Sunday June 19, 2016

Forget downtowns and suburbs: the 'in-between cities' are where it's at

Members of The 180 team check out Surrey city centre. You can see mixed business in the foreground, the Skytrain station in the middle, and towers of various purposes on the horizon.

Members of The 180 team check out Surrey city centre. You can see mixed business in the foreground, the Skytrain station in the middle, and towers of various purposes on the horizon. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Listen 9:17

You've got your cities, and you've got your suburbs. One is full of classic office buildings, modern high rises, and inner-city residential developments. The other is down a big, smooth, highway, full of detached-home subdivisions and well-organized shopping hubs. 

That's how many planners, and many people, think of modern Canada. There's only one problem: more and more Canadians live in neither of those places. 

They live in what Roger Keil calls "in-between cities:" places like Surrey, B.C., and Mississauga, Ont., which have a much more diverse mix of development, and of residents. 

Surrey Library view

Surrey B.C., one of Canada's "in-between cities" is looking to the future even its motto. (Kathryn Marlow)

Traditionally, in-between cities have garnered less attention from planners, and therefore grew in a less organized way, than cities and suburbs: "You often have people having too much infrastructure, meaning they're living right next to a highway, but too little infrastructure because they don't have any bicycle infrastructure where they can get their kids to school."

He says traditional suburbs were built with barriers that protected residents from other land uses, "but in the in-between city, this is all fiction, because in reality there is a tank farm next to my suburban university, which is next to a super highway and next to one of Canada's major rail links."

Toronto truck crash closes Keele at Murray Ross Parkway

The "in-between" area near York University, with the tank farms Roger Keil refers to. (Google)

But Keil, the York Research Chair in Global Sub/Urban Studies at York University, pays lots of attention to these in-between places. Much of his work is in studying them. 

And he says in-between cities are coming into their own in the 21st century. Provincial and federal governments are starting to pay attention, offering infrastructure dollars for things like transit. Local governments are starting to take charge and to demand those dollars, and the power to use them in ways that will work on the ground. 

"You often see a certain missionary zeal of downtown-based planners that have a very normative idea of a downtown and what is good for a city in mind, and they now use that to do their missionary work in the suburbs. The problem with that is that there is not enough input from the people who actually live in those places."  
- Roger Keil, York University

Keil says it's important to recognize that in-between cities are their own entity: "You often see a certain missionary zeal of downtown-based planners that have a very normative idea of a downtown and what is good for a city in mind, and they now use that to do their missionary work in the suburbs. The problem with that is that there is not enough input from the people who actually live in those places."  

While he recognizes that it's unlikely all of Canada will start thinking of Surrey and Mississauga before Vancouver and Toronto, he calls on residents, planners, and politicians to remember that in-between cities are their own entities, which their own identities, as we plan for the future.