“What are we going to do with the suburbs?”
What is it about the suburbs that makes planning for them seem so difficult?
Why do we need a roundtable on what to do with the suburbs?
Toronto’s new Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, on April 2, 2013, hosted the third in a series of public roundtables on the City of Toronto’s suburbs, which are largely classic post-war, automobile-oriented, master-planned communities in the former cities of North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke.
What is it about suburban planning that is so difficult? Planned and built based on an idea of family lifestyles and neighbourhood life, post-war suburbs were consciously designed to offer internal pedestrian and cycling comfort, yet to be connected to the rest of the world by highways. Today they offer: peace; some measure of homeowner control; interaction with a wilder form of nature (not just plants grown in pots); recognizable neighbours; and (in the Toronto area) a real estate asset. Increased densities in the past 20 years have produced newer suburbs in the cities beyond the boundaries of the City of Toronto and while these homes are more tightly packed (smaller lots but bigger houses), perhaps they share these same basic attributes.
Whenever I come to planning meetings in the centre of the City, in this case to a boardroom at Toronto City Hall, I am surprised how it feels like the command centre of a large starship: people are in control of what they know, but they really don’t understand what’s going on in the remote outposts.
Thanks to the work of the Global Suburbanisms project, the suburbs are on the map. As David Gordon, Planning Program Director at Queen’s so adamantly stated at a recent OPPI session: stop saying that Canada is 80% urban because so much of it is actually suburban [or exurban].
But the problem of “what to do with Toronto’s suburbs” is not so easily addressed and the complexity of the issues at stake was evident at the roundtable discussion.
I was interested in the use of the idea and concept of “city-building” among the speakers at the roundtable.
But what about the emphasis on experts as those on the panel, privileged to speak? To my mind, these were not the only people involved in “day-to-day” city-building. Conceptually, city-building is looking to use talent to make the world a better place. John Lorinc discussed the concept of city-building at a recent CITY talk at York. He said that Toronto’s city-builders are “architects, planners, developers, local politicians, citizens”. All these folks were at the panellists’ table, except the citizens, although many were present.
I very much like the idea of the roundtables. Rather than Keesmaat only being briefed individually, it’s done in public so that everyone can see what each organization or agency is bringing forward as their current “ask” or current concerns.
Why then does it remind me of an audience of royalty where the chief advisors provide advice in public and people are permitted to come and discuss what they are doing? Perhaps because there’s not enough critical engagement of the presentations. I would encourage more of a townhall approach in the future where people in the peanut gallery are able to voice their own questions of the panel (not just pass notes to Keesmaat). I was also surprised that even by this third roundtable, Keesmaat was not yet testing her ideas about how to deal with issues by posing pointed questions to the panellists that might test her preferred paths forward. Instead, she relied on She questions from the audience (but of course these would have reflected her own mind set at that moment).
The issue of tall buildings and stable suburbs was raised. The Etobicoke councillor said, “I don’t want to be in one big Toronto that will all be 50 stories tall”. Following the meeting, I met an evangelist from Code Blue West Toronto, a group fighting the condoification of Mimico in south Etobicoke. While I had spent much time with the Motel Strip Secondary Plan some years ago, I had not been closely following the Mimico story. The Secondary Plan went to community council on April 9th and they decided to defer approval because of the community outcry. One building in the adjacent Motel Strip is proposed at 64 stories, what the heck? Along similar lines, the Bloor West Village Association is concerned with the condo heights of proposed developments along Bloor West, a cherished shopping street. While a couple of new buildings have gone in at appropriate 8ish storey heights, new buildings are being proposed to be much higher. The Humbertown Plaza on Royal York just north of Dundas also have a proposal for buildings with heights of up to 35? stories.
Tall buildings do not good neighbourhoods make. They are terrific in some places, great architectural icons, and attractive places for investment. As neighbours, they can be awful: while I’m not sure if anyone knows for sure, many of Toronto’s new condos downtown are rentals (what of the condo corporation if everyone’s an absentee landowner?), many places are not continuously occupied, the ground floor of new monolithic buildings replaces the Toronto street typology of retail with upper floor office and flats (which in older buildings have learned over time how to be good spaces) with blank walls and with flat glass retail space (without the semi-public entryways of older buildings), often with spaces owned by fewer, larger tenants. I’m uneasy that intensification means high rises and may do more (local) harm than (regional) good.
At the roundtable, Roger Keil discussed the invisibility of the suburbs to most of the downtown crowd. The suburbs are a different place, he said. Clearly, his comments resonated with the audience as he was the only member of the panel to be enthusiastically applauded. Following his remarks, there was a shift in the mood of the room as it became quite evident that the expert panelists were discussing what was for them an “unknowable place” (which he playfully referred to as Modor from The Lord of the Rings). He said the suburbs are a place apart from their “wealthy, creative neighbours” (which I think he was alluding to the downtown stereotype of the “hipster cyclist” Torontonian). As he has said elsewhere, investment in the suburbs has opened up room for reinvestment but at the hands of the landowners who disinvested in the first place.
Where were the suburban community city-builders? What does a suburban city-builder look like? They are a citizen leader, a resident of their neighbourhood, often very articulate, often brown, surviving project-by-project in a changemaking role on grants and donations. For many immigrants in the suburbs, Toronto represents a society of false promises, a city that does not comprehend how the built environment shortchanges people when it could empower them. Instead of being supported by the state to make change, changemakers are faced with a state that judges the quality of their proposals for city-building and decides–from one year to the next–whether to fund their good deeds. As Paul Hess, Professor and Director of the Planning Program at the University of Toronto said, “the human capital [in the suburbs] is inspiring and people are not finding a way to plug into the system, allowing them to express their own capacity, many of whom do want to stay in those neighbourhoods…where the physical environment is depressing… and [in spite of everything] are very engaged”.
The “next generation” of the postwar suburbs is certainly at hand but with Toronto’s unique development history (with a very high proportion of high rises; with contiguous suburbs, many of them rigidly master-planned), it is going to play out very differently here than in the US (where suburban retrofitting is the subject of much interest in urban planning, such as Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual or Dunham-Jones’ Retrofitting Suburbia). Brian Tuckey of BILD discussed how he thought the next big thing would be “recycling existing houses” through redevelopment and intensification.
Is the City set up to fight so many house-by-house battles? What are we going to do with the suburbs? Who will make the difference? How do planners–beginning with the Chief Planner–fit in?