Historical Perspectives on Toronto Planning

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

Tag: urban landscapes

Of Robert Burley’s Photographs, Park Planning, and Wilderness Degraded

It has been nearly a year since I first saw Robert Burley’s magnificent photographs of Toronto’s ravine parks at the Aird Gallery, part of the Contact Photography Festival in May 2017. Burley somehow manages, through the compositional magic that gifted photographers all possess, to turn plain, everyday reality – roads, trees, people – into images of transcendent beauty. I have been loosely following his work for over thirty years, and it is always excellent, but this series struck me as particularly outstanding. There is a hard-cover book accompanying the project as well, An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands – a fine work on its own, with excellent reproductions of the photographs and several short pieces of writing by Toronto authors who have some connection to the parklands.

Robert Burley, “Humber Marshes at the mouth of the Humber River, 2016”

Like many Torontonians, I know these ravines as an occasional walker of their paths. But I know them also as a planning historian. And these ravine parks are unmistakably the product of planning, having been conceived by Metropolitan Toronto planners in the 1950s as the city expanded out into its rural hinterland. Their planning pedigree has long been obscured by the ineradicable urban myth (thankfully, not repeated by Wayne Reeves in his essay in the book) that they exist on account of Hurricane Hazel, the storm that inundated the Toronto region with nearly a foot of rain over two days in October 1954, to devastating effect. The storm certainly expedited implementation of the parks plan. It prompted the local conservation authority to purchase much of the region’s flood-prone ravine land, forestalling any future development of it, and then to put most of this land – at least that which lay within the boundaries of Metropolitan Toronto – into the hands of the Parks Department for development into public parks. But the idea of ravines as public open space pre-dated Hazel.

The idea of using the city’s inner ravines as a public greenbelt, first formally proposed in a 1943 city plan, was picked up and promoted in the early 1950s by the the Humber and Don River Conservation Authorities. (From a 1953 report, Toronto Public Library)

The planners’ vision was to develop these lands into a rather novel type of recreational space they labelled ‘metropolitan parks’ – larger than city parks but smaller than provincial parks. They would be like city parks in that they would be within the urban area, adjacent to residential neighbourhoods, and be served by public transit. But they would be unlike city parks in that they would be left in a natural state, with wilderness trails and natural picnic areas but minimal landscaping, no significant built structures, no playgrounds, and no playing fields for active games. Since they were meant to attract visitors from a fairly wide area, they would have ample parking lots, which most existing city parks, having been laid out several generations earlier, did not have.

Aerial Photograph of Edwards Gardens, Wilket Creek Ravine, c.1957. Metropolitan Toronto purchased this landscaped garden from the private owners who had created it, and subsequently expanded it into a large public facility. (City of Toronto Archives)

Maybe this vision was fanciful from the start – can city and non-city reside is such proximity? – or perhaps it worked at first but no longer does, the ravines having been debased by decades of human endeavour around them. But the truth is that Toronto ravines are not wilderness. One cannot literally get lost in them, at least not for long – notwithstanding Mr Burley’s charming anecdote in his introduction – for one need only look up and see the viaduct to get one’s bearings. That is not to say they lack value as public space. Their distinctive semi-natural quality – not entirely inappropriate for an urban park – gives them plenty of charm and appeal.

It is also an essential ingredient of Burley’s photographs, many of which contain a subtle tension between the natural and non-natural; subtle because in Burley’s non-judgmental, humanistic hands the tension is touching rather than critical or ironic, but unmistakably present nonetheless. “Lower Don River” shows us not just a silent swollen river but six lanes of noisy speeding traffic alongside it. Paging through the book – the title of which is Enduring Wilderness – one sees towering bridge piers in “Couple, Humber River, Lambton Park”, imposing electrical poles and lines in “Footpath, Lower Don Parklands”, and massive highway infrastructure in “Fishing Beneath the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, Rouge Park”. There are the overwhelming “Rail and Traffic Bridges, Humber River”, the feral, non-native “Catalpa Tree, Sunnydene Park”, and the degraded “Cormorant nesting area, Tommy Thomson Park”. And then there are the high-rise buildings, some front and centre and some in the hazy distance, in what seems to be every second image

