The New Urban

Published in Applied Arts magazine, July 2014

Master-planned communities are reining in (sub)urban sprawl by creating self-sufficient miniature ‘cities.’ Is this the future of mixed-use design?

Like an Atlantis slowly rising out of an Ontario cornfield, a new urban utopia is materializing on the outskirts of Toronto. It’s 243 acres. Luxury townhomes and condos for 15,000 residents.
More than two million square feet of retail, three million of office space. Seventy-two acres of parkland.

DM_Overview.jpgIt’s all part of Downtown Markham, a mixed-use development 10 to 15 years from completion, and just one of the new communities in Canada that aims to take the anonymity out of city living.

As urban populations hurdle toward their saturation points, most developers are building up, up, up — and quickly.

But there are a few building outward, forgoing the impersonal glass towers to create expansive communities with housing for a variety of income levels alongside retail, dining, parks and entertainment venues. They are, in cases like Downtown Markham, cities within cities. These massive “master-planned communities” mix suburban amenities with urban-style green living in fast-growing regions, and, design-wise, sometimes they look good doing it. “There’s a shift going on in terms of the places that are being built on the fringes,” says Jill Grant, professor at the School of Planning at Dalhousie University.

“They’re aiming to be much more urban in their form than they were in the past.”
The Downtown Markham development is part of a larger plan for establishing the 988-acre Markham Centre area.

Markham, 30 kilometres (18 miles) from downtown Toronto, has the fourth-highest concentration of offices in Canada and a population of over 310,000 but no urbanized “downtown.”

Downtown Markham will serve as the core, anchoring the region with a hotel and 2,400-seat movie theatre, surrounded by green spaces and recreation trails. Every building in the entire development is registered for LEED, an international rating system for green construction.

“Everything is there,” says Evelynn Ratcliffe, spokesperson for Downtown Markham developer The Remington Group. “If you were to uproot Downtown Markham and drop it on the moon, you’d still have everything you need.”

carousel_rendering.jpgBut for all the amenities they provide, master-planned communities are just that: master plans. Built entirely at once, they haven’t had the chance to grow organically over time. In order to attract urban-minded residents, developers need to avoid the Stepford-esque “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.”

“Master-planned communities tend to be built of fairly short order, and they don’t have the mix of buildings that older neighbourhoods would have,” Grant says. “The kind of construction strategies and materials are different.”

But, she continues, “Surveys of new residents seem to indicate that they like what they’re moving into.” Grant says that the communities are attractive because they’re orderly and new, so residents don’t have to be concerned with the ongoing maintenance associated with older homes.

“If you look at downtowns from around the world,” Ratcliffe says, “They take hundreds of years and aren’t built by one developer. They’ve had a lot of time to do best-practice research.”

She explains that while drafting the plans for Downtown Markham, The Remington Group drew from several case studies, including Liberty Village, a planned community in Toronto where parking has been a notorious issue, as has infrequent public transit.

“With Downtown Markham, we understood that infrastructure couldn’t be an afterthought,” Ratcliffe says. “We worked with the city to get integrated transit through the belly of our development.”

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