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2006 03 22
The Suburban Slab: Looking Back at Toronto’s First Mass Housing Boom:

“In Toronto, an unusually large number of high-rise apartments poke above the flat landscape many miles from downtown…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 …” Buckminster Fuller, ‘68

Beyond Downtown

Much of the mythology surrounding Toronto is focused on “the city of neighbourhoods”; enabled by the City’s early rejection of modernism through citizen groups and the reform council. Yet what is perhaps of equal interest is the thoroughness and completeness in which Toronto accepted the modern project prior to this point. Between the late 1950’s through the 1970’s, Metro planning policies guided the rapid development of the region in a manor which can be described as rigorously ‘modern’. In what is perhaps the most significant phase of development period in our history, Metro’s boarders were quickly filled in with housing for millions. Today, within the boundaries of the new City of Toronto, the prewar fabric popularized by Jane Jacobs represents a minority within a City of predominantly modern conception.

One striking result of Metro’s modern planning was the proliferation of high density apartment towers. Metro planning promoted mixed density housing in the expanding suburbs, and called for high density housing along highways, arterials, industrial zones and ravines sites. Developers were more than happy to oblige. Toronto’s modern apartment boom peaked in the 1960’ and rivalled any other on the continent. By the end of what can be considered Toronto’s first boom in mass housing, complexes numbering nearly a thousand, and housing hundreds of thousands were spread throughout the region.

Guided by Metro and a CMHC land use requirement calling for as much as 70% open space, the ‘tower in the park’ became the predominant form. Some projects sought European expertise in planning and construction, such as City Park - the fist modern apartment complex in the city, (built only two years after Marseille), and Flemingdon Park, the City’s first apartment neighbourhood - modelled after ‘New Towns’ such as the Vallingby in Sweden.

Downtown land was cost prohibitive, and the process of assembling small lots was a bureaucratic mess. And as many of the downtown development proposals resulting in citizen opposition, the vast majority of apartment projects were suburban. Open space requirements were much more easily met on green-fields, and suburban boroughs offered attractive tax rates to both developers and tenants.

Similar in many respects to today’s buoyant condo market, a steady stream of young professionals were able to fuel a boom which satisfied both the goals of municipalities and developers. Tower after tower was erected to meet the market demand. Seas of bungalows were built in concert with hundreds of high density housing blocks in the expanding suburbs. The number of apartment high-rises built in this era match those of large Brazilian cities – though spread out over Metro’s 629 km2.


The distribution pattern of these highrise has resulted in suburbs of mixed density and form. Pockets of high density were created with as many as 350 people per hectare as far as 20km from the city centre. By 1975 large areas of Toronto’s suburbs more closely resembled new Belgrade or suburban Moscow block housing than new communities in the United States. Toronto’s unique planning goals and mechanisms rendered its suburban areas markedly different than its North American counterparts, and have left us with an interesting and unique legacy.

Towers Today

Today many these buildings are falling into disrepair. Their mystique tarnished long ago, many are currently home to the City’s most marginalized citizens. Lacking even the minimum social oversight that a public housing project may have afforded, many of these projects illustrate the worst qualitative aspects which could be derived from the municipal guidelines.

As development is now focused downtown, we are currently witnessing the ‘Europeanization’ of Toronto’s urban structure. The City’s centre is becoming increasingly wealthy as a perpetual decline continues in marginalized pockets of the ‘Metro’ suburbs - the towers in question taking a prominent role. Poorly serviced by amenity and transit, they represent social deserts characterized by the media as heavens for drugs and guns. They are also the first homes of many new Canadians; their homogonous facades masking some of the City’s most culturally unique neighbourhoods.

What does this mean for the City? What is the future of this type? Some feel the only response is demolition as was the case in Regent Park. Yet is the demolition of nearly a thousand buildings a realistic solution? Have these structures truly outlived their useful purpose, or do they represent an underutilized urban asset?

High Density Suburbs and Toronto’s Land Resource

The policies, which shaped the creation of these complexes, have left us with an interesting paradox; the densest suburban nodes contain the City’s largest continuous areas of open space. Underutilized, and for the more part untouched, there is no planned future use for this resource. In some cases, the original trees from the agrarian land upon which the apartment blocks are sited still remain; protecting virgin land within the zoning envelope of high density development.

Always ahead of her time, Jane Jacobs has speculated upon the incremental intensification of traditional suburban housing. Perhaps the same can be true of apartment blocks. Do these complexes offer an opportunity for suburban intensification, commercialization and social programming? Furthermore, as many of these vast areas of green space are located adjacent to large natural systems, do they offer a launching pad for ecological and perhaps even permacultural alternatives to typical developments such as urban agriculture?

Currently there is much debate about the appropriate form of growth of the city. Missing from the discussion is any clear notion of the future of these aging high-rises. Does the density and land amenity within these neighbourhoods place them in a better position for dealing with the challenges of regional sustainability than greenfields or the traditional suburban type?

With appropriate redevelopment taking into account current social conditions, need for renovation, greening, commercial and social amenity and modern heritage, these areas could be recast as a promising asset. By restoring the tower in the park, Perhaps Toronto can once again reflect Buckminster Fuller's complimentary vision of progressive and thoughtfully planned suburbia.
[email this story] Posted by ERA Architects on 03/22 at 05:00 PM

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