Robert Burley, “Scarlett Mills Park, 2015”

There is, admittedly, plenty of pure nature in his images, from the simple, elegant “View of Lake Ontario from Cudia Park” to the rich, complex “Black Locust among Sumacs, Sylvan Park”. But those of us who have stood in locations such as these might recall, if we cast our thoughts back, the exposed culvert of an altered watercourse just out of view, the rumbling traffic on a bridge overhead, or the faint but pervasive odour of a not-too-distant sewage plant. This is an in-between landscape, somewhere between pristine and disfigured, perhaps even, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson portrays it in “Life By Water”, a landscape of nature degraded, a tamed, almost lifeless wilderness.

What then of the special, almost spiritual significance they are supposed to have in Toronto life? In the oft-repeated words of Robert Fulford “the ravines are to Toronto what canals are to Venice and hills are to San Francisco”. This has always struck me as a bizarre, rather boosterish claim that is hard to take seriously. Do tourists come to visit the Vale of Avoca? Has Morningside Park been the foundation for centuries of commerce and industry? In her book Imagining Toronto Amy Lavender Harris does show that, over the years, writers of Toronto-set fiction have used ravines as metaphors for mystery, danger, or escape – interesting, and understandable, since they are a distinctive feature of Toronto’s physical geography. But whether this makes them, citing Fulford again, “the heart of the city’s emotional geography” is another matter.

Do Torontonians love and flock to them? Not that I can see. In my neighourhood’s local ravine on a pleasant Sunday morning I might pass in total a dozen walkers, nearly all of them with dogs, but none of my immediate neighbours ever seem to walk there and none has ever spoken of it. I cannot imagine any of them making a deliberate excursion to a larger ravine park, as the planners of the 1950s imagined we would do. And whenever I do I usually find the parking lots barely half-occupied and the nature trails lightly used. Burley’s compositions often include people – walkers and runners, paddlers and fishers, stone-skippers and beach-combers – but mostly in threes and fours. As the heart and soul of a city of nearly three million, Toronto’s ravine parks, all told, are curiously under-populated.

Robert Burley, “Williamson Park Ravine”, 2016

Contrast this with conventional surface parks – think chock-full Trinity Bellwoods on a summer day – and reflect on the fact that the City, facing a shortage of inner-city parkland, is seriously considering spending nearly $2 billion to build a new park on a huge deck atop the lakefront rail corridor. All the while the ravine parks remain little used. As much as I enjoy the ravines’ curious in-between landscape, and as much as I swoon over Robert Burley’s photographs of it, I wonder if these ravine parks are truly serving the public. I begin to think that the planners’ notion of ravines as natural, un-developed, un-landscaped public open spaces woven into the urban fabric, appealing as it was in the parsimonious 1950s and sacred though it may be in the environmentalist present, has not aged well. And then my mind fills with heretical thoughts: some public authority taking inspiration from the fearlessly interventionist landscape designers of the mid-nineteenth century (think Olmsted’s splendid Delaware Park in Buffalo), admitting the truth about the impact of human activity on these ravines, and bringing in landscape designers and bulldozers to create beautiful public spaces that the public can and will use and enjoy.


Robert Burley is represented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. He introduces this project on his website at http://robertburley.com/an-enduring-wilderness/. The accompanying book is published by ECW Press, 2017. The Wayne Reeves essay in it is “Imagining, Creating, and Sustaining Toronto’s Natural Parklands, A Short History”, 221-29; Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Life by Water”, is 102-03. The plan for metropolitan parks was never released as a stand-alone report, and exists only in the Metropolitan Toronto Council Minutes (Report 1 of the Planning and Parks Committee, 21 February 1956); its main elements appear in Chapter XI of the Metro Planning Board’s “Official Plan of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Area” (1959). Amy Lavender Harris’s book is Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010). The Buffalo Olmsted  Parks Conservancy maintains information on Delaware Park at https://www.bfloparks.org/parks/delaware-park/



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.




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 »