Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Building Suburbs, Toronto-Style: Land Development Regimes, Institutions, Critical Junctures and Path Dependence

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Building Suburbs, Toronto-Style: Land Development Regimes, Institutions, Critical Junctures and Path Dependence

Article excerpt


The Toronto region has been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan regions in North America for more than 60 years, expanding from a city-region of 1.3 million in 1953 to almost 7 million people today. Research on the growth and planning of Toronto has focused largely on achievements and failures at the regional scale: the ambitious regional plans of the 'golden age' of regional planning of the 1960s, their abandonment in the 1970s, and the alleged urban sprawl of the 1980s and 1990s (Filion, 2000; Bourne, 2001; Frisken, 2007; Solomon, 2007; Sewell, 2009). With its establishment of the first metropolitan government in North America in 1953, at a time of rapid postwar urbanisation and an urgent search for governance and planning models to structure the flood of new suburban development, Toronto is famous for regional planning. This reputation for regional-scale planning was reinforced in recent years with the protection of the Oak Ridges Moraine in 2002, the creation of the world's largest greenbelt in 2005 (see Pond, 2009; Sandberg et al., 2013), and the Province's award-winning Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (Ontario Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal, 2006).

For us, however, the most remarkable characteristic of Toronto planning is not at the regional scale, but at the micro- and meso-scales: planning for neighbourhoods and new communities. At these scales, a fundamental characteristic of Toronto's suburban development has been the creation of a distinctive, robust model of greenfield planning and development, at relatively high densities with a mix of housing types, and a high level of continuity of built form from the 1950s until the 1990s, and (to considerable extent) today. Contrary to the common sprawl narrative, this continuity has produced a compact, relatively high-density pattern of regional growth well serviced by infrastructure with little leapfrog development (Sorensen and Hess, 2007; Hess and Sorensen, 2015 ).

The decade after the Second World War was a crucial period during which the current system of planning of the Toronto region suburbs was created. Ontario institutionalised a planning and development control system that efficiently produced a consistent and relatively high-quality suburban product. Large-scale infrastructure, including arterial roads, water mains, sewers, schools, and parks, were built in huge quantities to allow full servicing of all suburban development, while low-density housing with septic systems for waste water was prohibited near urban areas (Gomme, 1984; White, 2007). The conventional wisdom that this rapid growth was merely 'sprawl' has resulted in a failure to investigate the institutional and policy innovations that helped create a distinctive and enduring planning and land development regime in the Toronto area.

As a result, we know little about the characteristic urban forms of Toronto's suburbs and the institutional structures that produced them. For example, while it is routine to denounce Toronto's suburbs as 'sprawling', the built-up area of the metropolitan region, including lower-density areas on the fringe and very low-density employment areas, constitutes relatively high gross population densities of about 27 people per hectare across the entire built-up region. This is the same density as Stockholm and Copenhagen measured in a similar way, twice that of Chicago, an older, larger city, and five times that of Atlanta, a region with a similar postwar growth trajectory as Toronto (Sorensen and Hess, 2007).

Most important, a radical new suburb-building model emerged, with large-scale coordinated development units negotiated with up to a dozen landowners and developers at a time. This model produced carefully planned and fully serviced neighbourhood units with schools and parks, employment zones, shopping centres, and a hierarchical road system of local, arterial, and limited-access expressways. These were not stereotypical suburbs of single-family detached bungalows, but an ambitious mix of single-detached houses, duplexes, townhouses, and high-rise 'towers in a park'. …

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