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Decades of rapid, disorganized growth have made this Toronto-area city a challenging place to live. Now, planners are thinking ambitiously about how to change that. Can they pull it off?

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An illustration from the Brampton 2040 project shows the future central business district of the Toronto-area community.City of Brampton

At the corner of Main Street and Steeles Avenue are a Food Basics supermarket, a mall fronted by a Canadian Tire and a lot of parking lots. Nine lanes of traffic growl past in each direction as the evening rush begins. From here, Brampton doesn’t look like a city of the future.

Yet, this suburban city of 600,000, northwest of Toronto, envisions a different picture here a generation from now. Instead of this mall there would be a cluster of towers, one of three high-density centres served by rapid transit and linked by bike trails. This is part of Brampton 2040, a vision for a city that has grown without much vision over the past 40 years.

So far it’s aspirational, but it’s bold – precisely the sort of policy needed to remake the places where most Canadians live: car-oriented suburbs, whose rapid growth has produced material comfort for many, along with a host of problems from traffic congestion to public-health issues to quality of life.

“What we were doing wasn’t sustainable,” says Antonietta Minichillo, a planner with the city who oversaw the Brampton 2040 project. “What we’re doing won’t serve our community, the environment, or business in the long run, so we need to take a hard look at ourselves and do things a little differently.”

The city “is not what we thought it was going to be, and we really need to change that.”

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Brampton, 1965. The suburban community near Toronto began to emerge a decade earlier on what had once been farmland surrounding a railway station.Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail

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Brampton, 1975. Signs for fast-food outlets, car dealerships and a gas station fight for attention on a Brampton strip-mall development. By this point, a large-scale housing development had entered the area.John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

Birth of a bedroom community

Brampton is part of a ring of suburbs that emerged around Toronto beginning in the late 1950s. It was largely farmland, with a few thousand people clustered around a railway station. But it was also beyond the reach of regional planners, and large-scale housing development spilled into Brampton in the 1970s.

As former Toronto mayor John Sewell wrote in his history of the region, The Shape of the Suburbs, governments “enabled growth at the fringes at considerable cost and without a serious plan.” Progressive city leaders such as Mr. Sewell never liked the results, but his characterization is fair. There were attempts at planning in this zone: The first major Brampton development, Bramalea, was marketed as a self-contained “Satellite City” that would integrate housing, industry and civic places. But that promise largely evaporated. Historian Richard White, author of Planning Toronto, says this wasn’t for lack of trying. “Bramalea had quite a substantial number of jobs, right from the start,” he explains. “The problem was that because of the automobile, people were so mobile that they could work in other places quite far afield. And they did.”

That continued. Through the boom of the 1980s, and the continuous building that has followed, Brampton has evolved as a bedroom community. Today, roughly 90 per cent of residents drive to work, says Rob Elliott, Brampton’s commissioner of planning and development, and 68 per cent of them have jobs outside the city.

What has changed is the diversity of the population. More than half of Bramptonians are immigrants, and three-quarters are visible minorities. The largest group is South Asian and the city has a sizable black population as well. It’s a young city, too, with an average age of 36, compared with the Canadian average of 41.

So this city of young families is more likely to have roots in the Punjab rather than Scotland or Ireland, like their predecessors. Yet they face the same challenges – or bigger ones – in getting around.

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Brampton, 2016: Children walk home from school. The city's average age is 36, five years less than the national average.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

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A South Asian clothing and home-goods store in Brampton. South Asians make up a large share of the diverse city, three-quarters of whom are visible minorities.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Unmaking sprawl

The relative lack of jobs and the dominance of the car are the two big problems Brampton is today attempting to fix. “This is about bringing key jobs to the city in locations that are served by transit,” Mr. Elliott explains.

Bringing new, good-quality jobs is one objective. In one high-profile victory, the city will welcome a new university campus, a joint venture of Sheridan College and Ryerson University, in the next few years. It will share a new building with a city “Innovation Centre.”

In Brampton today, 8 per cent of people use transit to get to work – “suburban par for the course,” Mr. Elliott says – and planners want to see that figure double to 16 per cent.

Brampton residents “told us they were spending a lot of time in their cars,” explains the planner Larry Beasley, who worked on the Brampton 2040 vision. “And they weren’t saying they don’t want cars – but they were saying, ‘It would be nice if I could do some of my errands without driving. If I could have some choice about it.' ”

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Pedestrians and cyclists navigate the the construction material and fences on the corner of Brampton's George Street and Queen Street West.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Beasley, an independent planner, is globally famous in the profession for his work reinventing downtown Vancouver. He says Brampton poses an exciting opportunity, because the city’s form and its challenges very much represent the state of Canadian urbanism: This is a suburban country. “Much of my focus over the years has been on core cities,” he says, “but I’ve become fascinated by suburbs. That is where over 60 per cent of Canadians live.”

