Special Report: Creative City

Toronto: Yesterday's Development Lessons for Tomorrow

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 Dodged a Bullet

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.

Canceled Urban Freeways

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.

Jacobs Externalities

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.

Toronto the Divided

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted June 01, 2010 at 17:09:58

they'll most likely be able to write that in 2066 and accurately describe the situation in Hamilton. Hey, we're only 100 years behind. That's not bad.

Comment edited by jason on 2010-06-01 16:10:27

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2010 at 10:08:40

Forty years from now some young, aspiring Matt Jelly is going to dig up records of this site and we'll all have a good laugh about how much better things would be in Torontamiloniagraichener-waterloo if anyone had listened to us.

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By torbufchester (anonymous) | Posted June 02, 2010 at 10:21:37


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By rrrandy (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2010 at 14:46:44

Wow, go Bill Davis! Excellent article Ryan!

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By zippo (registered) | Posted June 02, 2010 at 16:40:33

In spite of the fact that Toronto has a "real" public transit system by current standards, unlike the cruel joke that is the HSR, it's still pretty minimal.

According to data from the last census (sorry, can't find a link) 78% of workers in the GTA still use automobiles to get to work.

Official projections (IEA) are that current world oil supplies will be depleted in 40 years at current rates of consumption. Given that there is uncertainty about the shape of the depletion curve I would guesstimate this to mean that we are in the last 20 years or so of petroleum powered personal transportation for most people.

The exburban sprawl of Southern Ontario, built over the last 60 years on the assumption of unlimited supplies of almost free gasoline and diesel fuel, is not viable in a post peak oil world.

The onset of relentless declines in net available energy also means means relentless decline in the economy and the collapse of the global debt based fiat currency system, both of which currently have the built in assumption that future consumption levels will be exponentially bigger than those in the present.

Seems to me it is these factors that will dominate the future of this region in the next few decades, and that however it works out the change will be massive, given that the current pattern of Toronto has been almost totally shaped by abundant, almost free energy, and that is going away.

I thought Ryan was "peak oil aware" yet as I read this piece he sounds like business as usual will more or less continue...

Comment edited by zippo on 2010-06-02 15:49:07

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2010 at 21:41:39

Though I've been railing on about Peak Oil for most of the last decade, it wasn't until the last two years that I really believed that it might happen as quickly and dramatically as some writers suggest. In a few short years we saw the global oil price go up to almost $150 a barrel from a small fraction of that. Virtually immediately enormous amounts of bad debts on which we'd bet the world economy collapsed and plunged us into the worst recession since the 1930s. And within a few short years, Ford, GM, Chrysler and Toyota have stared into the abyss. Values of used cars dropped to levels not seen in decades ($300 cars on every corner around me), and this particularly hit values of high-priced gas-guzzling sports cars and SUVs. Yet at the same time, the value of bikes (new and used) jumped by at least 30-40% across the board.

Most cars are only really useful to their owners for a few years. 10, 12 at most. Without auto corporations to produce the many brand/model/year-specific spare parts, that gets a lot more complicated. Staring into an abyss of collapsing companies, skyrocketing gas prices and vanishing resale values, I'm very glad I'm not looking to buy a car at the moment.

The automobile age could end very quickly, at least in its current form. Though people won't just stop driving their cars all at once, the incentive to buy a new one can drop off very quickly, and the older a car is the more of a liability it is. As people start bussing or biking to work occasionally, the incentive to spend the price of a new bike each month on owning a car starts looking a lot less valuable. And ultimately, once you've given up on the notion that you MUST own a car, the tens of thousands of dollars they cost starts looking a little silly.

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By zippo (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 09:49:43

Ryan: I'd agree that a typical NYC resident uses less gasoline to get to work than most North Americans, but I'm not sure that it follows that increased percentages of us living in large / high density urban settings is a way forward in an increasingly energy constrained world.

I think that factors other than fuel efficiency have been predominant in determining the scale up of large cities in the age of fossil fuels, and while I'm not sure of course, it seems to me that these may well "unwind" as energy becomes more expensive and less available. Specifically I'm thinking about questions of economic surplus and specialization of labor.

For example let's consider agriculture. Prior to the widespread use of the tractor about 20% of the workforce were agricultural. Fossil fuels were in large part responsible for dropping that value to it's current level of about 2% of the workforce. If post-fossil fuel farming resembles pre-fossil fuel farming a much larger percentage of the population is going to be living a "rural" (not suburban) lifestyle than is presently the case. Indeed it seems to me may be higher than in the past, since the damage done to the land by a century of industrial agriculture, and the challenges created by climate change are likely to make fossil fuel free farming a more difficult, and thus more labor intensive, task than it was 100 years ago.

