Historical Perspectives on Toronto Planning

A Planning Historian's Views on Toronto's Current Issues

Toronto and Mexico City

Planning historians all seem to be drawn, sooner or later, to city comparisons. How could we not be? Planning ideas are trans-national things, and observing how and why they are adopted by different national cultures helps illuminate the planning ideas themselves and the cities they shape. But it is also true that, for those of us who think about such things, comparisons are just endlessly fascinating.

It was with such thoughts in mind that I, a historian of Toronto planning, recently visited Mexico City, a city I knew little about but had heard other historians speak of with such fascination and reverence that I had to see it myself. It turns out those other historians were quite right. For anyone interested in cities Mexico City is indeed a rewarding place to explore. So rich and complex it is that a week-long visit supplemented by a little reading cannot possibly provide a full understanding. But it is a start.

The main over-arching idea that came to dominate my thinking is how much more planned Mexico City is than Toronto or, put another way, how much more planning history there is to see in Mexico City than Toronto – the two being not quite the same thing. Here are some of the observations that led me to think as I do.

Atop the list of sights for historically-minded tourists in Mexico City is the centro historico, the extraordinary assemblage of buildings from the time when the city served as administrative centre of New Spain. At the heart of the district is a huge public square, the zócalo, that is bordered on the east by the National Palace and on the north by the Metropolitan Cathedral. But the district includes dozens of other splendid buildings, some dating back to the 17th or even, in their original form, the 16th century, all designed in the European architectural styles of their time.  The buildings are spectacular, to be sure, but the planning of the district is equally striking. The rectilinear street grid is the most noticeable aspect; it seems almost modern but in fact was prescribed by the 16th century “Laws of the Indies” that Spain enacted for the development of all its colonies. These laws also clearly shaped the Alameda Central, a rectangular park on the western edge of the district that was designated as public space in the 1590s. But really it is the district overall – laid out as a whole, for function, beauty, and of course as a symbol of colonial power – that most clearly reveals the hand of planning.

Historico Central from Google Maps

Satellite image of the contemporary centro historico, from Google Earth. The zocalo (white) is lower right and a portion of the alameda central (green) upper left.

Toronto has nothing of the sort, having been little more than a fur trade post while the buildings of Mexico City were being erected in a style befitting a European capital. Not until the 1780s did the British – who acquired the Great Lakes territory from the French in 1763 – make any move toward planting a town on its site. The colonial governor in Quebec City initially issued a rather formal town plan, but this was soon superseded by the modest little ten-block plan – if ‘plan’ is not too strong a word – from which the city grew. It prescribed a rectilinear grid but no land use designations and no buildings. The plan was extended west in 1797, and this with this came a few specific elements, notably the designation of certain lands for public purposes, but it was still far from a fully-conceived town plan. Moreover Toronto, or York as it was called at first, was such a remote colonial outpost that only modest wooden structures were built on the original grid, none of which remain. Those of us who teach Toronto history insist that the ten-block grid itself, which present-day streets still follow, is an important artifact, but listeners have been known to roll their eyes. The planning principles underlying the genesis of Mexico City are hard to miss; those underlying the genesis of Toronto are hard to find.

IMG

Toronto’s original ten-block grid, laid out on Lake Ontario by British colonial authorities in the 1780s. This map dates from 1791, by which time the long east-west baseline (Queen Street) and the large lots extending north from it, had been surveyed as well. (Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of Toronto, Map 39)

Walking west from the Alameda Central one encounters the Paseo de le Reforma, a wide boulevard running diagonally south-west from the edge of the historic grid. One is immediately reminded of the grand boulevards of Europe, and this is no coincidence for it was laid out by an Austrian military officer in the early 1860s under the direction of the Austrian, but French-installed, Emperor Maximilian during Mexico’s curious, short-lived “Second Empire”. It was meant to be a grand public thoroughfare, and indeed it is, lined now with new skyscrapers and punctuated at main intersections with sculptures and monuments of symbolic national importance, several of them spectacular examples of what is known in Anglo-America as City Beautiful.

