I'm glad that millions of new citizens will be turning up in the Greater Toronto Area over the next 20 years, all looking for places to live and raise families. But if the further burial of Ontario farmland and forest under suburban sprawl is to be stopped - something I devoutly hope for -these people will have to be offered safe, fresh, comfortable digs within the existing limits of the Toronto mega-city.
That means developing increasingly scarce, marginal land resources. It means putting up more tall residential buildings in the urban core, and also in the low-density "old" suburbs stretching between downtown and Steeles Avenue. Sprawl at the edges can be slowed, but it will take planning sensitively and mindfully for a future in which our neighbourhoods will be considerably more compact (and taller) than they were in the days of low growth and cheap real estate.
Developers are certainly intensifying the inner city's population at a quick clip. I don't like everything I see: Architectural imagination is too often skimpy or absent altogether in the condominium towers, and there's still little about them that can tempt couples to settle down and build lives and families in skyscrapers. But putting my reservations to one side, I believe downtown Toronto is rapidly becoming a zone of attractively high human concentration, with street life and vivid culture to match.
No such transformation is overtaking the "old" suburbs, the ones constructed between the end of the Second World War and around 1975. Out there lie great emptinesses waiting to be filled.
Take, for example, the green space surrounding the modernist residential high-rises thrown up in the 1960s and 1970s. These "towers in the park," as they were called by both optimistic fans and anti-modernist enemies, today often loom over broad, shabby lawns that the landlords have allowed to go to wrack and ruin.
Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of "towers in the park" very much - so much, in fact, that I lived happily and raised a family in a 20-storey one for 18 years. If the grounds and the building itself are well-maintained (as mine always were), there's no reason why an ample apartment nine floors off the ground (as mine was) should be less pleasant to dwell in than any other kind of habitation.
That said, even a well-tended tower bordered by parkland may be a modernist luxury that Toronto can no longer afford, alas! - if we're really serious about halting the outbound lurch of suburbia. So what can be done with those neglected green spaces that dot the territory north, east and west of downtown?
Last week, I came across an interesting answer to this question devised by Sheldon Levitt, a partner in Quadrangle Architects.
The site Mr. Levitt was asked to do something with is in the Toronto's Pleasant View district, near the corner of Sheppard Avenue East and Victoria Park Avenue.
A typical 16-storey residential "tower in the park" went up during the 1960s at this spot deep in post-war suburbia. When built, the rental complex must have seemed (and indeed was) far from the city's centre. It has gotten considerably closer over the years, as improved transit service, shopping and other amenities have reached into the area. (The controversial proposed extension of the Sheppard Avenue subway line would feature a station at Victoria Park, only a few steps away.)
Mr. Levitt's reply to the owners' desire to see the property redeveloped involves the kind of up-to-speed intensification that's needed and possible in many of Toronto's elderly suburban tracts. The existing 1960s building will remain. For a corner of the desolate greensward in which this edifice stands, the architect has crafted a new tower in two parts, one rising 10 storeys, the other 20 storeys, containing 210 rental units. It's on track for completion next year.
By current downtown Toronto standards, the apartments are on the large side: 600 square feet for a one-bedroom suite, 900 square feet for two bedrooms. It's worth noting that the whole building will be heated and cooled by a geothermal system.
While the tower gets good marks for energy efficiency and the unit sizes, it loses points on my scorecard by being stylistically hum-drum.
I appreciate Mr. Levitt's solutions to the urban design problems he faced: The new scheme usefully fills the former wasteland between the old tower and Sheppard Avenue, and its form clearly and strongly defines the street's edge. The project includes some thoughtful repair and rejuvenation of what's left of the parkland. I only wish Mr. Levitt had had the freedom or inclination to put some flair into his tower design, since the building is rising in a part of the city that could definitely stand a big jolt of aesthetic electricity.