Large cities tend to be islands of advanced and / or highly specialized workers. You are much more likely to find a pediatric oncologist, a astrophysicist, or a food stylist in Toronto than say, for instance, in Sioux Lookout. They also tend to be centers of government and administration, and of parasitic activities such as the FIRE sector(finance, insurance, and real estate), essentially a form of casino which is now in the united states responsible for about 40% of all "profit" in the economy. All of this activity is dependent on an economy that is producing large surplus above subsistence levels.

Such levels of surplus it seems to me are in large part due to the low cost and high availability of fossil fuels. As that goes away we move down the gradient of what is possible, from pediatric oncologist to surgeon to doctor to "healer" (herbalist/midwife) and as these things go the reason for being of big cities goes with them.

At $400 per barrel about 1/6 of all global economic activity would be devoted to the production of oil. Such a world looks a lot different than what is in place today.

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By zippo (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 12:23:39


I agree with you. It's not hard to imagine an increase in the density of downtown Hamilton of the type you describe if you were only to consider the amount of land that is now vacant downtown i.e. parking lots, containing fully occupied mixed use 5-6 story buildings, and the amount of vacant space in existing buildings.

Also agree that Brown's "Export Land Model" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Export_Land... makes the problem for N.America and Europe worse than it would otherwise be.

I know much is made of Cuba as a case study of what is possible, and they certainly did make huge changes during the "special period" following the loss of almost free oil from the Soviet Union. But still, after all that, their per capita oil use was about the same as that of Mexico. It's not so much that they figured out how to "do it" without oil but that they were using so much more per person to start with. I don't mean this to be a criticism of the Cubans, obviously the challenge of survival under the American sanctions is profound. Just trying to put what happened there in perspective.

"Remain hopeful" Hmmm... http://site.despair.com/blog/wp-content/..."

Comment edited by zippo on 2010-06-03 11:28:25

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 03, 2010 at 13:25:53

I read a short book a while back ("End of oil" or something like that) with a chapter on Communist states which was very interesting. It contrasted Cuba with North Korea. And while Cubans, with their fantastically cheap post-secondary education and the resulting educaiton rates in their population (unlike North Korea), saw it coming. Years before the collapse of the USSR, Cubans were already working on "organaponics" and other means of high-productivity decentralized urban agriculture. North Korea, on the other hand, lagged. It's tractors rotted and rusted in the fields, its fertilizer plants sat idle for want of natural gas, and it went through nearly a decade of levels of starvation which compared with Sub-Saharan Africa. I suspect great portions of the first world will be stuck with the latter, unless we really loosen up on people's rights to grow plants or raise animals at home in cities.

The problem with holding up citizens of New York as ecological examples to be emulated is that it ignores that vast rural infrastructure needed to support it. And as anyone who's read much about the rise of civilization knows, devastating rural land uses like logging, mining and intensive agriculture tend to follow (as well as feed) urban development. Most farmers I know grow enough food to feed themselves, families and farmhands as an afterthought, usually in tiny plots, with little effort. And the thousand acres of corn behind that is not destined for Sioux Lookout. And the same could be said of most pulp mills, strip mines or tar sands developments. Rural populations use enormous amounts of resources, but mostly to make goods for urban populations. Show me 8 million people SUSTAINING themselves over a long term on 800 km2 of land, and then I'll be impressed.

P.S.One more interesting New York fact: Calgary is about the same size, geographically, but with only one seventeenth of the population.

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 22:28:26

Ryan brilliant essay. I was thrilled to read it ........ three times.

people.. "Unfortunately, the extreme price volatility we've been seeing means that alternative energy projects are started and then abandoned, while governments find themselves Keynesian-spending their way out of an oil-price recession amid ridiculously low oil prices by resurfacing roads and incentivizing new vehicle purchases."

this is what im talking about.

A mind and words do not get put together this often.

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 23:23:17

I want to add a comment back to the subject.

the 427 is the Spadina Expressway moved a few kilometers west. Yes?

The DVP already existed before the proposed Rouge freeway. Maybe im wrong on the name. But the N-S route between the QEW was already established via the 404. Another route was totally not needed.

I can't disagree that the 427 and the 404 didn't help downtown Toronto. I don't think anyone would think honestly think that downtown Toronto, with all its head offices, and financial towers and now commuter nests would honestly think that if the Gardiner Expressway wasn't there, that all these other things would still be there.

