Historical Perspectives on Toronto Planning

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

Tag: planning

Of History and Historical Preservation

A blog written specifically for Active History and posted on their site over a year ago (3 February 2017), now being re-posted here. It’s not about planning, directly, but it stirred up interest among planners so it seems to belong.

Some ten or fifteen years ago a group of residents in my Toronto neighbourhood, a pre-WWI ‘streetcar suburb’ known locally as the Beaches, began the process of making parts of it a Heritage Conservation District, a designation that would impose controls on physical changes to buildings. My immediate response was to oppose them. I was not entirely sure why, and I was somewhat surprised at my own reaction. I enjoyed the ambience of our hundred-year-old streets, as well as the many conveniences that come from pre-automobile residential densities, but the idea of a municipal bylaw freezing these physical qualities in place seemed wrong.

The initiative died within a year or two. The City found, through formal surveys, that more residents opposed than favoured it and took no further action. My street was saved from the preservationists and, as things have turned out, recently acquired a splendid new modern home – all flat and square – on a double lot formerly occupied by a 1940s house.

But the experience lived on in my own mind as I pondered why I, as a historian, should have opposed the initiative. History and preservation always go together, as do historians and preservationists. Nearly all historically-minded people I know are heritage advocates. Every ‘historical association’ I have ever encountered exists to preserve the past. Indeed, a group called the Toronto Historical Association gives as its mandate “educating, researching, protecting and advocating for heritage in Toronto”. But why should this be so? As I reflected on it, I began to realize that I opposed preservation because I was a historian.

St L Map

Boundaries of the recently-designated St Lawrence HCD – a somewhat more conventional heritage district in that it includes numerous heritage buildings, some already individually designated, and the city’s ten-block founding street grid. (City of Toronto)

An urban neighbourhood undoubtedly speaks to us about the world in which it was made. Indeed a foundational principle of urban landscape studies is that the built environment is essentially a large, three-dimensional historical source. And sure enough, to those who take the time to look, houses in my early-twentieth-century neighbourhood reveal: a parsimonious new middle class (houses are small), members of which did not yet have cars (no space between houses for driveways), whose families were large (bedrooms were small), who did not overindulge in personal hygiene (one bathroom per house), were ambivalent about natural light (few windows), and wore sweaters indoors in winter (minimal insulation). The houses themselves have an unimaginative standard design, show competent if unrefined workmanship, and are adorned with occasional mass-produced touches of elegance – all of which reflect the social class for which they were built.

But that is not us. So far removed are we from Edwardian Toronto that one cannot begin to count the differences. Why then do we want to preserve and inhabit the homes that ‘middle-class’ Edwardians built?

First of all, we do not, really. Owners of these charming old houses knock out walls to create fewer bedrooms (for smaller households), build bathrooms on every floor, increase the size of water-supply pipes, park (multiple) cars on front and back yards, build decks for al fresco dining, punch holes in walls for windows, insulate like mad, re-wire to permit greater electricity consumption, and so on – all of which is permissible because Heritage Conservation District designation, according to provincial law, prohibits the alteration of “any part of the property, other than the interior.” So the truth is that we want our houses to look like, but certainly not to function as, they did a hundred years ago. As a historian who knows and cares about the past this all seems a little dishonest.

Hist Cons 1

A nicely-restored, well-maintained residential Street in the Cabbagetown-Metcalfe HCD, 2002 (City of Toronto – City Planning / Urban Design / Cabbagetown-Metcalfe HCD)

But I would go even further and say that superficial preservation actually distorts history by papering over the austerity and insecurity of early 20th century life with a tableau of present-day comfort and security, and I think this is what irks me most. It is so easy to forget, when strolling along a nicely-preserved, pre-WWI Toronto street, that nearly every original family in those houses would have experienced an infant or childhood death. Admittedly, exterior fronts of houses do reveal something about the period in which they were built – architectural façadism has its defenders – but it is the interiors, blithely gutted and tossed into disposal bins, that really show the values and customs of the time they were built. I also cannot escape the fact that the urban landscapes we seek to preserve are but a single historical moment. Even setting aside the centuries-old presence of Wendat or Ojibwa people in my neighbourhood, which is important but hard to determine, what of the entire 19th century when my neighbourhood was farmland? Why should the construction of a residential suburb in 1910 be the immortalized moment?

