Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Re-Evaluating 'Public' and 'Private' in Local Development Cultures: Converging Vocabularies of Public Good and Market Success in Toronto's New Urbanism

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Re-Evaluating 'Public' and 'Private' in Local Development Cultures: Converging Vocabularies of Public Good and Market Success in Toronto's New Urbanism

Article excerpt

This article queries the utility of the analytical categories of 'public' and 'private' in the development and planning processes of two New Urbanist communities in suburban Toronto. Through an analysis of the conditions under which these projects were planned and delivered, it demonstrates the extent to which the distinction between public interests and market forces is often exaggerated and yet reproduced by local development cultures. Drawing on a critical review of hybridity theories, it argues that 'public' and 'private' should not be reified as intrinsic actor categories, but rather problematised as contingent constructions through which development actors constitute, understand and reflect on their continuing activities and interactions.

Keywords: development and planning processes, local development actors and cultures, theories of hybridity, 'public' and 'private' as contingent constructions, New Urbanism in Toronto

This paper queries the utility of the analytical categories of 'public' and 'private' in the development and planning processes of two New Urbanist housing projects in suburban Toronto, Canada. New Urbanism is variably characterised by the revival of traditionalist architecture and design principles to promote 'compact, mixed-use, walkable and reasonably self-contained communities' (Grant, 2006, 3). New Urbanist projects are often considered exceptions to the norms of conventional speculative housing development in several respects, including: vision/concept, layout and planning, built form and architecture, use and accessibility and in some cases longterm management and maintenance. The scale of the developments and the objective of constructing entirely new neighbourhoods or 'communities', often on the fringes of existing urban areas (i.e. in the suburban greenfield context) or indeed surrounded by pre-existing neighbourhoods and non-residential urban land uses (i.e. in urban infill context) immediately complicates the public-private distinction commonly assumed within idealised models of the development process (cf. Gore and Nicholson, 1991). The intertwining of the interests of developers, architects, financial institutions and the state in the approval and delivery of these schemes usually engenders a lengthy negotiation process that fits within or redresses the local and regional mandates for maintaining urban efficiency, promoting sustainability and quality of life (Brain, 1997), while increasing the local tax base and boosting the local economy. Through this process of negotiation 'the distinct agendas of these different players are dovetailed into one another' and New Urbanist projects 'emerge as an alloy of private capital and public authority' (Brain, 1997, 259).

To implement a plan for an entirely new community, thus, suggests that New Urbanism represents a radical break from more conventional forms of (suburban tract) housing provision. Yet, the in-depth study of two such projects in suburban Toronto, which concluded in 2006 (and, therefore, pre-credit crunch1), revealed that development processes were more often than not dominated by the mere tweaking of existing zoning and building regulations. This tweaking ensured flexibility and safeguarded public values (aesthetics, amenity, privacy etc.), captured niche market premiums for developers and builders and secured repeat business between local authorities and the development industry. In this sense, the development processes tended to belie the simplistic characterisation of planning versus the market - or public versus private - and instead implied a planning regime on the market. This occurred not only through the branding and marketing of new housing schemes and products as 'communities', but also through the self-promotion of some local authorities as brokers for the market acceptance of New Urbanism within their borders. Such identification of a market-led municipal planning agenda must, however, be juxtaposed with the community of development industry actors (developers/ builders and their hired consultants) expressing their involvement in New Urbanist projects not merely for the profits garnered (as many recorded financial losses), but because it is 'better than what is already out there - it is creating real neighbourhoods' ( interview with homebuilder). …

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