“No longer merely suburbs, but part of the edgeless city”: on Toronto’s northern expansion

The Toronto skyline. Image: Getty.

The northern suburbs of Toronto are in a period of great transformation. Infrastructure development and new private investments are contributing to the growth of the communities of Vaughan and Markham, two urban cores of York Region to the north of Canada’s biggest city.

These towns are in the middle of a suburban growth that is changing their environment towards a more urban and less rural landscape. While Vaughan is building a Metropolitan Centre also thanks to the opening of a new Toronto Transit Commission subway station, Markham has turned into a new venue for both private and public investment in the almost never-ending urban development of the Greater Toronto Area.

They’re both what are known as boomburbs: suburban communities in the midst of tremendous growth that were rural areas not so long ago, and aren’t the core cities in their metropolitan areas.

Vaughan Metropolitan Center TTC subway station under construction (2017). Image: City of Vaughan.

Vaughan and Markham are no longer merely suburbs of Toronto, but are becoming part of the Torontonian “edgeless city” due to the constant urban expansion.

A “growth plane” for the Greater Golden Horseshoe area, comprising the portion of southern Ontario that envelops the western end of Lake Ontario, was drawn up in 2017. Here, Vaughan and Markham stand at the boundary of what’s known as the Greenbelt area, as shown by a map created by Neptis Foundation, an independent foundation based in Toronto that conducts research and spatial analyses of Canada’s urban regions.

At the same time, Vaughan and Markham are the main engines of the population increase in York Region, which, according to forecasts by Hemson Consulting (a policy and planning analysis company), is expected to grow from the current 1.1m people to 1.5m by 2031.

In more detail, Neptis Foundation shows how the red line of designated urban expansion land sharply crosses both Vaughan and Markham, as the map below illustrates:

The Urban Fringe in GTA and Hamilton. Image: Neptis Foundation.

The “growth-machine theory” may be useful to understand the expansion of Vaughan and Markham. In their classic Urban Fortune (1987), Harvey Molotch and John Logan stated that the political and economic essence of any given locality is growth and a common interest in local initiatives of social and economic reforms, at least in the American context.

Given that Vaughan and Markham represent two satellite cities of Toronto, I argue that their current expansion represents a manifestation of the growth machine theory as suburbs are transformed into cityscapes where pro-growth planning and public-private investments play a fundamental role.

The Vaughan Metropolitan Centre

In November 2015, the City of Vaughan approved a Community Improvement Plan (CIP) to encourage the development of the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre.

Two years later, the opening of the TTC Line 1 subway extension represents the first step towards the revitalised Vaughan downtown, as well as a new gateway to downtown Toronto. Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, where the subway station is located, will be a new inter-modal public transit system, able to connect the overlapped transport networks of Toronto, the GTA and York Region.

But mostly, it will be the venue of new prestige offices (KPMG is going to have new headquarters there), hotels and retail opportunities, as this video by the City of Vaughan illustrates:

It’s a modern town within the town, located at the southwestern edge of the city. The forecast for this massive project is illustrated in the seductive video above that imagines a dreamy future for Vaughan, the fastest-growing municipality in all of Canada between 1996 and 2006, achieving a population growth rate of 80.2 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

This growth looks unstoppable as the construction of the Metropolitan Centre will automatically attract private investment and, basically, more people and more money. Municipal forecasts predict that by 2031, the Metropolitan Centre alone will be home to 11,500 employees and 25,000 residents.

But what will be the consequences of this new enclave of Vaughan? Will the city experience gaps between social classes due to the growth mismatch between this brand new area and some of its outskirts, including the Italian ethno-burb of Woodbridge? Will the cost of living increase in the entire community of Vaughan?

Some of these questions are also key issues in Markham’s development.


‘Community-building’ in Markham

My Facebook timeline, according to both my interests and “likes,” is constantly displaying a Toronto Star ad. When I decided to click it, I was a little surprised: the link sent me to the interactive page Creating a Community, a fancy website sponsored by BILD (the Building Industry and Land Development Association) that provides detailed information about the development of Markham, framed under the keyword “community”/

Markham’s population grew from 208,615 inhabitants in 2001 to 328,966 in 2016, and it’s now statistically the most diverse community in Canada, according to urban planning experts Roger Keil and Jean-Paul Addie. Markham was a rural area until 25 years ago, and has rapidly morphed into a new city.

In a way, what’s known as New Urbanism is changing Markham’s landscape via real estate developments and allegedly participatory urban planning called “creating a community” by Markham officials.

On the Creating a Community website, the meteoric growth of Markham is summarised in a timeline in which the partnerships among institutions, the private sector and citizens are seen as successful drivers of the community-building process. Infrastructure development and brand new high-rise buildings seem to represent the main efforts to improve Markham’s status within York Region, according to this Toronto Star video:

However, attracting higher economic classes than those who have historically populated the town seems the main reason behind the emphasis on supposed community-building, albeit some developers pointed out the aim of “keeping people in Markham”. A Facebook comment in response to the ad by the Toronto Star reveals a certain unhappiness felt by Markham’s current residents in the face of so much dramatic change:

The development of Markham seen by a citizen. When Facebook is the expression of citizens’ unrest. Image: Facebook.com.

This comment shows how tricky “community-building” can be. What input do longtime residents truly have when private corporations and developers are pushing a pro-growth agenda to turn a suburb into a city?

Markham’s growth could also result in an increase in cost-of-living similar to Toronto’s over the last few decades. In the light of the aforementioned growth-machine theory, are suburbs being transformed into new places of potential wealth despite their historically middle-class population? If so, what does community-building really have to do with anything?

As aruged by Jamie Peck, professor from University of British Columbia, typical city politics, along with the push for economic competitiveness, have also now arrived in the suburbs, as Vaughan and Markham become in-between cities where the demarcation between rural and urban, or rather between centre and periphery, looks thinner. The expansion of Toronto’s urban territories has arrived.

The ConversationNevertheless, the consequences for everyday living spaces — and the people who have long called these suburbs home — remain unknown. And they’re seemingly not on anyone’s priority list.

Lorenzo De Vidovich, PhD Candidate in Urban Planning, Design and Policy | Urban welfare researcher, York University, Canada.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.