Gabriela Lopez Forte walks her five-year-old daughter to school everyday, passing small parks and tightly packed Victorian-style homes as she navigates narrow tree-lined streets. The Lopez Forte family’s Cornell Park Avenue home in Markham, Ontario lies at the heart of an urban-planning Petri dish that seeks to redefine the suburbs and breed a culture of sustainability.
As baby-boomers become empty-nesters and their children enter the housing market themselves, both generations are increasingly heading back to the cities and leaving suburbia behind.
So, is there a future for the communities that author James Howard Kunstler deems to be "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world?" It’s people like Lopez Forte and communities like Cornell that are keeping the country’s suburbs and smaller cities on life support — proving there are ways to retrofit suburbia to become more sustainable and more attractive to people of all ages and economic situations.
Granted, not all communities afford the same redevelopment opportunities as others, but new urban-design principles may soon be coming to a town near you. New urbanism is an increasingly trendy planning concept that seeks to recreate the pedestrian-friendly and high-density cities of the 19th and 20th centuries.
One might even call it a 'back-to-the-future’ approach to urban design.
In Cornell, garages are located in laneways behind single and multi-family homes, while grid-like street patterns were chosen in favour of confusing networks of windy roads. George Dark, managing partner with Toronto’s Urban Strategies, has worked on Cornell’s open space design for over a decade and stresses the importance of designing a neighbourhood where people can walk to nearby schools, stores, community centres and parks.
"If you think of an urban city as a salad, all the ingredients are present and mixed up in one bowl," he explains. "A typical suburb, on the other hand, has all the ingredients of a salad, but everything is in separate bowls at each corner of the table. What we have tried to do is toss it all back together."
And a new ingredient will soon be added to the mix — Markham Centre, an area planned to be Markham’s new downtown core. It represents yet another dose of new urbanism in the area.
David Clark, an architect for the Town of Markham and part of the senior management team responsible for the Markham Centre project, hopes this development will illustrate the possibility of growing outward in a sensible way by intensifying within an urban boundary. "By intensifying inside the urban envelope, it puts less pressure on the need for outward expansion and the growth of the community can be better managed," says Clark. The downtown core is being planned to house over 35,000 people, one high school, four elementary schools, 20-25 hectares of park and open space, 30 hectares of protected open space in the Rouge Valley area and about 17,000 new jobs.
When all is said and done, it seems that Markham residents will be able to have their cake and eat it too, living in a town on the outskirts of a mega-metropolis, all-the-while swapping car keys for walking shoes when the milk-jug is empty or it’s time for school. But as more and more people opt for the city centre and new communities like Cornell or Markham Centre, what will happen to the suburbs that don’t easily lend themselves to urbanization?
Even with the issue of private property ownership aside, Clark agrees that it’s very difficult to urbanize already established suburbs and smaller cities simply because of the way the streets and lots were originally designed.
But John Norquist of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an urban planning organization based in Chicago, Illinois, holds out hope that there is a way to bring urbanism out to suburbs that don’t easily lend themselves to infill.
"There must be some way to pierce the world of the cul-de-sacs with new streets and pathways in order to make them more navigable and pedestrian-friendly," he says. Lago Lindo, a community of about 5,000 people in the northern edge of Edmonton, is trying to do just that. Currently, there is a request before city hall calling for the installation of a mini-traffic circle midway through the community which would slow traffic and make the area more pedestrian-friendly. There has also been talk about adding paved paths in order to connect the community’s two schools.
But other than rendering the community more walkable or developing it from the ground up on open land - as was the case in both Cornell and Markham Centre - urban planners like Dark say some of the best opportunities for infusing new urbanism into suburbs come in the form of greyfields. Greyfields are developed sites that are economically and physically ripe for major redevelopment.
For example, a failed shopping mall has the potential to be transformed into multi-family dwellings with retail and employment opportunities located on the ground level. But Jill Grant, a professor in the School of Planning at Dalhousie University, says it’s important to remember that suburban life is still desirable for a lot of people.
"People will likely want to live in suburbs well into the future, even in the midst of what’s happening within the oil industry," she explains. "Prices of oil may well go up and while a lot of literature seems to assume that people will move to the city for work, maybe industry will move out to the people."
In the meantime, new urbanism will continue to be infused into smaller cities as well as new and existing suburbs such as McKenzie Towne in Calgary’s southeast corner, East Clayton in the eastern part of Surrey and Oak Park Community in Oakville.
But while professors, urban planners and governments are trying to determine the fate of many of the country’s suburbs and smaller cities, people like Gabriela Lopez Forte won’t be biting their nails in suspense. Instead, they’ll be enjoying daily strolls on the sidewalks of their new urban neighbourhoods.