Making a case for urban density: A vision for Brampton, ON

January 12, 2016 Michael Votruba

This Toronto suburb is a perfect candidate for a denser urban core

By Alfredo Landaeta and Mike Votruba (Toronto, ON)

Recently, the Urban Land Institute, in collaboration with the City of Brampton, Ontario, launched an ideas competition for the downtown area. It was an enticing challenge to explore radical ideas to revitalize the area. The competition sparked our interest as urban designers and visionary city builders. So, we put our heads together. The result? We won second place!

But let me take you back to the beginning with a bit of background on Brampton. Brampton used to be a small Ontario town; today, with a population of 530,000, it’s grown to become one of Toronto’s expansive commuter suburbs. Most of the growth has happened around the periphery of the city, leaving its historic center mostly unchanged. The potential of Downtown Brampton is completely untapped. The core boasts numerous community assets, such as the Rose Theater, City Hall, multiple government and corporate offices, and the Peel Art Gallery. Residents can easily access Toronto through commuter train service, a multimodal GO station, and Zum Bus service, which is becoming all the more important as Toronto’s housing prices are pushing more people into the suburbs. What’s lacking in Brampton, however, is the creative energy and street life to create a vibrant place.

So, how could we capitalize on all of this potential and generate ideas to revitalize downtown Brampton?

In most North American cities, the traditional growth pattern of suburban sprawl is running out of steam; the challenge of current political leaders is to get ahead of the curve and respond to a demand that is clearly shifting to more urban environments.

Dynamic, active, pedestrian-friendly, and connected: All downtown areas in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are trying very hard to embody these concepts. Changing demographics, the need to slow down new greenfield development, increased environmental awareness, and a more pervasive “the city is my living room” attitude are the drivers of change in North America with young crowds – and quite a few empty nesters –who are returning to the urban cores.

But this resurgence has to be earned. Quality and quantity of public spaces, cool amenities, restaurants, cafes and bars, a diverse cultural offering, convenient and reliable public transit, and a strong and unique character all are ingredients that, in different degrees, need to be present for downtown areas to flourish.

Our proposal for Brampton is a simple yet comprehensive strategy for the area: connect, intensify, infill.

Connect with the bigger picture: Make the downtown easily accessible from adjacent residential neighborhoods by creating an integrated network of pedestrian- and bike-friendly spaces, linking the Mississauga Creek Trail, the Downtown Courtyards, Gage Park, and Centennial Park. People will be able to seamlessly go from a walk along the river trails to exploring the shops, restaurants, and cafes of the downtown woonerf – a fancy word for a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use street, usually narrow and flanked by low-rise buildings – while commuters from the GO train will be able to walk or bike through trails and paths going through parks and natural areas or through active and dynamic streets.

Intensify: Bring new residential and commercial developments to the area. While Main Street should remain mainly mid-rise and retail oriented, higher-density residential buildings can be accommodated in the second tier, facing the upgraded courtyards and woonerf but one step away from main streets. The area is full of possibilities but it needs a year-round focal point that has an almost daily appeal to locals and visitors – something like a public market spanning over the GO bus facility and directly linking the station with the woonerf behind Main Street.

Infill: Redevelop lanes, back-of-house areas, and parking zones behind Main Street in active and engaging courtyards, woonerf, and patios that cater to pedestrians and bikes. These spaces will be naturally activated by the people coming and going to the GO station, the office buildings, and the cultural activities available in the reimagined downtown, creating a truly unique environment of pedestrian spaces full of activity and spontaneity.

Through this visioning process for Brampton, a few things became very clear (at least to us):

  • Downtowns, even small ones, are poised for a strong comeback to the front lines as cities grow and the trend towards denser and more dynamic environments becomes mainstream.
  • Denser urban environments are not just fashionable, but one of the best ways to curb sprawl.
  • Uniqueness is highly valued: Urban centers with strong character will attract more attention
  • Transit is fundamental and, if properly used, a great catalyst for activity and vitality.

Finally, cities are part of much bigger natural systems, connecting to parks, greens corridors, and other natural amenities. Creating functional and seamless transitions between those and retail- and amenity-loaded urban spaces enhances and strengthens both.

About the Author

Michael is an urban designer. As a leader for sustainable, urban-focused city-building projects, he brings over a decade of architecture, urban design, and planning experience to our Urban Places Group in downtown Toronto.

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