No. It's that they don't CUT through it all. 401, 404, 427, QEW surround downtown Toronto. I'm not making any judgement other than the fact that those four highways do surround downtown Toronto. Try and buy a house within those four highways and see what its costs versus a house outside. Those highways define what we now know as Toronto. Anything beyond is suburb. That's not me making it up, it's true. white me out

Downtown Toronto is brilliant, in that it has created a myriad of highways surrounding the most valuable land in Canada. The fact that Toronto kept the inner highway circumference with transit and kept the building density is what has made one of North America's greatest cities.

On the other hand. Its success also makes it one of NA most expensive cities to live in. Chicago is a great example. Toronto is not Canada's New York, It is Canada's Chicago. Montreal is Canada's New York. Another topic.

Which brings me to why is Hamilton the Greatest City to Raise a Child? The first answer is affordability. That is great. So long as those parents work in the public sector now Hamilton's largest employer your child will do fine. A father working at Hamilton Health Sciences and a mother working the Hamilton School Board, that child will do wonderful. Probably better than most in the country.

40 years ago we had a father working at Stelco and a mother if she was working maybe at Canadian Glass, or Camco, or Firestone, but she didn't need to work to make the bills, the one income was enough from a good private manufacturer to pay a family to meet its means. That child was considered the best to raise a in Canada. It just needed not be said. Because it was true. Two or one parent working for a private manufacturer. Today, if two parents work for as a government employer.

It's just interesting to me. I'm not making any judgement or value calls about socialism or capitalism or one or two parent incomes over the past generation or two. I'm simply pointing out some facts that are interesting. Do with them as you please. So please.... stay with me... im almost done....

So here we are.... Ryan's brilliant essay, about city planning 70 years ago. And Hamilton has done what? What exactly has Hamilton done to support this essayist's thesis and supporting references>?/ Nothing . The opposite actually. Maybe that's why Hamilton has gone in the opposite direction of Toronto. There was a time when Hamilton seriously rivaled Toronto as Ontario's first city.

It was at a time when critical decisions were made in terms of city planning. Are we in a time of critical decision making as a city? That's up to us.

There is a saying that goes, "people get what they deserve". and "if you always do, what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got".

Hamilton, do you want what we have now, or do we deserve something better? We got and we deserve something better.

Note Campaign speeches requests can be mailed to this poster anon bc this poster loves Hamilton and wants to believe that this is the best city in Canada to do anything

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 04, 2010 at 14:05:25

The rise of the dual-working parent family will probably be seen in coming decades as a major setback for workers. While today's rhetoric is still filled with nasty capitalist arguments (you're not a person if you don't work) wrapped in feminist fluff, a clearer long term view shows that all the whole, it led to more work at lower wages much faster than it raised anyone's standard of living. Median wages, in real terms, have been stagnating since the 1970s (when much of this began on a large scale), and since then it's clear that whatever increase in the (material) standard of living of average families exists, it's due to more work (overtime, or two working parents) or more debt, not the spectacular boost in productivity we've seen in the same time (from which the benefits have clearly gone upward).

A century ago, people were literally dying to shorten the workday and work-week. The nine-hour movement, beginning in Hamilton as well as other places, is hailed as one of Canada's first examples of labour organizing.

This isn't to say that I think women belong only at home raising children. But I do think both parents should have that option. However, I have a hard time seeing 80 hours of compulsory servitude per week between a pair of parents to be a step back, both as a worker and a parent.

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By Downtown (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2010 at 00:54:24

Please join Downtown Hamilton group page


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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2010 at 21:14:46

I find it amusing that you aspire to New York City densities. Have you lived there? There are millions of people who want out but cannot afford it. The only real estate rising faster than Manhattan is the areas outside the city which are reachable in a reasonable amount of time. (by NYC standards)

The majority of people do not want to live in high density cages. Many people live there because they have no choice. Yet some of us want to impose their affinity for that lifestyle on all of us. If that is the lifestyle that you prefer for you and your family that option is certainly available, knock yourself out and enjoy it. But please do not try and force that life on those of us who like their piece of suburbia.

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By Mary Soderstrom (anonymous) | Posted July 31, 2010 at 15:55:20

Glad you thought The Walkable City was "charming."

Densifying the way we live seems to me the most important thing we can do to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But what an uphill fight!


By the way, you might be interested in my Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, which has a chapter about Hamilton.

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