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Toronto Urban Sprawl Compared to Other Cities

middeljohn

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One of my favourite things to do when I'm on one of my urban research binges (as I imagine all of us on this site tend to be plagued with from time to time) is to look at cities on Google Earth to see what they look like from space, how the city developed, where new development seems to be taking place, etc. I don't know why this fascinates me so much, but it does.

It's interesting to look at cities from above, because only then can you truly understand how some cities can boast having 5000 people/km yet not have many highrises, while other cities have world famous skylines, but have an urban density of less than 1000 people/km. What I haven't done before though is compare cities head-to-head before by taking screen captures at the same scale and viewing them next to each other. I've been meaning to do this for a while.

Until today that is.

I've chosen three cities to compare - Toronto, Atlanta, London (UK) - because they are all large urban areas between 5 and 10 million people, and because each of those cities has completely different density statistics. I noticed a long time ago how much denser Canadian cities tend to be when compared to American cities, and I was curious what the differences are in how buildings are spaced out, highway density etc.

Before I share the results I'll explain the method I used. I took screenshots of each of the cities at almost the same scale and outlined the continuous urban areas. If significant green space separated a satellite city from the urban core (ie Milton for the GTA), I didn't include it. I also marked two lengths across the urban area, one of them being the longest straight line I can draw that is all urban, and the other the longest straight line that is roughly perpendicular to the first line. Lastly, I tried to find the best example of a common low density suburb for each city, because it's astounding how much it differs across countries.

First I'll just show you the images of the entire urban areas in succession without any discussion in between so you can appreciate the vast differences between how each city is laid out.

Toronto:


Atlanta:


London:


Toronto stretches pretty far from Hamilton to Oshawa, but I was surprised that the longest north south built urban area I could find (section passing through east Brampton to the lake) is only 35km. I always thought that it'd be closer to 50km. Atlanta takes up much more space than Toronto, with the longest distance across I could find being 150 km. In case you don't believe me that that is all urban area, I recommend you go check it out for yourself. A lot of the area appears green, but that is just because there is so much space between houses. Truthfully, I don't think I even got it all. It's insane how far it stretches! And unlike Toronto, it goes stretches out in all directions, whereas Toronto's long continuous urban stretch is relatively contained when you go in the perpendicular direction.

London really surprised me by how contained it is. Despite being the most populous urban area of the three, the longest distance I could find is only 56 km, or about the distance from Hamilton to Mississauga. I saw after making the picture that there is a longer possible route if you use that section in the south-east corner, but that is such a secluded little section of the urban area that I didn't think think it is a fair way to judge the city.

Toronto longest direction = 125 km
Atlanta longest direction = 150 km
London longest direction = 56 km

Toronto longest perpendicular = 35 km
Atlanta longest perpendicular = 110 km
London longest perpendicular = 44 km

The second series of images corresponds with the yellow stars you see in the first series of images. These are the typical low density suburbs you see in cities that are on the outer periphery, typically indicating modern suburbs built after highways became what they are today. These are zoomed to about the same scales for each one, but not exactly the same, so pay attention to the scale in the bottom left corner.

Toronto


Atlanta


London


From these pictures it becomes much more apparent how each city values urban density. London's outer fringe suburbs are much more similar to the suburbs you would find in Toronto proper, with the long narrow yards, but with houses relatively small and close to each other. It is noticably denser than Toronto (I used north Oakville FYI), although Oakville looks hyper-dense when compared to Atlanta.

A couple things about Atlanta:
1. I didn't go out of my way to find the worst possible example, suburbs like that exist all around the city, check it out for yourself.
2. That's not even the worst example. I found other areas where there is even more space between houses that it looks almost rural, however it stretches on in that pattern for miles and miles. Just super low density.

Atlanta seems to just fade from city to rural, with the lots just getting bigger and bigger as you go further out, until at some point you notice that they have farms. Extremely poor planning, which helps explain why their highways are more congested than almost any other city in the US.

Toronto basically falls in between the two cities in terms of containment. Toronto suburbs look like they are built with a certain density in mind, and new development doesn't take place until the first space has been completely filled. Could it be more dense? Definitely. Those houses you see in the Toronto pic are all about 3500 sq ft, 2 storeys with pretty big backyards. I know because I grew up close to there.

London should be what we're striving for. They have an urban area density of 5000/km whereas the GTA is at 2700/km. The greenbelt should help a lot as it is almost filled out. With suburb cities like Mississauga, Richmond Hill and Burlington already completely filled out, and others like Oakville, Markham and Vaughan almost at their borders, we'll be seeing more and more high density development I'm sure. It is really incredible how dense London is without forcing people to sacrifice their privacy. Looking at the city in this way it becomes clear why they're able to operate a subway system as large as they have; they have high density across the entire urban area so that each stop becomes economically feasible.
 
