Report Back: Transit-Oriented Communities: Uptown Hurontario-Steeles Virtual Townhall

October 19, 2020 by Cecelia Pye

On October 8th, the City of Brampton, in partnership with ULI Toronto, U of T’s School of Cities, and the City of Helsinki, hosted a virtual town hall event, bringing public, private, and non-profit leaders together. Over 500 people registered to attend this unprecedented event where speakers from various levels of government and local leadership, as well as business leaders from the City of Brampton shared visions for how Uptown Brampton can be transformed into a transit-oriented community (TOC) to meet the growth targets set out by province and the Brampton 2040 Vision.  

Mayor Patrick Brown kicked off the town hall’s opening remarks, noting Brampton is “a forward-thinking city, we champion smart planning for vibrant, healthy, complete community.  It is a future of people connected by modern transit, arts, culture, green spaces with a centre at its heart.  The innovative urban hub is off to an amazing start.  Many of the information pieces are already in play, including the LRT coming in 2024, and other supporting public investments and infrastructure currently underway.”  

Honourable Kinga Surma, Associate Minister of Transportation, Ontario Ministry of Transportation, shared that she is “proud to be leading the transit-oriented communities program,” as “we have a responsibility to not just build transit, but to build dynamic, complete mixed-use communities around stations.  Partnerships with local municipalities and private sectors will help us to deliver on these goals. Ideas exchange tonight will be invaluable as we planned for Ontario’s future.”   

Emma West, Chair of ULI Toronto, shared that the event “reflects the best of the global mission.  Provide leadership to seek to elevate conversations. Push vision to achieve a better outcome to maximize public and community good.”  This also reflects the leadership to “realize the bold Brampton 2040 Vision, which stands out as progressive urbanism in the Toronto Region, also noteworthy as an emerging North America best practices.  How modern transit-oriented communities can strengthen community and local economy.”   

Eduardo Moreno, Director of City Prosperity Index from UN-Habitat shared his support for the vision and the need to “understand the system of city to better respond to the pandemic”, the opportunity to “redesign city to improve accessibility, to act quickly, and to recreate the use of data as a form of the public good, based of City Prosperity Index.”  

Sonia Sidhu, Member of Parliament for Brampton South, also shared her support for the vision. Sidhu noted how the transformation would further position the City as a great place to live, work and enjoy, as “Brampton will become an innovative hub through healthy, walkable, transit-oriented communities. Reducing commute, cutting air pollution, and strengthening communities. Co-located facilities in Urban Community Hub will improve our quality of life, further positioning our City as the best place to live and work.”  

Regional Councillor Paul Vicente then spoke to the value of public transit in reducing pollution and reducing the amount of time spent in traffic, saying “gaining the time back is what 20-minute walkable neighbourhoods and 26-hour cities are all about. Complete communities are not complete without a vibrant economic component. The proposed concept for developing Uptown includes much of what we need to see.  Having the community plan for and map out ahead of time to understand the landscape for pedestrian mobility is crucial to help businesses to have the confidence to put investments in any neighbourhood.” 

Similarly, Regional Councillor Martin Medeiros spoke from his experience of growing up and currently living in the Uptown Core area. “I think of my parents, who soon won’t be able to drive,” he states as he identifies that the walkability of the Uptown Core will enable healthier living for a wide range of residents with varying mobilities and will enhance residents’ quality of life. 

Following the opening remarks, Yvonne Yeung, Ken Greenberg, and Matti Siemiatycki presented more information about the growth model, detailed strategies for Uptown Brampton’s future and report back of findings from the October 2nd Walkshop.  The report back started with a couple of videos created by local youth and the Brampton Urban Design team to provide an on-the-ground impression of “Uptown Today” and a vision of “My Uptown TOC” in the coming years.  

Yvonne Yeung, Manager of Urban Design at the City of Brampton then delivered a presentation that spoke to how Brampton has a unique place in the Greater Golden Horseshoe as the youngest, most diverse, fast-growing City with a vision of “20 min walkable neighbourhood with urban community hub as a new growth model for TOCs.”  And how this model is the “beginning of a movement that can transform 80% of the developed world from car-oriented areas to sustainable transit-oriented communities.”  Yvonne further presented how 20-min walkable neighbourhood model will transform Uptown Core into a “landing ground for new immigrants,” adding that it will be a “gateway for new residents.” 

Looking at international best practices, it was identified that the master plan process and early delivery of community services are a critical component of designing a successful and transformed community. To provide these critical community services, the City and its partners plan to construct the Shoppers World Urban Community Hub.  Intended to serve as an anchor for the community, the Hub will foster social connection, health, and innovation.  Ken Greenberg, Principal of Greenberg Consultants, presented an interlocking design-based framework at 3-scales that the City is currently using as a working tool to collaborate with public and private sectors.  The tool provides an understanding of “what does each sector need to be successful. Look at three different time frames and three different area scales.” Ranging from 30 years looking at 9 square kilometres, a 20-min walkable neighbourhood Precinct scale, and a design prototype at the campus and a 100% corner scale.  This methodology allows “the individual parts of that, all happening simultaneously as the individual buildings and open space getting built out,” to reveal “the enormous resource that has been hidden in plain sight.”  Ken then spoke to the public health connections in designing this emerging neighbourhood and the way in which the entire Precinct is designed to support walking and cycling. Design elements also include accessible connections to the creeks that will function as greenway – connecting residents with each other and with nature.  Seven active development applications within the Uptown Core will result in active public spaces with highly mixed uses, with people both living and working in the neighbourhood. Greenberg also noted that “what’s really important is that from a public health standpoint, this addresses chronic diseases, and infectious disease, as well as climate change”.   

