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the brampton diaries

Commuter Dr. in the Mount Pleasant subdivision.The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series on how the diverse and growing city of Brampton, Ont., provides lessons for Canada's future.

With its pedestrian-friendly design, a major transit station at its nucleus and mid-rise buildings that place condominiums above hair salons, Mount Pleasant Village is one of Canada's most progressive subdivisions – and it's in Brampton, Ont., a city infamous for its sprawl.

Like many other once-unassuming municipalities in Canada – Richmond near Vancouver and Longueuil near Montreal – Brampton is no longer just a satellite of the metropolis-next-door (in this case, Toronto).

It's home to Bramalea, Canada's first planned satellite city, which was designed in the sixties to accommodate up to 90,000 people. But the local government didn't anticipate the population of Brampton would soar to more than half a million residents and become home to many low-income newcomers. It's growth the city has struggled to keep up with.

While that suburban experiment may have gone awry, the city is now leading the charge in progressive development. With the use of a tool conceived at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital that considers public health in planning and the City of Brampton's unprecedented involvement in developing the innovative Mount Pleasant Village neighbourhood, Brampton may be an unexpected model for how the rest of the country deals with planning.

Mount Pleasant Village, built by Mattamy Homes, sits in the city's northwest: a community with 1,300 dwellings. It's suburban living completely re-thought: You can take your kids to school, visit the library, get your hair cut, sip a latte, grab your dry cleaning, and get on to the local commuter train – all within a five-minute walk of your home.

This marks a major compromise in the typical style of suburban living in Brampton. For the city's South Asian population (which makes up 38 per cent of all residents), multifamily housing is the norm, and living in a high-rise is not ideal. This development acknowledges various styles of living, while tackling the issue of density and walkability.

In Mount Pleasant Village, small features in design are meant to deter driving: though the transit hub that offers bus and train services has a large attached parking lot, the lot sits on the other side of the tracks from residences (which means driving would be much more cumbersome than walking).

Alex Taranu, Brampton's manager of architectural design, says many of the households in the neighbourhood have only one car – a rarity in Brampton. Not that you notice any cars here; they're tucked away in garages at the rear of homes rather than being a prominent feature in front as is the norm in subdivisions. That was a directive from Mr. Taranu's team, which had a very high level of involvement in every step of development.

"We had – number one – very strict design guidelines," Mr. Taranu said during a walking tour of the neighbourhood. "We had the whole process right down to the control architect reporting basically to us on compliance."

On a recent Tuesday evening around suppertime, teens played basketball in the outdoor court in the community's main square, the library next door was crowded with high school students who were studying and toddlers and their parents who had gathered for story time. Outside, families played on the structure that borders a large fountain that becomes a skating rink in the winter.

Mr. Taranu says a rental apartment building by a separate developer is in the works for the neighbourhood.

The community follows many of the ideals outlined in the Peel Healthy Development Index, a tool designed by researchers at St. Michael's Hospital's Centre for Research on Inner-City Health. It was developed for the Regional Municipality of Peel, which oversees the delivery of many services in Brampton, including public health. In Peel, one in 10 people has diabetes – in another 12 years, it's expected to be one in six.

The index outlines specific measures for what ideal development looks like to encourage an active lifestyle: More than three-quarters of homes must be within 800 metres of seven shops, seven out of 10 main entrances to commercial and mixed-use spaces should be flush with the sidewalk (rather than behind a parking lot).

Suburban communities have been slower than their big-city counterparts to adapt to new urbanism but they too are now making the shift. Vancouver Coastal Health, the public health authority for Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs such as Richmond, produced a briefing paper that outlines the reasons why planners and health authorities should work side-by-side. The Fraser Health Authority, which oversees Surrey, B.C., has experimented with software from Toronto Public Health that takes input on built environments (how dense they are, how much parking they offer) and spits out associated health outcomes, such as how rates of cycling and walking would increase.

A year ago, city council in Brampton passed a motion to use the Peel Healthy Development Index when making future decisions about transportation and community planning.

The city's progressive approach to planning is gaining recognition. Most recently, Richmond Hill, Ont., embedded Peel's healthy development index into its own development process.

Mount Pleasant Village won the Building Industry and Land Development Association's (BILD) 2012 award for being the best low-rise Places to Grow community (Places to Grow refers to recent Ontario legislation that lays out guidelines for intensification in certain parts of the province).

Markham, Ont., a suburb north of Toronto that has experienced similar growth to Brampton won a similar award for high-rise development. While there are some larger low-rise units designed for families, the vast majority are in towers.

Mount Pleasant Village, by contrast, "offers the more affordable townhome option in addition to the traditional detached home, which attracts a diverse group of buyers," says Andrei Zaretski, who supervised the BILD awards judging process.

But changing both landscape and mentality around suburban living isn't easy in a city like Brampton, with its legacy of cul-de-sacs and multicar garages.

In her 13 years of leading the city, Mayor Susan Fennell has faced a tidal wave of accusations that the city, hungry for development fees, has let developers determine how Brampton has grown. Yet she says the city of 523,000 doesn't have a sprawl problem.

"A lot of people come and say, 'Gee, the houses aren't on very big pieces of property.' That's compact urban form," Ms. Fennell says.

While they may have smaller backyards, Brampton's subdivisions have spread out from the city centre, making for a landscape dotted with large, detached homes and big-box shopping centres.

"Developers get these very large tracts and they put 1,000 homes on them," said Andrew Sacret, the director of policy and public affairs with the Canadian Institute of Planners. "It's a bit of a challenge. We are doing our best to change it."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Andrei Zaretski sat on the BILD awards judging panel.

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