Welcome to my blog on housing, culture, and design in Toronto, where I share my insights, ideas and point of view on the many facets of the Toronto Real Estate Market!
So, at the time of this writing, we’re nearly six months into a new reality from the unanticipated arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the resulting lockdown we experienced in Canada starting March 13th, 2020 – our everyday lives have been impacted significantly and in many ways. We’re learning new lessons of engagement, adapting our behaviours, and shifting our attitudes. Realistically, our time in quarantine has invited many of us to reexamine the direction we’re heading in our futures, which is prompting a collective realignment of the way we navigate our place in the world.
For example, the WFH movement (Work From Home) is likely here to stay in some iterations, as employers and employees realized hands-on during lockdown that this work arrangement can often be highly productive yet flexible, efficient and cost-effective, and relieve many of us of rush hour commuting. Similarly, I’m anticipating a shift in how we design our built environments to support both comfort and safety – as well as spaces to accommodate our professional selves – as our reinvented lifestyles adapt to pandemic living, which I discuss in How COVID-19 Will Likely Change How We Design Our Homes. There is also growing evidence that COVID-19 could be spread through airborne transmission, which means that we will need to take greater care with our HVAC systems (particularly in older buildings like Long Term Care Homes) and consider extra safety measures in our built environments as I discuss here: Dear Urbaneer: Can I Catch COVID-19 From HVAC Systems?.
Toronto Real Estate & Urban Planning
Beyond the threshold of our own front doors, I’ve been processing how the pandemic may impact urban planning and urban design going forward. Toronto, due to a lack of available land, a lack of supply, and sky-high housing prices, has become a high-rise, high-density haven. While efficient in an urban setting, living chock-a-block in our crackerjack boxes with closed amenity spaces does present some inherent challenges in terms of curbing the spread of disease.
On the other hand, although suburban living provides more space both inside and out for similar dollars – and yes, the Toronto suburbs are booming as the middle-class flee the central core – it comes with several sacrifices, most notably the ease and health benefits of the pedestrian lifestyle that city living provides and the real financial, emotional and health costs of commuting by car to anywhere other than where you live.
The consensus is that we are in a unique position at the moment to incorporate lessons learned from COVID-19 to shift urban planning and design for the better in the future. But how did our current urban centres and their inter-relationship to the suburbs come to be? What impact does zoning, infrastructure and regulation have in a city like Toronto? And where do we go from here? In this post, I’m going to explore our city-building past which shaped a lot of the urban sprawl we see today. Stay tuned for a follow up to this post, when I look at how COVID-19 is already altering cities, including insights from urban planners on how urban life might evolve moving forward.
A Brief History Of The Garden City Movement
Urban planning arguably has its origins in the Garden City Movement, which came about in response to a desire to improve the quality of life in urban areas that had sustained substantial growth during the Industrial Revolution, creating congestion (which in turn created a host of social and health problems). Similarly, the rural areas were becoming de-populated while the urban centres were drawing more and more people in, at an unsustainable rate. For the most part, people were flocking into urban centres because of the proximity of amenities and the possibility of employment. Soon, cities were overcrowded.
English urban planner Ebenezer Howard released a book in 1898 called ‘Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path To Social Reform‘ that outlined his theory for the creation of idyllic, self-contained communities. The idea with the creation of Garden Cities was to introduce many of the same amenities sought after by people coming to urban centres, but in a self-contained way, away from the urban cores, making the best use of the available land. In doing so, they would be able to leverage the natural surroundings available in rural areas. These self-contained communities would be surrounded by wide greenbelts and would have balanced areas of residential, mixed with industry, commerce, and agriculture. The greenbelt would prevent encroachment, which would help land values rise and would better the self-contained community.
Ultimately the goal here was to create affordable housing for the working classes. In his book, Howard indicated that he ideally would create these garden cities on 6,000 acres of land and that residents would only build on a very small portion of that land, with the rest reserved for agricultural and recreational use. The land would be owned by a group of private individuals. Revenue would be generated for sustaining city service and to repay loans through rents.
From a planning perspective, the city would be anchored by a large circular garden, from which there were avenues to cultural and civic buildings – city hall, a concert hall, museum, theatre, library, and a hospital. Circling out from this park would be shopping areas, parks and residential areas. Then, on the outer rings of the community would be industry. Once the town had reached its capacity for residents and industry, another town would be constructed in a similar fashion, nearby.
