of workplaces, concentration of high-paying service-sector work in the inner city, and gentrification around subway lines (all of which Hulchanski pointed out earlier, not to mention Tom Hutton and David Ley). But Florida’s definitions are directly responsible for his findings: how is a doctor in the “creative class”? A manager or computer programmer? And how do police offers and medical assistants get grouped in with cashiers and administrative assistants? It seems as though he has just mapped by salary level, not occupational category…in which case his results aren’t surprising.

Research involving income, occupation, ethnicity, and polarization need to be carefully articulated and worded to avoid clichés like “upper class people live in desirable areas while lower class people do not.” There is much more depth to the story than Florida lets on, although he is fairly well-versed in housing issues. The recently-released report on Canada’s Housing Bubble, produced by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, outlines how housing prices have risen faster than inflation, household incomes, and economic growth. Echoing Edward Jones’ report earlier this year (see my previous post), CCPA says that the housing market is “more unstable than it has been in over a generation.” All major cities in Canada are now experiencing housing price increases above their historical range, meaning the time is ripe for a crash. For Florida, who advocates the creative class and advises cities on how to bring these types to their cities, real estate is crucial: he has written about the need for more rental housing, which in his opinion keeps people mobile and able to search for employment in a wider range of locations. His recent publication on Toronto’s class divide has more to do with the city’s political landscape than housing, of course, and it has served its purpose of being provocative.

Sheng Zhong recently defended her PhD dissertation at UBC School of Community and Regional Planning.  Last year at the Association of American Geographers annual conference, she gave us a little preview of her research results on cultural production sites in Shanghai, focusing on one of the seventy government-designated sites, M50 on Suzhou Creek. She also published this case study in the 2009 issue of Critical Planning (Vol 16): From Fabrics to Fine Arts: Urban Restructuring and Formation of an Art District in Shanghai. Her research consisted of extensive interviews, surveys and site visits of most of these former industrial sites now destined as high-end cultural centers. The concept of the creative class might be controversial here, but Sheng’s research shows the Chinese government is jumping on the bandwagon that supposedly leads to economic growth and development, as suggested by Richard Florida.

In Sheng’s doctoral defense, she contrasted two cultural production sites, one of which developed on its own, as artists found the low-rent buildings vacated by industries that had relocated to the suburbs. The second was designated by the government and targeted for redevelopment. The contrast between the two was very interesting: the first had grown illegally for some time as artists occupied the various buildings on the site, then over a decade gentrified to the point where rents are almost at the upper limit of affordability for small-scale production. The second site was initially designed with high-end stores and upscale landscape architecture targeted to foreign tourists. It is under-used (the rents are too high and there may not be enough demand for the location) and the artwork sold there is unaffordable to the Chinese population.

Dr. Zhong will be starting a post-doctoral position at the National University of Singapore, where she will continue her research on urban redevelopment and the policies that impact growth and change in Chinese cities.

Update: As of February 2012, Sheng will be a lecturer at the brand new Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, a joint effort of China’s Xi’an Jiaotong University and the UK’s Liverpool University.

I’ve often felt that homeownership is not the rosy American Dream that it claims to be. I find homeownership limiting, both economically and geographically: my parents and their friends, and now friends my own age, seem to sacrifice anything and everything in order to make mortgage payments. The years I worked at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, taught me how the federal housing agency was created partly to help sell the idea of homeownership right after WWII and enable it through a series of government-backed programs and policies. Then there’s my own research in the area of immigrant settlement and housing choice, which included a serious look at Canadian federal housing policies that have slowly eroded rental housing, co-op housing and social housing as options while supporting homeownership through numerous incentives. Let’s just say that it’s no surprise that at age 36, I’m still a renter, bucking the DINK and yuppie trends, a little cynical about the myth that renting is just “throwing your money away.” After all, renting has allowed me to remain flexible, pick up and move to different cities, travel, and live in neighbourhoods I never could have afforded if I had bought.

