The Unplanned Influx

by Richard White

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.

Whether either urban environment actually provided, or is providing, a better life, who knows? But there is little doubt that many believed they would, especially young adults with good incomes and promising futures, and that their beliefs prompted migrations of considerable consequence. Not only did these migrations stimulate huge investments into new housing, they also created – by virtue of what they left behind – substantial areas of less desirable housing, in the inner city in the case of the suburban migration and in the older suburbs in the case of the more recent inward migration. Neither of these areas was truly abandoned but they certainly lost cachet and, in market terms, value, which in turn discouraged investment into upkeep and renovation, the consequences of which are evident in the older suburbs today. Of course undervalued also means inexpensive, which early inner-city gentrifiers were able to exploit in the 1960s and lower-middle class residents of the old suburbs seem to be doing now.

Where the two differ, however, is that the move out to the suburbs was planned while the move back into the city was not. Once it became clear in the early 1950s that Toronto’s metropolitan area was going to keep growing and that suburbs were the urban form of the future, the Province of Ontario created a planning board to plan and manage the expansion, and that board did so in a remarkably comprehensive manner. Land-uses, roads, transit, piped services, parks, schools, and even, to a degree, social services all were planned. Not only that but the plans were actually followed and the required infrastructure was built, at a size and scale sufficient for the expected future population.

Such planning was simply not done for the more recent migration back the other way. At first, for the initial ‘back to the city’ migrants of the 1960s, planning just did not seem necessary; numbers were small and the neighbourhoods that received these inner-city migrants, such as Cabbagetown or the Annex, had ample infrastructure and services. A decade later the city’s “Central Area Plan” deliberately promoted inner-city residential development and thus laid the foundation for the influx that followed, but it concerned itself little with the longer-term consequences of any success – which, of course, its planners could not predict. In the 1980s and 90s, when the new migration was gaining steam, planning was still encouraging inner-city residential development, in specific places – Housing on Main Streets, the Railway Lands – rather than planning to accommodate it more generally.

With the increasing residential population came demand for more piped and wired services, transit capacity, and public open spaces, similar to what had happened during the outward migration some forty years before. But providing additional services was far more difficult this time around. Inner-city land was already spoken for. Any new infrastructure would affect thousands of existing property owners, commercial and residential, and land prices were by then exorbitant. Schools and other social infrastructure began being built, but in response to, not in advance of, development, and certainly not according to any comprehensive plan. Major infrastructure like a subway under Queen or King Street, so badly needed, was simply inconceivable.

Why the outward migration was planned and the inward was not is an interesting question. Certainly the fact that the former went into farmland and the latter went into developed urban land is a big part of the reason. Even if the city had tried to plan in advance, in say the 1980s or 90s, it is hard to imagine how its planners could have gained public endorsement for plans that proposed major, expensive disruptions. But other factors were at work. By the 1980s urban congestion was no longer something that planners strove to avoid; it had become simply the nature of urban life. And by then, as well, planning comprehensively, and on a metropolitan scale, had lost out to planning site by site, or block by block. There seems to have been, in other words, less conviction within the planning world that the inner-city influx was a problem in need of a solution.

Whatever the reason, however one explains it, the migration back into the city has not been planned to nearly the extent that the migration out to the suburbs was. And in the last five or ten years, with more and more industrial land being opened up for residential use and the popularity of inner-city living greater than ever, the consequences of this absence of planning have become nearly intolerable. Anyone who rides the King or Queen streetcar can attest to this. It’s enough to make one believe in the value of planning.


Transportation planning for the outward migration, 1960s

Transportation planning for the outward migration, 1960s

Image Source: Metropolitan Toronto Annual Report, 1964