The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)-funded Partnership Development Grant (PDG) aims to unpack the causal relationships between light rail transit and core-area intensification.


The outward growth of cities after the Second World War has been extensively studied and the impacts documented. As a result of this foundational research, contemporary planning policy and investments promote intensification-concentration of activities in vibrant urban cores and nodes and corridors that support accessibility and more efficient municipal expenditures. Rapid transit (RT) has potential to catalyze intensification, assuming that it causes intensification and economic vitality. However, while numerous studies have demonstrated correlation between these factors, due to data and methodological limitations, causality has not been established, nor are social equity effects due to rising property values clear. Establishing causality is challenging, as some relationships may be direct new RT investments may make adjacent lands more desirable producing direct changes in property values. Yet, some impacts may be indirect, as RT investment might increase the density of complementary land uses, creating positive agglomerative feedbacks. Confounding the identification challenge, such feedbacks can occur independent of, and may themselves induce, RT investments. Further, RT investments often occur with complementary physical investments, higher land values, or policy changes to achieve planning goals.

Our research will respond to a natural experiment to explore the causal dynamics between the pending development of light rail transit (LRT), core-area intensification and socio-economic change in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. We bring to this project a highly qualified team, established and developing municipal and industrial partnerships, and research questions we have co-developed. We will gather and analyze qualitative and quantitative information from the pre-build stage through implementation of LRT to investigate these questions. Our analysis will be unique in several aspects: time-series design, mixed-methods approach, emphasis on intentions and behaviour of stakeholders, and strength of partnerships. First, we will conduct expert and stakeholder interviews to understand and isolate the relative importance of the LRT on residential, commercial and retail location choices, targeting both direct and indirect effects. Second, we will gather and analyze data not generally used in such analyses, including building permits, public infrastructure investments, employment locations, and retail inventories. By creating a historical record of relevant data, we will be able to analyze their temporal evolution and as such trace causality. Moving beyond previous efforts, we will build multivariate statistical models that correlate buyer and seller characteristics with realized land transaction values. We will also use our gathered data to inform agent-based models of land market and transit behaviour and meso-scale heuristic, qualitative systems dynamics models. Using these models, we will investigate alternative hypotheses about causal relationship and conduct scenario analysis with our partners and external stakeholder groups.

Our research will:

  1. contribute to urban planning and economic development theory through new approaches to explore the interconnections between planning policy, major urban infrastructure investments, and urban socio-economic change, which is indicator of economic success and social equity;
  2. contribute to research and training through research-related class projects and labs, hands-on professional experience for students, and online open-source models; and
  3. contribute to the public sector by improving the ability of municipalities to advance evidence-based decision making and policy development, enhancing public dialogue and citizen engagement, and training the next generation of planning professionals.

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