Sitting on the bus approaching Toronto, I kept asking myself one question: how are there so many cranes? Seemingly every few city blocks had another construction site guarded by an imposing crane stretching hundreds of feet into the sky. Having spent the last three years of my life in San Francisco, a booming city in its own right, I thought I was familiar with what growth looked like. It turns out that San Francisco’s crane population was pitifully small compared to Toronto. Three different planning related site visits in Toronto introduced me to what made all the cranes possible, but also left me with more questions than answers.
As the cranes attest, Toronto is in the midst of a 30-year, almost uninterrupted housing boom. During my time in Toronto, I saw old neighborhoods turned fashionable again (the Don Mills neighborhood), discussed government involvement (or non-involvement) in low-income housing projects, and talked with city planners as they designed vertically through the use of mid- and high-rise condominium buildings. The juxtaposition of these visits raised many questions in my mind about the role of design and how it responds to urban growth, especially in a city as large and diverse as Toronto.
The last visit, led by members of the physical planning department from the City of Toronto, highlighted the incredible pace of growth in the city. The 30-block walking tour highlighted almost a dozen new mid-rise (defined by the City as four to eleven stories) condominium and apartment buildings, all quite modern in their design. From a design standpoint, all were impressive and went to great lengths to help maintain neighborhood personality. All of these buildings are backed by large real estate development firms, and all had to sell a certain number of units before construction could begin. Clearly there is a huge demand for housing.
The public housing I saw (known as social housing north of the border), however, shared few design characteristics with the new condos. The social housing in Alexandra Park, for example, could have been plucked straight out most American cities, with elements of Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe sprinkled liberally (but not always cohesively) throughout. While the new condos had the economic backing to support thoughtful design (as well as strong municipal design regulations), the outdated design of social housing seemed grandfathered into the city.
The Don Mills neighborhood, originally designed to provide housing for a range of income levels, provides a compromise between the shiny, new condo buildings and social housing. Located a little less than 10 miles from Toronto’s city center, the neighborhood was built as a “garden suburb” and compares favorably with American versions such as Radburn, New Jersey. However, as the boom has commenced in Toronto, housing prices have shot up, pushing many low-income residents out.
So, new condo buildings get lots of focused design work. Older, well-designed parts of the city have seen their property values shoot upward. Meanwhile, social housing (with perhaps the exception of Regent Park) is stuck with design standards from the 1950s, unable to take advantage of the advances of the last sixty years. Leaving the site visits, I thought and talked a lot about the correlations between design and socioeconomic factors. Mainly, how do we create better-designed low-income housing? Is design important from a social justice standpoint? Must economic demand be the main driving force for the inclusion of high design standards? While improving design won’t fix all the problems present in public housing, perhaps removing one of the many layers of stress that weigh on residents who live there can provide a start.