Michael Gagnon with Enrich Magazine
Photography by Herman Custodio for Enrich Magazine

Becoming the Darwinian city

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. – Charles Darwin

Michael Gagnon with Enrich MagazineIf you can’t learn to adapt when situations change, it’s pretty much game over for you. Say you live in a town of quaint wooden buildings and, one day, a fire goes out of control and burns half the place down. Do you rebuild things as they were, or move on to building materials that are less flammable? Cities have been adapting and evolving like this for centuries. We’ve moved from mud-brick villages to medieval walled cities; from the urban boom of the Industrial Revolution to the ‘American Dream’ of suburbia. Now societies are turning back to the city. They see the sprawl that tore up forests and farmland, the distance to travel from suburban home to urban workplace, not to mention the rising cost of gasoline. People are now environmentally conscious and want to live in sustainable neighbourhoods. Many cities are willing to take that evolutionary leap. Except Brampton. While other cities are on the evolutionary track of humankind, Brampton seems to be monkeying around in the Neanderthal stage.

To be fair, there are some exceptions to that statement. Michael Gagnon and his team, Gagnon and Law Urban Planners Ltd., have worked in Brampton for 25 years. In that time, they have filled their portfolio with a variety of projects that follow the evolutionary trend, from mixed-use buildings like The Landmarq and Rhythm apartments in downtown Brampton, to entire communities like Mount Pleasant and the Northwest Brampton Urban Expansion. What makes this firm stand out (aside from being one of few planning firms in the city) is their drive to help Brampton evolve as a city.

City planning, like most things in life, is a product of evolution. It follows the trends of time, taking in lessons of the past, and sometimes creating precedents that leap to advancements of the future. City planning has all of these qualities. However, just as with Darwin’s observations of biological evolution, those that do not learn to adapt are doomed to fail. As such, it is important to understand how our environment is shifting and what we must do to adapt to these changes.

Michael GagnonThe overall environmental success of a city, as Michael sees it, depends on its place in the market. “The marketplace is smarter than me, you, or anybody. The market speaks for itself. You can say what you want about what something should be worth or how much people should be willing to pay, but the market’s going to say what they’re willing to pay.”

This is very much dependent on location which, for Brampton, is our place in the GTA. “The reality is, if you’re building high-rises in Brampton, the costs for concrete and trades are the same as in the city of Toronto. But what’s different in Brampton is that our DCs (development charges) are among the most expensive in the GTA, higher than those in both Toronto and Mississauga. So it’s no surprise that no one is building apartments here or marketing them. It’s too expensive! Toronto has location, location, location, lifestyle, everything, and it’s cheaper!”

As far as Michael is concerned, to develop Brampton properly, we must become competitive in the GTA. Some of you may think, “We are plenty competitive! Look at all the new houses we’re building on the outskirts of town.” Well, look indeed – all of those distant homes, but no office buildings. That’s not the development of a sustainable, dynamic city; it’s the development of a bedroom community. We’re not just stuck, but snoozing on the lower branch of city evolution when we should be walking tall with the rest.

Helping Brampton GrowSo what can we do to get out of this rut? According to Michael, we need to follow the market and make things economically feasible for urban developers. We can do this by allowing exceptional discounts on our DCs. For example, lowering the city portion of our DCs down to zero for the first 2,500 units that are devoted to creating office and mixed-use buildings. This could be a great way to foster development of the Central Area expansion. We can attract offices for small and medium businesses in the downtown and along Queen Street, plus attract large corporations with lucrative high-rise office buildings along Main Street and Steeles Avenue.

Another idea Michael has is to speed up the development process. An average building takes six years to construct from conception to the finished product. Yet, in Brampton, several projects have spent years in just the proposal phase. If the transition is done smoother and faster, as in places like Toronto, we will have more developers happy to work here.

Michael’s other recommendation to become competitive in the job market is to contact external businesses and ask what would convince them to move their firms to Brampton. This factor is incredibly important, yet often ignored. To create jobs and economic prosperity we must learn to sell Brampton as THE place to be for business. If we don’t talk to business owners, if we don’t know what it takes to draw them in, we lose our standing in the marketplace.

Gagnon and Law Urban PlannersCity Hall needs to make these adaptations to our planning division, and soon. From Michael’s observations in his downtown office, he feels we are approaching a dangerous point. “I had a developer and his entire senior management team here for a meeting. They were all standing here looking outside. I said, ‘What are we looking at guys?’ and they go, ‘Oh my God, it looks like hell!’ My heart sank. This was their impression of the downtown. The worst part was, as we were talking about development opportunities, they finished the meeting by saying, ‘We’re interested in development opportunities in the GTA… not Brampton though, please.’ They don’t want to be here. That’s a tragedy.”

Now there are fresh faces in City Hall and we are hopeful that, with new ideas and a new budget, they will push Brampton forward to becoming the city it should be. But we can’t ignore the fact that Brampton, in its current state, isn’t attracting the growth it needs to be a vibrant, long-lasting city. So, if we are to evolve as a city, we must follow the Darwinian model. Adapt to changes in the GTA marketplace. Become more competitive, both in our development charges and in convincing businesses to take roost in Brampton. Find ways to speed up the development process and ensure that businesses are happy to be here. To do so, by becoming a Darwinian city, we will have our key to making the evolutionary leap.