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Suburbs surrounding the city of Calgary.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

For most Canadians, the world has shrunk. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept many people close to home. And it has made many wonder whether the small worlds of our neighbourhoods shouldn’t contain all we need for daily life. A notion recently popularized by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, known as the 15-minute city, holds that basic necessities should be within a short walk or cycle ride of home, reducing vehicle trips along with the emissions and inconvenience that go with them.

This is not a reality for most Canadians. The Globe has analyzed data on the country’s major metropolitan areas released earlier this year by Statistics Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. The data measures proximity to amenities at the city-block level: How close residents within that area are to such things as a grocery store, pharmacy, school, and library.

A neighbourhood is considered “amenity dense” when a resident in that neighbourhood can walk to a grocery store, pharmacy and public transit stop within one kilometre; when there is a childcare facility, primary school and library within 1.5 kilometres; and when they can drive to a health facility within three kilometres and a place of employment in 10 kilometres. (These areas are highlighted in pink on our maps.)

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Amenity-rich neighbourhoods are scarce in most of Canada’s cities; only 23.2 per cent of urban dwellers live in these types of areas. This suggests that creating a country of 15-minute cities will be challenging: it would likely mean bringing even more people into central Vancouver and Toronto and parts of Montreal, and making changes to the suburbs.

“Most Canadians live in the vast auto-oriented suburbs and exurbs, and those are difficult to retrofit,” says Queen’s University planning professor David Gordon. “Can [we] design places so that ownership of a car of isn’t required for citizenship?”

The Divided Cities

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in

amenity-dense neighbourhoods

TORONTO

55.8%

MONTREAL

54.6%

Pointe-

Saint-

Charles

Lasalle

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada;

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in

amenity-dense neighbourhoods

TORONTO

55.8%

MONTREAL

54.6%

Pointe-

Saint-

Charles

Lasalle

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada;

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in amenity-dense neighbourhoods

TORONTO

MONTREAL

55.8%

54.6%

Pointe-

Saint-

Charles

Lasalle

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada; Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Toronto’s downtown areas are packed with amenities, but that changes the farther out you go. In the inner suburbs, such as Etobicoke and Scarborough, some neighbourhood blocks have few amenities even with relatively large populations of more than 1,000 people. These areas of the city are home to more racialized and low-income residents.

Lower-income neighbourhoods on the edges of the city are less likely to own vehicles, making access to amenities challenging. Research from Steven Farber at University of Toronto Scarborough shows such households participate in 0.6 activities per day compared to 1.1 for those who own vehicles. “Over a long period of time, that can have really significant consequences for health, quality of life, income and potential,” Dr. Farber says.

Some of the same trends are evident in Montreal. Affluent and gentrified areas are amenity-dense, while lower-income neighbourhoods, such as Pointe-Saint-Charles and LaSalle, are not. Looking at them on a map can obscure other challenges, though. Just because a city block is dense doesn’t mean residents can afford the available amenities. “I live here in Pointe-Claire, and there’s a Metro [grocery store] next door to me,” says Ahmed El-Geneidy, an urban planning professor at McGill University. “I cannot afford to shop there for my entire family.”

People view the amenities in their communities as a measure of how society values their worth, says Kofi Hope, co-founder of Monumental in Toronto, a consultancy focused on equitable recovery from COVID-19. “When you have folks feeling they have concrete evidence in front of them that their neighbourhoods, their lives, and their health are not as important as others, that’s how we end up with a really polarized and divided city.”

The Suburban Cities

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in

amenity-dense neighbourhoods

CALGARY

10%

EDMONTON

15%

WINNIPEG

21.6%

OTTAWA

20.3%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada;

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in

amenity-dense neighbourhoods

CALGARY

10%

EDMONTON

15%

WINNIPEG

21.6%

OTTAWA

20.3%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada;

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in amenity-dense neighbourhoods

CALGARY

EDMONTON

10%

15%

WINNIPEG

OTTAWA

21.6%

20.3%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada; Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Some cities are actually more like suburbs. They are sprawling and car-oriented, with few amenity-dense neighbourhoods. Only a minority of residents in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Ottawa live in amenity rich areas. The Prairie cities expanded as the car became king, and their expansive geography meant there was plenty of land to build on, which heavily influenced planning decisions. The notion is misguided, says Noel Keough, an associate professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. “It actually implies we need more aggressive public policy to curtail sprawl,” he says.

