The Shape of the Suburbs: A New Series of Chief Planner Roundtables Launching September 30th!


The Chief Planner Roundtable is a public forum for Torontonians to discuss key city-building challenges. Civic leaders and industry professionals meet to review challenges and opportunities, and to identify the various paths towards resolution of the issues at hand. Residents and members of the public are encouraged to participate by attending the sessions in person or watching them live-streamed on the internet, and by submitting comments and questions by Twitter or comment card.

The first roundtable series was held in the Spring 2013. One of the conclusions stemming from this series was that the suburbs warranted much greater discussion and examination.  For this reason, the entire fall roundtable series is focusing on the suburbs. The first of these, “The Shape of the Suburbs” being held on September 30, is an examination of the physical form of the suburbs. The second (October 28) will focus on social and employment issues, and the third (November 25) will focus on mobility.

 Overview: The Shape of The Suburbs

Shifts in the patterns of settlement and vast economic expansion following World War Two resulted in the rapid growth of Toronto’s suburbs. The population of the area now known as Toronto doubled between 1945 and 1980, and the resulting housing boom forever changed its suburban landscape. Curved disconnected street systems were preferred over the grids of the older streetcar neighbourhoods.  Land uses were separated. Private automobiles replaced public transit as the preferred way of moving about, and trucks replaced trains for moving goods and materials. Department stores and movie theatres spread from the downtown and main streets, and into regional malls.

These trends and their impact upon the suburban form were fuelled by the rise of a new cultural force: pursuit of the “suburban dream”. The desire to move away from the crowded and polluted city into a detached house with back-yard and car port within close proximity to the new “superhighway” system and local amenities saw the rise of communities such as Don Mills, Humbertown, Victoria Village, and Guildwood.  New apartment tower communities set within spacious environments provided alternative housing options away from the downtown.   As was the style of this time, these communities were planned to deliberately “turn their backs” to the city: road networks were internal and disconnected from the larger city grid; buildings focussed towards the interior of their site rather than outwards to public streets; and estates provided for single-use housing, rather than mixed-use communities.

These trends were not unique to Toronto, but they have permanently influenced the shape of our city, and reinforced the mythology of the suburbs as places of unplanned sprawl. But there are many exceptions to this myth. One is that many parts of the suburbs are still highly desirable places to live, and in these areas, the suburban lifestyle is still very much alive. In all areas, however, the very qualities which the suburbs were built upon – the provision of adequate light, space, and air – are the same qualities which make them desirable today. Pressure for land and  development stemming from the current period of rapid growth is creating a growing urban/ suburban tension, as planners and policy-makers strive to accommodate this growth. More and more, this tension is compounded by cultural diversification, changing notions of “community”, and the struggle to preserve local identity.

Roundtable Format

The purpose of this roundtable is to broaden our understanding of the real physical context of Toronto’s suburban landscape, and to challenge the mythology of these areas. It will begin with six presentations made by the roundtable participants. John Van Nostrand will start with an overview of how the physical form of subdivisions after World War 2 created a new kind of form beyond the grids of the older city. Graham Stewart will describe a phenomenon familiar to Torontonians: Tower-in-the Park neighbourhoods. Pamela Blais will examine how current taxation and public policy have reinforced the suburban form, and Leona Savoie will discuss the financial challenges of suburban intensification and how the realities of physical change – ranging from community consultation to process – might be better managed. Leo DeSorcy and Laurie Payne will showcase some recent examples of suburban transformation, including the resulting built form and land uses, and the process to get there. The presentations will lead into an open roundtable discussion, moderated by the Chief Planner, looking at ways in which the realities of growth can be accommodated in the suburbs

Where to from here?

The conversation from this roundtable will lead into an examination of related issues in the following months: Arrival City (October 28) will look at cultural diversification of the suburbs, and how planning and social services function for new immigrants and those at risk. Mobility in the Suburbs (November 25) will look at how challenges from suburban physical forms can be addressed to enhance walking, cycling and transit connections. An Action document summarizing all three fall sessions will be released in early 2014.

Presentation Outlines | The Shape of the Suburbs

1. The Rise of The Suburbs (John Van Nostrand)

At the end of the Second World War, the municipalities surrounding Toronto – North York, Scarborough, East York, and Etobicoke – consisted largely of peripheral urban townships, villages, and agricultural farmland and settlements.  Expansion into the suburbs following the Second World War was arranged generally through subdivisions within Toronto’s concession grid and local responses to landforms such as ravines and rivers. Subdivisions took the form of “neighbourhood units” disconnected from their neighbours with curvy roads, with a park and school in the centre and with retail separated at the edge in a strip mall or mall.  The distinct boundaries of rural townships and railway villages such as Weston, Mimico, Leaside, and Agincourt gradually merged with the ever-growing city.  Transportation connections were planned through the construction of a “superhighway” system, expanding the concession to a set of suburban arterials and the expansion of the subway system in the 1970’s into North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough.


