Saturday, March 5, 2011

Case Study 3.0: Toronto

Toronto is more personal to me than the previous two case studies as my family lived there for a few years during my early childhood. Admittedly I don't remember any specifics as I was very young but certain memories stick out. Summer holidays, walking to school, my friend's treehouse, yes, but not the city itself, except standing in traffic on the 401 highway for hours. We lived in Scarborough, a nondescript suburb which apparently doesn't have the best reputation nowadays, and trips into the city were rare. I remember the impression that going downtown felt like going to an entirely different city, really quite an ordeal due largely to the traffic. I don't remember downtown itself, but it was quite an adventure to take the ferry across the harbor to the islands, on one of which was an enjoyable amusement park.

I was too young to care about architecture and urban design back then, but I knew something wasn't right. Toronto didn't leave a positive impression on me. If I had to choose one word to describe it, I would use sprawl. It's a huge city, with suburbs and exurbs stretching seemingly in all directions as far as the eye can see. It took hours to drive from one side to the other even without traffic. And there just wasn't any coherence to the city, quite literally an urban jungle. Chinatowns, Greektowns, Indiatowns, Little Italys, dozens of them throughout the city, each independent and not necessarily forming a strong community. I doubt anyone in the early 90's saw themselves as a Torontonian, and there was always the sense that the city was trying to be something it wasn't. The city psyche desired so strongly to be Manhattan, it forgot it was a Canadian city serving Canadians and destroyed much of the past. They got their wish, though. Toronto has more skyscrapers than any other North American city apart from New York. Maybe the city's changed though. I've been hearing a lot about Toronto lately.  Maybe the 15 years since I lived there have worked in Toronto's favor. 

With a metro population of 5.1 million, it's Canada's largest city and economic hub. Toronto is not a particularly old city, first inhabited by European settlers around 1800 on land occupied by Huron tribes. The name of the city comes from the Iroquois word tkaronto, which means "place where trees stand in the water". Irish immigrants and later the construction of the railroad contributed greatly to the city's growth. Like many North American cities, the city experienced significant urban renewal in the 60's and 70's, losing much of its architectural heritage in the process. Historical structures were demolished for uses as mundane as parking. 

Considering the city's history, it's quite remarkable how little historical buildings there are downtown. I would go so far as to say that Toronto has done a poorer job of preserving its architecture than any other North American city I am familiar with. This is in stark contrast to Canada's second largest city, Montreal, which has an abundance of beautiful architecture downtown. Luckily, some historical neighborhoods survived in vicinity of downtown and they form the basis for my case study. 

See the previous post for a selection of historical photos. 

The case study:

3.3  Riverdale
3.4  Rosedale
3.5  Conclusion

Be sure to click on each to view the full case study.

Summaries of the neighborhoods:

The story of this neighborhood is a rags-to-riches tale. Once regarded as one of the poorest slums in Canada, much of it was razed in the 1940's to make way for public housing. In the 1970's however, middle-class bohemians started buying and renovating homes and to this day it remains a quirky downtown enclave. 

These are among the most popular historical neighborhoods just north of downtown. Full of large Victorian homes, for many years the Annex was considered Toronto's most desirable neighborhood before the development of suburbs further north. Close to the university, it has recently regained its place among the best.

The least expensive of my Toronto case studies, Riverdale is separated from downtown by Don Valley. Full of parks and schools and with shopping nearby, Riverdale is popular among young professionals and families. Just north, Greektown is widely cited as having the greatest density of restaurants in North America. 

Full of large detached homes, this is one of Toronto's most affluent neighborhoods, though the homes are rarely over-the-top. Developed at the turn of the century, the character of Rosedale is more suburban than I would usually feature, but Toronto's surviving historical neighborhoods are generally more suburban than those found in other cities.

As before, a final post will showcase a few streets in other neighborhoods throughout Toronto. 


  1. It's not that Scarborough felt like a different city... it was a different city. You did not live in Toronto - up until 1998 Scarborough, North York, etc. were officially different cities altogether.

