How to rethink the suburbs: A lesson from Toronto
By Joshua Thorpe
March 30, 2016
Cities all over the world need to take a close look at their suburbs. In many cases, low-density development correlates with a lack of transit and other infrastructure. Often, neighborhoods struggle to achieve the critical mass of human activity required for thriving small economies and healthy communities.
Many of Greater Toronto’s inner suburbs grapple with exactly these issues. But they are about to see dramatic change: a new zoning bylaw could mean that hundreds of neighborhoods go from being underused concrete deserts to vibrant communities, teeming with activity.
This creative approach to zoning provides an instructive case for urban areas in all parts of the globe.
Uniquely for a North American city, Toronto’s inner suburbs contain about two thousand towers. They currently house almost a million residents — about a sixth of the metropolitan area’s population. Until this point, zoning in these neighborhoods has made simple things like cafés, grocers, and community gardens illegal. This outmoded and highly restrictive policy has affected countless lives.
These postwar towers were built for people who were expected to drive vehicles to fulfill most of their needs. They were marketed as a Jetsonsesque fantasy for car-dependent middle-class modern families. The model was influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier, who proposed a new urban form consisting of groups of residential towers connected by parks.
In some successful cases in Europe, communities like these were built with highly designed, networked landscapes and infrastructure systems: Vällingby, for example, a suburb of Stockholm developed in the early 1950s, or Alton Estate in Roehampton, London, completed in ’59. Landmark projects in their time, these sites are still functioning well.
Toronto’s tower neighborhoods, unfortunately, did not benefit from this degree of design. Postwar public policy called for high suburban density, and private developers rose to the task. But there was no broad vision on how to best use these huge swaths of privately owned public spaces. To this day, these areas consist primarily of unkempt lawns punctuated by half-empty parking lots and chain-link fences.
The suburban tower-in-the-park typology fell out of favor through the ’70s and ’80s as the downtown regenerated and the suburbs expanded. Single-family homes became the most desired and valuable housing stock.
Yet because of Toronto’s constantly growing population, the suburban towers continued to fill an important role, as they do today. The buildings themselves are quite resilient. They are more spacious and much more affordable than their downtown counterparts, and, for these reasons, provide a massive amount of relatively affordable housing for low-income residents. In fact, studies show that close to half of Toronto’s low-income families live in tower neighborhoods. Large numbers of immigrants also settle here.
But these neighborhoods were built for cars, not for people. So despite the huge population of residents, very little goes on at ground level. Old zoning laws have prohibited commercial resources and public realm amenities: no grocers, no cafés, no bike paths, no after-school programs, no markets, no playgrounds.
The result: real public health issues and real obstacles to opportunity.
United Way Toronto & York Region is one of a handful of institutions central to identifying Toronto’s tower troubles and advocating for solutions. Pedro Barata of United Way Toronto said, “These neighborhoods have become a destination for those looking for affordable housing, people who need opportunities to get ahead where they live. But the zoning framework has not always met these needs. We live in a changing city. It’s very important that our policies, regulations, and programs keep up.”
And, after over 50 years of stasis, it seems change is finally here.
We live in a changing city. It’s very important that our policies, regulations, and programs keep up.
A group of architects and planners has been advocating for the City to do something about the zoning problem. To many people’s delight, the City created the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zone, which changes the rules completely, opening the door to all kinds of new uses. The RAC zone was accepted by Toronto City Council in 2014. Its supporters — almost everyone, it seems — wait with anticipation for final approval to come from a province-level body in early summer 2016.
When that happens, suddenly Toronto’s suburban tower communities will have legal access to advantages downtowners take for granted. Suddenly it will be possible to open small businesses, sell fresh food, build gardens and playgrounds and bike paths, host social clubs, bring in medical clinics and healthy recreational uses, launch community service initiatives, and eventually build new buildings.
“The RAC zone,” says Barata, “is a very tangible expression of how we’re modernizing our view on a city where everyone’s included.”
Of course, changing the zone simply lifts constraints; it’s up to building owners and managers, residents, communities, and the City itself to actually make things happen. This is the beginning of a new phase for Toronto — and an important part of fulfilling the promise of a fair, equitable, and welcoming city, a city that champions its diversity instead of hiding it.
Which is one of the ways Tower Renewal, as the initiative is called, could provide inspiration to other cities.
Origins of change
But how does this kind of change take place? Remarkably, in Toronto’s case, it started about 10 years ago, when a kid in his mid-20s started asking questions.
Architect Graeme Stewart, then studying at University of Toronto, was a fan of modernism. Stewart (with whom I used to work at ERA Architects) started to wonder about the huge number of modernist concrete towers surrounding the city and, more importantly, why they weren’t being talked about more.
Stewart wasn’t the first designer to think about the towers, of course — Buckminster Fuller had commented on Toronto’s unique suburban form as early as 1968, claiming that “this is a type of high-density suburban development far more progressive and able to deal with the future than the endless sprawl of the US.” But the unique character, challenges, and opportunities of the typology had yet to be studied in any depth.
So Stewart focused his master’s research on the towers. His boss at the time, ERA’s Michael McClelland, saw the work’s potential and brought it to former mayor David Miller. Miller saw how the research responded to his policy objectives, funded more research, and created a Tower Renewal working group at city hall. Working with the City, Stewart and McClelland continued to push. Momentum grew. Activists got on board, as did nongovernmental organizations, residents, planners, and finally the city council.
The Tower Renewal movement is now massive. The City is beginning to invest in new transit infrastructure in and around tower neighborhoods, and we’re seeing a huge range of projects crop up, from energy-efficient building retrofits to sports courts replacing parking lots to new tandoor ovens in the park. And this is all without the benefit of the RAC zone. When it comes through, the floodgates could open.
(A potent reminder to master’s students and supervisors: a thesis doesn’t have to be a purely academic affair. Stewart, incidentally, recently made principal at ERA, just eight years after finishing school.)
So what can this unusual situation teach us about other cities? How can planners in Brussels or Berlin, Miami or Houston learn from what’s happening right now in Toronto? Many cities, after all, don’t have towers like this at anything like this scale.
Clearly it isn’t just about towers. It’s about bringing the urban spirit to the suburbs. It’s about giving residents access to a healthy public realm and a chance to make things happen in and around their homes. This spirit is needed internationally.
What can this unusual situation teach us about other cities? […] Clearly it isn’t just about towers.
Canadian-British journalist Doug Saunders, author of Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World, has written extensively on cities, suburbs, poverty, and migration. “The suburbanization of both poverty and immigration can be seen in most American and many Western European cities,” he told me. “Immigrants, especially of low income, tend to end up settling in low-density outskirts rather than historic downtowns. Often, these districts are too dispersed to support local economies and social networks.”
In this context of global urbanization, suburbanization, and large-scale migration — and, of course, the resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and other troubled regions — it becomes ever more important for cities to act with intelligence and good will.
The RAC zone shows systemic commitment to that kind of intelligence and good will. Let’s hope it works as well as it should on the ground — and that cities the world over look for similar innovations to respond positively to growth and change.
See more of Jesse Colin Jackson’s work here.