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Doughnut cities: everybody connected with urban planning has known for decades that allowing suburbs to spread is not a good idea, yet suburban growth continues.

Until the 1950s, Canadian cities were compact and tended to grow upwards, not outwards. The reason was that not many people owned cars so they depended on public transportation to get about. Living close to a streetcar line, bus route, or train station was an advantage. Houses were small and tightly packed so more people could enjoy that advantage.

Cities such as Montreal and Toronto developed "downtown." This is where all the business offices were, all the government operations, as well as the department stores, large hotels, and most of the restaurants and theatres. If you wanted to see a movie, consult with a lawyer, or buy a living-room suite, you went downtown.

The economic boom of the post-war years--the 1950s and '60s--meant more and more people could afford to buy a car. They were no longer confined to living within walking distance of public transit. The rush to the suburbs began.

It caught on with families for many reasons. Land was cheaper so lots were bigger; parents liked that because kids could now play in the yard instead of the street. Bigger lots meant the houses could be bigger, giving families a little more elbow room. On the edge of town, the air was cleaner, there was less noise, and no traffic congestion.

Roads were improved so that commuters could get in and out of downtown with ease. Soon, banks and retailers started to open suburban branches. Then came the suburban shopping malls, followed by the power centres. Offices and factories started to locate on the outskirts. Now, there was no need for many city-dwellers to go downtown anymore; everything they needed was close to home out in the suburbs.

As people moved out of the city core, services began to shut down--neighbourhood schools, community centres, libraries. City officials found it cheaper and more efficient to build new facilities on suburban land than to fix up aging buildings in the central core.

What started to develop were doughnut cities--places where growth is faster on the edge of the city than it is in the centre; where businesses and people start to abandon the downtown core; where, just like a doughnut, the centre is empty. There are plenty of examples to point to where this has already happened, none more graphic or disturbing than Detroit (see sidebar on page 12). No Canadian cities have yet fallen into irreversible core decay, but there are troubling signs that the process has started in some communities.

The 2001 Census revealed that only two Canadian cities--Abbotsford, B.C. and Ottawa--had higher growth rates in their central cores than their surrounding suburbs. The rest are being outpaced in growth by their suburbs. And, the car is both the cause and the effect of this trend.

Car ownership makes suburbia possible, while suburbia makes car ownership necessary. Residential areas are separated from commercial areas. There are no corner stores, local schools, or neighbourhood cafes to walk to. Places of work are clustered together in industrial "parks." Shopping, banking, doctor's offices, and other services are set up in malls surrounded by large parking lots.

Because of the distances and low population densities in sprawling suburbs, public transportation is uneconomical. People are more or less forced to drive rather than walk, cycle, or take the bus. And, it's the suburban transportation issue that attracts criticism from just about every quarter.

Environmentalists bemoan the destruction of farmland, woodlots and wetlands to build the suburbs, and then point to smog created by increased traffic. Doctors warn that the lack of exercise and the breathing of traffic-fouled air are having serious and negative health impacts. Business people complain that traffic congestion causes lost production time. Architects and the general public condemn the visual pollution caused by a built environment designed to accommodate cars. Social critics point to the isolation from, and aggression towards, others that comes from driving around in a private car.

The anti-sprawl forces martial other arguments. They claim that suburbanites:

* enjoy tax and service benefits over core dwellers;

* suck up a disproportionate amount of political attention and, therefore, action; and,

* use city-centre amenities but don't pay for them.

There is a sameness to suburbs everywhere. City character is blurred until every place becomes like every other place-all adding up to "No Place." Along with this comes a loss of the sense of community.

In general, the opponents of sprawl are on top at present. A clear sign of this is the widespread popularity among planners and politicians of so-called "smart growth." This is really the currently favoured buzz-phrase for sustainable development; that is, growth that meets the needs of today without stealing resources from the future.

But, the people keep coming. Just look at the pressures on the Golden Horseshoe--the urban region running around the Western end of Lake Ontario. Today, 7.5 million people live there; by 2031, it will be 10.5 million. Where are they all going to live if we don't keep building new subdivisions? The smart growth people suggest turning to the work of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, for answers. Along with Jeff Speck, they wrote Suburban Nation in 2000.

To avoid spreading farther and farther out, the New Urbanists seek to intensify land use. New developments should focus more on Victorian-style row housing. Porches are put on the front of houses and back-alleys are used for car access. Streets are narrower and sidewalks wider. New urban communities are multiple use where people can walk to shops, work, school, and entertainment. Existing neighbourhoods can be intensified by building second and third floor apartments over retail stores.

Every city has a host of what are now called "brownfields." These are plots of land that used to have factories on them and may have contaminated soil left over from their industrial past. These empty lots can be cleaned up and stacked town-homes with parks and courtyards put in. According to the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy there are 30,000 abandoned or underused properties across Canada. They range from empty warehouses and former railroad yards to decommissioned oil refineries and disused harbours. Those are some of the dos. The Sierra Club has suggested some of the don'ts that will discourage urban sprawl.

In its 2003 publication Sprawl Hurts Us All, the environmental group says governments should stop building new highways, "Because they only bring more suburban sprawl development and air pollution that kills and sickens thousands ... each year." Same thing with water supply; laying in new mains just attracts more suburban development. A ban should be placed on new greenfield development until smart growth rules are in place. No building permits should be issued until there is a complete "analysis of the financial, health, and environmental costs of proposed developments."

