Tower Renewal Project, The Globe and Mail
June 2, 2007 — High-Rises: Toronto’s Smart Sixties Suburbs
A metropolis that knew where to draw the line
The Globe and Mail
June 2, 2007
This column is by way of a supplementary but inadequate caption to the splendid aerial view of Bathurst Street in the 1960s, looking north toward Steeles Avenue, at right. It would take an unnatural combination of urban planner and lyric poet to eulogize such a wondrous image with proper aplomb. But who, among all those who ever thrilled at the sight of a skyline, could resist?
Not since the first bird’s-eye views of the Italian Renaissance has a city looked so coherent: the densely human, heavily built-up urbe ending abruptly – and totally – at an ancient wall heavy with meaning, the Arcadian rus rolling unbroken to the horizon in striking contrast.
Although the wall surrounding 1960s Toronto was made of policy, not stone, the meaning was still there. No other city in North America built high-density suburbs like these during the long postwar boom. Few modern cities in the world, if any, were better planned than Metropolitan Toronto.
And what do you know? The planning policies so visible in this old view are identical to those our most recent provincial government has made a big show of readopting in the 21st century. Once again, urban intensification and rural preservation are de rigueur. The difference is that, half a century ago, such policies really mattered here in Toronto.
The same view today would show some of North America’s worst suburban sprawl in the background, mocking the old policies and blighting any hope for their revival. Instead of clean, modern, affordable housing, the foreground would show a patchwork of neglect. Many similar views would be dominated by outright slums.
You can talk about the glories of old Metro, which in its early days had the power to control development over the entire region, almost as far as Lake Simcoe. You can fondly recall the rigour of provincial policy of the same era, not to mention the generosity of a welfare state on an infrastructure bender. But why bother? Just look at the picture.
Seen clearly, in light of what we know happened next, it isn’t pretty. It’s a properly grim allegory of wholesome, progressive Toronto, seduced and abandoned. The result, in the matter of this particular view, was little baby Vaughan – a stain on the civic escutcheon. Meanwhile, Mom’s a slatternly wretch.
The image was collected by architect Graeme Stewart over years of research into Toronto’s neglected high-rise suburbs, and incorporated into a fascinating presentation he made to city council’s executive committee this week. Mr. Stewart used it to promote the idea of a comprehensive political effort to rescue high-rise suburbia, the overlooked clusters of privately owned apartment towers that function today as “the makeshift social housing of the city.”
In fact, the rescue is already under way – at least as far as
contemporary Toronto’s emasculated government can push anything. City social policy now focuses on the same neighbourhoods, having been drawn that way by the United Way under Frances Lankin. Transit policy calls for a light-rail network that will finally create the easy connectivity that was implicit in their conception, but rarely provided.
Mr. Stewart and Michael McClelland, his colleague from E.R.A.
Architects, added another layer when they showed that Toronto’s greatest opportunity to achieve environmental sustainability lies in the same neighbourhoods. To carbon-cutters and city builders, they are a kind of paradise.
Thus an image that epitomizes 20th-century success returns, this time to focus attention on the new frontier of 21st-century reform.