Walkability Win Planned for Markham

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 24, 2010

When it's not busy fomenting the car-bicycle wars, the Toronto Star takes a respectably fair, urban-oriented approach to GTA news. Yesterday's edition reports an exciting new project that will combine high quality density, rich transit connections and a highly walkable built form to create a car-free live-work community in suburban Markham.

Peter Calthorpe likes to say that how far someone is willing to walk to reach public transit depends on how interesting the journey is.

It's that kind of thinking that got the California-based new urbanism planner and champion of the "walkable city" hired to design a revolutionary, transit-dependent live-work community in Markham.

Langstaff Gateway - built upward rather than outward - will raise the bar for suburban transformation, possibly across North America. On what is now a blighted, semi-industrial area south of Highway 407 and east of Yonge, it would house and employ 47,000 people in an area of just 47 hectares, a density unrivaled in the GTA outside downtown Toronto.

And two-thirds of those residents would rarely, if ever, use a car.

Calthorpe's plan to encourage walking/transit and discourage car use will be familiar to regular RTH readers: limit parking spots; design the main boulevard around walking and cycling; cluster multiple uses together to limit the need to travel to destinations; provide continuous, high-quality transit options; and ensure that the built environment is attractive and interesting enough to turn walking from a burden into a joy.

The sidebar quotes Richard Gilbert, the Toronto-based transportation consultant who prepared the peak oil report Hamilton: The Electric City, on the intersection between an attractive built environment and high densities of people and uses:

There have to be interesting things going on. [...] If you put enough people in the same place, you are almost certain to have interesting and agreeable things happen. You don't have to worry. People have a high tolerance for densities, which is what we are finding out in Toronto.

The outstanding challenges to the ambitious plan will also be familiar to RTH readers: a lack of firm commitment from the Province to extend the Yonge subway line into Markham and provide all-day GO service.

Calthorpe argues that "the forces of history are with" the plan, given the coinciding economic and demographic pressures to build sustainably instead of sprawling endlessly.

Unlike Hamilton's density-lite approach to meeting provincial intensification targets and ongoing reluctance to abandon its sprawling growth trajectory, Markham takes sustainability seriously.

It took an early chance on a New Urbanist development designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk, the US architecture firm whose principals wrote Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. These days, in addition to Langstaff Gateway, Markham is also considering implementing its own municipal Greenbelt by preserving 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) for local agriculture.

The best thing the Province can do for cities like Markham, which are truly committing to the Places to Grow framework, is to resist the short-term urge to cut spending and regard transit connections to places like Langstaff Gateway as long-term investments in sustainability. The alternative - more car-dependent suburbs, more highways, oil consumption in a world of diminishing oil resources and more voracious land consumption in a region already built-out - will ultimately be far costlier in both expenditures and lost opportunities.

Thanks to RTH contributor Jason Allen for sharing this article.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By J Cash (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 14:09:19

From the Star article:

"The main street, Calthorpe says, will be a vibrant Jane Jacobs-inspired mix of businesses and shops that draw people from within and around, at all hours."

Beware anyone who cites Jane Jacobs as a marketing slogan. She was all about an organic, distributed form of urbanism, not this "grand plan" type of scheme. Don't forget, density also means more profit per hectare of expensive land purchased, not necessarily a better quality of life.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 14:40:43

WOW. If they can actually succeed at getting a density that is only 400 j/p per hectare lower than downtown TO I'll be impressed. Along with the walking/cycling corridors and proper urban design, this could be really great.

Kudos to them for having the vision and guts to do this.

It would really make backwards cities like Hamilton look bad if car-dependent suburbs like Markham can pull it off.

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By Skully (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 14:53:59

I wouldn't get too excited. My wife and I lived in Markham's "new urbanism" based Cornell development for 3 1/2 years, having been lured there by grandiose promises of cafes, shops, art galleries and services all within walking and biking distances. There were plans for "lovely patios along bustling village like main streets, parkettes on every corner and nary a car in sight". What we got were failed businesses that soon became medical offices and a desolate, car dependent suburban landscape that had zero vibrancy and was, ultimately, no different from any other cookie cutter subdivision...except of course, the garages were in the back and the houses were set right up against the road. Cornell, unfortunately, had zero substance to go with all that style.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 16:46:44

Seems like 'City Place: Markham' to me. IMO, City Place: Concorde (Spadina/Gardiner) is a FAIL despite best intentions.

I find it hard to believe anyone who lives/works in the Thornhill/Markham area would choose to walk over drive, but I disgress. (have you seen their business district (Commerce Valley Dr)??)

Check out this neat retail development in Thornhill (Centre Mall; What happened!?):

Don't be fooled; this isn't inner-City Toronto! It's sprawly Thornhill (just down the street from said development).

WHY COULDN'T CENTRE MALL BE DESIGNED LIKE THIS!? Check out the condos in the background! Much nicer than the Centre Mall 'Condos'!

Comment edited by Really? on 2010-03-24 15:49:06

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 17:06:21

is it just me, or do other people get annoyed when they hear of massive plans like this in suburbia in an effort to try to develop some semblance of urbanity while here in Hamilton we could practically crash the world wide web with our Walkability Fail series. We have so much that Markham would kill for and we're busy ruining it in an effort to become more like Markham. Can we trade city councils with them? Imagine a council that actually cared about this sort of thing? Hamilton would boom.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 17:08:35

Check out this neat retail development in Thornhill (Centre Mall; What happened!?):

dang, that's depressing. We could have had that on Barton or on Upper James, but instead we got this:

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By Really? (registered) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 17:33:37

Jason, here's the problem in Hamilton: People may try and change things; but once they encounter that Iron Curtain known as City Hall/City Staff, they give up and/or become jaded.