Others have pointed out that sprawling suburbs are too costly for the public purse. Think about snow clearing, garbage collecting, policing, and busing. They all involve vehicles travelling farther to do their jobs. Greater distance takes longer, and time is money. Installing sewer pipes, water mains, and hydro lines involves longer runs and higher costs. Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario, has put some numbers on the extra charges. For every extra dollar in taxes the municipality gets from expanding suburbs, it spends $1.40 on services to these low-density communities.

Jane Jacobs says there's more than just an obvious financial cost to urban sprawl. For more than 40 years, Ms. Jacobs has been a highly respected authority on community enhancement. In her 2000 book, The Nature of Economies, she writes about the cost of lost creativity and productivity as thousands of people waste time in long, daily commutes. She adds that burning fuel in traffic snarls is a form of borrowing from the future. These and other costs, such as long-term environmental damage and health problems, should be factored into suburban development, proposes Ms. Jacobs. If these hidden costs were included in the price of low-density housing urban sprawl would be curbed. Many Canadian municipalities show signs of starting to adopt this idea.


Recognizing the problems of urban sprawl, some leading urban designers were brought together by the Local Government Commission to search for solutions. The result of their brainstorming was presented at a conference at the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite Park in the U.S. in the fall of 1991. The ideas have been called the Ahwahnee Principles and they form the basis of New Urbanism/Smart Growth/Sustainable Development--whatever you want to call it.

1. All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents.

2. Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs, and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.

3. As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit stops.

4. A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.

5. Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community's residents.

6. The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.

7. The community should have a centre focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural, and recreational uses.

8. The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens, and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.

9. Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.

10. Each community or cluster of communities should have a well-defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.

11. Streets, pedestrian paths, and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully-connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees, and lighting; and by discouraging high-speed traffic.

12. Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage, and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.

13. The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.

14. Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping, and recycling.

15. The street orientation, the placement of buildings, and the use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community.


Detroit has always been a gritty kind of place. Its 19th century prosperity was built on making iron and steel and then bending those metals into ships, railroad cars, stoves, wheels, and other products. Then, in 1897, another product was added to Detroit's output when Ransom Olds opened an automobile factory. Ten years later, Henry Ford's plant was churning out affordable Model Ts by the thousand. This was Detroit's golden age. The city's population grew by more than a million in 20 Downtown Detroit on a Monday morning. years. The downtown core was bustling and vibrant, with huge and ornate picture palaces, bank towers, grand department stores, nightclubs, and restaurants.

During the 1950s, the car plants moved out of the city core; the land was cheaper and the plants could be bigger to meet rising demand. Between 1947 and 1958 automobile companies built 25 factories in the metropolitan Detroit region, but not one of them was built in the City of Detroit. Middle class, white auto workers followed the jobs. The department stores and posh hotels started to close. Only the bad guys were out and about on downtown streets at night. Everybody who could leave had gone, taking the city's tax base with them. The inner city of Detroit was left to poor, black people who had no options.

Racial tensions started to build: housing and education was sub-standard; the mostly white police department was accused of racism, and blacks couldn't get decent jobs. In July 1967, Detroit exploded in a week of riots, arson, looting, and violence. Inner city neighbourhoods crumbled into disrepair and buildings were left abandoned by their owners as worthless.

There have been many attempts to rescue Detroit from the sad state into which it has fallen. Some have worked for a while, but Motown remains a dysfunctional place--a city with an empty core.


According to a 2003 study by University of Waterloo planning professor Pierre Filion, the best downtown cores in Canada are in Halifax, Kingston, and Victoria.


Outside Denver, Colorado they've bulldozed the huge Villa Italia Shopping Mall and are building a replacement of streets with a mixture of homes, sidewalk cafes, offices, and shops, in other words what we used to call downtown.


In 1989, Charles, The Prince of Wales wrote a book about urban design entitled A Vision of Britain in which he advocated for many of the concepts of New Urbanism. Through the Prince's Foundation, the town of Dorchester in England is currently developing Poundbury based on Prince Charles's ideas.


If urban sprawl around Toronto is not contained, more than 1,000 square kilometres of agricultural land will be converted to urban use by 2031, according to a 2001 study.


1. Millions of Canadians want to live in suburbia; if they didn't, developers would have trouble selling new subdivisions. If their choice of lifestyle has some side effects, these will likely be reduced or eliminated by improved technology they ague. Organize a debate around the proposition that people have the freedom to choose where they live regardless of impact.

2. In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities (ISBN: 0-679-60047-7), which The New York Times described as "perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning ..." This very readable book remains highly relevant today as planners seek to halt the decline of urban areas into doughnut allies. Have a team of students write a book report.

3. Suburban subdivisions can often be identified by the contrived names given to them by developers--Meadowacre Woods, Pheasant Run Trail, Aspen View Way. Have the class draw up a list of street names from your community and discuss reasons why developers choose them.


Canadian Institute of Planners--http://www.cip-icu. ca/English/home.htm

Congress for the New Urbanism--http://www.cnu. org/

Distillery District--http://www.thedistillerydistrict. com/home.html

Local Government Commission-- index.html

Poundbury-- /projdir-ueppoundbury.html
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Title Annotation:Suburban Sprawl
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
Previous Article:Overtaxed and underfunded: Canada used to have model cities, but funding cutbacks have knocked them down fore decades.
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