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Johnny Au

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All three of those cities have subway systems: Toronto Subway and RT (operated by the Toronto Transit Commission), the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit (operated by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) (often called a subway there), and the London Underground (operated by Transport for London).

The MARTA has a much longer system than the TTC, but the TTC is much busier. The MARTA has a single interchange station called Five Points (the system is very much cross-shaped with a few branch lines), with that station being Spanish solution on both levels. The MARTA is very much overbuilt for its use. Five Points Station actually has a larger capacity than Toronto's Bloor-Yonge station, yet Five Points is as busy as Queen station in Toronto!
 
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middeljohn

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All three of those cities have subway systems: Toronto Subway and RT (operated by the Toronto Transit Commission), the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit (operated by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) (often called a subway there), and the London Underground (operated by Transport for London).

The MARTA has a much longer system than the TTC, but the TTC is much busier. The MARTA has a single interchange station called Five Points (the system is very much cross-shaped with a few branch lines), with that station being Spanish solution on both levels. The MARTA is very much overbuilt for its use. Five Points Station actually has a larger capacity than Toronto's Bloor-Yonge station, yet Five Points is as busy as Queen station in Toronto!
I'm aware of MARTA. Their system actually connects to their airport! It is also underused, averaging 422,000 users per day versus 2.65 million per day in Toronto. The reality is that Atlanta isn't dense enough for it to be a convenient way to get places. And yes, for the time being MARTA's subway lines are longer, but by the time the York Univ line is open they'll be the same length. And MARTA doesn't have nearly the bus and streetcar network of Toronto. Overall, Toronto and the GTA's transit systems are much more extensive than Atlanta's. However we don't even compete with London.

Another thing I forgot to note is the difference in highways for each region. The differences are astounding. I'll make a post on that later though.
 

KDP

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I've always wondered where New York's "Oakville" is? Not so much as distance, but housing stock suburbia. There's quite a bit Eastward through Long Island, New Jersey seems to be too built up/dense, and Norward into Westchester seems to be too rural.
 

AlvinofDiaspar

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middeljohn:

I think one has to be very careful when using one sample to generalize urban development patterns - it's not that difficult to sample other growth areas along the GTA fringe and come up with examples that have more in common with London.

I know you can't really get that info from the maps alone - but it would be interesting to sample multiple sites (preferablely, multiple sites in each area governed by the same OPs across multiple planning jurisdictions) for specific development periods.

AoD
 

Hipster Duck

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This is an interesting project, but there are a lot of philosophical questions you should be asking.

For starters, what is sprawl? I guess a simple answer would be that it's the contiguous built-up area of a populated region. And, more informally, sprawl is sort of a synonym for automobile-based suburbia and all the environmental and economic resources that supposedly gobbles up and social issues it may raise. So, even though it's a built up area that spreads over land, a neighbourhood like the Annex doesn't constitute sprawl, but a place like Woodbridge does. Of course, whether the people of the Annex use fewer environmental and economic resources and whether the built form of their neighbourhood leads to fewer social problems is open to debate, and is based on what perspective you take. Don't laugh! I once had a higher ecological footprint (which is just one of many, all imperfect ways of measuring your impact on the environment, economy and society) than somebody who lives in a 3,000ft2 suburban house and owns 2 cars because of all the flights I took. An ecologist who looks at landcover and ecosystem fragmentation might argue that Atlanta, which sprawls at such low densities that it might be considered rural, is less damaging to the original ecosystems as it builds exurban homes under a dense canopy of trees than the GTA, which basically introduced desertification (very little vegetation, complete habitat loss) to the area of southern Ontario it built over. Furthermore, are modern farms a form of sprawl? They basically wipe the biodiversity clean off an existing ecosystem and leave harmful pesticides in their wake. In Arizona, water use has remained stable for almost 60 years, despite a 10-fold increase in population, because of the loss of productive farmland to urban sprawl.

Secondly, how do you define the spatial boundaries of sprawl? If it's simply the furthest you can go between the city centre and its outermost suburban fringes before hitting farmland (see problems with farmland above), than a place like Ottawa would be doing terrific. It has had a greenbelt since the 50s, after all, so urban growth just leapfrogged across that. European cities are similar. Just because farms begin 25km south of Picadilly Circus doesn't mean that London's influence on a wider labour market, commuter patterns and housing dynamics ends there. People commute in to work in London suburbs from hundreds of kilometers away. They might live in commuter towns that are separated from each other and from London by high density farmland, but the game's the same: they live in lower density homes and do most of their travel by car.
 

Woodbridge_Heights

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This is an interesting project, but there are a lot of philosophical questions you should be asking.

For starters, what is sprawl? I guess a simple answer would be that it's the contiguous built-up area of a populated region. And, more informally, sprawl is sort of a synonym for automobile-based suburbia and all the environmental and economic resources that supposedly gobbles up and social issues it may raise. So, even though it's a built up area that spreads over land, a neighbourhood like the Annex doesn't constitute sprawl, but a place like Woodbridge does. Of course, whether the people of the Annex use fewer environmental and economic resources and whether the built form of their neighbourhood leads to fewer social problems is open to debate, and is based on what perspective you take. Don't laugh! I once had a higher ecological footprint (which is just one of many, all imperfect ways of measuring your impact on the environment, economy and society) than somebody who lives in a 3,000ft2 suburban house and owns 2 cars because of all the flights I took. An ecologist who looks at landcover and ecosystem fragmentation might argue that Atlanta, which sprawls at such low densities that it might be considered rural, is less damaging to the original ecosystems as it builds exurban homes under a dense canopy of trees than the GTA, which basically introduced desertification (very little vegetation, complete habitat loss) to the area of southern Ontario it built over. Furthermore, are modern farms a form of sprawl? They basically wipe the biodiversity clean off an existing ecosystem and leave harmful pesticides in their wake. In Arizona, water use has remained stable for almost 60 years, despite a 10-fold increase in population, because of the loss of productive farmland to urban sprawl.

Secondly, how do you define the spatial boundaries of sprawl? If it's simply the furthest you can go between the city centre and its outermost suburban fringes before hitting farmland (see problems with farmland above), than a place like Ottawa would be doing terrific. It has had a greenbelt since the 50s, after all, so urban growth just leapfrogged across that. European cities are similar. Just because farms begin 25km south of Picadilly Circus doesn't mean that London's influence on a wider labour market, commuter patterns and housing dynamics ends there. People commute in to work in London suburbs from hundreds of kilometers away. They might live in commuter towns that are separated from each other and from London by high density farmland, but the game's the same: they live in lower density homes and do most of their travel by car.
For me sprawl must meet the following qualities:
- Large (in land mass) contiguous development of same or similar types of uses (single family homes)
- Little variety in street profiles and neighborhood profile
- Manipulation of the environmental setting in order to maximize development potential (profits) which results in what may have once been slightly rolling terrain turned into flat graded land. Where 'environmental elements' are included they are little more than a tiny park and/or path
- Street patterns which focus on crescents, cul de sacs, and smaller streets (I say smaller streets due to not being able to think of a better way to describe an intermediate collector style road)
- Development which turns itself away from major roadways (concession roads in ONT) which results in concession roads becoming de facto expressways due to there being little to no activity (unless you count peoples backyards) along them
 

M.R.Victor

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For me sprawl must meet the following qualities:
- Manipulation of the environmental setting in order to maximize development potential (profits) which results in what may have once been slightly rolling terrain turned into flat graded land. Where 'environmental elements' are included they are little more than a tiny park and/or path
I'm very much an urban guy and understand all of the problems that suburbs create, but in terms of purely subjective experience, I'd much rather take those Atlanta suburbs over what's available in the GTA.

Although our planning processes are clearly more effective than what seems to be the case in Georgia, I think the GTA suburbs fully embody the term "soul-sucking." Our suburbs may do better across a variety of metrics, but the human experience is severely lacking. I agree that "London should be what we're striving for," but I can't for the life of me see how we're going to get from here to there anytime soon.
 

innsertnamehere

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Cheltenham badlands isn't exactly desertification, more of an odd farming anomaly. I would also include the likes of Newmarket and Aurora in the Toronto sprawl boundaries.
 

middeljohn

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KDP:

Yeah, NJ, Connecticut, Long Island, NY mainland. I've been trying to find a neighbourhood where the houses look like on of the modern Canadian suburbs but haven't been able to. I think the house styles you find in new subdivisions in the GTA are pretty unique to Canada. Not saying cookie cutter homes are unique, just the way our cookie-cutter houses look.