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Edmonton is aiming to improve walkability and accessibility partly through redeveloping older strip malls into mixed use areas. “Even if there’s no physical interventions, the spots could be animated with farmers markets or other activities so the community can have a local hub,” says Kalen Anderson, director of urban analysis for the City of Edmonton. Ms. Anderson is not anticipating residents will ditch their cars, but said the goal is to provide alternatives. “It’s about what the other options are, and whether people can walk, cycle or take transit to get what they need,” she says.

Last year, Ottawa released an official plan that includes establishing 15-minute neighbourhoods. That city encompasses a wide swath of geography, including a downtown, suburbs, and rural areas. “We want to tailor the policies of our plan to each individual area to focus on what’s missing,” says Alain Miguelez, Ottawa’s manager of policy planning.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde Cities

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in

amenity-dense neighbourhoods

HALIFAX

9.3%

ST. JOHN’S

3.5%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada;

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in

amenity-dense neighbourhoods

HALIFAX

9.3%

ST. JOHN’S

3.5%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada;

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in amenity-dense neighbourhoods

HALIFAX

ST. JOHN’S

9.3%

3.5%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada; Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

The smaller cities of Atlantic Canada each have a historic core full of amenity, says T.J. Maguire, an urban designer with Develop Nova Scotia, a crown corporation. In the core of Halifax, “it is possible to live without a car — which is rare in a small city,” he says. However, most people live car-centric lives. The Halifax region has large areas of car-oriented suburbs; this is true to a lesser degree in Saint John and St. John’s. This creates what Prof. Gordon calls a “Jekyll-and-Hyde quality.”

The good news is that each has some good bones. Their older cores have small lots and fine street grids, all laid out long before the car. “Humans gravitate toward a fine-grained experience of streets and buildings,” Maguire says. “We have those intact.” Stephen Kopp, a partner at Acre Architects in Saint John, says the city’s core has seen growing interest from developers and new residents, and is in many ways already a 15-minute city — though for now, it lacks a grocery store. “The city is working to fill in the gaps,” Mr. Kopp said. “And in a small city, one change can make a big difference.”

The Paradise City

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in

amenity-dense neighbourhoods

VANCOUVER

72.4%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada;

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in

amenity-dense neighbourhoods

VANCOUVER

72.4%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada;

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Amenity-dense

Not amenity-dense

Percentage of people that live in amenity-dense neighbourhoods

VANCOUVER

72.4%

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statistics Canada; Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Starting in the 1970s, Vancouver became the poster child for regeneration of a North American downtown, more than doubling the population of downtown and creating amenities such as cultural venues and schools along the way. “We’ve been talking about the 15-minute city for 25 years,” said Larry Beasley, the former co-chief planner of Vancouver.

In addition, significant areas of prewar neighbourhoods have a high degree of amenities. Mr. Beasley credits this to a mixture of the physical qualities of those older neighbourhoods — which are inherently more compact and more mixed than postwar suburbs — and some targeted interventions by city government to bring new development. The houses in those neighbourhoods are now deeply unaffordable, as Mr. Beasley acknowledges, but he notes the city’s policies to encourage small-scale infill development. “We have found ways to bring in new people, with targeted intensification spread across the city,” he said.

The Road to a Better City

Even after the pandemic, the rubric of the 15-minute city will still be relevant. “It allows for healthier living, and reinforces social connections,” said Cheryll Case, principal of CP Planning. And it could contribute to a more equitable way of building cities. So how can it be achieved on a large scale? “Right now, the real challenge is suburban places,’ said Mr. Beasley, the former Vancouver planner. He advocates for density — largely new housing — to be gathered into clusters along with a mix of retail and workplaces. This will require “strong vision, and also detailed set of policies and procedures that will make it a reality.”

Ms. Case suggested that changes to urban neighbourhoods are an important part of the solution. She suggests replacing some houses with low-rise and mid-rise apartments, which would suit today’s smaller families and allow more households to enjoy existing amenities. “In some cases, we’re talking about creating something entirely new,” she says, “and in others it’s about returning the life to a neighbourhood that used to be there.”

Graphics by Danielle Webb and Murat Yükselir

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