It appears that Richard Florida agrees with me. Higher rates of renting, public transit use and residential mobility are all key themes in Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, released two weeks ago (read a review of the book, and other Florida works and quirks, on Urbanophile). Florida belies the myth that housing is a good investment, particularly when it’s held for 20 or 30 years: the rate of return on housing in the US has generally been quite low, in fact from 1890 to 1990 it was exactly zero. We’ve all seen how difficult it can be to sell a house in recent years in the US, and in earlier recessionary times in Canada: my parents’ current house was bought for $20,000 less than a similar house a few blocks away because the owner had lost her job in the 1990s recession and had to sell quickly. A friend’s parents sold their house in 2007 for almost the same price they paid for it in the early 1980s because the mill in their town had closed, leaving most of the residents out of work.

Overinvestment in housing has decreased investment in other areas like medical technology, software and alternative energy. Florida has written before about the dangers of putting too many eggs in one basket: at the height of the mortgage crisis in the US (in a November 28, 2009 article in the Globe and Mail), he wrote that the mortgage system was directly responsible for the crisis, and that the era of overinvestment in homeownership and car ownership were over. Interestingly, Florida also applies his argument to individuals: Canadians carry more mortgage debt as a percentage of their disposable income than Americans, meaning we have far less to spend on other things. A friend of mine who works in mutual funds and investments tells me the average homeowner pays for their house two and a half times due to interest. This is probably no surprise to those of us living in the country’s biggest cities, where housing prices are astonomical and have not shown any decline in growth since the US mortgage crisis. In fact, housing prices in Canada increased 20% last year.

Florida argues that in cities with higher homeownership, unemployment is also higher because homeowners are less likely to pick up and move when things get tough. He believes that mobility is often the key to employment, and more flexible housing choices are key in times of economic instability. It seems there are other people out there like me, who prefer the flexibility of renting because we want to remain mobile and have no desire to live in one place for twenty years. We aren’t all that uncommon either: 40.1% of the Canadian population moved within the past five years, according to the 2006 Census; 14.1% moved within the last year. Florida correctly predicted that rental housing would play a major role in stabilizing the US economy after the mortgage crisis: families were able to move into foreclosed properties that were renovated and re-marketed as affordable rental housing. This was because the Obama administration wasted no time in investing $4.25 billion on the creation of tens of thousands of federally-subsidized rental units using the federal Making Homes Affordable program.


Vintage 1950s matchbooks featuring real estate ads

In his May 3rd article in the Globe and Mail, Florida goes as far as saying that “home ownership is an impediment to Canada’s long-term prosperity” because high house prices, low interest rates and lax government policies in Canada could spell trouble for the housing market. Even though people have been talking about the “bubble” for over fifteen years, Edward Jones’ recent report predicts Canada’s is about to burst. The federal government recently made it more difficult to get a mortgage and is considering other measures to tighten mortgage availability in order to protect the market from collapse. They eliminated the no down payment mortgage option before the US crisis began, but there is still a 5% down option. What is particularly interesting to me as a non-economist is how the housing market has historically been used to maintain or even increase consumer spending to stave off or recover from economic recession: besides the post-war era, we saw low interest rates brought in after the 1989 stock market crash in Canada and after 9/11 in the US to encourage people to keep buying homes. I guess there’s a fine line between “removing barriers to homeownership” to encourage spending and bringing on an economic meltdown by letting anyone with a a couple of bucks buy a house.

Massive marketing was required to sell the idea of homeownership as a stable, more respectable lifestyle choice. Let’s not forget that those first homes were practically given away at very low prices and low mortgage rates, their construction highly subsidized by federal governments in both the US and Canada. Those cherubic children, war brides and returning vets in 1940s suburban home ads were so convincing that most of us still believe homeowners are somehow better than renters: even Florida hints that switching from homeownership to renting might have “unforseen social costs” for cities and regions. Our own values and biases about homeownership drive the market. Yet a mere 60 years ago, renter households were the majority in both our countries.

The classic French text Un chez-moi à mon coût (2000) (edited by Eric Brassard), which I read at the urging of a fellow renter working at CMHC, carefully dissects all the economic myths of homeownership, arguing that it is often the non-economic factors that are the most influential. The book presents case studies of housing choices of a variety of professionals, both renters and owners, who argue that there is no sound economic argument for homeownership or against renting: it just comes down to personal preference. But we’re so invested in the homeownership ideal that investing in rental housing, or convincing middle-income families to rent, would take a lot of work. The tide may be turning in the US, but with high housing prices and fairly easy access to mortgages, we may not see this shift in Canada until our own mortgage crisis rears its ugly head.

