Can transport and urban design “speak with each other”?

New Cities Summit Dallas 2014




The design of our cities affects how we move around, and how we move around affects the design of our cities and ultimately, urban life. One city which has made major strides in getting transport and urban design to “speak with each other” is Toronto. Just before the New Cities Summit kicks off in Dallas, Editor Rashiq Fataar chats to Harold Madi, Director of Urban Design for the City of Toronto, to find out how exactly Toronto is getting this conversation going.

Rashiq Fataar: The urban design of a city and its spaces is intrinsically linked to mobility. What approach have you used in Toronto to start linking these different but connected fields and departments, which, if they start working together can collectively improve urban life?

Harold Madi: The link and integration between transportation and land use decisions has become a well-established planning principle and an ongoing objective for Toronto.

In 2002 the City of Toronto adopted an official plan which intrinsically linked land uses to intensification through an urban structure overlay. On this overlay, centres and avenues are identified along major existing transit routes as areas for re-urbanisation and intensification. The broad intent of this policy was to encourage multi-centric and linear growth where transit already existed. In order to implement this change appropriately, a series of Avenue Studies were undertaken to determine, on an area specific basis, how to best accommodate the growth. Approximately 20 such studies have been undertaken, and they generally resulted in recommendations for a mid-rise built form.

Other more nuanced links between the design of a city and mobility include reduced parking requirements in place of bicycle parking in new multi-unit buildings.

RF: Major public transport investments are essential to a city, in particular to those areas that have previously had little to no investment in decent infrastructure. But, how do we balance this scale of investment with ensuring that the ’last mile home‘for commuters is considered part of the entire transport journey? Could this be integrated into the planning of these major investments?

HM: Much of Toronto’s urban fabric and street grid was laid out in the pre-automobile era and many of the older neighbourhoods have access to transit, either bus, streetcar or subway, within a 10-minute walk. However, the next generation of transit investments is dealing with an entirely different dilemma. More suburban-style neighbourhoods will now be close to proposed LRTs (such as on Eglinton, Finch and Sheppard avenues), all of which are major east-west arterials running through diverse communities including rear-lotted, auto-related suburban sprawl. In order to balance the scale of new transit investment with future commuters, Toronto is looking at a range of strategies, including:

  • Firstly, the local transit agency (the TTC) is looking at an operational consideration for the ‘last mile’ such as mini-vans, or smaller shuttle vehicles available on-demand. This requires a level of funding that is not yet committed, and so demand will have to be gauged in the future.
  • Secondly, as part of the recent EGLINTONconnects Planning Study, which sets out a vision for the length of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (, the city is anticipating a shift in the modal split by approving wider sidewalks and new connected bike lanes.
  • Finally, Toronto has an approach to design of both the transit infrastructure itself and the emerging context around it to support both the change in modes and the operational challenges. On Eglinton, the stations will have some combination of indoor and/or outdoor bike parking, designated taxi waiting areas, weather protected bus waiting areas, entrances which front onto major pedestrian thoroughfares, shortened pedestrian intersection crossings, and the terminus stations which will have passenger pick-up/drop-off areas. The design of future development in these areas will be guided, either through zoning requirements or design guidelines, to support and cultivate an active transportation culture by providing additional bike parking, widened front setbacks for pedestrian amenity, and direct connections into the transit where possible.

RF: Urban sprawl is a challenge that many cities still face, as they continue to grow and allow development at a rapid pace. How can urban design lead on issues of urban sprawl, such that transport investments follow the lead, and limit expansion to the urban edge?

HM:In Toronto, the Urban Design Section took the lead and initiated the Avenues and Mid-Rise Building Study. This initiative follows from the 20 Avenue Studies undertaken to-date. In these studies, it was recognised that a mid-rise form of building was most appropriate along the avenues, and potentially in other areas of the city as well.

Since 2010, the city has received 147 applications for mid-rise buildings in many areas, including what would once have been known as suburban commercial arterials. I believe that what we are seeing is the beginning of the maturation of our inner suburbs as they begin to intensify along their edges. This maturation and gradual urbanisation supports better transit, and so it is possible that we are in a positive cycle of growth and transit investment, that will result in healthier, walkable communities.

RF: In a paper on Urban Mobility, published as part of the Re-imaging urban mobility series by the New Cities Foundation, it is highlighted that “very little of the innovation we have seen in recent years is in transportation; most of it is in mobility via tools that allow us to navigate the options and opportunities in the transportation system.” How can urban design play a key role in mobility alongside technology?

HM:Toronto’s Urban Design staff spend a considerable amount of time on site specific Development Review. The return on this time is highly effective, as it ensures that each and every proposal has successfully incorporated the city’s policies for sustainability, safety, access to transit, walkability and intensification. This could mean making sure the front door and lobby is located within a convenient distance from the closest transit stop, or it could mean connecting local sidewalks or trails to new bike parking. At the heart of all of our urban design policies and guidelines is the assumption that we are building a city for future generations that is transit-oriented. To do so is to ensure the best possible pedestrian experience (comfort, convenience, safe and appealing) as every transit trip begins and ends on foot.

RF: What do you consider one of Toronto’s major successes when it comes to making urban design and mobility in a city speak to each other?

HM: The recent EGLINTONconnects Study is a good example of making urban design and mobility speak to each other. Metrolinx, which is the region’s transit agency, announced a $4.8 billion investment in new Light Rail Transit for 19 kilometres of Eglinton Avenue. In order to get ahead of the growth that we know will come as a result of this investment, the city undertook a corresponding 19 kilometre avenue-type study to generate a new urban design vision to guide change. City Council just approved the 21 recommendations put forward in support of this vision on May 6th 2014. The recommendations fall into three categories:

  • Travelling recommendations: A focus on creating a complete street for all users, and includes new bike lanes and wider sidewalks.
  • Greening recommendations: A focus on sustainability and include ideas for new parks, plazas and trail connections as well as details to grow big trees.
  • Building recommendations:Make efforts to speak to the design of future development along the corridor, from incremental townhouses, to mid-rise, to tall buildings in some cases.

The design of the LRT has become a tool to implement this vision and so the transit and the city around it will evolve together, manifesting a design that has resulted from many conversations and consultations, and has received much public support.

RF: Under the immense pressure to deliver and deal with major challenges, how important is it for cities to pause, and spend time re-imagining the city, from an urban design and mobility perspective?

HM: Mobility and high quality urban design are proven essential qualities for enhancing a city’s liveability and economic competitiveness.  As demonstrated in the scope of current studies we are undertaking, they also must be considered hand-in-hand.  Accordingly, as in most major NorthAmerican cities, re-imagining from an urban design and mobility perspective is the most important challenge facing Toronto today and it should be top of mind in all our discussions and decision-making.


Harold Madi will be part of a workshop at the New Cities Summit on Mobility and the Urban Form. Read more here

Harold is the Director of Urban Design for the City of Toronto, where his extensive urban planning and urban design background lends to the multi-disciplinary practice of this section of the City Planning Division.

Harold is also a faculty member at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University, and he sits on the Design Review Panels for the City of Vaughan, City of Toronto, Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.

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