What are the limits to the urbanization of the 50s 60s suburban  form?  If the local school closes, what are the best land uses to put in their place?  ? How can these neighbourhoods accommodate change while still retaining their unique identities, character and communities?

2.    Reimagining Towers-in-the-Park (Graham Stewart)

In 1966, at the peak of one of the most significant development periods in Toronto’s history, nearly 40% of the city’s housing stock and 77% of housing starts were large-scale high rise rental apartment towers. Built by private developers and aimed at various markets, these towers were promoted on the visions of health, space and light, and were seen to combine the best housing standards with the most responsible use of land.  These ambitions did not entirely pan out, and many suburban tower neighbourhoods are now in need of rejuvenation and redirection.


Why did the apartment neighbourhood ambitions fail? (building form, access, tensure, public realm quality etc.)?  Do apartment neighbourhoods offer an opportunity for suburban intensification, commercialization and social intensification in a way that is consistent with the Official Plan? What other possibilities do these neighbourhoods present in terms of accommodating sustainable mixed use growth?

3.    Suburban Revitalization and Economics: Pamela Blais

A wide range of urban goods and services are subject to pricing mechanisms that don’t reflect the actual cost of providing that service. Transit, transportation and parking are some examples. Mis-pricing creates hidden subsidies and incentives that can unwittingly encourage suburban sprawl and discourage development to occur in a more efficient and sustainable manner.  Accurate pricing for municipal services and more targeted policy are a key element of promoting more efficient intensification within Toronto’s suburbs.


What pricing mechanisms and related policies are working/not working in Toronto to encourage suburban transformation towards more efficient, sustainable urban development patterns? What other tools could be studied and implemented to address the shortfalls of suburban infill and revitalization in Toronto?

4.    Planning and Developing the Suburbs: Leona Savoie

Contrary to popular myth, development in Toronto’s suburbs is planned, built and financed through a formal process with direct ties to land use planning policies and public consultation.  The Official Plan directs population and employment growth to take place in the Downtown, the Centres (Scarborough Centre, Etobicoke Centre, North York Centre) and along the Avenues.  While achieving intensification along the Avenues has been challenging, this Plan has been extremely successful, with the Centres being the focus of significant residential intensification in recent years.


Does the Official Plan create a realistic vision for suburban redevelopment and intensification?  What other forces – market pressures, trends, economics, politics, local resistance – end up shaping the suburban form?  Who is moving into the today’s new suburban communities?

5.    Apartment Housing Revitalization – The New Model: Laurie Payne

Most suburban apartment housing estates have gone without any significant capital upgrades since they were built. Reaching the end of their life cycles provides an ideal opportunity to repair, replace and rejuvenate many of the planned deficiencies of these communities.  A number of these large-scale revitalization efforts have been undertaken over the past ten years, including Regents Park and Lawrence-Allen, Allenbury Gardens and Parkway Forest. All of these efforts have pursued a new model of redevelopment which includes a mix of housing sizes and types, open spaces, and a mix of uses. 


What are the best-practice approaches to  transforming large-scale suburban social housing into successful apartment neighbourhoods with a range of housing options?  Do these revitalization projects act as a catalyst for change beyond the physical infrastructure and building form, such as raising employment and social opportunities? Will these communities gentrify over time and push targeted residents further to the suburban edges? How will this new model withstand evaluation in fifty years time?

6.    Apartment Housing Revitalization Case Study: Leo DeSorcy

Parkway Forrest is a project that tackles the unique challenge of transforming a 1960s “garden city” development of suburban towers into the new model of a denser, more urban and intensified community.  Its location near the Don Mills subway stop along the Sheppard subway corridor provides a prime setting for suburban intensification.  Currently in the Master Planning stages, the development explores the idea of infill at a community scale, and provides a mix of housing sizes and options.  The plan emphasizes pedestrian connections, and includes a landscaped pedestrian route that runs between the subway to the north and parkland to the south.  The community will be home to some 8,000 residents, and include a new community centre, daycare and community offices.


How applicable are the forms, and the revitalization process of Parkway to other suburban sites? What is the “walkability” of this community, in the absence of a retail component?  How did the local character and site influence the plan, and what was done to reinforce the local community?