City Building Solutions – A Sustainable and Integrated Approach to Communities
Throughout the year we’ve been thinking about the topic of transit-oriented developments, or TODs, from several angles. We have explored the importance of spaces that are flexible and resilient not only for unexpected events, like a pandemic, but also for accommodations of future changes in use or generational needs. We have deconstructed the TOD elements, analyzing the importance of each component and reconfirming that to truly achieve sustainable and vibrant communities, these components must work together towards a common vision.
In this, the final article of our TOD series, we discuss the challenges of integrating infrastructure. We consider how integration can be achieved when informed by data from the surrounding built environment.
The Challenge of Integrated (and Integrating) Infrastructure
The one thing we know for sure is that the more the infrastructure is integrated within a development site, and more importantly, with the surrounding developments, the higher the degree of technical challenge. However, technical challenges are not a reason to shy away from a project, as we will show you.
Let’s start by taking a 10,000-foot look above our cities. With the below view of Toronto, we see a pattern of grids and blocks; the Cartesian grid. We see well-organized yet distinct parcels, each containing standalone structures, and divided by a network of conduits to move people seamlessly. From 10,000-feet, this layout is pleasing to the eye, mesmerizing almost, and most certainly functional in the sense that everything is compartmentalized.
However, we know very well that the single-use, car-oriented, dispersed services, and compartmentalized functions, such as co-located big box shopping centres, do not contribute to an active and healthy lifestyle.
Cities and neighbourhoods that contribute to vibrant lifestyles distort the grid pattern, add community interest, feature mixed uses, offer alternative mode choices, and perhaps even provide characteristics that differentiate one community from another. The benefits of these types of neighbourhoods have never been more evident than during the pandemic, where close access to amenities has been crucial and where we are drawn to staying closer to home.
Entuitive’s Urban Planner, Alex Gaio, knows this very well because he is currently living in Dublin, Ireland. Dublin was under a fairly strict lockdown, limiting his mobility to a 5km radius from his home for six weeks.
When asked what is most valuable in his community bubble and what amenities are missing he asserted that the 5-kilometer limit imposed during lockdown has been the ultimate test of what is required to sustain a life within walking distance.
“Understanding which goods and services exist within my community bubble reinforces the need for our cities to be more multifunctional than ever before.
When considering the contexts that I have lived and worked in over the years, the quality of life and proximal living that is afforded to me in a mixed-use and compact neighbourhood far exceeds that of a monofunctional neighbourhood.
Monofunctional neighbourhoods don’t create livable cities and transit-oriented communities are the antidote to mono-function in our cities.”
The 15-Minute City
This idea of proximity to everything one needs that Alex mentioned is gaining traction and has been referred to as the “15-Minute City.” The creation of communities that are not only amenity-rich, but also sufficiently dense to sustain the amenities provided, can likely improve the resilience and adaptability of these communities, while promoting greater activity and community vibrancy.
The 15-minute vision is transformational and is the next step towards more community building, which can help address the decentralization of our cities.
Creating a 15-Minute City
With any major transformation, one should expect challenges, and not just the challenge of political will among policymakers, or the fight against nimbyism among local residents, but also the technical challenge of plugging in the infrastructure. These technical puzzles are always unique, and the solutions must be context-sensitive. Whether the addition of the infrastructure is built adjacent to, overtop of, or directly connecting with other infrastructure pieces, such as transit lines, foyers and concourses, towers, or major utilities, the solution is one that is almost always surgical in nature and that must carefully considered.
Despite each project’s uniqueness, there are several common attributes across all successful TODs, many of which we’ve identified from our work. These include context characteristics, such as land use, proximity to community centres, institutional amenities like schools, grocery stores, access to parks and recreational facilities, and mode choice.
In the pursuit to approach the integration of infrastructure in a holistic manner we began to collect data for the sites that surround existing major transit networks. We quickly saw how many different factors there are to consider, how many stakeholders there are with varying perspectives, and how complex it is to introduce new infrastructure. By applying multiple lenses to the neighbourhoods that bound major transit networks, we can identify areas of need and opportunities for improvement. We are now critically evaluating every site, identifying opportunities for restoration, alternative use, or new build. If the site has constraints, we are able to consider all possible solutions with a bigger picture in mind.
Using the data we collect we can then put it into action informing a project. The real opportunity is identifying the potential of each option that will allow us to realize a vision, connecting all four corners of a site and bringing all stakeholders to the table.
A Closer Look at Mimico GO Station in Toronto
Note: Entuitive is currently providing crash wall and structural engineering consulting services to the Mimico GO Station redevelopment project in Toronto. We are not using our tool in a formal capacity related to this project, but thought the site provided an interesting beta testing ground for our tool and the resulting images and paragraphs related to the site are from a hypothetical and analytical purpose of testing the tool. This case study has in no way contributed to the redevelopment project but ultimately did reinforce the viability of the redevelopment project currently underway at the site.
