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urban planning

Towering ambitions

The apartment neighbourhoods of the mid-20th century house millions of Canadians – but their outdated planning stands in the way of street life and economic opportunity. Advocates and planners are trying to change that, Alex Bozikovic reports

In many neighbourhoods, permanent retail is forbidden by zoning; advocates see temporary markets, like this one in the Thorncliffe Park area of Toronto, as an incremental way of allowing entrepreneurship and commerce.

What sort of city do you want to live in? One full of people, activity and opportunity? "The dream is, you have an area where it's vibrant and something's going on," says Ayan Yusuf. "The space comes to life."

Many of those with whom Yusuf works as a community organizer in northwest Toronto aren't so lucky. They live in apartment towers: Modernist high-rises surrounded by parking lots and driveways and empty lawns. They live on blocks where there's nowhere to buy groceries, to open a shop or even to meet your neighbours. This, for nearly a million people in the Greater Toronto Area, is reality – life in the city without city life.

That may be about to change. Advocates and planners are working on "tower renewal": rethinking, rezoning and rebuilding these relics. But how do you take tower neighbourhoods into the 21st century?

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In part, by getting rid of some rules. A few weeks ago, a group of advocates, including Yusuf, gathered at York University to discuss a new zoning category in Toronto. "It's not often that people get excited about zoning," a woman in the crowd joked, but the audience – community advocates, city planners and landlords – were deeply engaged. "We need to go beyond a place where people just live," Yusuf told me, "to actual communities that are vibrant."

That challenge is important in Toronto, and to some extent in Vancouver and Montreal, which have many aging apartments – as do Hamilton, London, Ont., and many smaller cities in Canada, all of which were affected by federal policy to stimulate new housing in the 1960s and '70s.

Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning is a large and bold effort by the City of Toronto's planning department, the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal, the United Way and others to address the problems of these neighbourhoods wholesale. It addresses 500 buildings across the city and loosens up the restrictions on those sites, making restaurants, artists' studios, daycares or office space legal. The idea is that the spaces between the towers, which belong to no one in particular, will no longer be vacant and arid.

"RAC zoning is one way that we can help to change the uses and the look of those spaces," says Aderonke Akande, project manager of the Tower and Neighbourhood Revitalization unit at City of Toronto, "so that it's easier to connect with the community. Why would you hang out on the first floor when there aren't things do there?

"Let's bring in city services or other community services. Let's bring a store on site so you don't have to figure out how to cross six lanes of traffic with a toddler in a stroller to go get milk."

Toronto’s new RAC zoning category, by loosening up the rules on tower neighbourhoods, aims to advance social integration and economic development.

The strange separation of home and grocery store is the product of planning dogma. When such places were built, between the late 1950s and the late 1970s, zoning rules placed residences as separate from commercial and industrial. The early residents of these buildings were largely middle class, and many had cars to drive long distances to work.

That changed. As the buildings aged, they became more affordable – and as immigration shifted to the suburbs, new Canadians settled here. They found decent housing – but, as The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders has written, too often they don't find the opportunities for entrepreneurship, property ownership and community that helped integrate previous generations of immigrants.

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"These neighbourhoods have been trapped for years – boxed in by redundant policies which were isolating residents and limiting economic and social life," architect Graeme Stewart of the firm ERA Architects explains. He has been working on this file for a decade, starting with a student project and continuing through professional consulting and advocacy with the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal (CUG+R), a non-profit research group.

The RAC zone is "a milestone," he says. "Policy is finally catching up with the vision we've had for our city since Jane Jacobs arrived."

The writer Jane Jacobs articulated her vision of cities directly in opposition to the sort of large-scale, top-down, car-oriented planning that created tower neighbourhoods. And here, she was proven right: The zoning and spread-out siting of these buildings simply don't generate the street life of older, walkable, largely unplanned cities.

But how do you create Jacobs's sidewalk ballet in an area master-planned for cars?

The RAC model imagines temporary commerce – such as farmers markets – and small retail that could occupy ground-level spaces in some of these buildings. Residents could open boutiques where they live, just as their predecessors did in Montreal's Mile End or Toronto's Kensington Market. The RAC zoning is now in force; Toronto planners and non-profit allies are now trying to use the new freedoms and create street life.

Apartment towers such as this one at 190 Exbury Rd. in Toronto are surrounded by parking lots, driveways and empty lawns; they are high-rises in which residents live in the city but without the perks of city life.

However, it's not entirely clear how the architecture of these neighbourhoods will change. If you add street life and small business to big, spread-out buildings, what will that look like? To look at that challenge, I recently went with Michael Piper, an architect, urban designer and academic, to visit a string of 1970s tower blocks half an hour away in Mississauga, Ont. Piper has been studying the architecture of tower clusters together with his students at the University of Toronto's Daniels Faculty of Architecture.

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We parked my car in the lot of one 28-storey white-brick tower to check out the commercial offerings – a hair salon, a convenience store – which seemed to be doing fine; in Mississauga, unlike in Toronto, they're allowed by city bylaws. Nearby, a flying-saucer-shaped medical building perched between driveways and bent pines. It was nobody's idea of a shopping paradise, but it seemed to work. "This is the sort of precedent we need to be looking towards," Piper said.

But when we tried to visit the building next door, there was no walkway – and the driveways, just a stone's throw apart, didn't connect either. This sort of dysfunctional site planning is typical. "While these buildings, in their design … aspire to have a big public space that's open to everyone, these sites are chopped up into small pieces," Piper explained. Combining driveways and parking lots makes a lot of sense, but good luck bringing together different landlords or condo boards to make it happen.

In this context, Piper suggests that there are no obvious solutions. Today's post-Jane Jacobs planning orthodoxy would place buildings up against the road to create a "street wall" of shop fronts and doors. But given low population density, and nobody much on foot, would the shops survive? "These sites are very resistant to the current formulas," he said. "Rather than resort to the city-centre type of urban form, we should seek to create liveable spaces that suit the people who live there rather than enforce an outside vision on them."

That's just what Toronto's RAC zoning aims to do, and Piper argues that "it presents an opportunity for creating a new kind of city." It will be messy. Its evolution will be slow. But, with luck and humility from the planners, it will come to life.

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