Those who know Toronto will be reminded of University Avenue, the closest thing the city has to a grand boulevard. Its configuration with a planted central median dates from the 1930s, and its commemorative sculptures of the Boer War and Adam Beck from an earlier time, but most of what one sees on the avenue now was designed and built in the 1960s. The slightly angled non-boulevard portion south of Queen Street was also built in the 1930s to accommodate the growing number of motor vehicles; proposals to make that stretch of the road much grander, one in 1909 and another in 1929, had been killed by a parsimonious city council. University Avenue does its job, but as a grand urban boulevard it barely makes the grade. There is not much planning, or design, history to see on Toronto’s University Avenue.

Series 372, Subseries 58 - Road and street condition photographs

Looking south on Toronto’s University Avenue, 23 March 1948, with roadway widening and median reconstruction underway. The tall pre-WWI South African War Memorial, by Walter Seymour Allward, stands in the middle distance. (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub-series 58, Item 1765)

On the basis mostly of on-line comments I opted to stay in the Condessa neighbourhood. The area is recommended for its many popular restaurants and bars, which appealed to me, a crime-fearing tourist, because it suggested plenty of street life – which turned out to be partly true but completely insignificant (other neighbourhoods had more street life, and there was no sign of crime anywhere). What I had not expected, although the guidebooks had hinted at it, is what a splendid specimen of early 20th-century planning and design it is. Condessa was developed in the 1920s by a corporate landowner, and it was laid out by an architect, so it is undoubtedly a planned neighbourhood (prior to its development a portion had been leased to a jockey club and its oval hippodrome shaped the layout). But where it stands in terms of planning history is not entirely clear. One recent Mexican analyst portrays it as a garden city. Like most so-called garden cities it might be more accurately called a garden suburb for it was attached to the existing city, but even that is not entirely apt because the neighbourhood is by no means purely residential. Moreover much of its character comes from the formally-designed public gardens and the planted walkway/medians running down the centre of residential streets – all of them resplendent with their high-altitude tropical vegetation – and these are by no means Ebenzer Howard-inspired. But however it is classified it is undoubtedly beautiful, and to anyone with an eye for historic urban landscapes equally fascinating.

avenida-mazatlan-condesa

Avenue Mazatlan, one of the many sidewalk/medians in Condessa neighbourhood.

Great swaths of Toronto were built in the generation after the First World War as well, most of it in the form of nondescript bungalows on grids of streets. Even the more truly designed areas from that era like Forest Hill, Leaside, or Kingsway Park, show scant novelty in their housing design, use of urban space, or mix of land uses. A planning historian could walk for hundreds of blocks through Toronto’s interwar neighbourhoods without seeing much of interest. What they would see is evidence of an increasingly affluent city with conservative Anglo-American tastes, run by a municipal government that was wary of over-taxing and reluctant to interfere in private residential development. They would see, in other words, the essence of interwar Toronto, but not much planning history.

There is so much more to Mexico City’s planning history – the extraordinary radial pattern of the federal district, the modernist postwar suburbs, the disruptions caused by transportation infrastructure construction, and the recent New Towns on the urban edge – but this piece is already longer than it should be. Toronto is a fine place to live, but Mexico City is far more interesting to a planning historian. Has anyone ever said otherwise? Probably not, but it seems worth saying nonetheless.

SOURCES: Mexico City itself is the main source for this piece, but my thinking was stimulated by a blog on the “Polis” website, written by Jordi Sanchez-Cuenca, noted below. Details about the Condessa neighbourhood were drawn (as best I could with my limited Spanish) from Manuel Sanchez de Carmona, “El Trazo de las Lomas y de la Hipodromo Condesa”, Diseno y Sociedad, Spring/Autumn 2010.

http://www.thepolisblog.org/2012/12/urban-morphology-in-mexico-city.html

 

Rejected Development

Among the most persistent myths – in the sense of widely-held but erroneous beliefs – about Toronto’s planning history, perhaps even about planning history generally, is that the modernist planners of the postwar generation wanted to “bulldoze” anything old and replace it with some lifeless, modern, tower-in-the-park sort of structure. Indeed, once sensitized to the pervasiveness of this mindset one begins to notice it in one form or other almost every day – as I did recently when questioned by a journalist. I even thought it myself, rather unthinkingly, until I began actually researching Toronto’s planning history.