Howard actually saw his designs come to fruition in the early 1900s with the construction of the town Letchworth, which was 34 miles outside of London. Raymond Unwin, architect and town planner, and partner Barry Parker designed it. However, the theory of this idyllic community – when put into practice – did not work as intended. Residents slowly began to populate Letchworth, as manufacturers were drawn in by low rents and low taxes. Despite the goal of creating affordable housing for the working class, most of the residents were skilled middle-class folk, and the land and housing values grew in line with their social strata.
For more background on Howard and the creation of Letchworth, read The Garden City Movement. It is believed that the principles in planning around Garden City Movement contributed to the impetus of the creation of our own post-war suburbs here in Canada.
*Photo courtesy of Eric Cole, Don Mills: York University, Clara Thomas Archives, Neg. 1123, p. 4.
The Birth Of The Canadian Suburb
In the 20th century, essentially the only growth and establishment of new cities have been those which started as suburbs or bedroom communities. Initially, suburbs were on the peripheries of expanding cities, rather than separate communities. During the Great Depression, migration to and growth of the suburbs slowed down, only to see a resurgence after WWII, as the economy picked up again and young couples embarking on raising a family en masse were looking for affordable domesticity.
At the time, the existing housing stock in urban centres was ageing, smaller, and overcrowded, with many people sharing homes after defaulting on mortgage payments during the Great Depression. With populations so concentrated, crime was on the rise as well. This meant young couples starting or with families post-war were looking for greener pastures. Newly-built Canadian housing stock was largely detached and semi-detached, with generous yards surrounding them. Meanwhile, in much the same way as with those garden cities in the 19th century in England, industrial centres began to follow the population out to the burbs. Schools were built, and the prospect of being away from urban congestion was undeniably alluring.
The other big draw was affordability. Developers were able to take advantage of the ‘economy of scale’ in producing entire subdivisions (the big reason why production-based housing stock is so ubiquitous). While suburbs had a myriad of civic and retail complexes, it was widely perceived that’s they still weren’t on par with big cities for ‘cultural enrichment’. Builders did not feel that the development of amenities was their responsibility, and was very reticent to create any amenities prior to the construction of homes.
Today, the construction and accessibility of amenities is a major draw for home buyers, no matter where they live, and often suburban developers make land deals with retailers including big box stores and drive-through restaurants. While, in those days, marketing was less centred around parks and grocery stores; it focused on the opportunity to own more land at an affordable price point and to participate in a more family-friendly suburban lifestyle focused on leisure (which was increasing in popularity to the growing middle class as time went on).
As the suburban sprawl went further and wider over decades, reliance on the automobile became more and more prevalent. Even I, as a child of the 1960s growing up in Oakville, Ontario, was one of many suburban 2 car families as the only destination within walking distance was the public school and its playground.
For a more thorough understanding, this is a great article by ResearchGate: “The Shape Of The Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl”.
Toronto’s Suburban Explosion
According to this article titled “The Birth Of The Suburbs“, Toronto was the fastest-growing city in North America back in 1954. Don Mills was the first “comprehensive suburb”. It had a diverse population with working classes living in higher density living and working in local factories, while the middle class would commute into Toronto for work. It was constructed with meandering roads and boulevards, intended to promote community and neighbourhoods, rather in the more efficient for transportation design of grids that you typically find in an urban centre.
Toronto moved more quickly than some other urban areas in Canada to create suburban areas. Over the 1950s and the 1960s, the subway was built and expanded to be more serviceable to outlying areas. Meanwhile, the car culture really took root in Toronto with the construction of a number of bypass highways- the 401, the Gardiner Expressway, the Don Valley Parkway (and the Allen Expressway which was stopped due to the political pressure exerted by inner city residents) – that facilitated the ability to drive from one end of the city to another. Connecters were also built, with the intention of giving residents quick and easy access to freeways form multiple points in the city.
Check out these posts on some of the history behind suburban development and suburban development in Toronto: “Home Sweet Suburb, Cold War Society: Cities and Suburbs, Your Home Our City: Suburban Growth“.
The Role Of Zoning
Zoning bylaws have always played a role in urban planning and in societal trends. For instance, during the boom of suburban development, changes in Federal legislation and zoning made it easier for developers to build homes to suit this new market. Similarly, once out in the suburbs zoning for commercial areas was an issue, creating distance between residential and retail, which in turn created a rise in interest in the automobile. As shopping centres popped up with free parking, compelling people to drive to do their errands.
