Aslam Shaikh on ‘The need for primary mixed uses’ — Confronting our addiction to the automobile

Mixed-use development is no longer the exception, as they are now springing up everywhere, much more than ever before. Pressures from strong urban development policies across major North American cities are demanding the co-location of multiple uses together in compact, pedestrian friendly urban formats. Considering the benefits that mixed-use developments offer for achieving urban sustainability, this is quite a positive and progressive trend.

Jane Jacobs definitely didn’t invent the idea, but she did play a role in re-introducing and popularizing the concept of mixing diverse land uses together in modern planned cities. She did this nearly 50 years ago in Death and Life, and outlined the need for primary mixed uses as part of her conditions for generating city diversity:

“The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.”

North American urban planners often aspire after the streets of older European cities. To be fair, the origins of older European cities predate the invention of the automobile, a time when cities had no choice but to require that people were able to live, work, and go to the market, all within the same walkable area.

"The Public Realm - two versions" by UrbanGrammar

Today, the challenge for planners in cultivating a similar mix of uses involves confronting our addiction to the automobile, which is largely responsible for the spread and separation of uses that plague many modern cities. It is this challenge in confronting the automobile that makes me particularly interested to see what comes about from the planning of several new and emerging mixed-use, high density urban nodes now being cultivated in many suburban municipalities. I’m curious to see how planners will encourage people to abandon their car dependence and embrace the pedestrian oriented environment associated with mixed-use areas.

One example of an area planned to transform from a suburban neighbourhood into a new mixed-use urban centre, is Scarborough City Centre, located in my hometown of Scarborough (amalgamated into Toronto in 1998). I still remember the excitement I felt when I first learned about the new plan for Scarborough City Centre, discovered as part of research for a high school civics class assignment. The plan discussed the creation of a new ‘downtown’ in Scarborough that would be a mixed-use, compact, and pedestrian friendly urban node (a similar plan was being crafted for North York at the time as well, one that has experienced much success in my opinion).

While reading the plan, I conjured up images of the vibrant and diverse streets that I knew from my visits to downtown Toronto, and I was hopeful that this excitement would finally be found right in my own backyard at Scarborough City Centre. The plan discussed the fact that Scarborough City Centre was being primed for future urban growth due to it being in a central location, the existence of its major transit hub, the presence of nearby office and industrial employers, and the anticipated growth of new residential high-rise construction. At the heart of Scarborough Centre is a regional shopping mall, which would support much of the retail and commercial needs as this neighbourhood emerged from the ground. The plan had all the elements necessary to create a new mixed-use neighbourhood.

Just as was promised, the following decade saw a number of new condominium projects go up, defining an exciting new skyline for Scarborough City Centre.

Scarborough skyline

But with the completion of each additional building, I quickly lost hope in the promise of this so-called “mixed-use” plan. Sure, Scarborough Centre looks much more urban now than it did before, but if you experience the neighbourhood in person it becomes clear that this new emerging urban node is missing the essence of what makes great streets come alive. Where was all the vibrancy, life, and excitement that I was expecting?

Taking a walk through Scarborough City Centre, it becomes apparent what the problem is. Although it appears to be an example of mixed-use development, none of these uses actually mix with each other! There is no interaction between these uses, and consequently there is no interaction between the people who use them.

One of the key agents of mixing is not actually the uses themselves, but rather the multitude of people who find multiple functions for the same neighborhood,  simultaneously, all throughout the day. However, none of the new high rises contain any commercial uses at grade so as to draw people out onto the streets. Often, the sides of the buildings are walled off, and in some instances the first few storeys are dedicated to parking structures. Scarborough Centre does feature a number of standalone restaurants, but these are located nowhere near the residential condos, and instead are surrounded by vast amounts of parking spaces. Even though there is much more new density in this neighbourhood, it doesn’t appear that any of the new residents bother walking anywhere, and I certainly wouldn’t blame them for that.

Lifeless buildings at grade by Flick user wyliepoon

The one area that does see a lot of pedestrian activity is the corridor just outside the local transit hub, which contains a few major office employers, a civic centre, a large public square, and an entrance to the Scarborough Town Centre shopping mall. This area sees plenty of daytime activity, including workers travelling between the transit hub and the office buildings in mornings and evenings, and to the mall for lunch or coffee. However, in the evening this area quickly becomes quiet and lifeless, save for the occasional local resident taking their dog for a walk around the public square.

Can Scarborough City Centre — with its mix of live, work, and retail uses all located within the same neighbourhood — be considered an example of successful mixed-use development? Is this really what Jane was describing could be achieved by fulfilling the need for primary mixed uses? Although this neighbourhood appears to be mixed-use according to the plans drawn out on paper, Jane would hardly qualify Scarborough City Centre as being successful. She would argue that the mix is ineffective if it draws people out all at the same time of the day, such as is the case with the previously mentioned pedestrian corridor that only sees activity between 9 and 5. Although Scarborough City Centre does have its share of night uses and night users, she would point out that it is a different set of streets that must be taken to get to them. Jane explains that “On successful city streets, people must appear at different times,” suggesting that just as important as needing multiple reasons to be on the streets, is the need for multiple reasons to be on the same streets at different times of the day.