    Also, Toronto has become one of the most walkable and urban cities in North America over the past 10 years. I invite you to visit the city, stay downtown, and see it for yourself.

  2. Thanks for the comment, RC8. I was not aware Scarborough was not annexed until 1998, thanks for letting me know. Regardless, my family and I made many trips downtown for shopping, entertainment, etc. so I am familiar with "Toronto".

    Downtown Toronto may very well be walkable, and it is certainly urban, no doubt about that, but glass and concrete canyons don't impress me, and they certainly don't make for beautiful streetscapes. The city lost that opportunity when they decided to bulldoze much of their history. Which is why I didn't feature downtown but instead great neighborhoods like Cabbagetown.

  3. I'm sorry, but while a lot was unfortunately torn down, there are tons of heritage-modern mixed areas that have spruced up and given Toronto a really nice and unique feel.

    These are 2 pictures of the 'entertainment district' (King St. West) I took last year, for example:

    Areas like The Beaches, King East and West, Queen West, Yonge North of Bloor, The Junction, St. Lawrence, Most of College, etc. are filled with heritage buildings that aren't only standing there (like in most American cities) but alive with thriving independent businesses and such.

    While it's obviously not comparable to European cities that haven't been compromised to fit in cars, downtown Toronto is as vibrant as cities can get.

    Mind you, I would probably hate 'the city' if I lived in Scarborough and had to drive. But Jersey City is not NY, and the 905 is not Toronto.

  4. Are we having a bit of a semantic debate over the term "downtown" here? Torontonians use the term "downtown" to refer to the central neighborhoods rather than just in and around the CBD. This expanded definition includes Cabbagetown and the Annex.

    The downtown is actually pretty big (3rd largest CBD I believe in N. America) but yeah it's not "grand" like New York and Chicago. Toronto's charm really is its urban neighborhoods. - MF

  5. Downtown Toronto is widely accepted at the DVP to Bathurst, Bloor (maybe Dupont) to the lake.

  6. A little debate never hurts! I'm glad to see Toronto has a lot of passionate residents with a strong sense of civic pride, but I think we can afford to be a little critical at times, though in general I focus on the positive. This blog, after all, is about showcasing examples of good residential streetscapes, places with real character, which to me the downtown lacks, but Cabbagetown and the Annex have plenty of.

    Where I am critical, it's not because I particularly dislike Toronto (I certainly don't "hate" it). On the contrary, it's because I have faith that the city can improve and am optimistic. For starters, when is the Gardiner Expressway going to be buried or eliminated? Lake Ontario is such a wonderful asset to have on your doorstep, but at present it's completely cutoff from the life of the city. The residents of the city deserve to have walking access to the waterfront and should demand it. That's the Toronto I hope to see one day.

    The passion of Toronto residents, evident here in the comments, gives me hope that you'll fight to make the city a better place, a city where the streetscape, not the skyline, takes priority. I wish you luck.

  7. I agree. The lakefront leaves much to be desired. Former mayor David Miller seemed to have some vision there, but yeah lots of work to be done.- MF

  8. The last city that tried to bury it's downtown expressway ended up creating the most expensive construction project in North American history.

    That's why it hasn't been buried yet. Or eliminated (because we haven't figured out an appropriate alternative as of yet).

  9. I assume you're referring to the Big Dig, which indeed was quite a failure as a project, but not because it was inherently difficult, but rather due to bribes, corruption, poor oversight, poor quality and a host of other issues, not to mention it was right in the middle of a busy area, whereas the Gardiner is surrounded by property with a lot of empty space, lawns and parking lots.

    I would also refer you to the Embarcadero in San Francisco, an elevated freeway which once ran alongside the waterfront, much like the Gardiner. After the earthquake damaged it, it was torn down despite fears that this would lead to congestion and who knows what else, but everything turned out fine, in what Jane Jacobs called "traffic evaporation." Get rid of it and they won't come, simple as that, and ignore the traffic engineers and naysayers. The Embarcadero is now a vibrant street and most importantly a reinvigorated waterfront. See this link at the CNU site for more examples, including about the Gardiner: