On November 25, as budget talks progressed—and sometimes raged—across the hall, Toronto's Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, led her sixth Chief Planner Roundtable of the year, closing out a three-part series about Toronto's suburbs. This roundtable was focused on mobility issues—in particular the state of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure—in Toronto's suburbs.

This third and final roundtable of 2013 was perhaps the best yet. The participants that Ms. Keesmaat found for this event clicked in a manner that allowed for greater dialogue than was seen in previous meetings.

Jennifer Keesmaat sets the agenda for the final Chief Planner Roundtable of 2013. Photo by Eddie LaRusic

“Our suburbs are not one stereotypical image”, Keesmaat said as she kicked off the meeting. The previous two roundtables showed not only how diverse the people are who live in places including Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York, but also how varied our suburban built form is. Of particular focus at previous roundtables were the abundance of tower-in-the-park communities, which present both challenges and opportunities to better integrate their residents with both the low-rise bungalows that we often associate with Toronto's suburbs, while also posing a challenge in regards to ameliorating the massive car-centric infrastructure that was built alongside.

Joining Jennifer Keesmaat today were:

Mr. Laspa started the presentations by giving a quick history of transit infrastructure investment, starting with the creation of the TTC in 1921, through the investment that was seen between the 50s and 80s, to the virtual abandonment by subsequent provincial governments that has led to the the present state of playing catch-up after decades of inaction. For the suburbs, Laspa said, the challenge is in filling in many of the gaps (both physical and otherwise) to not only encourage a healthier balance of transit options, but also in creating places that people want to spend time in. “It's not just about streets, it's about making complete communities where those streets go to.”

Farrow shows some images proving that barriers will not deter all pedestrians. Photo by Eddie LaRusic

Jane Farrow—whose report commanded particular attention—discussed the findings from a series of studies examining walkability in some of Toronto's tower neighbourhoods. Ms. Farrow presented 6 observations from her research:

  1. Few residents have cars, and only about 50% of residents actually had a driver's license. “They're towers in the parking lot, in more cases than not,” she said
  2. Residents in high-rises face hostile walking conditions, leading to people 'creating' their own pathways;
  3. Residents see car ownership as the solution to their problems, a result of decades of mistreatment by the city;
  4. Different groups see walking conditions differently. Youth in particular, may see the 'quiet' residential road as quite threatening;
  5. Poorly maintained walking environments lead to disengagement. Farrow said that many residents felt that “the worst conditions get, the less likely it was to be repaired”; and
  6. People like walking, even if it's hard. “The suburbs are walkable, they just have very poor walking infrastructure,” Farrow said. “They deserve better.”

Mississauga shares many traits with some of Toronto's burbs. Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati discussed some of her experience with introducing more cycling infrastructure to that city. One of her observations was that there were many multi-use trails in Mississauga, but that they were often linked poorly together (a familiar experience for many Toronto cyclists throughout the city), so making those connections was important. Additionally, one of the opportunities of building wide, multi-lane streets, she said, was the opportunity to “right-size” roads to improve both the cyclist and pedestrian experience, particularly as those roads are refurbished or undergo work. Hayward Gulati cautioned that it might be expensive, but that “big bucks need to be spent when opportunities arise.”

60 Richmond, photo by Shai Gil, image courtesy of Teeple Architects

Leslie Woo's of Metrolinx presentation explained what her agency is doing to improve neighbourhoods, which included  working with businesses and schools to provide sustainable and active transportation options. Despite approximately 75% of Metrolinx project budgets going towards the big-ticket transit infrastructure, she said it's important to think of the small details. “We're all enamored with the big projects, but equally important as the Big Move, are the little moves.”

Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas of TCH said that rather than thinking of terms of adding large transit infrastructure as a solution—"a teaspoon solution to an ocean of problem"—the issue should be looked at as a problem of housing and employment. She pointed out 60 Richmond as a prime example of affordable housing that was created to house people who worked in the nearby service industry.

Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker of Urban Strategies ended the presentations by talking about transit oriented development, and said that it's not about density for the sake of density, or transit infrastructure for the sake of transit infrastructure, but about creating communities. She listed some examples of opportunities with the Weston GO station revitalization that will come as part of the Union-Pearson line to create pedestrian connections, public space, and public art. “Our suburbs are our next great opportunity”, she said, echoing previous roundtables.

Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati (left) talks development in Mississauga, while Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker looks on. Photo by Eddie LaRusic

One of the big take-aways of the roundtable was “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper”, a phrase used to describe a planning process that seeks to substantially improve issues in neighbourhoods by making small changes that are creative, local, and do not require huge sums of capital to realize. New York City's Times Square was mentioned as an example of this idea, where paint, pots, and some movable furniture transformed the area. This idea came up during a number of presentations, as a way of improving the lives of residents, particularly in the short-term, as the long-term investments such as subways and LRTs are built.

Of particular conflict during the discussion was the idea of having an “incremental” approach to building new infrastructure, versus introducing big, dramatic moves. Keesmaat suggested that here in Canada, the approach has often been this kind of incrementalism, and asked whether it was working or not. Woo suggested that the big changes require leadership (not only public, but private), to which Keesmaat asked whether, “in the absence of leadership, incrementalism is what you've got”. Woo suggested that the real challenge is that “future-proofing” a city can takes decades. Keesmaat replied that she wasn't satisfied that city-building should take a long time. “We have a big gap; the catch 22 is, how do you ever begin to catch up?” Hayward Gulati took a more moderate approach, suggesting that both could exist. “We don't want 'the best' to be the enemy of 'the better'”.

Six ideas were communicated to help improve mobility in the suburbs:

  1. "Get rid of fences" Farrow said. "By negotiating easements with private property owners, connections could be made."
  2. Also from Farrow, she suggested that better data collection was needed, to “raise the game” for studies. “I'm not sure we're capturing pedestrians in the data,” she said.
  3. Hayward Gulati suggested that budgeting cycling and pedestrian infrastructure into the major transit infrastructure projects could be done better.
  4. Woo said that one area that Toronto could do better at is in creating better signage for pedestrians.
  5. Lapsa came back to an idea he repeated several times over the course of the morning: the need for public-champions to help drive change. “If you don't have your political champion, you're not going anywhere.”
  6. A common suggestion amongst the various chief planner roundtables, Rottenberg-Walker suggested that the City should ease up on their zoning, “so we allow communities to be a little more organic, a little more responsive.”

The whole panel gets into a lively discussion about solutions to suburban mobility problems. Photo by Eddie LaRusic

Ultimately, there was some agreement that it would take people from all city departments, politicans, residents, and other stakeholders to all get on board in improving mobility in the suburbs. The small solutions may not require major investment, but they do require a lot of consultation and conversation. As Keesmaat cheerfully lamented, just because good ideas don't take major capital investment, doesn't mean that they aren't hard:

“It's not Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper, Easier.

The Chief Planner Roundtables are not finished: more will be held in 2014, although topics have yet to be selected. An action guide will be produced that summarizes the past three roundtables, and it—along with summaries and information about past and future roundtables—will appear on the Chief Planner Roundtable website. Did you attend the final roundtable of the year? What did you think? Leave a comment below!