Hist Cons 2

Housing in the Lyall Avenue HCD – a distinctive upper-middle class street in East Toronto, early twentieth century. Its large brick houses on large lots stand apart from the much smaller lower-middle class housing around them, and seem more like housing in a small Ontario town than Toronto. (City of Toronto – City Planning / Urban Design / Lyall Avenue HCD)

We are, in truth, a people of smart phones and engineered wood, of automobiles and expanded horizons, of individuals more than of families, of unprecedented affluence and cleanliness, too busy to actually sit on our porches, and whose children would rather play indoors than out – and I see few, if any, signs of us abandoning these newly-acquired customs and values. Is there not something unsettling – especially to a person who knows the past – about our desire to preserve the appearance of another age’s built form, and our reluctance to outwardly express our own? Interestingly, they who made the urban landscapes we now strive to preserve were not so equivocal. They felt no need to shore up and retain the shacks and farmhouses they were supplanting, or to fence off and preserve disused barns in the midst of new residential suburbs. In doing so they left clear evidence of who they were, and we historians benefit from their forthrightness. Perhaps, to take this to its logical end-point, we are showing who we are to future historians – a conflicted people, trying obsessively to preserve a world we have lost as we immerse ourselves in a world we do not trust. But I have never heard that as the rationale for preservation.

Complicating matters further is that, for the most part, preserved neighbourhoods are gentrified neighbourhoods. Looking over the list of Heritage Conservation Districts on the City’s website – which, among other things, reveals how widespread preservationism has become in Toronto – it is clear that tony neighbourhoods led the way. This is not surprising. Preservationism is easier to espouse when one can afford to care more about the authenticity than the cost of brass house numbers or wood mouldings. Preserving the historical features of a house undoubtedly costs more than not preserving them, so preservationism is bound to have a stream of social inequality running through it.

The troublesome manifestation of this is that preserved/gentrified neighbourhoods are showing themselves to be rather unwelcoming to outsiders. This, to my knowledge, has not been empirically studied, but it certainly seems to be so. Perhaps preserved houses turn over less often on account of their owners’ pride of ownership, or perhaps they cost more, or maybe prohibiting the intrusion of multi-unit residential buildings prohibits the entry of newcomers. The only part of Toronto I have observed in detail in this regard is Saint James Town, where preserved South SJT is occupied (at low density) by reasonably affluent gentrifiers – many of them ‘old-stock Canadians’ – while the towers of SJT proper, always held up as what NOT to do in cities, are home to thousands of lower-income renters, many of them immigrants. Surely there is no necessary connection between preservationism and xenophobia, but the similarity of their outcomes cannot be overlooked.

Hist Cons 3

Cottage-style row housing dating from the 1880s on Draper Street, an HCD designated in 1999. The designation keeps new construction at bay, even in a downtown commercial district such as this near King and Spadina. (City of Toronto – City Planning / Urban Design / Draper Street HCD)

Where do these ruminations lead? I, for one, certainly do not want to see the whole city rebuilt with square flat modern structures – if that is indeed the built form that expresses our 21st century urban culture. I enjoy the old city as much as anyone. Moreover, I note that notwithstanding the demand for HCD designations by property owners the City itself is not doling out designations improvidently, and the studies on which designations are based seem very thorough and the recommendations they make perfectly level-headed. Current policies seem not to have put us on the road to ruin, as far as I can see.

Yet I find it unsettling, as both a historian and a citizen, that so much of the city wants to preserve itself – we have, after all, inside-the-walls Paris to remind us what happens when an entire city becomes a protected historical landscape – and I believe that there are reasonable, historically-informed arguments against preservationism. One of the miraculous things about complex ecosystems, cities included, is that the multifarious forces within them, left on their own,  seem capable of finding their own balance. Perhaps we should not worry so much about letting the present express itself.

 

 

 

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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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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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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 »