The Mimico GO Station in Toronto is currently surrounded by parking and far from integrated with the residential tower situated across the tracks and bisecting single-family residential communities on either side. The existing site conditions show it is ripe for redevelopment.
Redevelopment will aid in the intensification and diversification of the available space in order to course correct the trajectory of the perpetual car-oriented community growth and help in working towards sustainable growth. The site is now heading in a new direction – the rezoning application that was submitted envisions the reconstruction of the station integrated into the podium of new residential towers and commercial space.
The launch of the reimagined Mimico GO station and Vandyk Mixed-Use Development is just one piece of the puzzle. It most certainly can incent the redevelopment and or intensification of development around this site but the other “three corners” of the TOD need to be considered. Let’s explore some of these opportunities in-depth with a look at a test case on the Mimico Station GO Station site and its surrounding area.
By using our beta tool, we can apply a hypothetical test where we look beyond the property limits of this site. We can also forecast how the protection of air rights above the transit hub could allow the developer to extend the infrastructure over and above and potentially connect the surrounding communities.
Alex, who has been a key collaborator and contributor in the development of the tool, says, “We can now identify gaps in essential services on a city-scale that accounts for site constraints, and local zoning by-laws. We can then align opportunities and constraints to move forward on data-driven intensification for a more proximal city.”
Let’s explore some of these opportunities in-depth with a look at Mimico GO Station and its surrounding area.
Example 1 – Vertical Integration
Mimico GO has abutting uses that are light industrial and large-format retail. These single-function land uses are the ideal candidate for integration with other uses due to their large footprint and low profile. The vertical space above a wholesaler, case-lot grocer, or sporting goods store, for example, is ideally suited for office commercial or higher-density residential, especially given the proximity to a rail station with frequent service.
Example 2 – Horizontal Integration
With a transit station at the heart of the community, opportunities exist to bridge horizontal gaps to connect more people to newly integrated mixed-use services and make walking, cycling, and micro mobility priorities where surface parking lots previously existed. The new development at the GO Train Station can serve as a catalyst for horizontal integration across the rail corridor and Royal York Road to provide direct platform access and intermodal facilities like bike parking and cold weather layover facilities.
The application of our TOD mapping tool is in the testing phase and, interestingly, it’s not the tool itself that magically produces a perfect TOD solution. Rather, the tool has stimulated conversation and innovative thinking on how to approach each site. Highlights of what we have learned on the technical considerations of integrating infrastructure include:
- Accommodating maintenance envelopes and protection zones for future-proofing repair/maintenance work on essential services, such as transit lines, like the encapsulation project we led of the Red Line LRT in Calgary with the New Central Library.
- Avoiding interruption to ongoing operations, like our work on Scarborough Subway Extension. Here, we undertook the preliminary design to demonstrate how the subway could be introduced among the surrounding commercial towers.
- Introducing major construction within existing communities, using means and methods that limit the community and business impact, as we did on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Interestingly, on this project we successfully supported an active TTC line during construction, allowing construction of the Cedarvale station underneath the line.
- Integrating multi-purpose infrastructure that supports the functional operations or contributes to the public realm, such as emergency exit buildings and stations within the community fabric or the integration of a flood wall into the benches like we did on the West Eau Claire project. Here, we understood the functional purpose but were guided by the vision to collaborate successfully with the architects to come up with an award-winning solution.
- Impacts to existing structures, including those that may be historical or of community importance, as we encountered on our project at 550 Washington, the 1930’s depot for the trains that are today’s High Line in New York City. On this project not only did we have to maintain a 900-ton transformer vault during the duration of the construction, but we had to coordinate all the temporary works to enable construction, including demolitions, building relocation, major renovation and a new overbuild with a three-block footprint.
These are just a few examples of the community transformative projects we have been a part of and that showcase our approach. We see our role as not just engineering professionals but as community builders who approach project sites holistically.
The Entutive approach leverages our technical expertise and tenacity for delivering complex projects. We have built a team and have the tools to be ideally equipped to take on a new generation of transit-oriented development challenges to build better communities.
By not shying away from the integration challenges we will realize the true potential of the TOD vision. The more successfully we integrate adjoining infrastructures, the more we can leverage the assets and, ultimately, support the seamless movement and sustainable growth of our cities.
Whatever you call it – Transit-Oriented Developments, Transit-Oriented Communities, 15-Minute Cities, or whatever else – what it’s really about is city building. It’s about integrating the infrastructure, the transportation and the services and that’s why we call it “city-building solutions.”
For more information on our City-Building Solutions service, reach out to Fabiola MacIntyre, Senior Associate, Transportation at Entuitive here.