The Brampton 2040 plan, which was unveiled earlier this year, builds on one basic insight: “The best transportation plan is a land-use plan.” If you want people to spend less time getting from home to work and school, it helps to put those things close together. It also makes sense to cluster a lot of jobs and homes, making it more likely that people can walk from place to place. And if you have large clusters of homes and jobs – call them downtowns – then mass transit becomes economical to build and attractive to use. “And it will encourage people to shift to active transportation,” in other words walking or cycling, “because it’s easier and faster,” Mr. Elliott explains.

This won’t be simple. Mr. White, the planning historian, admires the aim of the Brampton vision to bring people’s homes and workplaces together. However, “I think the planners simply don’t have enough power to bring it about,” he says. Brampton is not an island; it’s part of a big, decentralized region, with jobs scattered across a vast area. Not everyone can find a job near home, or is willing to uproot their personal life for a shorter commute. “The forces keeping people behind the wheel,” Mr. White says, "are incredibly powerful.”

Any degree of success, getting people out of their cars, would benefit public health. Ms. Minichillo notes Brampton has among the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the region – a disease that correlates directly with lack of exercise. “We have designed activity out of our lives, and it’s time to put it back.”

This means rethinking the design of roads, a hugely contentious issue. Henrik Zbogar, the city’s senior manager of transportation planning, says he’s entirely on board with the 2040 aspirations. “We can’t build our way out of congestion,” he argues. New roads will quickly fill up with drivers – a process known as induced demand, and backed by decades’ worth of research and evidence. Road construction and widening “needs to be rethought,” Mr. Zbogar says. Major roads are designed to hold rush-hour traffic. “Which means that, even in those peak hours, the lanes in the opposite direction are often well below capacity,” he explains, “and then after hours, you end up with a very unforgiving environment.”

I think back to where I began on Steeles Avenue: wide, unforgiving roads, with a 60-kilometre-an-hour speed limit – which, as Mr. Zbogar admitted to me, is constantly ignored by speeding drivers. Fast cars, long distances: Why would you walk there?

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A Brampton 2040 illustration shows a busy Bramalea pedestrian area around a canal. A big part of the 2040 philosophy is making the city an appealing place to visit.City of Brampton

Making places

It helps to have somewhere pleasant to go. A third ingredient in the 2040 vision is another suburban challenge, what planners call “placemaking.” “There are not a lot of places in Brampton that are really appealing,” Mr. Beasley admits. “There is downtown, which is a small, attractive place. But a city that will be a million people needs more than that.”

Downtown Brampton, home to the Rose Theatre and the recently expanded City Hall, is indeed nice – and it has some number of people walking the sidewalks. But across the rest of the city, places to gather have to be created in a car-centric environment.

Good buildings are an important part of this. Brampton already has a strong portfolio of civic facilities by award-winning architects, including the Brampton Soccer Centre by MJMA and the Springdale Library by RDHA. The latter, which opened in the spring, is one of the best libraries I’ve seen in Canada, a bright and sinuous pavilion whose reading room is capped with a spectacular round skylight. During my weekday visit, the serene space was packed with children and their parents.

Yet, across the street stands the blank side wall of a Shoppers Drug Mart and a power centre. The surrounding neighbourhood is a maze of culs-de-sac. Design interventions such as the library may help generate a sense of place and a sense of community, but the broad landscape of the city – most of it very new – will not be remade quickly or easily. And indeed, the 2040 vision is not a plan: It will inform the future development of city policies across a variety of fields, Ms. Minichillo said.

City staff boast about consulting with more than 13,000 people in drafting the 2040 Vision, but how plausible does it seem to other locals? I spoke to a few people at the Bramalea City Centre shopping mall, explaining the outlines of the 2040 Vision and asking their opinion. Arun Ramcharan wasn’t having it. “How are they going to fix this place?” said the twentysomething Bramptonite, who works in retail. “I haven’t heard about it, and probably they’ll come up with a new plan next year anyway.”

And yet. Mr. Ramcharan commutes to the Eaton Centre mall in downtown Toronto, 30 kilometres away, and when he comes back to Brampton he often finds himself … here, at the mall. “There’s nowhere to go in Brampton,” he says. So the city’s goal of placemaking resonates with him.

Mr. Ramcharan lives in an apartment building a short walk away from the mall, so the idea of transit-oriented development here makes sense. “We do need to expand transit,” he allows; he routinely has to wait half an hour for a local bus. “We have a long way to go.”

So does the city. Mr. Beasley argues that this transition, physical and conceptual, is nothing less than critical. “In a country that’s quite well-known for its livable cities, its suburbs are not manifesting that same quality. We have to figure out how to get there, and start working on it now.”

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