You won’t likely find “The Grand Bargain” in a planning text, even though it explains in a phrase the de facto understanding that has shaped many of the places where Canadians live.
The bargain looks like this:
This is North York* between the Sheppard and Finch subway stations – a one-block-deep corridor of high-density mixed-use development on either side of Yonge Street.
Go another block further and there is a cliff-face drop in scale, where single-family suburbia begins under a canopy of street trees.
Post-war Toronto and its suburban cities decided to accommodate density (those concrete towers especially) where there was primarily commercial and industrial zoning. With the opening of the Yonge Street subway in 1954, the station areas made ideal locations, especially where there was already a streetcar village.
To deal with community blowback at the sudden change in scale and alienating architecture, especially if the bulldozing of existing residential neighbourhoods might be required, planners and councils struck a compact: we won’t touch a blade of grass in your single-family zones. Your status will be maintained.
Hence the Grand Bargain: high-rise density, low-scale suburbia, little in between. Massive change for one, almost none for the other, and spot rezonings thereafter.
On the other side of the country, something similar was going in Burnaby. In the fifties, the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board produced a vision – ‘cities in a sea of green‘ – and provided the guidelines to go with it, notably where to consider apartment zoning. David Pereira details the evolution of Burnaby’s commitment to the regional vision and its apartment zones, renamed town centres, in the 1960s.
That bargain when built out looks like this:
Burnaby’s bargain meant skylines of towers clustered around mega-malls. In return, a largely untouched mountain park above, lakes and streams in a pristine valley below, in between: subdivisions of single-family homes.
Councils stuck with that deal over decades, giving certainty to both developers and communities, and avoiding contentious rezonings in sensitive areas. It only came unstuck when expansion required the demolition of the previous apartment stock from the 1950s south of Metrotown. The Mayor, Derek Corrigan, unwavering in his commitment to the model, lost perspective – and his seat.
But the bargain has been adopted in every corner of the region, in Metro strategies and Official Community Plans. The results are most apparent along the SkyTrain lines.
As in Coquitlam:
And even on the transit-deficient North Shore:
The City of North Vancouver has consistently supported the town-centre strategy, accommodating highrise growth in Upper and Lower Lonsdale (one of the best examples in the region), while the Districts of North Van and West Vancouver subscribe to only half the bargain, aggressively resisting even modest proposals for higher densities, assuming that the City of North Vancouver will take up the demand and ignore the naysayers.
The Grand Bargain is even the unstated premise behind Vancouverism: the creation of livable mixed-use communities at high density. From Expo 86 to the 2010 Olympics, during which seven megaprojects were underway**, it has accommodated growth pressures on a small fraction of the city’s land, while avoiding the political unpleasantness of significant rezonings in built-out neighbourhoods, whether on the West Side, the East Side or even the West End.
Unfortunately, by the second decade of this century, it became apparent that the bargain could not accommodate three emerging pressures: affordability, equity and the need for a broader range of housing choices.
The current council has a dilemma. Most councillors intuitively understand the existence of the Grand Bargain, even if they would not subscribe to it, since it assumes that neighbourhoods will be inequitably treated: some taking drastic increases in scale and population, others left largely untouched. But as they learn over three-day public hearings for a single apartment building or townhouse proposal, there’s a powerful expediency behind it.
The political capital it requires to change the scale and character of even a single block does not provide a significant return when trying to accommodate overall growth. It becomes increasingly attractive to look for a few places where the city can pack in and stack up the density – just as we’ve been doing region-wide for more than half a century. (And the First Nations MST development company will be there to help.)
Nonetheless, the City-wide Plan is charged with ripping up the Grand Bargain – even though the first image one sees on the site is as good as expression of the bargain as can be found:
There’s really not much choice. We’ve used up the green fields and most of the brown fields; equity requires that we look to every neighbourhood to take its ‘fair share’ of growth. We obviously need new forms of housing and tenure, different from what has come before. And we need a lot more of it.
Problem is, there’s nothing explicit, certainly nothing legal, to rip up – except the expectations and trust of those who assumed that the bargain was implicit in the purchase of their homes, their right to secure rental accommodation, or the expectation that somehow, somewhere the city will find a place for them without changing the character or scale of the place they love.
Councils and planners never named the Grand Bargain, though all understand its existence. NPA’s George Puil and COPE’s Harry Rankin had that in common.
All that could change with the City-wide Plan and a new zoning bylaw, but only if a half century of expectations can be discarded and a new bargain written.
*Urbanist Michael Beach goes into detail on North York via Streetview and YouTube here:
** Megaprojects from north to south: Bayshore Gardens, Coal Harbour, International Village, Concord Pacific Place, Arbutus Gardens, Collingwood Village, Fraser Lands. There were also the rezonings of Downtown South and Triangle West on the peninsula, which accommodated hundreds of more units on smaller sites, and the Olympic Village.