AoD:
The only places where that would be true for areas along the fringe, would be an area where new development hasn't taken place for at least 50 years, before our culture was as car centric as today. All new developments that I've seen have curvy roads, with the house quite a distance from the street, and yards that are wide rather than long and narrow. So basically the opposite of that example I used for London. And yes, it's one sample, I realize that, but before I took the screen shot I went through a bunch of neighbourhoods to make sure it's not an outlier, and it's not. Yes, there is some variation, and yes it would be more accurate to take multiple shots of areas throughout the urban area to get an accurate depiction, but that I didn't have the time to go that far in-depth yesterday in the post. Maybe a later date when I do the part 2 I'll include it :)

Hipster Duck:
I agree with everything you said, and that's interesting about Arizona. I consider sprawl to be a neighbourhood where it would be a major inconvenience for your day-to-day life to not have access to a car. One of my favourite places I lived was Hamilton mountain, right on the edge of the escarpment, because it was a suburb built in the first half of the century, so the whole area is mixed zones. I used to joke that Hamilton is great because you can be dropped off anywhere north of Stone Church Rd and be a 5 min walk from a bar. The point is that Hamilton has always had an emphasis of providing mixed zones and supporting small businesses, with the result being that you don't actually need a car for your shopping, and it has a high enough density that there is a bus every 10 minutes in most neighbourhoods. So you don't actually need a car to get by there.

Woodbridge Heights:
"- Development which turns itself away from major roadways (concession roads in ONT) which results in concession roads becoming de facto expressways due to there being little to no activity (unless you count peoples backyards) along them"

I've never thought of suburban arterial streets in that manner before, but that's an excellent way to look at those streets. Going along the QEW, pretty much all the interchanges lead to such "de facto expressways". A good example to use would be Major Mackenzie through Richmond Hill/Markham. Very few actual addresses are on MM itself, and if there is one, it's either a strip mall or a gas station. Excellent post with great points to define sprawl!

Innsertnamehere:
Yes they should've been included, an error due to hastily drawing the border.
 

middeljohn

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AlvinofDiaspar

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AoD:
The only places where that would be true for areas along the fringe, would be an area where new development hasn't taken place for at least 50 years, before our culture was as car centric as today. All new developments that I've seen have curvy roads, with the house quite a distance from the street, and yards that are wide rather than long and narrow. So basically the opposite of that example I used for London. And yes, it's one sample, I realize that, but before I took the screen shot I went through a bunch of neighbourhoods to make sure it's not an outlier, and it's not. Yes, there is some variation, and yes it would be more accurate to take multiple shots of areas throughout the urban area to get an accurate depiction, but that I didn't have the time to go that far in-depth yesterday in the post. Maybe a later date when I do the part 2 I'll include it :)
What you said might be true of developments in the late 80s and prior, but it certainly hasn't been the default pattern for the past 10 years or so. Here is an example of Churchill Meadows, an urban fringe development at the western edge of Mississauga:

http://goo.gl/maps/DMycJ

Or Brampton:
http://goo.gl/maps/HL0Dh

Or Oakville:
http://goo.gl/maps/e3hqn

Or Vaughan:

http://goo.gl/maps/AsakR
http://goo.gl/maps/WVdke

Or Markham:
http://goo.gl/maps/Wbzho
http://goo.gl/maps/0wsZi

King City:
http://goo.gl/maps/z6QYu

Ajax:
http://goo.gl/maps/MAByf

Oshawa:
http://goo.gl/maps/7NIYM

These types of development (with non-curvy roads, densely packed single and semi-detached housing mixed in with multi-story residential uses along key arterials) is a typical typology in the past decade. And let's not forget - the typology is also highly dependent on target demographic in general (higher density middle class housing vs. low density, cul-de-sac mansions)

Let's leapfrog a bit and look at a non-contiguous growth area - i.e. Milton
http://goo.gl/maps/xGr2F

Barrie:
http://goo.gl/maps/6VKM9

Stouffville:
http://goo.gl/maps/oRQ4F

The pattern still holds to a certain extent.

AoD
 
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doady

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Atlanta's sprawl is immense, and hard to define too, since the density is so incredibly low. Suburban is mix of urban and rural characteristics, and in Atlanta's case it definitely leans more to rural (exurban?). Discrete catergories for urban and rural for GTA is easy. West of Ninth Line is clearly rural, east of Ninth Line is clearly urban. For Atlanta, such a boundary doesn't exist.

Here's an example for Atlanta outside the boundary he drew:
https://maps.google.ca/maps?q=atlanta+georgia&ll=33.483071,-83.920612&spn=0.060921,0.065231&safe=off&hnear=Atlanta,+Fulton,+Georgia,+United+States&gl=ca&t=h&z=14

Where can you draw the line? The contigious urban area for Atlanta arguably could be a lot bigger than shown on the map in the OP.
 

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