Certainly now as we move on to our next era in planning, likely with a push from lessons learned from the pandemic, zoning could play a role again, particularly when it comes to work-from-home and home-based business. I wrote a whole piece on the challenges inherent with single-use zoning, and how changes will need to be made in order to adapt to the current demand in the city and address the growing work-from-home movement spurred by the pandemic: The Need And Demand For Live/Work Properties In Toronto.
And in the original City of Toronto – which consists of many streetcar suburbs built since the late 1800s (including Rosedale, Parkdale, Riverdale and Forest Hill, to name a handful) – and those which were more auto-reliant (like Leaside and South Kingsway) – its restrictive Yellowbelt zoning continues to contribute to the expansion of more modern suburban developments. Here are my important posts on our antiquated zoning bylaws in Toronto Real Estate, Yellowbelt Zoning & The Missing Middle: Part One – and – Part Two.
A Return To The Suburbs & Beyond?
While the trend has recently been for buyers across multiple generations (i.e. from Millennials to Baby Boomers) to remain or flock to urban centres, mostly in search an amenity-rich, pedestrian-friendly living (and jobs), since lockdown one of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on real estate is a dramatically renewed interest in suburban living, smaller cities beyond the suburbs (like Waterloo), and semi-rural living further afield. Fundamentally it’s a quest to flee the risk of catching the virus combined with the ease of working from home, and advancements in technology including the imminent arrival of 5G. In fact, the Toronto real estate stats for August 2020 show that the 905 regions (wrapping the original City of Toronto which is considered the 416 region based on area-code) is seeing property prices increasing faster and higher.
There are certain home elements that have new appeal to people in light of COVID-19 and health and safety – namely the desire to own a detached or semi-detached home without more interior square footage and offering larger personal green space to enjoy outdoor time without the confines of physical distancing. Furthermore, with the growing work-from-home movement taking root, one of the biggest deterrents for a suburban living (i.e. the long commute) is not the same factor it might have been, even a few months ago.
The following articles talk about how some buyers are looking to their homes to be their offices and their entertainment centres, with physical distancing hampering the ability to enjoy fully some of the urban amenities. And to accomplish this, you need more space than you’d get in most downtown housing. Furthermore, people are fearful of a second wave and seek more space to increase their comfort zone. Read what the Globe & Mail has to say about this movement in “Toronto Real Estate Buyers Turn To The Suburbs As More People Work From Home“. These articles from CP24 & GlobalNews reflect that same movement: “COVID-19 Has Been The Push Some Canadians Needed To Move Out Of The City“, & “Space Is The New Luxury’: Could The Coronavirus Prompt An Urban Exodus In Ontario?“.
With City of Toronto real estate becoming less and less affordable the more centrally-located one is to the urban core, suburban living is becoming more of an attractive option from an affordability point of view as well (which, interestingly was the main impetus for how suburbs were established in the first place, with buyers looking for ways to stretch their house-hunting dollars). This article “Sustainable Cities: Back-To-The-Future Urbanism” talks about suburban land as being a “great misallocation of resources”. They talk about retrofitting suburban areas to mimic urban living more closely (grid pattern streets vs winding ways, to promote pedestrian-friendly living). In “Toronto Builders Try A New Tactic To Lure Suburb-Hating Millennials” BNN Bloomberg contributor, Doug Alexander, outlines how developers creating high-density homes in subway-connected, urban locations are attempting to recreate some of that hip feel in the suburbs, interspersed with trendy, walkable shops and restaurants.
Similarly, this Vox article – “Dense Urbanism Is Great For Downtowns. But What About The Suburbs?” – talks about ways in which to implement some of the positives from urban living into the suburbs, particularly in promoting walkability. Discussed in this article is the notion that we’ve built daily bouts of inactivity into our lives when you agree to commute. They talk too about how the push to change suburban design relies heavily on the development of infrastructure to be more supportive of pedestrian living, which of course needs support from various levels of government.
The best way to combat urban/suburban sprawl is to reduce automobile dependence.
It is interesting to note that, while the trends and social influences change over generations, there are some things in common from the first Garden City, to mid-century suburban development to seeking solutions to today’s urban sprawl and affordability. Urban planning is compelled by lifestyle and confined by available land and affordability. The challenge is to make the best use of what we’ve got to address the needs of the current homebuyer.
Stay tuned for a follow up to this post, where I explore about how COVID-19 has already changed the way we live our lives in the city of Toronto, and how these changes are creating new challenges and opportunities for urban planners going forward.
Here are my most recent COVID-19 related blogs:
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