With a population expected to reach 10 million in the early 2040s compared to 6.6 million in 2011, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is experiencing a tremendous demographic growth. While parts of the population increase will be absorbed by Downtown Toronto and other central hubs of the metropolis, most of it will be spread across existing low-density areas through intensification. In order to accommodate the expected 3 million new residents, the retrofitting of already built up but underused spaces is becoming a necessity.
Yesterday, 13 students from the Ryerson City Building Institute presented their projects for the Students Retrofit the Suburbs program. Focusing on the challenges and opportunities in retrofitting suburban communities along existing and proposed transit lines while respecting the existing communities that developed years prior, each of the three student groups worked on a several areas in the GTHA considered as having an important potential for retrofitting and densification.
The conversation started with a brief introduction by the panelists and experts Jaclene Begley, Ryerson University Professor, Mike Collins-Williams, Policy Director at the Ontario Home Builders Association, and Zahra Ebrahim, Co CEO of Doblin Canada and Founder of archiTEXT. Shortly after, the students unveiled their ideas for the Golden Mile in Scarborough, Wilson Station in North York, and the Dixie and Dundas intersection in Mississauga. All of these spaces presented similarities, such as the presence of big box retail stores, large amounts of parking lots, poor walkability, low residential density, and good existing or future connectivity thanks to the presence of a GO Train or TTC Subway stop.
In all cases, it was clearly indicated that retrofitting a suburban space is more about improving it rather than transforming it. As a result, each group expressed their willingness to work with the sites's specifics. For example, the presence of big box retailers was considered an asset, with large chains anchoring the area and attracting people from other neighbourhoods.
Improvements thus consisted in a gradual intensification of the site through the construction of new housing, office and institutional spaces, while heavily investing in the public realm to achieve a better level of walkability. Indeed, the idea here is to give more than a single purpose to those places not only by diversifying land use, but also by giving the opportunity to those who already use the space to use it differently, like adding fine grain retail such as coffee shops and restaurants along landscaped pedestrian spaces, and bridging the gap created by parking lots between large retail stores to create walkable and comfortable spaces.
Zahra Ebrahim further explained how urban planners should not assume that people hate cars, big box retail, and a suburban lifestyle, and how it was important to work around the existing communities' needs to successfully improve an area; while trying to find incentives to encourage the private sector to invest in the areas around them—one of which is the increased customer flow created by attractive public realms and amenities.
Overall, the discussion aimed at addressing a common problem in city building, perfectly summed up by former Burlington Mayor Rob MacIsaac: "The only thing people hate more than sprawl is intensification."