Toronto’s growing sky high
By Christian Cotroneo – Toronto Star
From Scarborough in the east to Etobicoke in the west, between the upper fringes of North York and Lake Ontario to the south, the city is officially tapped out.
The new mission? To boldly grow where we’ve already gone before.
In cities around the world, the terms may change – smart cities, New Urbanism, compact cities – but the idea is the same: turn strip malls, parking lots and one- or two-storey buildings into places where ever more people can live, work and play.
Build upward, instead of outward. Cue the condominium.
“Basically all that we’re doing is building condos right now,” Pedersen says. “That’s what the market is saturated with.”
We’re certainly buying that, as highrise condos, even those with expressway vistas, are being bought up in record numbers.
According to the Greater Toronto Home Builders’ Association, 2,397 highrise condos were sold this past June alone – about 44% better than in that month the previous year, and an all-time sales high. It works out to one new highrise unit sold every four minutes in Toronto.
But in the end, Foot observes, we all head to the same close quarters. “You get to your 70s and 80s and you’re more likely to need care – and care then involves coming back to more dense environments and ultimately the nursing home.”
Think of it as the circle of urban life. But a compact city reveals itself in more than age. It also tends to be more diverse, if not economically, at least ethnically.
“A lot of the condos today are really vertical gated communities,” says urban planner and York University professor Gerda Wekerle.
Wekerle has spent much of her career studying high-density issues, namely the mile-high monument to intensification known as the residential highrise, whether it’s condos or apartments.And it’s led her to challenge the idea that if you plunk a condo down somewhere in the city, you can call it a neighbourhood.
Leslie Kern, a York PhD student writing a dissertation on first-time condo buyers, shares those concerns. “There are certain neighbourhoods that are just condos, like the Harbourfront,” she says.
The jury is still out on whether all these freshly minted developments will transform into bona fide neighbourhoods. But some developers, at least, are beginning to look beyond their own walls. When completed, CityPlace will parachute some 18,000 new residents into its 20 highrises, half-dozen low-rises and 100 townhouses along Lake Shore Blvd., from Bathurst to the Rogers Centre.
“They have done a number of things to try and reach out to the outside community as well as those that are living within,” says Vickie Griffiths of Vicbar Marketing, who has been or is currently a consultant for a wide range of developments, from CityPlace to Malibu to Liberty Village.
CityPlace will include an eight-acre park, accessible to the public, as well as a daycare facility that’s open to residents and non-residents.
Ultimately, Toronto isn’t going to get all worked up overnight. Intensification has historically been a series of fits and jerks.
A boom in the 1960s and early ’70s, for instance, saw the rise of St. Jamestown, Flemingdon Park and Yonge and Davisville. Highrises don’t exactly evolve into their current state. St. Jamestown practically fell from the sky in 1968, blasting away scores of single-family dwellings and getting intense all at once. Indeed, the mini-metropolis towering south of Bloor, between Sherbourne and Parliament, remains Canada’s densest area. Some 35,000 souls share the same square kilometre. All the rush to grow upward startled more than a few people.
He notes that the main candidates for intensification are the downtown core, the centres of North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke, and along major arteries, especially northern stretches of Yonge and Bathurst, as well as parts of Bayview, McCowan and Wilson, collectively called the avenues.
“You could argue that it’s meeting some sort of housing need, although if private condos are that expensive, they’re probably not meeting a social housing need or an affordable housing need.”In denser areas, where there is a greater street life, we generally think of those as having greater safety,” says Connie Guberman, a professor at the University of Toronto specializing in urban planning and design for personal safety, “because there’s more people doing things.”
One thing that’s certain here in Toronto: everything we know about the shape of our city is likely to change.
A city of 10 million, for instance, would have more than one big centre, with city planners increasing density around each urban capital.
The city’s official plan, a 110-page publication released in 2002, is already preaching the gospel of polycentrism, dividing Toronto into urban centres – Downtown, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and Yonge-Eglinton.
North York Centre, the plan notes, is focused on three subway stations on its Yonge St. spine. Thanks to ready connections with downtown, the centre boasts a major concentration of office space. Those offices, the plan notes, are expected to grow alongside a “vibrant residential and cultural centre.”
“If they are just mega-apartment buildings, from a transportation perspective, they’re just going to generate flows out in the morning and flows in the evening and may not contribute much to balanced transportation.
“Much of what’s been going on in Toronto for a long time, it’s kind of living off the existing capacity that was put in place quite a while ago.”
Fortunately, compared to other major cities, Toronto is still in the earliest phases of intensity, with plenty of room to chart its trajectory. At present, there are just 2,650 people per square kilometre.
The most important measure is to show that we are a community, says Guberman, that in every pocket or neighbourhood or park or streetscape, there are people who connect with each other.
For highrise dwellers, be it condos or apartment complexes, the message may be simple: come down from the tower.
Guberman recalls a striking example of how a handful of downtown highrise dwellers created community out of nearly nothing at all.
“Often we look at the high-tech solutions or the increased police presence when sometimes it’s really about putting in the effort to create a caring community,” Guberman concludes. “I know that sounds hokey or old-fashioned, but it really is what makes a difference.”
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