It is simply not true. Admittedly, modernist planners often did want to replace aging structures with new high-rise apartment buildings, but only where and when they felt that doing so was warranted, that is to say where the condition of existing buildings, the land uses in adjacent areas, and the demographic and economic trends for the site made it for the best, not because they simply wanted the old to make way for the new. We value our existing urban fabric now more than most modernist planners of the 1950s did, intent as they were on renewing aging structures and increasing residential densities, so we are much less inclined to demolish and rebuild than they were, but the modernists were not the dogmatic ‘demolitionists’ they are often made out to be. They might have come to conclusions we no longer agree with, but they considered carefully before doing so.

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Eli Comay and Toronto Planning

UBC Press and I recently held a launch party for Planning Toronto, my book on Toronto’s planning history, and a stimulating evening it was for me, interacting with so many of the people who had helped in the book’s birth and development. One person I could not talk to, but whose name came up in several conversations, was Eli Comay, a planner at the heart of Toronto planning affairs in the 1950s and 60s who had been central to the book’s genesis some ten years ago but who had died in 2010. The launch brought him vividly to mind.

I first approached Eli in 2002, when starting what would turn out to be years of research into Toronto planning history. He was quite willing to meet and talk, so we did, then and later – maybe once or twice a year for the next four years. At first he served mostly as a source of information, but as my knowledge grew he became more of a sounding board for my developing ideas. In both capacities he was invaluable.

He was a truly unique man, possessor of an extraordinary combination of opposites: folksy but erudite, candid but private, a teller of both stark truths and tall tales, to name only the first few incongruities that come to mind. I was not always sure what to make of what he said, especially at the start of my research when my ignorance left me so vulnerable – those English planners in Toronto, he said, always had three initials – but from every meeting with him I came away having learned something.

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Confronting Regional Planning History

Regional planning and urban planning are not the same thing. They operate at different scales, have different historical roots, address different problems, and are usually carried out by different agents. Yet both are planning, and both work from the principle that planners can, and in fact should, restrict the actions of private property owners in order to serve the public good. As such, the Neptis Foundation’s recent commentary on shortcomings in the provincial Growth Plan for the Toronto region elicits some thoughts from a planning historian.

The Neptis Foundation, as many Toronto urbanists know, is a privately-funded, Toronto-based organization that has been analysing and commenting on the physical aspects of urban growth in the region for more than a decade; it leans ‘anti-sprawl’, but its work is always strictly empirical and its conclusions and recommendations consistently fair-minded. When the Province of Ontario issued a Growth Plan for the Toronto region in 2005 Neptis publicly challenged that plan, not because it would interfere with municipal autonomy or property rights – the customary reasons for opposing regional planning – but because it did not interfere enough. Neptis researchers had concluded that the plan was nothing more than a recipe for business as usual – for more suburban sprawl, car dependence, and uncoordinated development – and the foundation set about publishing a series of critiques that said so. This new commentary keeps up the fight. While acknowledging that sprawl is lessening, by one definition at least, it observes, through an analysis of recent development, that growth is not going where the plan calls for it to go, into existing urban areas or designated growth centres, and it thus concludes that the plan is still falling short of its objectives.

The study has plenty of merit, and I have no reason to question its factual observations, but like so much work done by Toronto urban analysts it lacks historical perspective. Toronto’s history is not unknown, and more is being written all the time – Neptis has itself commissioned historical studies, perhaps the only urban research body to have done so – but it always seems to end up in the ‘history’ box, to be brought out and viewed only for antiquarian purposes. Historical analysis rarely informs present-day discourse. But it could, and it should.

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Of Chief Planners and Mayors

The recent spat between Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat and Mayor John Tory over the Gardiner/DVP link in east downtown is well encapsulated in Councillor James Pasternak’s assertion (reported in the Globe and Mail) that “city employees are supposed to be politically neutral and provide their recommendations either to committees or to the mayor, and then the elected officials decide on which course to take.” Someone in Keesmaat’s position, he went on to say, is “serving a city council and serving a mayor.” Is this really true? Is this how we use expertise in our democratic system?

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The Urban Renewal Nobody Knows

Among the most surprising discoveries I made in the course of researching Toronto’s planning history is how little ‘bulldozing’ was planned, let alone done, in the city’s march towards modernization. The notion that postwar planners wanted to clear away the entire inner city and replace it with something new, modern, and efficient has become so deeply rooted in contemporary urbanism that anyone who questions it is likely to be – and I speak from experience – not opposed but misunderstood. Such is the hard shell around intellectual orthodoxy.

