Themes from our Hot Topic panel discussion on placemaking

Orange, blue and green overlay on renderings of master planned communities with the words Suburban with Sub crossed out and Hot Topic 2018 and the Quadrangle logo
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Our 2018 Hot Topic event, held in our Studio, engaged a range of seasoned industry professionals in a stimulating discussion on the topic of placemaking for the next generation of communities in the GTA. Moderated by Rob Spanier, President of Spanier Group, the panelists included Remo Agostino of The Daniels Corporation, Lisa Chandler of Oxford Property Group, Pauline Lierman of Urbanation, placemaker and author Jay Pitter, and Urban Strategies’ Emily Reisman.

Here’s what the experts had to say:

The suburbs are currently the exciting places of opportunity

With what we think of as the traditional downtown core of the City of Toronto experiencing an explosion in development, developers are looking outside of this tight market to neighbouring municipalities. “People are realizing that we’re not all going to live downtown and are really looking at the value of those areas,” Pauline Lierman said. She pointed to the undeniable growth of Vaughan as an example, citing research that showed nearly 50% of GTA condominium sales during last year’s market high occurred in the 905 regions.

Emily Reisman agreed, and said that while the traditional post-war suburb may be seen as inefficient with its heavy reliance on car travel, we have the opportunity now to improve the suburbs by building upon the solid foundation of community building that has been ongoing for decades.

a graphic showing 12% living in the downtown versus 88% living in the suburbs of the GTA and 83% growth in Toronto suburbs from 2006 to 2016
Source: School of Urban and Regional Planning, Queen's University; Dr. David Gordon

There has always been placemaking in the suburbs

While the suburbs are becoming an exciting area for placemaking, this is not new. Suburbs were places of opportunity when they evolved in the first place and as the panelists pointed out, there has always been placemaking in the suburbs, it just looks different today.

Many historic communities have evolved into what we now call the GTA suburbs, and the core of each community might have its own unique style, whether that’s Maple or Kleinburg in Vaughan, Cooksville or Clarkson in Mississauga, or the many communities that make up Markham.

“In the pre-war type of environments, it was a community common, or a park, or a square that served as a community gathering place and in the post-war suburbs the mall took on that function,” Emily explained.

aerial rendering of the Downtown Markham master planned community

On the power of language

“Sometimes when we talk about suburban it is seen as inferior in some way,” Remo Agostino said.

City builders would do well to remember the poignant words of Jay Pitter. “There is scholarship that compares the way that we are now talking about the suburbs to colonization,” she said. “Colonization is predicated on this idea that people come and discover this blank slate without a culture, without a history, without a group of people doing amazing things, and superimpose their brilliance onto that place.”

panelists speaking at Hot Topic 2018

Sometimes policy can get in the way

A common frustration for placemakers is that sometimes you can get stuck just following policy. There is a worry that if your project doesn’t find a champion at City Hall, the end goal of a vibrant public realm can be dulled when policymakers become boxcheckers instead of innovators.

“Yes, there is a policy framework, but at the end of the day ask yourself, what are the roles and objectives of that policy?” Remo said. “Be visionary enough to say let’s not stagnate our policy if we have to sort of change course to achieve that goal and objective.”

Lisa Chandler pointed to an example where her team tried to get a park incorporated into a mixed-use project by finding space for it above a retail parking structure. In the end, her team was unable to get credit for that park. “Why can’t we stop making the policy be the thing? Think about what the ultimate outcome is that we’re all trying to achieve and just figure out a different way to get there and make sure everyone gets what they want. Because when you’re a mom with a stroller and you’re going to the park, do you care who owns it? Do you care who maintains it?”

view from the back of the room showing the audience listening to panelists talk at the front of the room in Quadrangle's studio

Placemaking is about people

Whether you’re building in the GTA or beyond, you have to remember that you’re making a place for the people of that place – there is no one size fits all formula to placemaking.

Jay explained that people aspire to different things. While downtown urbanists may understand riding a bike or taking transit to mean they love the planet and want to connect with neighbours, there are many newcomers living in the suburbs who may have a dream of a single-family home and a couple of cars.

“I think that one of the things that we need to do is to have…a conversation that isn’t so condescending, but a little bit more educational around place,” she said.

“Every time we go into a community, we have to remember that that’s what it is we’re doing,” Emily said. “We’re arriving in someone’s backyard and trying not to say that we know any better about what they need and want than the people who are living there do.”

looking up the aisle of the audience to Lisa Chandler speaking

The future of placemaking extends beyond traditional municipal border limits. To build the next-generation of mixed-use communities, we need to embrace the suburbs by taking these communities as seriously as we take existing city cores.