Barrie is hardly the first place you would go to see the new urbanism that is sweeping North American cities. The bedroom community of 140,000 an hour's drive up the 400 highway from Toronto is about as suburban as you can get, with vast tracts of subdivisions, malls and business parks.
Like many Ontario cities, though, Barrie is changing. The provincial government's growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe requires all municipalities above a certain size to ensure that 40 per cent of residential growth takes place within built-up areas from 2015 on. The idea is to combat, even reverse, decades of sprawl and concentrate development around dense urban hubs.
For a place like Barrie, it is a tall order. Yet under its energetic freshman mayor, Jeff Lehman, 37, the city is embracing the challenge. It expects to see its population grow by 70,000 over the next 20 years. Instead of gobbling up more farmland, it wants to channel half of that growth into the existing urban area. "That's a sea change for us," says Mr. Lehman.
The city's urban plan aims to encourage developers to build in the horseshoe-shaped city centre surrounding Kempenfelt Bay, the western arm of Lake Simcoe. It wants to see them build apartment blocks, condos and townhouses in key areas, especially around "transit nodes" such as the city's two GO stations. If developers build subdivisions outside the centre, the city wants them to make room for village squares, small parks and nearby shops so residents don't have to jump in the car to do everything.
To further reduce reliance on the car, Mr. Lehman wants to remake the inefficient old transit system, which sends buses out from a central terminal in a flower-petal pattern. A new bus-route network will criss-cross the city so that commuters can get around the urban area instead of just in and out of downtown. Authorities plan to run buses every 15 minutes on main routes instead of every half hour and keep buses running later into the evening. The city is even planning a network of bike paths.
Mr. Lehman is the first to admit that new urbanism is sometimes a hard sell in a city where nine out of 10 residents still use a car to get around. But on a walk around downtown, he points out some encouraging signs of change.
Right across from his city hall office, a developer is building an eight-storey office block, the first on such a scale in two decades. Buyers lined up around the corner when the attached condominiums went on sale. More condos and apartments are planned or under construction down on the waterfront, including Harmony Village, a complex of townhouses and residential towers with a distinctly urban look.
Back of the waterfront in the historic downtown, the city has been fostering a cultural hub. The city already has an attractive modern art gallery, the MacLaren Art Centre, and a 200-seat theatre with two active troupes, one Shakespearean, one avant garde.
There is good eating, too. Mr. Lehman boasts that Barrie has no less than 65 independently owned restaurants and an array of bars and pubs that keep the main streets humming into the small hours. Downtown vacancies, a problem for many small or mid-sized cities, are down to seven out of 150 storefronts from 25 out of 150 three years ago.
Not all the city's efforts have been a success. Redevelopment of the restored old train station has stalled. No developer has moved in to build on the vacant lot left by a downtown blaze either, leaving a glaring gap in the streetscape. When the city built widened plank sidewalks on one downtown street to make room for restaurant patios, many residents complained about the lost parking spaces.
This, after all, is still Barrie. Mr. Lehman knows that. He isn't out to turn it into Paris on Lake Simcoe. "Suburbs are not evil," says Mr. Lehman. "What we are trying to recognize here is that there have been things we have lost along the way in designing suburbs that we need not have lost."
By adopting a denser, more urban form where it can, Barrie hopes to master a difficult trick: growth without sprawl. Mayors around Ontario should be watching. If Barrie can do it, any city can.