It is true that many influential politicians and administrators in Toronto – one cannot speak of planners having much importance before the mid-1950s – were concerned about the condition of the city’s older districts in the years before and after the Second World War. What to do about it, however, they did not know because they were as parsimonious as they were concerned. But the city also had social reformers striving to improve housing conditions for the poor, and these two concerns, when joined, gained enough strength to spawn what became known as “urban renewal”, a program that, with generous federal government funding, became a major force in postwar urban planning and administration. This is well established, and not really open to question. What research has opened my eyes to is how modest and circumspect Toronto’s urban renewal program was. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Designed St Lawrence Neighbourhood?

May 2015

It’s Jane’s Walk time again in Toronto, and thousands will be out this weekend on walking tours of various urban locales under the guidance of expert tour leaders. It is a remarkable success story, this concept, and a fitting legacy for someone who conceived one of the most influential books of the twentieth century on the basis of what she observed walking about the city. Among the options this year is a tour led by recently-elected Liberal Member of Parliament Adam Vaughan titled “Lessons from a Great Neighbourhood”. It begins in the celebrated St Lawrence Neighbourhood south-east of downtown, an area which was, the promotional blurb tells us, “built in the 1970s by some of our City’s greatest visionaries including Jane Jacobs”. This assertion will prompt an eye-roll among those of us who know otherwise, an eye-roll we have done before. Jane Jacobs did not build St Lawrence Neighbourhood anymore than Clarence Stein laid out Don Mills or Frank Lloyd Wright designed my suburban childhood home. But who, then, did design St Lawrence?

Determining who created the look and feel of an urban neighbourhood is no simple task. We know the designers of buildings, the high profile ones at least – Mies van der Rohe did the T-D Centre, and Daniel Liebeskind the new ROM addition – and even some less iconic ones like the Metro Reference Library (Raymond Moriyama) or Sick Children’s Hospital (Eb Zeidler). But trying to identify who created, say, Parliament Street in Cabbagetown, or even a more defined place like the core of Yorkville, is nearly impossible. This inscrutability, of course, flows directly from the fact that urban landscapes are an expression of the many interests, tastes, and laws that prevailed at the time of their creation – which is, in turn, why landscapes are such telling historical sources.

But surely one could determine who designed St Lawrence, that unique residential patch of south-east downtown Toronto for which accolades never stop coming. Dave Leblanc described it in the Globe and Mail a few years ago as the “best example of a mixed-income, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, sensitively scaled, densely populated community ever built in the province”, and such superlatives are not unusual. Being such a celebrated place, and having been conceived as a coherent whole by a public authority and built on a defined site, perhaps its ‘designers’ can be identified. Read the rest of this entry »

The Unplanned Influx

March 2015

If one takes a long view, which historians are supposed to do, one will see interesting parallels between Toronto’s recent boom of inner-city living and its rapid expansion into the suburbs after the Second World War. Though the migrations obviously go in opposite directions, both are manifestations of an enthusiasm for, almost an obsession with, a better urban world. In the 1950s suburbia looked so much more desirable than the congested old city, its nearly windowless houses crammed into narrow lots on streets arranged in unimaginative rectilinear grids. Whereas since the 1980s the old inner city has looked so much more appealing than the humdrum suburbs, where picture-windowed houses sat on wastefully large lots on streets arranged in pretentious curvilinear arrays. Read the rest of this entry »

Mobility Lost

July 2014

Those of us who travel in and around Toronto by motor vehicle have faced an alarming reality this summer: we can barely get around. That longstanding bugbear “congestion”, steadily worsening as the city intensifies, has suddenly grown by a quantum leap with the closure of one lane on the Gardiner Expressway – the main route in and out of the central city from the west – for long-term reconstruction. One has the sense that the city is changing fundamentally, but also that something is being lost in that change. Read the rest of this entry »

Of Eb Zeidler, John Sewell, and Rob Ford

January 2014

The Institute for Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto hosted a gathering last month to commemorate Eb Zeidler’s weighty new autobiography. The institute was stepping outside its mandate, strictly speaking, for Zeidler and his work have little connection to either the finance or the governance of cities; but Zeidler is such an iconic figure, and much of his early work in Toronto – Ontario Place, Eaton Centre, the Queen’s Quay restoration – had such an impact on the city that holding a public forum on his book seemed fitting enough. Read the rest of this entry »

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