This post originally appeared on Ken Greenberg’s blog at kengreenberg.ca on August 18, 2020. It is being reposted here with the author’s permission.
It has now been over a year that I have been working with city planning and urban design staff in Brampton as a Strategic Advisor on implementing its aspirational 2040 Vision adopted in 2018. One of the key areas where this is playing out is around Shoppers World, the conversion of a 60 acre mall into a new mixed-use neighbourhood that will ultimately house about 10,000 people and provide employment for 3,000 at the juncture of Steeles Avenue and Hurontario/Main Street where a new LRT will arrive from the south linking with an existing transportation terminal. Picking up from my last blog here is a progress report on how that is playing out as the plans take shape.
The challenge is daunting. The kind of neighbourhood we are seeking to create in its place is a complex organism – many moving parts, different actors over time, dynamic, interactive, a manifestation of “organized complexity”. A key challenge in delivering on that vision is putting things together in time and space that have lived in silos until now, aligning design moves, public and private investments to be more than the sum of their parts. It is not the work of even the most inspired soloist but of the coordinated actions of a diverse array of actors. This idea of collective creation was captured succinctly by Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
This is where innovative planning and urban design have critical roles to play, convening, and providing overall design direction to these diverse actors. Urban design thinking is about seeing large pattens, releasing synergies and unlocking value by creating positive chain reactions and virtuous circles, situations where 1+1+1 = 6 or 7. The many collateral benefits to be derived from successful place-making will be enumerated in a business case that is being prepared for City Council. Some are easily quantifiable in economic terms: expediting development, return on public sector investment, job creation, increased taxes etc. Others, no less important, are more indirect and qualitative like better public health outcomes and social cohesion and lighter environmental footprint. A holistic approach fosters lateral thinking where the solution to one problem may reside in a different area. Mixed-use becomes a mitigating solution to traffic congestion.
While many of the great neighbourhoods we admire have evolved over long periods of time we are now looking to do this in highly compressed in time new places. In the case of Shoppers World this process is accelerating as many of the formative pieces are already in play including the LRT and supporting public infrastructure investments, plus multiple developers ready to invest. The goal is to make them fit together and support each other, to move them from relatively isolated predetermined set pieces to interactive components making a coherent walkable place.
Unlike, however, many of the neighbourhood precedents from elsewhere we admire where the government owns and controls all of the land at the outset, commissions the master plan and brings in investors or developers (e.g. Kalasatama, Helsinki, Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm), or large scale single private ownership examples where the one landowner is in control, we are dealing in Brampton with a diverse pattern of ownership in the area surrounding Shoppers World. This can be seen as both an added challenge and an opportunity – using this heterogeneity to provide greater diversity and the ability for more investors to act concurrently.
The city has a gamut of statutory planning tools to guide growth scaling from the larger policy context of the Official Plan and Secondary Plans setting out broad parameters re use, density, built form expectations and performance, environmental sustainability, housing affordability, mobility targets etc. to Zoning by-laws governing land use, density, heights, parking ratios etc. and Plans of subdivision formalizing the street network and dedication of rights-of-way.
In parallel and informing these formal statutory planning tools and the approvals process, Urban Design is contributing a range of new innovative design-oriented tools set the stage from a District Framework Plan supplying big generative integrating design ideas and concepts – the walkable 20 minute neighbourhood and the ‘Creek to Creek’ green armature within which growth will occur. The city will ultimately be responsible the physical and social public infrastructure of streets, parks, institutional uses and the shaping of the public realm which is the unifying glue that ties the neighbourhood together, comprising roughly half of the land area.
Within the Uptown Framework Plan covering approximately 9 square kilometers, individual Precinct Plans (the circles) will be developed for individual neighbourhoods like the Shoppers World 20 minute TOC on an as needed basis as development initiatives come forward. These will refine the broad concepts of the Framework and tailor them to specific circumstances, site conditions and property configurations.
The critical first layer of the District Framework is the Public Realm Plan is rooted in the natural features of the land in this case the parallel Ferguson and Etobicoke Creeks that are are woven into the fabric of the emerging neighbourhoods.
Lines of force extending from ‘Creek to Creek’ roughly 1.2 kilometers apart form an armature that penetrates and links existing and new neighbourhoods by forming loops of interconnected green space and trail networks.
Within each Precinct much of the delivery of the built fabric of this 20 minute neighbourhood will be accomplished largely through private sector investment on individual building parcels. In this case with private ownership of virtually all of the developable land, the neighbourhood will emerge from an intensive ongoing dialogue between public sector, the private sector and the institutional and non-profit sector. Partnerships will play a crucial role.
These interlocking plans, the District Framework Plan and the Neighbourhood Precinct Plan are guiding and coordinating both the shaping of development on private lands as well as public actions, the design and treatment of public spaces, streets, parks, trails and public facilities.
A vital role of the urban design and planning team is working with the developers and designers of each building project to shape the relationships between the public and private spheres, melding the seamless fusion of these two realms – the public and private into coherent places in the thresholds that link them, the in-between spaces and interfaces. This requires hospitable public-facing ground floors and generous safe and attractive spaces for community life at grade level.
Each individual development project is seen as a valuable chess piece both designed to meet specific needs but at the same time contributing to larger goals – potentially extroverted on all sides reaching out to surrounding streets and natural green spaces and its neighbours. .
The particular forte and skill set of urban design in this negotiated process is the ability to visualize and simulate outcomes, extending the focus of attention beyond individual property lines – making the invisible visible calling attention to latent relationships like the emergence of the underlying larger structure of the creeks as valuable natural features or the streets as shared social spaces, but also fostering a dialogue and conversation among the diverse developments and built-form to public spaces for example the interface of the adjoining developments, turning ‘backs’ to ‘fronts’ forming a third place.
There is a highly accessible signature public space at the heart of every neighbourhood precinct, in the Shoppers World case the enlarged Kaneff Park with the Community Hub (here shown as a prototype) as a pavilion in the park containing a school, library, community recreation centre, day care, arts and cultural uses, an entrepreneur centre and a range of ancillary public uses with nearby shopping for daily needs and restaurants and cafes as convenient community gathering spaces on the adjacent High Street. This extended ‘hub’ is the beating heart, the shared common ground of the neighbourhood accommodating both daily life routines and special occasions throughout the year.
The toughest nut to crack in Uptown will be humanizing and transforming the intersection of the two major arterials at Steeles and Hurontario/Main Street which geographically becomes the ‘100 % corner’ of the 20 minute TOC Neighbourhood with redevelopment currently proposed on three and potentially on all four corners. This will be the real test of the city’s 2040 Vision for prioritizing urban development served by safe and attractive active transportation.
Achieving the city’s vision for a transformed major arterial illustrated in the 2040 Vision will require a major rethinking of priorities.
Finally the urban design work underway is not a singular one time intervention, report, study or plan. It has to be seen in the 4th dimension, not as a fixed snap-shot of a moment in time or an imagined end state. It involves an ongoing commitment to a multi-year multi-decade process. It depends on fostering a shared culture of design thinking among a talented and motivated city team and a diverse group of collaborators some of whom are identified below.
The 20 minute neighbourhood that is emerging around Shoppers World in Brampton is promising start, a work in progress in early stages. It represents a sea change in attitudes and practices in an environment formed around the car. It won’t ever look exactly like any current image, but will evolve, leaving room, for improvisation, creativity and new ideas on all sides, but it will enable new ways of living that are inherently more economically productive, environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive and culturally rich.