The Links between Social Change and Urban Form

What are the links between the social changes, trends and issues documented above and the form of the Central Ontario Zone? How will these trends shape the future form of the Central Ontario Zone? What opportunities and constraints do they present? And, finally, what is the contribution of social change to the development of a Smart Growth strategy for the Central Ontario Zone?

The direct links between social processes and physical form are, in one sense, tenuous. Very different social formations, diverse populations and contrasting ethno-cultural communities, can and do exist within similar physical designs and built forms. On the other hand, almost all urban forms are shaped by changes in social composition, directly and indirectly, through demography and migration, household and family formation, and by changes in attitudes and preferences about where, how, and with whom to live. Population growth determines aggregate rates of residential land consumption, and the demand for housing, infrastructure, and social services; demographic change sets demand for specific services such as schools and health care. The locations at which these demands are expressed, in turn, defines the distributions of population, local employment and the labour supply, and the locations of public services, as well as infrastructure and transportation needs.

To what extent will recent and anticipated social changes influence the evolving form of the Central Ontario Zone? To what extent will they contribute to meeting the specific mandate of the Smart Growth strategy sub-panel with respect to issues of intensification and compact development, the balance of brownfield and greenfield development, the balance of centralizing and decentralizing tendencies, and the challenges of overcoming the infrastructure gap? These are difficult questions that call for careful and detailed treatment; indeed, they would require another paper of equal or greater length. Here, in the limited space available, I can offer only a few examples of how those linkages might evolve over time.

It is worth reiterating that most of the sources and trajectories of social change outlined above are largely outside the direct influence of local and regional governments. In contrast, what is primarily within the scope and influence of local and regional governments is the geography of social change within the Central Ontario Zone. This includes, for example, the pattern and mix of employment, housing, and particular population groups, the locations of the most disadvantaged groups, the degree of spatial income polarization, the transport links between housing and jobs, and the level of equity in the provision of services across the Central Ontario Zone.

The first set of questions relates to urban form and the geography of growth and specifically to densities, the relative balance of development in brownfield (inner area) and greenfield (new suburban) sites, and the mix of jobs and housing. A continuation of the high rate of population growth is likely to place additional pressure for living space on both inner areas and outlying locations. In other words, the social processes outlined above will influence development in both directions - towards decentralization and suburbanization and towards intensification and brownfield re-use,depending on the specific groups and uses involved, and on timing. Smaller, non-family households, especially younger households, will likely move in larger proportions to the more urbanized and accessible locations. As this population cohort shrinks, however, the demand for inner-city locations and specifically for brownfield sites is also likely to shrink. The movement of the baby-boom population through the life course, on the other hand, will at least in the immediate future, support the demand for suburban housing. Given the huge difference in the size of these age cohorts, the overall balance of urban development is almost certain to shift to suburban and exurban, largely greenfield, locations.

It is also the case that some municipalities, especially Toronto, have had considerable success to date in attracting populations into their downtown cores and into other redevelopment locations. Indeed, the level of population growth in the central core is among the highest on the continent; and renewal is widespread throughout the urbanized area. It should also be noted, however, that this renewal of growth has taken place during a period when the context has been highly supportive of such trends. That context includes public policy initiatives, suitable market conditions (e.g., growth, prosperity), an appropriate demographic structure (e.g., young households), and flexible lifestyles (e.g., smaller and childless households). Those conditions may not persist for much longer. Additional initiatives - in terms of financial incentives and reduced environmental liabilities - could accelerate the redevelopment process, but by how much is not clear.

As the population continues to age, and as this process accelerates significantly after 2011, the movement of the grey population will begin to exert even more pressure on the housing market. This in itself will contribute to a continued detachment of decisions on job location and housing. Over the longer term the key question is: where this population will locate before and during retirement? Past experience indicates that many of the elderly will move further out from the urbanized core, into small towns and the semi-rural hinterland, or outside the Central Ontario Zone. They will not, however, likely move to the slow-growth portions of the Central Ontario Zone, at least not in sufficient numbers to substantially increase local growth rates. This combination of trends poses important challenges for planners and service-providers in outlying areas.

The continuing reorganization of households and families, both in size and composition, will also create its own challenges. The increase in two-worker households almost guarantees a further separation of jobs and residential location. For many of these households, decisions on job location is increasingly irrelevant; those locations can be adjusted as needed after the housing and community decisions are made. The other expanding population, households with no workers, will also contribute to this separation of work and home. Thus, given multiple work locations, attempts to provide a balance of jobs and housing in any part of the sub-region will be difficult, as the Don Mills experience has demonstrated, at least without very strong planning intervention and an explicit policy of housing and social mix.

These trends are related to efforts to address the uneven geography of growth within the Central Ontario Zone. The persistence of slow-growth areas - notably Brant-Haldimand, St. Catharines, and the eastern counties - calls for special attention and policies. The social trends described above do not offer much if any evidence in support of the argument that the current situation will be reversed, especially for the older urban communities such as Brantford. Even the more remote recreational hinterland is unlikely to attract much in the way of new population, at least not without vastly improved infrastructure. The obvious conundrum is that any efforts to decentralize growth into these regions will also require considerable investment in social and physical infrastructure, including health services and highways, and this will inevitably increase both servicing costs and long-distance travel.

The emergence of small pockets of disadvantaged populations throughout the Central Ontario Zone raises another set of questions. These pockets include older inner-city and suburban areas of Toronto, Hamilton, Oshawa, Kitchener, and Brantford, as well as localized concentrations in semi-rural settings. The very different characteristics and locations of disadvantaged populations require different kinds of policy solutions. It is, however, unlikely that shifting jobs to these locations will help, since their problems tend to relate primarily to demography, skills, and social attributes (e.g., household structure) rather than physical access.

The issue of increasing the density of development is equally problematic. First there is no widely acceptable definition of what density means. Is it population per hectare; or households per hectare; or dwellings per hectare? Is it net or gross? The common yardstick in planning is population density, but density is as much a function of household and family size as it is levels of housing consumption and subdivision design. In much of the Toronto region densities have gone down because of the process of demographic thinning - a fixed housing stock now accommodates 30% fewer people. If, instead, we use household (and thus dwelling) density rather than population density, we find that densities have continued to increase over time, in both older and newer areas. The principal problem, as I have argued elsewhere and above, is not residential densities per se but rather decreasing commercial, industrial, and recreational densities, the lack of integration of employment lands and residential areas (where feasible), and the weak coordination between both of these uses and the transportation system.