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Suburban Urban

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Mike Ford

Church spires, minarets and a white multi-domed Sikh temple; glass skyscrapers, sports complexes, and neon-lit strip malls adjacent to verdant parks and quaint Victorian-era structures dating back to the 1850s – Brampton is an architectural mishmash, an Ontario suburb in transition.

“A city in waiting,” as Roger Keil, a global suburbanism expert and professor in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, likes to call it.

Or has this 905 community already arrived?

Located northwest of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Brampton has seen its population more than triple over the past two decades, from 234,445 residents in 1991 to an estimated 600,000 today.

With its population growing at 2.5 times the national average, Brampton is projected to reach more than a million residents by 2040, making it one of Canada’s fastest growing municipalities.

“Brampton,” says Keil, who has been researching the Greater Toronto Area’s shifting suburban landscapes for the past decade, “forces us to rethink the categories by which we chart our post-suburban world.”

In terms of population, they are all clearly cities, but are still maturing differently. All have a unique locus and feel all their own

But change is not just coming to Brampton. It’s happening across the GTA, and at a pace that has urbanists fascinated.

Take Markham and Vaughan for instance, two suburban cities that have become among the largest and most important employment areas in the country.

“Not only have these communities quite literally grown up,” comments urban planning consultant Sean Hertel (MES ’12), a researcher at York University’s vanguard City Institute and lecturer in the schools of planning at Ryerson University and the University of Waterloo, “the people who live there are commuting less to Toronto for jobs and are finding work where they are.”

Communities located at highways 404 and 407 (shared by Richmond Hill and Markham) and near Pearson International Airport (which includes industrial lands in western Vaughan) are experiencing unprecedented population growth largely because immigrants especially find them attractive. “Immigrants,” Hertel continues, “aren’t just settling in downtown Toronto anymore – that ended a long time ago, owing to a number of factors including gentrification, affordability and a changing immigration profile.”

The draw – and no joke – is that Brampton, Markham and Vaughan aren’t Toronto.

“Each community has developed its own sensibility and personality,” says Stephen Mak, a Toronto architect who develops condos in Brampton and elsewhere in the 905. “In terms of population, they are all clearly cities, but are still maturing differently. All have a unique locus and feel all their own.”

Making them increasingly accessible are major investments in rapid transit that are helping transform the 905 suburbs into dynamic urban centres with direct links to downtown Toronto. They include the three new Toronto Transit Commission subway stops now operational within Vaughan and with two stops at the York University Keele Campus, the Highway 7 and Yonge Street Viva BRT.

Presently there’s also design work underway on four approved subway stations within York Region (Vaughan, Markham and Richmond Hill) as part of the approved but currently unfunded extension of the Yonge subway line north from Finch to Highway 7.

This is all very good news, especially for the more than 12,000 and growing York University students who hail from the 905. An estimated 4,200 of them come from Brampton, 2,500 are from Markham and another 5,444 are from Vaughan, says York’s Office of Institutional Planning & Analysis. Many use public transit to commute to York – at least 8,600 of them daily – making transit a top priority.

Cultural tensions do exist, but they are largely a symptom of rapid growth

Improved infrastructure like transit and other amenities in and around the 905 has not only made the suburbs attractive to a growing number of newcomers to Canada, it is partly responsible for the creation of what urbanists call majority-minority jurisdictions, areas where so-called ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population.

Brampton, for instance, has a population that is more than 73 per cent visible minority, according to data from the latest 2016 census. The largest immigrant group is Indian, Sikhs from Punjab particularly. But there are other ethnicities as well, mostly from the Caribbean and the Philippines. And they tend to be young, with an average age of 36, compared to the Canadian average of 41.

Markham is also noticeably immigrant-centric, with nearly 78 per cent of its 300,000-plus population belonging to a visible minority group, a figure up from 72.3 per cent in 2011.

“Markham proudly declares itself ‘Canada’s most diverse city,’ and has started to encourage building denser mixed-use settlement structures, especially in its rapidly emerging downtown areas, including a new Markham campus for York University,” Keil says. Adds Murat Üçoğlu, a York PhD student and Trillium Scholar who is writing his dissertation on Brampton, “Cultural tensions do exist, but they are largely a symptom of rapid growth.”

Living the mosaic in 2040 is the central and simple aspiration of the people in Brampton

Last spring, Brampton held an extensive public consultation involving over 11,000 residents (in addition to 420,000 social media engagements) that gave rise to the “Brampton 2040 Vision,” a document outlining how Brampton can become a collection of interconnected suburban urban communities.

“The true essence of Brampton is its diversity and the essence of what the people want for the future is that their city be arranged, governed, seen, and celebrated as a mosaic of people, places and endeavours of all kinds, coexisting in harmony,” the 100-page document states. “Living the mosaic in 2040 is the central and simple aspiration of the people in Brampton.”

For Gurratan Singh (LLB ’10), an Osgoode Hall Law School grad who is the newly elected MPP for Brampton East (and brother of New Democratic Party federal leader Jagmeet Singh (LLB ’05), that change can’t come fast enough.

“I love Brampton. We live in a dynamic, robust community – but as a rapidly growing city, we face some challenges,” Singh says. “For 20 years, Brampton has not received the necessary level of public investment required to help support the growth and long-term success of our community.”

But changes are coming, mainly because suburbs like Brampton, Markham and Vaughan are no longer on the margins. They have become their own destinations.

“The suburbs are not the kind of places that people want any more to run away from, quite the contrary,” Keil says. “Many people now want the life. The goal is how to find ways to redefine that life, and change it in ways that are also acceptable to the people who have made personal, cultural, political and financial commitments there.”  ■

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