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Christopher Hume

Urban Issues, Architecture

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Hume: Welcome to the age of region

December 14, 2009

Christopher Hume

The 19th century was the age of the metropolis; the 21st will be the era of the metropolitan region.

In these vast agglomerations now emerging around the world, traditional distinctions between suburb and city, small town and big, hinterland and downtown no longer apply. The new organizing principles will be regional in scope. Though this will offend local sensibilities, it’s a shift that must be made.

One of the many observers arguing the case is Tony Coombes, executive director of the Neptis Foundation, a private non-profit organization dedicated to measuring and analyzing the urban landscape – economic, political, social and geographic.

In the belief that what you see is what you get, Neptis has put together a map and website that illustrate what it calls the Toronto Metropolitan Region. Assembled from 16 satellite photographs, it covers a vast territory that stretches from Lake Erie and Lake Nipissing to the Bay of Quinte, Manitoulin Island and beyond.

What most interests Coombes is the area bounded to the north by Peterborough, Barrie, Collingwood, Kitchener/Waterloo and Cambridge. This includes more than the usual 416 and 905.

As he also points out, this region generates one-third of Canada’s GDP and has a population of eight million people.

“It is a huge metropolitan area that’s getting to be Chicago-size,” he says. “We refer to it as the Toronto Metropolitan Region. The idea is to help people realize what the region is.”

At the same time, the project represents an attempt to create an iconic image of something that is generally understood only in the most abstract sense. The region may be a fact, economically and geographically, but politically and emotionally, it doesn’t exist.

Still, Coombes points out, “The region is the big context for development.”

Though residents have yet to warm to the notion of joining this larger body politic, the provincial government has been hot on regionalism for almost a decade. New legislation has been passed to control sprawl, promote denser growth, protect farmland and build regional transportation systems. The most visible result is probably Metrolinx, which even now is planning our transit future.

Neptis’s cartographic exercise allows users to plot data and see the results. That could mean anything from watersheds and travel patterns to CO2 emissions by community or household.

In these ways and others, the map will reveal the growing importance of cities such as Brampton, which are generally ignored but play an essential role in the national economy.

The intension isn’t to provide a zoom-in sort of tool, but one that focuses on the big picture. It’s a way to reveal the large trends, and the connections between places and people who feel themselves isolated from one another, even antagonistic.

“We’ll customize the map according to issues,” explains Neptis’s Marcy Burchfield. “We stitched it together and layered on all kinds of data. We have the capacity to tell stories as they come out. The map provides the context.”

It will also help us evaluate the effectiveness of provincial policies designed to bring about new urban forms. At a glance, the map can show where growth occurs and where it doesn’t. These patterns speak eloquently and unflinchingly about where we’re headed.

Perhaps it will also benefit the local xenophobes and Toronto-bashers who would stifle efforts to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Let’s be clear, regionalism is not civic amalgamation writ large, but the logical conclusion of a process that has been underway for decades.

We all know that one jurisdiction acting alone cannot solve the problems we face. But sometimes it’s hard to see the gridlock for the traffic.

Christopher Hume can be reached at chume@thestar.ca.

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