Perfect Example: Bob Bratina

I bet once (if) Harry Stinson finishes his Stinson School Lofts, he takes his meager profits and runs for the hills! It seems as though he's become yet another jaded failed dream: "[Hamiltonians]have smug looks and they're cynical. They say they've seen these projects come and go." "The harsh reality is that prices tend to go up as you get closer to completion. ... We're selling at prices that are making me sick. It's barely covering costs but we have to get the ball rolling." source:

Comment edited by Really? on 2010-03-24 16:34:18

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By Really? (registered) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 17:51:16

I believe this is the 'Village' Skully is referring to (please correct me if I'm wrong):

Great concept.. one which may have worked better if located closer to a City/Town Centre (Unionville/Main St Markham) rather than in an already-sprawling region. Chances are, if they've moved to this area, it's because they like the car-centric culture. How is one small development in a land of sprawl going to change this?

Squelchers/Politicians will point to it as a Failure (since people do indeed still drive, and those shops are all Dentists/Doctors rather than Starbucks' & Walmarts) and determine it's a model which should be dropped.

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By Mountain Man (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 20:46:13

Remains to be seen what comes of Binbrook’s Fairgrounds subdivision (, but although it it isn't transit-savvy, it does represent a departure from the standard suburban script.

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By Skully (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2010 at 20:58:45

Actually, that's "Greensborough"...Cornell is further along Bur Oak Avenue and features a "Main Street" of Live/Work Towns that were to form the village proper...the idea was you'd live upstairs and have your business downstairs (more than half of them are still sitting empty)...there was also another failed "main street" along Cornell Park Avenue (called the Cornell Mews, with condos on top), that, when we first bought, had a bank, a Jumbo Video store, a cafe/bar with a lovely outdoor terrace, hair salon, variety store, etc...three years later, the Jumbo Video went bust, the bank closed down (medical office), the hair salon shut (ob-gyn office), and the cafe/bar also became a doctors office...

New Urbanism is an amazing concept, but unless people buy into it and commit to leaving their cars at home, it's nothing but empty promises (and empty storefronts)...there was a great article in the National Post lamenting the "urban village that never was" and echoes many of the same sentiments I've expressed here...I'll try and find the link to post it here...

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By Mountain Man (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2010 at 06:35:58


“The mindset was that people wanted a village feel, but what emerged was a sort of pseudo-village,” said Michael Spaziani, a Toronto architect who a decade ago helped create Cornell’s open-space master plan, adding that Cornell is so far nothing more than a “cuter form of sprawl.”

John Evans, a father of three who moved to the Markham community about 10 years ago, said he was lured here by the promise of an imaginative urban development, only to today find his expectations not entirely met.

“I was drawn here by the novelty of the idea. But the goal of a walkable community with shops and a retail centre has not been achieved. We have to drive everywhere,” Mr. Evans said, adding that none of his children walk to school.


John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based urban planning organization, said that while transit and a healthy commercial enclave are the lifeblood of a New Urban community, they are also among the most difficult aspects to achieve.

“It takes years for retail to take shape,” Mr. Norquist said, adding that other New Urban communities have opted to subsidize retail shops as a way to keep an otherwise dying town centre with high turnover on life support. “Achieving mixed-use — where there’s retail, office and residential spaces in close proximity — is hard in the beginning stages,” Mr. Norquist said.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted March 26, 2010 at 11:29:09

Thanks, Skully. I believe this is what you're referring to, then?:

I've seen a couple examples of odd 'urbanism' experiments in Markham (there's also one based around a big, ugly stucco Church I believe??). It's strange that a suburb have so many isolated village-type neighbourhoods... perhaps the Canadian version of Gated Communities?

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 26, 2010 at 11:54:21

Hey, that's better than any of our new suburbs in Hamilton. At least they have a drug store and Hasty Market to walk to in the community. I wonder why we can't build proper suburban projects like this:

I suppose having an LRT line through the middle of the burb connecting it to Portland helps, but make no mistake, many folks who live here are commuting via car. But at least they have a pseudo Westdale to come home to on evenings and weekends.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted March 26, 2010 at 12:22:11

Well, Jason, Westdale was designed as-such to accomodate Street Rail! And look how popular of a neighbourhood it is today (despite the student ghetto)!

And yet, when Light Rail is proposed, those ignorant types suggest it's a waste of money and buses are fine. Something that's unnecessary.

So if we had a City full of neighbourhood nodes (such as Westdale Village, The Delta, etc)... then wouldn't it make it more desirable? I know people like the idea/theory of neighbourhood nodes (who actually likes to drive to a store for pop?), Hamiltonians are just too lazy to change things.

I think this stems from our blue collar heritage. We're so used to whining and crying to those who represent us (historically, Labour Unions --today, Carreer Politicians), that when something that threatens our ways comes up, we cry, kick & scream until that suggestion is nixed --ie: RHVP. "Don't let management change our hours" then vs "Don't let City Staff ruin my speedy commute!" today.

Baby Boomers essentially put the City in the predicament we're in today; and we all know how open to change they are (ever talked to a Boomer about Retirement???), so good luck getting things to change aslong as they're still running the show.

I had thought Hamilton's best chance at change would be the 2014 Municipal Elections... but I'm not so sure anymore, honestly.

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