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A rendering of the Square Candiac development. The town was the first in Quebec to adopt 'form-based' code, which emphasizes a design-based approach to development instead of relying on conventional numerical and technical guidelines.

Ville de Candiac

The town of Candiac, on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River opposite the Island of Montreal, is one of a cluster of suburban and exurban communities spreading out to the U.S. border across vast tracts of former farmland.

Created by Canadian-European private development firm Candiac Development Corp., which started acquiring and assembling land in 1953, it was incorporated in 1957. There is little that links this particular 61-year-old suburb to its past; the name is a nod to the French ancestral château of the Marquis de Montcalm, the fallen lieutenant-general of the historic Battle of the Plains of Abraham, outside the walls of Quebec City. For years, development and local government were closely tied: mayors in the early years of the town were Candiac Development Corp. executives.

As with most other suburban municipalities, Candiac – traversed by three highways – grew in lockstep with the rise of the automobile and expressway infrastructure construction.

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But while many aspects of the town may appear to place it squarely in the category of classic, bland, characterless, auto-dependent suburbia, efforts are under way to remake Candiac along more urban, sustainable-development lines.

The municipality was the first in Quebec, two years ago, to adopt “form-based” code, an alternative to the standard “use-based” zoning regulations. Form-based code emphasizes a design-based approach to development instead of relying on conventional numerical and technical guidelines. The intent is to promote placemaking – public spaces that foster a sense of community – define the relationship between public and privates spaces such as the form and mass of buildings, and lay out a clear vision for pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods.

“We’re not doing development the way it was done in the past,” Candiac Mayor Normand Dyotte says.

Square Candiac will have 1,700 units, including a seniors’ residence.

Ville de Candiac

The city of about 21,000 is also the staging ground for a long-term test project of an electric self-driving shuttle bus on public roads, the first of its kind in Canada. The 15-passenger bus service – launched in August – will cover a one-kilometre itinerary along a busy intersection to a park-and-ride lot that is the departure point for several bus lines, including an express route over the Champlain Bridge to Montreal.

Candiac is also showcasing a major transportation-oriented development (TOD) in the area around its commuter train station. The project calls for 2,300 residential units, shops, public and green spaces.

The TOD is part of a master land-use planning and development program (PMAD) set out by the regional government body, the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal. PMAD’s objective is to offset the impact of urban sprawl by combining housing densification, promotion of active transportation (cycling and walking) and public and commercial spaces around dependable, affordable public transit.

PMAD’s goal is to ensure that 40 per cent of new housing in the Greater Montreal region is situated in 155 TOD hubs by the year 2031. The Candiac train station TOD is one of several high-profile pilot projects that have emerged so far.

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“We need to develop using density. It’s quite a major change for us,” said Mr. Dyotte, a retired Hydro-Québec executive and former city councillor who was first elected mayor in 2011. “It’s the management of change.”

In another sector of the city, on the site of a now torn-down Consumers Glass factory whose detritus was in large part recycled, another project – Square Candiac – is taking shape. It’s a mixed residential neighbourhood of about 1,700 units, including a seniors’ residence. Features of the $600-million project that are atypical for an auto suburb include broad sidewalks, two wide bicycle and walking paths, 100-per-cent underground residential parking with electric-charging-station capacity, a rainwater recovery program, car-sharing service and four- to eight-storey buildings.

Just for good measure, a rooftop urban agriculture and solar energy venture is planned for 150 townhouses in Square Candiac. Half of the homes will have organic vegetable gardens whose produce from three annual harvests will be sold locally; in the other half, each home will accommodate six solar panels producing green energy.

Half of the homes will have solar panels and the other half will have organic vegetable gardens.

Ville de Candiac

Plans call for a housing density in Square Candiac of 80 to 90 dwellings per hectare. The minimum required by the regional government of the Greater Montreal area is 30, Mr. Dyotte said.

For the commuter station project, the density is 40 dwellings for each hectare.

Urban planning expert Gérard Beaudet says Candiac – as well as Terrebonne, north of Montreal – are suburbs in the area that have been showing leadership in adopting sustainable development strategies.

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But while progress is being made transforming the traditional suburban model in those suburbs and elsewhere, there is still far too much dependency on the automobile, Prof. Beaudet said.

And, generally speaking, efforts at the densification of residential zones remain insufficient, making it difficult to justify building public transit that is attractive and reliable enough to lure residents out of their cars, he added.

David Gordon, urban development professor at Queen’s University, says there are encouraging signs across Canada of moves to “urbanize the suburbs.”

He cites Markham Centre, Cornell, the new Don Mills Centre and the transit village around Brampton’s Mount Pleasant as examples of Toronto-area suburbs building along more transit and pedestrian-friendly lines.

“However, these high-profile projects divert attention from the huge expansion in automobile-dependent suburbs” throughout Canadian metropolitan areas, Prof. Gordon said in an e-mail.

“For example, 99 [per cent] of the population growth in the Toronto metropolitan region’s ‘905’ ring of suburban municipalities is in automobile suburbs or exurbs.”

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Vancouver is ahead of both Montreal and Toronto in promoting TOD projects around its suburban SkyTrain stations, he said. “Burnaby’s Metrotown, New Westminster, Richmond City Centre and Surrey City Centre are quite good.

“It is slow work, but the Montreal planners hope that the area around many suburban Metro stations will become more urban. If you measure it by journey to work, then they are not there yet.”

Mr. Dyotte, Candiac’s mayor, says his city’s new urban-planning approach – based on sustainable, design-based, smart-growth concepts – has a lot left to do.

The municipality’s blueprint for future growth and development is being revised and updated – “We’ve got lots of ideas in mind,” he says – and the launch of an innovation centre is planned for next March, he said.

“I think we’re ahead of our neighbouring communities,” he says proudly.

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