Toronto managed to avoid being hollowed out by its suburbs, mainly because the city itself continued to grow dense and diverse in its own built form and character.
By Ryan McGreal
Published June 01, 2010
While reading Mary Soderstrom's charming book The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs' Streets And Beyond, I came across this proposal for a New Plan for Toronto, which bears citing at some length:
A choice must now be made as to how this region will grow. Will it grow haphazardly with a continuously increasing reliance on automobiles, or can a pattern of orderly growth be established, with development focused on mass transit so that reliance on cars is reduced?
If houses, shopping and industry are spread out over wide areas, more travel will be needed, public transit will be uneconomic and people will be forced to use their cars to get around. Traffic congestion will be severe and life in the city will be under the tyranny of the automobile.
This situation would be cause enough to question unlimited sprawl. But there are many other reasons. The greater the spread, the more people are immersed in it, divorced from the countryside and the city centre alike. New highways and services have to be built through the existing city to accommodate the sprawling growth.
This is difficult, costly, and unsatisfactory; inevitably expedient decisions are made in response to urgent needs, resulting in a patch-work of compromises.
The kicker: the plan was written back in 1966.
This compact, urban model of development strongly informed the city's prescient decision to concentrate new growth around subway stations.
The Yonge line opened in 1954 and instantly doubled its projected ridership, then quickly doubled it again. The University Avenue line opened in 1963, and the crosswise Bloor-Danforth line opened in 1966. (Amazingly, the latter line was able to cross the Don Valley because of a decision as far back as 1918 to construct a dual rail deck below the Bloor Viaduct).
The model also featured prominently in the successful campaign to stop the planned Spadina Expressway, in which Jane Jacobs played an instrumental role.
Spadina, which once inspired the Shuffle Demons to a humorous parody and which now sports a streetcar line and a tremendous urban renaissance over the past decade and a half, would have been demolished to run an expressway between Hwy 401 and the Gardiner Expressway.
In the process, that expressway would have done irreparable harm to all the neighbourhoods in its way - including Bloor West, where Jacobs came to settle after leaving her beloved Greenwich Village in New York so her sons would not be drafted to fight a war she didn't believe in.
Bloor West is, of course, one of the most valuable neighbourhoods in Toronto. King-Spadina to its south languished for a long time as a fading centre of warehouses and light manufactories, but turned around rapidly after Jacobs, John Sewell and some other visionary Toronto leaders crafted the King-Spadina Secondary Plan, which established a simplified urban form-based building code connected by high quality public transit.
The population has quadrupled since 1996, and the biggest cohort has been educated, well-paid young professionals looking for an urban lifestyle close to employment and social amenities.
The amount of new development is impressive. In just a 45 hectare (112 acre) area, King-Spadina attracted $55.6 million in new investment between 2000 and 2007, creating 700 new jobs and 230,000 square feet of property.
To this day, lingering evidence of that unconscionable, failed suburban incursion still remains in the curiously short Allen Road, an expressway in all but name that runs just a few blocks south of Hwy 401 before decanting unceremoniously onto Eglinton Ave. W.
Then-Premier Bill Davis summed up the debacle that was the Spadina Expressway in what has become a famous statement among transit advocates:
Cities were built for people and not cars. If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.
The cancellation of the Spadina Expressway was like a domino that toppled the other ill-advised highway schemes that Toronto had concocted during the 1940s and 1950s: the Crosstown Expressway, which would have run right through central Toronto; the East Metro Freeway, which would have smashed its way north through the Rouge Valley to join Hwy 407 - and which in turn was finally completed in 1997 as a toll highway and sold to a consortium; and the Scarborough Expressway, which was supposed to connect the Gardiner to the 401 and which lingers in the totemic support posts constructed near the waterfront before it was canceled.
Toronto couldn't stop the relentless sprawling growth of the 905 area - the suburban municipalities around the city from low-density Durham in the east through Markham, York and Peel across the top and into Mississauga and Halton on the west - and in fact the steady growth of these feeder communities were a big incentive to build the Toronto freeway system.
Yet Toronto still managed to avoid being hollowed out by its suburbs, mainly because the city itself continued to grow dense and diverse in its own built form and character. Through its intact urban neighbourhoods, mixed-use development clustered around high quality transit nodes and an active citizenry committed to promoting urban values, Toronto continued to thrive while other similarly-sized cities hemorrhaged people and money.
Toronto succeeded at this because its dense, walkable, transit-oriented form provided for what are now known among economists as Jacobs Eternalities - the measurable boost in the rates of innovation growth and infrastructure productivity that accrue to dense urban development - which were strong enough to countervail the allure of cheap, highway accessible land.
Toronto, in turn, has remained a highly valuable and desirable place to live and to invest, and has retained a number of corporate head offices in finance and other knowledge-based industries.
Of course, Toronto has its share of problems. The Toronto of the 1960s and 1970s couldn't stop the growth of sprawl in adjacent municipalities; but the Toronto of today has to contend with an amalgamated council in which suburban interests exert a strong influence over its municipal priorities.
While urban Toronto tries to replicate the successes of its forebears by building the next generation of high quality transit nodes and investing in a continuous network of bike lanes, it must contend with suburban Toronto's demand for more road capacity - no matter the cost to urban integrity.
Its two daily newspapers, the Toronto Star and Toronto Sun, have been only too happy to milk the so-called War on Cars in a bid to boost readership through controversy.
Never mind that all those suburban commuters are trying to get into Toronto because Toronto is the economic centre of the region - precisely because Toronto has maintained an urban focus against the encroachments of suburban auto-mobility.
Hogtown is, if you'll forgive the pun, Southern Ontario's goose that laid the golden eggs. If the suburban agenda wins out and the George Mammolitis and Rob Fords manage to wrest control, they may just discover that the changes they impose on Toronto's transportation system destroy the value that comes from being within commuting distance of the city centre.