Matti Siemiatycki, Interim Director of the University of Toronto School of Cities, commented on how this is the beginning of a new way of building cities based on a collaborative model to deal with three intersecting crisis, the public health, climate change and inequality and affordability.  “Historically, these collaborative processes come as a last resort. What is exciting here is to make this the first best option.  Bringing together different uses, alongside transit, to create truly vibrant transit-oriented communities.  Something that is special for Brampton and will be a model for across the Region. Now is the right moment for the collaborative advantage of all the different levels of government.  More can be done together than any one of the partners can achieve on their own.” 

Following the presentation, Anni Sinnemäki, Deputy Mayor of Urban Environment for the City of Helsinki, shared that Helsinki has also faced the challenge of growth.  Helsinki has focused on public transport, investing in light rail, changing the energy system, expanding the urban core and density former urban centre.  Jani Moliis, Head of International Affairs of City of Helsinki, shared the idea of a “25 hours City where residents don’t need to be stuck in traffic all the time.” Also, for residents to save time through “the way they use public services, easy access to things like schools, daycare health care clinic, and also waste management to reduce time and congestions. Waste trucks do not need to drive through the district.”  Jani further shared Helsinki has also gone through a shift from a car-oriented environment to the current transit-oriented state. There was a proposed plan in the 1960’s with the highway to come to the city centre. The realization was made by the City Council to “maintain the tram line and expand the metro line, and not go ahead with the highway.  The main decision is to focus on public transport.  Top 10 investment project is public transit, rather than car transport.”  To transition residents and businesses to these new transit-oriented communities, Jani shared the need to “have things for people to do, right from the beginning.”  They build a beach area without sand to provide a place for people to congregate.  This “give place for people to come to, even outside form the district.  The district started building a character from the beginning.” 

 Following the Helsinki presentation, Jonathan Gitlin, Chief Operating Officer and president of RioCan provided his thoughts on the necessity of partnership and engagement throughout this process, saying this “will conclude in a cross-functional excellent development that we think will be very beneficial to the community. This really was a great example of a collaborative approach, to allow us to design the project to meet the needs of this community and the residents...we cannot do it alone.”   

Bob Bjerke, Director of Policy Planning, provided a remark on Brampton 2040 vision, which is based on global smart cities, building a complete community with mixed of employment, services and housing in Uptown. “Making this a key hub with a strong link, represent Brampton as a gateway.”  

Following presentations and remarks, Richard Forward noted the evening is “really transforming how different levels of government collaborate and align.  We want to bring the facilities in before the kids show up.  Collaboration and alignment are really critical.”  Richard then introduced the cross-sector panel of the night. The panel was membered by Clare Barnett of the City of Brampton, Andrew Duncan of RioCan, Dr. Lawrence Loh, Chief Medical Officer for Peel Public Health, Dave Kapil of New Brampton and Michelle McCollum of Sheridan College. 

In a very interesting discussion amongst the group, Michelle McCollum spoke about the changes that can be seen in Uptown Brampton as it grows. The community around Sheridan College has increased, and the college is now prepping for its own growth. Their Master Plan looks at how to integrate district energy on campus, as well as engagement with the local community, to “create the conversations that really help us trailblaze and move this forward.” In relation to this, Clare Barnett from the City of Brampton’s Economic Development Office identified that the City seeks to work with Sheridan College to encourage local entrepreneurship. She notes that the Community Hub would be an excellent site, and the daycare services within the hub would reduce barriers that would prevent parents from pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities. 

Richard Forward also questioned Dr. Lawrence Loh about the benefits of designing and building walkable mixed-used transit-oriented communities, given the current state of COVID-19. In response, Dr. Loh noted that one of the most important things that we can do to lower rates of chronic disease and improve mental health is to reduce dependence on the car and encourage active transportation, which helps to build a more resilient community and puts health at the center.  The 20-min walkable neighbourhood has the ability to “future proof for future pandemic”, which is “encouraging healthier baseline status.  Social community cohesiveness is the most critical thing that provides a healthy being. Compact urban form, have certain resiliencies built in…  you know your neighbours… built the sense of community so people can get through things together.” 

Commissioner Forward then questioned Andrew Duncan from RioCan on what he would recommend municipalities do to start on the path of building transit-oriented communities. Andrew explained that municipalities should start by looking at examples that have been set, along with encouraging investment from a development standpoint, as this provides a signal to developers that they want to be growing and evolving as a city.  Dave Kapil of New Brampton further commented that as representative of business owners, this is “music to our ears. This is what Brampton has wanted for the last twenty years.” He added that the planned city in Uptown is “very attractive for businesses to come.  A convenient connection to Downtown is very paramount. This becomes two centres.” 

The panel was followed by several questions from the town hall’s participants, during which many of the panellists and speakers engaged with residents of the City of Brampton and responded to various inquiries and concerns from the community.  The evening was ended by Richard Joy, Executive Director, ULI Toronto, he applauded the “remarkable presentation, remarkable conversation and remarkable leadership.  There are a lot of interests. Will give definite consideration on moving forward. I have never seen a greater beginning of a process.”