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The Hubbub Around Huburbs

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Photo by sa-ra-ha from the Torontoist Flickr Pool


They didn’t really look like much. The four Google Earth images projected up onto the screen showed low-density, sprawling suburbanism in all its horizontal glory. But they also represented four locations out of 51 that Metrolinx has designated to become “mobility hubs” in The Big Move, the agency’s ambitious transit plan for the GTA.
Richard Sommer, dean of the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, was showing the images to introduce Huburbs, a symposium on mobility hubs put on by the school and sponsored by Metrolinx this past weekend. “The challenge,” he said, motioning to the screen, “is to take these strange Petri dishes and turn them into a live organism.” (For those of you who haven’t heard Richard Sommer speak before, the experience is like having a vial of masculinity poured directly into your ear. His voice is deep and rich, the kind of voice that makes you want to grow a beard and then maybe build something. But alas, he was not at the forefront of this symposium and merely there to frame the day’s discussion.)
For the next eight hours, we were going to hear international and Canadian speakers discuss the economics, politics, and design involved in creating efficient, sustainable mobility hubs, while also creating vibrant places of community.
But we can already here you asking: what is a mobility hub and, more importantly, what is a huburb?


“A system of connected mobility hubs.” That is number seven of the nine “big moves” listed in Metrolinx’s regional transportation plan, The Big Move [PDF].
A mobility hub is a few things. It’s a point of entry, transfer, and exit from the transportation system, allowing people to move efficiently between transit modes. It’s also a place for shopping and living—in fact, one of the main tenants of a mobility hub is the focus of growth and density around the station in order to allow more people to live and work within walking distance of transit. In Metrolinx’s own words: “successful mobility hubs have the potential to become vibrant places of activity and destinations in themselves.”

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Concept drawing showing Kipling Station as a full-fledged mobility hub, courtesy of Metrolinx [PDF].


In Toronto, we can look to the future of Dundas West Station [PDF] as one of Metrolinx’s designated mobility hubs. Here the cycling and pedestrian realm, in the form of the West Toronto Rail Path, meets with a subway line, which meets with the GO Train and the proposed air-rail link. Metrolinx is working to focus development near this station, with a redesign that hopes to also make it an attractive place. And if we’re talking mobility hubs in downtown Toronto, it would be hard to forget Union Station, which is getting a major facelift to improve station flow and congestion, and revamp the station’s historic characteristics.
All of this sounds well and good. Density! Transit! Livability! The problem, however, comes in bringing this type of development and placemaking to areas of the city where the conditions for making this happen are a little bit more difficult: specifically, the low density, single-family housing land use patterns where looping, discontinuous road networks make station accessibility difficult. Namely, the suburbs. And so we get huburbs: mobility hubs in suburban communities. As Sommer said, “We need to respond to a landscape that is diverse and fractured. How do we bring a sense of metropolitan engagement to the suburbs. How can a hub be the catalyst for intensification and development?”
These ideas are no strangers to those of us that live in the dense downtown areas of Toronto, but they can be mighty controversial in traditional, low-density suburban areas that may not want a multi-storey tower complex, no matter how many planning ideals are attached to it.
Even places that seem as planning-principles friendly as Vancouver can run into community opposition to mobility hub plans, as they are seeing now with the case of Marine Gateway—a station on the southern edge of the Canada Line, the rapid transit system that connects Richmond, the Vancouver airport, and Vancouver. David Dove, of architecture firm Busby Perkins + Will, presented the plans for Marine Gateway at the symposium, but what he left out was the opposition that project has run up against in the surrounding community by those concerned over increased densities, heights, and mixed-uses in the area.
Indeed, community buy-in of these mobility hub projects was front-and-centre for a lot of the speakers at the symposium. Matti Siemiatycki, assistant professor of geography and Planning at the University of Toronto, spoke of how early and meaningful public consultation processes are key. Others discussed how physical miniatures and visualization techniques like 3D motion graphics can help a community fully understand the impacts of a project. It’s hard to visualize what the density and height of these projects will look like if you can’t place them within the context of your own neighbourhood. Lara Belkind, an architect and urban planner completing her PhD at Harvard, stressed the importance of getting the national government involved in these projects because they command the largest carrots to be dangled in front of communities.

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Metrolinx’s plan for developing mobility hubs in Toronto. Map courtesy of Metrolinx [PDF].


There was also much attention paid to the role of public-private partnerships in creating mobility hubs and financing transportation infrastructure. Anyone who has been paying attention to recent transit news in Toronto knows that this discussion is timely for our city, as Ford moves towards a Sheppard subway extension that is privately-financed and paid for by capturing value from increased development around the new transit stations.
However, if we can take a lesson from other cities, like Vancouver, who are attempting to increase density around transit stations, it would be that these developments are not always easily swallowed by the community. Will the people on Sheppard Avenue support the type of density (that is, extremely high compared to what’s there now) required for the line to be financially feasible? Another word of caution came from Dana Cuff, the professor of architecture/urban design and urban planning at UCLA, who said of the “build it and they will come” creed that “people come—slowly”.
Mobility hubs are the future of Toronto. We already exist in a multi-nodal city, where people aren’t all coming into the downtown area, but instead are travelling to many different destinations throughout the region. A mobility hub framework would crystallize that structure, developing it so that these places can grow and urbanize over time.
Sommer identified a kind of chicken-and-egg problem, when he wondered if we should think of this as “transit driven urbanization or urban-driven transportation.”
The whole point of the mobility hub, however, is to mesh these two together so that they seem to happen simultaneously. As a community urbanizes it helps to drive use in transit, but that urbanization is also driving the development of these mobility hubs. Metrolinx dreams of a future where in 25 years the distance people drive will have dropped one-third, while the amount of people using transit will have increased by the same; where we have 50 per cent more people in the region with less congestion than we do today.
Whether they succeed in implementing a plan to get us there, of course, is the big question about The Big Move.

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