Measuring Main Streets

Infrastructure Equity & Main Streets

Identifying equity gaps in main street civic infrastructure

Everyone living in Canadian cities should have equal access to basic civic infrastructure, no matter what neighbourhood they reside in. Unfortunately, this is not the case today. Not only is civic infrastructure unequally distributed within major urban regions; there are also some troublingly consistent patterns that pose potential long-term issues for underserved communities.

This report examines civic infrastructure provision in the Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton regions at the neighbourhood scale in relation to housing construction, immigration patterns, and the geography of main streets. The research shows that civic infrastructure deficits are most commonly found in recently built suburban housing developments. These neighbourhoods are heavily populated by immigrants, placing them at greater risk of exclusion from essential public services and community programs. There is another concern that in the rush to tackle the housing crisis, we are neglecting to invest sufficiently in the civic infrastructure that is essential for building inclusive, complete communities. And, in many cases, new suburban developments are not planned and developed around main streets that can serve as focal points for neighbourhoods.

Civic Infrastructure Index

For each urban region we mapped, we evaluated the relative provision of civic infrastructure by neighbourhood. Our Civic Infrastructure Index calculates a weighted count of civic infrastructure establishments (by employees) relative to the size of the local population (within 1 km). These patterns are visualized by transposing the index onto major roadways in built-up residential areas of each region. City centres in the Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton regions show a relatively high concentration of civic infrastructure. This is unsurprising: central library branches, city halls, and major hospitals tend to be clustered in downtowns to serve wider populations. Outside of the city centres, the places with a higher concentration of civic infrastructure tend to be older, well-established neighbourhoods. Conversely, the places that tend to have the largest civic infrastructure deficits are in more recently constructed suburban neighbourhoods.

Civic Infrastructure Index

Civic Infrastructure Index
Low High

Civic Infrastructure & New Communities

To examine the geographic connection between civic infrastructure deficits and newer communities, we overlayed the Civic Infrastructure Index with the share of the housing stock constructed since 2010. We identify major streets that are below the median on the Civic Infrastructure Index and above the median on the share of housing built. We use quartiles to further segment the streets into four categories. The streets in white on the map are the places that have both the largest civic infrastructure deficits and the greatest amount of new housing. In all three regions, there is a consistent pattern of civic infrastructure deficits on the urban fringe, in more recently built communities. This calls into question the effectiveness of planning policies that stipulate the amount of civic infrastructure provision relative to housing construction. Also at issue is the model of civic infrastructure provision in newer suburban developments that favours larger-scale facilities in fewer locations, leaving many neighbourhoods physically further away from key assets and potentially more distant in terms of personal connection and community responsiveness.

Civic Infrastructure Index in relation to % of New Housing

Top 25% Bottom 50% Bottom 25% Top 50% Percent New Housing Civic Infrastructure Index

Civic Infrastructure & Recent Immigrants

A large amount of Canada’s population growth, and subsequent demand for housing, is from immigration. The majority of newly arrived immigrants choose to live in the largest urban regions. Municipalities in the Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton regions are all struggling to get housing built fast enough to meet this demand. The net result is often that new suburban housing developments are being populated by immigrant families without sufficient levels of civic infrastructure. The danger is that we are establishing a pattern whereby longer-established communities (of largely European descent) enjoy ample civic infrastructure in neighbourhoods that are more urban, while (largely racialized) immigrant communities do not.

Civic Infrastructure Index in relation to % of Recent Immigrants

Top 25% Bottom 50% Bottom 25% Top 50% Percent Recent Immigrants Civic Infrastructure Index

Civic Infrastructure & High Density Main Streets

A foundational problem of civic infrastructure in recently built suburban communities is that they are not centred on main streets, even though many are more densely populated than those of their mid-20th century predecessors. While land use for housing has become more efficient, commercial land uses and civic infrastructure have not. The maps show where civic infrastructure gaps are greatest (major roadways, in white) in relation to the locations of dense main streets (in light blue). There are very few instances where these elements overlap – neighbourhoods with significant civic infrastructure deficits generally do not have main streets, and neighbourhoods with main streets do not typically have infrastructure deficits. How we plan and build new suburban housing developments appears to be the main culprit when it comes to systemic gaps in civic infrastructure. Reintroducing main streets as a fundamental building block of inclusive, complete communities is a clear way to address this. Another solution is to continue to build infill housing on and near existing main streets where there is ample (and even in some cases, surplus) civic infrastructure already in place.

Civic Infrastructure Index (Lowest Quintile) in relation to High Density Main Streets

Key Findings and Messages

Key Finding 1

The greatest deficits of civic infrastructure are predominantly found in more recently built suburban neighbourhoods.

Message 1

In the rush to address the housing crisis do not ignore the need for neighbourhood scale infrastructure.

Message 2

Maintain direct connection between development charges and civic infrastructure investment.

Message 3

Encourage infill housing on (and near to) existing main streets that provide ample existing civic infrastructure.

Key Finding 2

Recently built suburban neighborhoods are not typically centered around main streets.

Message 1

Begin with main streets when planning new suburban neighbourhoods.

Message 2

Create critical mass on main streets by (co)locating civic infrastructure in close proximity to commercial uses.

Message 3

Align scale of civic infrastructure facilities to walkable neighbourhoods.

Key Finding 3

Recent immigrants are more likely to live in recently built suburban neighbourhoods and experience civic infrastructure deficits.

Message 1

Ensure that the civic infrastructure and public services are aligned with immigration levels and patterns of settlement.

Message 2

Listen to communities about their civic infrastructure needs and genuinely include them in investment decisions.

Message 3

Align provision and programming of civic infrastructure to specific neighbourhood needs.

The Measuring Main Streets platfrom (part of the Research Knowledge Initiative program from Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Canada) was developed by the Canadian Urban Institute in partnership with Environics Analytics and Open North.

Canadian Urban Institute Canadian Urban Institute Environics Analytics Open North