Urban planning enthralls me, like so many others, because it holds out that tantalizing promise of agency, that assertion that we can choose how we live, and live better for it. The movement of the moment, “New Urbanism,” also called “Smart Growth,” is part revolution, part return to the past—or specifically, a past in which we lived closer together, walked out to main street to work and gathered at local watering holes. The Government of Ontario calls its particular vision of high-density growth "Places to Grow." The expert planners and architects who have envisioned ‘compact living’ have done so for some time now; European (and to a lesser extent, American) cities of the past provide inspiration. For many, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of automobiles for the masses, mark the break between the time we lived close to our livelihoods and the time we sprawled away from the factories that polluted town centres. Living in a different era, we want to return to a former point in time, to live the life we have imagined from old records and photographs of the past.
There is no doubt that 'high-density living,' with a modern twist of mixed-use and eco-friendly planning, would contribute positively to the way we live in Toronto. This type of development would accommodate not only different groups of people in the same space, but the different activities they get up to in it. Benefits would include decreasing traffic, reducing pollution and diminishing the isolating effect that sprawl has on many individuals and families.
But it also strikes me that we have always wanted to improve the way we live, and that we have always longed for a distant past. In the closing lines of his masterwork, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald once pit the sheer exuberance of an America (here, one can safely substitute North America) faced with the prospect of transforming wide open spaces into one dream or another, against the sheer barrenness of the task at hand:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Fitzgerald’s words are often read as an indictment of the ultimately futile ‘American Dream,’; I read it instead as an ode to our need to strive, regardless of where it gets us.
So in keeping with the spirit of dreaming big dreams, I will avoid repeating some of the more common criticisms of ‘New Urbanism’ and merely note them here. Some argue that developing high-density neighbourhoods on new land actually contributes to urban sprawl. Others feel that projects focused on redeveloping existing neighbourhoods drive up home and rental prices, forcing out existing residents and eroding urban diversity. On the other end of the spectrum, skeptics hold that commuters cannot be asked to give up cars before excellent transit systems are built (planners generally hope that the relationship works the opposite way—only when a critical mass of citizens are transit users will we consent to paying the taxes and fees necessary to build a great system). While valid concerns accompany most redevelopment efforts, sticking with the status quo—inefficient suburbs, deteriorating downtown cores and increasing traffic congestion in both directions—is not an alternative. These concerns can be addressed with the proper mix of planning and incentives. There are, however, more persistent challenges that may undermine the long-term viability of ‘New Urbanism.’
Complicating the central ambition of New Urbanists—co-locating homes and jobs—is the shifting nature of the economy and the resultant unpredictability of job creation and job flight. Several days after the mayor of Pickering, Dave Ryan, promoted the new high-density, mixed-planning neighbourhood of Seaton, designed to “provide jobs as well as places to live,” GM announced the cutting of 1,200 jobs in Oshawa, a suburb similarly situated in sprawl which could benefit from similar redevelopment efforts. When it comes to the local economy, areas like Pickering and Oshawa tend to be heavily dependent on changing industries such as electricity generation and manufacturing, making community sustainability far more than a question of architectural creativity.
Beyond jobs, there is the 'how' of bringing schools closer to home. This goal may be realized in suburban housing projects, where many schools are well-attended and perform relatively well. However, it is uncertain how this effort may play out elsewhere.
Sandwiched between the Rogers Centre and Fort York with the Gardiner at its feet, City Place is a complex featuring condo tower upon tower anchored by community centres boasting yoga and mom-and-tot programs. It has had little trouble attracting the 14,000 young professionals it targets, but with few 2-bedroom condo options on offer, it remains to be seen whether families will stay.
But even if families do remain in the area, is schooling just a matter of location? Currently, City Place residents are served by a private Montessori school; two new schools are also planned for the area. However, the fact that many students are expected to come from a planned public housing unit in the complex is telling. In many parts of Toronto, it is low-income families renting cramped quarters who keep local schools open, not elderly HomeOwners whose children have long moved on. Downtown schools may be boosted by bringing younger HomeOwners back into the city. But a quick look at some nearby public schools in the Harbourfront neighbourhood reveals the challenge faced by many downtown schools with a diverse population: lower academic performance. Given this, will young parents decide that a local school setting may still provide a good place for their children to thrive, given the advantages of diversity and real-life experience? Or will parents decide instead that traveling to a private school is a better option when living downtown? And if it is indeed the latter, will public transit actually replace the familiar caravan of cars and yellow buses seen throughout the suburbs?
Urban planners, developers and policy makers will have to grapple with the true nature of homes, jobs and schools in powering forward the new housing movement. But like Fitzgerald, I wonder whether our best efforts could languish against a greater force—the way we want to live pitted against the way we tend to live.
Urmi Desai is an economic analyst and a freelance writer specializing in urban issues. She is editor of the Move Smartly blog.