As many of you know, there have been some very interesting developments in American cities over the past couple of years. Some cities have experienced decreased car ownership, there was a decrease in Vehicle Miles Travelled in 2008, and even the American Dream of homeownership has taken a left turn. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the proportion of homes being built in central cities has doubled since 2006.

The EPA report Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions summarizes a study that examined residential permit data over 19 years (1990-2008)  in 50 metropolitan regions. In roughly half of the regions, there has been a dramatic increase in the share of new residential permits built in inner cities and older suburbs.

Among the cities that saw a substantial increase are New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Miami, Chicago, Denver, Portland, Seattle, and Fort Worth. But even smaller centres like Birmingham, Milwaukee, and Kansas City saw substantial increases in the share of residential permits in their inner cities. Cities with low increases include St. Louis, Detroit, and Salt Lake City, while Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hartford, Providence, and Buffalo all had slight decreases. Particularly interesting are the graphs which show detailed trends for specific metropolitan regions, contrasting urban fringe, 1st tier suburb, and city permits. In many cases, we can see the beginning the mortgage crisis on these graphs: between 2004 and 2006, urban fringe areas began their decline and cities began their ascent.

A lot of this has to do with housing type: national data confirms that the proportion of single detached housing permits decreased from 71% in 2000 to 59% in 2008. Townhouses remained relatively stable, while condos increased from 4% to 7%, rented condos from 16% to 24% and large multifamily buildings from 11% to 23%. I find these numbers surprising: little by little, the American Dream seems to be crumbling before our eyes. We have to remember that not all of this change can be pinned on the dismal housing market, since the trends persist over 19 years.

The EPA cautions that, while the data reveals a substantial shift in residential patterns, a large percentage of construction still takes place on previously undeveloped land. While the share of residential permits increased in many regions, in some these still account for less than half the overall share at the regional level. They would like to do further research on what is driving the shift: real estate market fundamentals or public sector policies? What type of residential units are being built on previously-developed land, and what percentage of these are transit-accessible? However, they did feel safe in saying that, “This acceleration of residential construction in urban neighborhoods reflects a fundamental shift in the real estate market,” citing lower crime rates in urban areas and increased demand for homes in walkable neighbourhoods close to jobs.

I’m getting pretty tired of writing about great policies and projects that we’ve proposed in Canada, only to have to write later that the government has decided not to fund them. Toronto’s Transit City project, an ambitious attempt to link the suburban parts of the region to reliable rapid transit through the construction of eight LRT lines, is under threat. Despite being approved by the federal and provincial governments, the province is threatening to cut Transit City funding by half, decreasing the viability of the project considerably.

A map showing the proposed LRTs

I’ve written before about how complex governance is when it comes to public transit in our municipalities. Vancouver’s struggles to build the UBC rapid transit line and many Canadian municipalities’ policies to better link transit and housing are detailed in several other posts. Even when projects are approved, it’s no guarantee they will be built because we have no stable source of funding for public transit and no consistent governance structure that enables the transfer of federal or provincial funds to municipalities. Transit City originally proposed eight lines: Sheppard (14 km), Finch West (17 km), Eglington Crosstown (33km), Scarborough, Don Mills, Jane, Scarborough Malvern, and Waterfront West. The province agreed to fund the first four back in 2007: of these, three are new lines (Sheppard, Finch West, and Eglinton) and the fourth is a retrofit of the existing Scarborough RT with four new stations. The province’s proposal to cut funding in half will put the Eglinton LRT, Scarborough RT, and Finch LRT at risk: the Sheppard line is already under construction while Eglington and Finch were to break ground this year and Scarborough in 2012.

As U of T Social Work professor David Hulchanski illustrated a couple of years ago, increased incomes in the areas around the existing two subway lines make it all but impossible for lower- and middle-income people to live close to rapid transit.

Hulchanski's map showing the need for rapid transit

Hulchanski’s most recent map shows the areas which have decreased in income in the past forty years against the proposed lines: the new LRT lines would be making transit much more accessible to the rapidly-growing areas of the region (read his plea for action on ttcriders.ca). My own work with immigrants in Toronto shows that they are willing to travel long distances on infrequent public transit buses only for a short time; eventually they succumb to buying one, two, and three cars. They live further and further out because that’s where affordable housing is…little realizing their transportation costs will eat away considerably at their savings.

