Mid-Density Cities Can Meet Community Needs While Containing Sprawl, Ryerson Report Concludes
An institute at Toronto’s Ryerson University is diving right into the looming debate over urban density in an age of pandemic.
Ryerson’s City Building Institute had spent the last year working on a report on “density done right”, looking at “how distributed urban density can support healthy, livable neighbourhoods, housing affordability, and the environment” in one of Canada’s most densely-populated regions. “The Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) faces a dilemma: how to accommodate millions of new residents in the next 20 years without continuing the unsustainable growth pattern of suburban sprawl and hyper-concentrated density,” the institute states in its capsule intro to the report.
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The report projects a regional population of 13.5 million by 2041, nearly a 75% increase from just over 7.8 million in 2016. It “outlines an actionable scenario of growth spread throughout existing urban areas that can lead to gains in transit, business, local services, and neighbourhood vitality, while reducing cost burdens on municipalities,” the institute states.
“In researching and writing Density Done Right, we sought to highlight opportunities for municipalities to add housing via distributed, gentle- and medium-density development throughout the region’s already urbanized footprint, so that new growth isn’t pushed outwards or hyper-concentrated,” the institute added in an email earlier this month. “But just as we were putting the finishing touches on the report design and preparing for a mid-March release, COVID-19 struck in Ontario.” At first, “it seemed inappropriate to release a report promoting density amidst necessary physical distancing measures and growing impacts of the virus.”
But then, “in recent weeks, a lively discussion among urbanists, planners, policy watchers, and city builders on the topic of density in light of COVID-19 has emerged. Experts across North America—the world, even—have been sharing predictions for how the development pendulum could swing back to sprawl, with others refuting density reversal and putting forth ideas on how good density and urban design can ease crowding and create more room for people (rather than dedicating most public space to cars),” among other benefits.
So CBI went ahead and released the report in the first half of April.
“For decades, population growth in the GGH has been characterized by low-density sprawl, which built over thousands of hectares of previously undeveloped agricultural and natural lands,” it states. Between 2006 and 2016, communities claimed undeveloped land, typically farmland on the edge of urban areas, “at a rate of over 1,000 hectares per year to build new developments. Between 2001 and 2011, over 86% of net new residents added to the GTHA were housed in new subdivisions built on greenfield land. This sprawl has paved over Ontario’s agricultural land—some of Canada’s most valuable—and natural areas.”
And now, “as sprawl marches outward towards the far reaches of designated greenfield areas, the future of undesignated agricultural lands and green spaces is threatened. Environmental groups have called for these areas to be protected like the Greenbelt, as they are critical to protecting biodiversity, wildlife habitat, economic prosperity in the agricultural sector, and drinking water headlands. Plus, as climate change creates uncertainty regarding domestic and international food production, protecting more lands for Ontario’s food security is critical.”
Sprawl also “carries with it significant public and private costs,” the CBI warns. “It leads to lost farmland and natural areas, and negative impacts to health and the environment associated with auto-dependent development.”
Moreover, “sprawl in low-density areas is more costly in terms of municipal services and infrastructure, which places financial burden on municipalities. For example, the City of London, Ontario estimated that over 50 years, the municipal capital costs of a sprawling growth scenario would be an additional $2.7 billion, or 180% higher, than a more compact growth scenario.” In 2005, a study for the Regional Municipality of Halifax put the cost of “linear infrastructure” like roads, water, and sewers, as well as human services like libraries, police, and fire services, at $3,462 per household per year at a density of 40 people per hectare, compared to $2,170 at 89 per hectare and $1,416 in a high-density setting with 228 per hectare.
That higher target isn’t necessarily the best. “While higher-density development is optimal in locations close to major transit station areas, transit corridors, and employment centres, many municipalities in the region have relied too heavily on tall residential buildings to meet their intensification targets, squeezing the majority of their intensification efforts into small areas of land,” Ryerson writes. “Rising land values in the limited areas approved for growth precipitate an over-reliance on building ‘tall’ in a small number of high-growth areas. This, in turn, has led to challenges in the GGH, including a lack of units suitable for larger households, overburdened infrastructure systems, and a mismatch between population density and the provision of services, such as transit, schools, health and community services, and parks and recreation.”
But there are other options. “One alternative to the predominant pattern of ‘tall and sprawl’ development in the region is to plan for more distributed density throughout the urban footprint, utilizing a variety of building typologies and a range of densities,” the institute states. “Distributing low, medium, and higher residential densities throughout urbanized areas in GGH municipalities, rather than in concentrated high-growth nodes, could help address many of the challenges associated with hyper-concentrated development, provide more new ‘in-between’ housing options for end users, and minimize the reliance on unsustainable sprawl to deliver family homes.” Ryerson says that approach would:
- Make neighbourhoods more livable and economically vibrant by locating new housing near existing services, parks, transit, schools, and amenities;
- Address crushing problems with housing affordability by reducing the scarcity of land designated for multi-unit development, and “permitting gentle and medium density in more places”;
- Boost sustainability by reducing carbon emissions, protecting valuable land, consuming less energy, and encouraging healthy, walkable neighbourhoods;
- Increase the range of housing options “to meet the needs of individuals and families at all stages of life, allowing residents to grow and age in place”.