Despite the promises of the mixed-use plan, the reality is that Scarborough City Centre still functions much like a conventional suburban neighbourhood that acts to separate its uses. Scarborough City Centre makes clear that mixed-use areas cannot focus solely on land use; there needs to be a mixing of all of the functions that make up what a neighbourhood is, including things such as access and circulation. Mixed-use areas that are pedestrian friendly can also serve automobiles users as well, but focusing only on the car deteriorates the ability to serve multiple functions.

Although I recognize that transitioning into an urban neighbourhood takes time, I would suggest we start designing the neighbourhood today the way we want it to feel and function tomorrow. Continuing to emphasize the automobile as the primary (and unfortunately for now the only viable) mode of travel through Scarborough Centre, combined with the separating of uses away from each other, will continue to perpetuate the lack of vibrancy and activity required to really make this mixed-use area come to life.

At the time of writing this, there are currently sites located right across the Greater Toronto Area being planned for new ‘high-density urban lifestyle centres’. The City of Vaughan has unveiled plans for their luxury high-rise laden Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. Downtown Markham and Mississauga’s Square One also share dreams of new master planned urban centres. Each of these emerging suburban ‘downtowns’ are placing high stakes on high density, but I fear for their success if they are not precocious enough to foster a mix of primary uses that draw people to these centres throughout the entire day. Furthermore, there will be little benefit from these plans if people end up driving to and between the primary draws planned for these centres, as is currently the case with Scarborough City Centre.

A choice needs to be made: either (1) continue to accommodate the automobile and watch as it perpetuates the separation of uses, sucking out any potential for life on the streets, or (2) start getting creative with city-building and plan neighbourhoods that draw people out of their vehicles. Mixed land uses alone will not and cannot accomplish this.

'Cambie mixed-use' by Nathan Pachal

One way to do this is to ensure vertical mixed-use in each new high-rise building, achieved by including commercial uses the grade level. Locating new retail anchors or restaurants within short walking distances (or directly across from!) the new high-rises will encourage people to get out onto the streets. Eventually, as population densities continue to increase and pockets of activity emerge, the demand to co-locate new secondary uses will also occur. If the planners really want to be forward thinking, they will plan for larger family sized accommodations to support a diversity of households sizes too. Affordable housing is sometimes hard to locate next to ‘luxury’ high-rises, but I’m confident that doing so will further open up the list of possible uses to add to the mix.

As a planner myself, I know that experimenting with change can prove very difficult. Residents, property owners, land developers, and even planners ourselves, often crave order, stability, and predictability. The benefit of having huge districts designated for future urban intensification such as Scarborough City Centre, Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, Downtown Markham, or Mississauga Square One, is that political opposition to change for these areas is largely out of the way, allowing planners to take confidence in pushing the boundaries. These emerging downtowns are pioneering the way for urbanizing our suburbs, so experimentation and creativity is highly encouraged here, and planners should be fearless in daring to finally mix things up.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Great observations! I think your point that often the mix of uses in these places don’t actually interact or supplement each other well is especially poignant and pertinent in this current rush for new mixed-use developments.

    I also think part of the difficulty with these dense, mixed-use master plans is that the entire plan is often executed in such a short time frame that there are no aged buildings, so the diversity of uses is limited to high-yield, low risk, and often standardized uses. Offering subsidies for some spaces or introducing some less polished spaces (that require more labour and ingenuity on the part of renters/owners, and therefore less professional costs) might help low-/no-yield spaces develop, but I don’t know if these are sustainable solutions either.

  2. The missing ingredient in urban-esque suburban centers is something Jacobs touched on in another chapter: The need for diverse buildings in size and age.

    This is what allows for a random mix of business uses, and this helps drive the diverse consumer clientele.

    Because developers act as director-producers, they want to maximize profit on occupancies. On the ground-floor level, they engage in long-term leases and hike up the rents for the new properties. This favors larger chain retailers and shuts out the small entrepreneur, upstart or immigrant businessman.

    This also draws the well-to-do suburban segment that will treat urban living as a lifestyle accessory, an experience, that asks little of them. This only reinforces the cocoon and pod mentality despite an area that looks the part.

    1. Josh Fullan says:

      The chainification of the ground floor is unfortunately not exclusive to the suburbs and seems to be the price we pay for prosperity and a particular kind of new urban development. Without innovative planning partnerships or rent subsidies, the decades-long leases on the ground floors of many new buildings are simply out of reach for anyone but deep-pocketed chains, as you point out.

      The ground floor “mix” we are seeing a lot of in Toronto (including downtown) is Big Bank beside That Coffee Place beside That Drug Store, or some minor variation on this theme. So along with the need for diverse buildings in age and size, cities need to look at alternative financing models for securing a range of tenants and services in new buildings, unless we’re okay with having the same mix of name stores in all of our new pricey real estate, which while not ideal is admittedly not the worst blight in the world.

      Great post, Aslam, and glad to read of the role your high school civics class played in your story. If only authentic learning experiences like yours were more common in that course.

  3. Dave says:

    @Chris nailed it by fingering the developers. @Josh is right about faux diversity. @Aslam: in Chapter 18 Jane specifically writes not to blame the automobile. It’s not the “freedom” of the automobile that enables and therefore creates the great blight of dullness, but rather the economic forces of things like financing and profit and high rents in new buildings that drive developers to create the great blight of dullness. That is how they make their money. Jane writes that if the automobile didn’t already exist it would have to be invented anyway just to serve the thinly-concentrated great blight of dullness. Focusing on auto-orientation is fighting the symptoms and missing the disease (economic forces codified in national banking laws and regulations).

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