Last week mayor David Miller recorded a public service announcement on the subway PA system telling people to call the Premier’s office and their MPPs to oppose the Transit City cuts. Many of the local mayors are also urging their citizens to do the same. All sorts of organizations, from Toronto Environmental Alliance to the Public Transit Coalition have links to the appropriate politicians, and there is a Save Transit City site. I urge you all to call, email, write the MPPs and Premier McGuinty and if you’re in the Toronto area, pack the Council chambers this Wednesday April 21st.

Now that Vancouver is awash in Olympic madness, it’s time to reflect on the city and its unique personality: its extraordinary natural beauty, polarized social classes, laid-back attitude and multi-million dollar condos.  Combined with its unique geography, with a downtown “core” surrounded by water, its various municipalities linked tenuously together by a few bridges, Metro Vancouver is one-of-a-kind.

A great article in The Walrus (Gary Stephen Ross) contrasts “the Vancouver you see and the one you don’t.” Vancouver might have “world-class” restaurants, but it’s impossible to hail a cab after 10pm or have a drink on upper Granville Street after midnight.  Environmentally-conscious thinking is serious out west, and the City of Vancouver often initiates innovative policies and programs. But Ross rightly points out that Vancouver is missing several indicators of “civic heft and maturity”: until the Canada Line’s opening last fall, there was no public transit line to the airport; the main train terminus at Pacific Station does not present the city’s best face; there’s no downtown university campus with an adjoining student neighbourhood, no major civic square or broad pedestrian promenade. Ross recalls a 1960s trip to Vancouver, when the city was little more than a frontier town; compared to the more cosmopolitan Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver was a lightweight.  He points out that this is still the case: with a population of about 600,000, the City of Vancouver’s analogues are more likely to be Charlotte, Memphis, and El Paso than Chicago or New York.

The first full day of competition illustrated some of these complexities. While tourists lined the streets and hung out at Robson Square to see the events unfold, protesters smashed in the windows of Bay’s Georgia Street store, where the entire main floor is devoted to Olympic merchandise. Anti-Olympic sentiment has evidently not faded in Vancouver, where many residents have left the city altogether to get away from an event they didn’t want in the first place. After Expo 86, a world exposition that many people attest “put Vancouver on the map,” international attention focused on Vancouver. Almost immediately after the event, Hong Kong developers bought up acres of prime real estate at the waterfront, and by the 1990s the city was glittering with high-rise condos. Housing prices shot through the roof and the sleepy town’s well-kept secrets of soaring mountains and underused waterfront were now offered up to the highest bidders.

Vancouver grew almost overnight, and the complexities that Ross presents in his article are characteristics of a city still in its youth, one that has not yet come to terms with its “world-class” label. It’s easy to forget that until Expo, Vancouver was a mid-sized city at best. Vancouverites who grew up here attest to this, even those who are too young to remember the 1988 Calgary Olympics. To them Vancouver should still be as it was in the old days of the early 80s: a natural wonderland that was relatively unknown even among Canadians. They resent the crowded hiking trails, the high-rise condos that populate Yaletown, and the implication that others might want to live in their city. Unfortunately, this makes it a city with deep social rifts. The city is home to both the richest and poorest postal code in the country. Labour strikes, whether they involve public transit workers or the City of Vancouver staff, last for months on end because the two sides are so polarized. Pervasive homelessness is a never-ending topic, as it is in Toronto, but it’s complicated by what are often the highest property prices and rental rates in the country. The region’s aboriginal peoples may have been fairly well represented in the Olympics Opening Ceremony, but there are still major tensions between them and the provincial and municipal governments around land claims.

While Ross is indeed correct in implying that many of these characteristics remain unseen and unheard, they go a long way in explaining its citizens’ lukewarm attitudes towards migration, commercial ventures and tourist attractions. So while the many spectators, athletes and media representatives focus on the Olympic events, they can’t help but be intrigued by the complexities of Vancouver and its inhabitants. In time Vancouverites may be happy to host world events and embrace immigration and migration to its shores, but it’s still too young to appreciate growth and change.