Thursday, June 9, 2011

Case Study 3.5: Conclusion

This post concludes my look at Toronto, the powerhouse of Canada and home to many global firms. The city is really something of a mixed bag. The downtown is high-rises, dozens and dozens of nondescript high-rises with very little architectural interest. As the city expands, more of the population than ever is choosing to live in condo towers downtown or on the waterfront, perhaps filled with dreams of Manhattan. This also follows a general trend in North America of a renewed appreciation for downtown living, especially among young professionals. You may have read recently, as an example, that the Swiss bank UBS may move its US HQ back to Manhattan after being in the Connecticut suburbs for many years, a decision borne as a result of potential recruits not interested in their current location. Good news indeed. In Toronto, however, I'm afraid the popularity of these plain or plain ugly condo towers will only serve to destroy the skyline for many years to come. I'm far more interested in the historical neighborhoods that have managed to survive urban renewal efforts over the past hundred years. 

Toronto's neighborhoods are hit and miss, with many fine homes, but also quite a few that could do with some maintenance. Cabbagetown is quite good in this regard, perhaps because the neighborhood association helps fund renovation work for less well-off residents. The Annex, despite its reputation as relatively affluent, has a surprising amount of homes in need of work, and many just need some proper gardening to really come alive. Like many affluent neighborhoods in North American cities, Rosedale isn't in need of better maintained homes, but it is often quite boring, with roads that are far too wide, front lawns too large, and too much plain grass. I want to see trees, bushes, and flowers, not grass, that hallmark of the suburbs. When did it become an edict that affluent neighborhoods must not have too much greenery? Do the wealthy not like bushes, or maybe it serves to better show off one's home?

Some of Toronto's other neighborhoods worth highlighting:

Upper Jarvis, directly east of downtown, a small pocket of just a few residential streets.

Summerhill, tucked in between the more affluent neighborhoods of Rosedale, Case Loma, and Forest Hill. The first image below, Belmont Street, is famous as having started the preservation movement downtown, when developers realized they could be profitably sold. Much of the neighborhood is more traditional turn-of-the-century bay-and-gable homes typical of Toronto.

Bloor-Yorkville, mainly a commercial area, but I found this charming street. 

Harbord Village, once called the South Annex, is a mixed income area, with a great deal of contrast between the nicer and not so nice homes. Like the Annex, it's popular with students from the nearby university. With a little work, it could be a desirable neighborhood, and in parts it already almost looks like Cabbagetown. 

Dufferin Grove is noticeable for being one of the greener neighborhoods in the area west of downtown. Known as a working class area, it has some nice streetscapes here and there.  

High Park is Toronto's largest park, several miles west from downtown. Quite green, it's a comfortably middle-class area with many homes from the early 20th century. It's a shame the connections to the lake and park are divided by busy roads but within the neighborhood is quiet. 

Arguably one of the most unique ways to live in urban North America, the homes on Toronto Islands have a very long waiting list. The city once tried to demolish them all but luckily residents fought back and today there are over 260 homes on Ward's and Algonquin Islands. There's one school among them and the only way to get to the city is by boat. Pretty cool. Unfortunately no street view, but here's an article about the ordeal of getting a house there, with some photos. 

For my money, Cabbagetown is still tops in Toronto. I'm really rather confused it's not among the most affluent neighborhoods in the city (Rosedale, Forest Hill, Bridle Path, Casa Loma, Moore Park, Lawrence Park). In the housing stakes, bigger is better I suppose, especially among those with money. 

Toronto residents fought many battles in the 60's and 70's to save their neighborhoods from urban renewal, and we can be very thankful they won many of them. A lot was lost, however, especially in the downtown area, where many of the city's finest homes once stood. Generally speaking, the oldest surviving homes are from the late 19th century, which may sound old but the city is much older than that. I dearly wish more rowhomes had survived from the early 19th century, but the Great Fire of 1904 and urban renewal saw to that. 

I think Toronto has much more work to do to ensure a sustainable future. Certainly the growth of high-rises should be reevaluated, public transport expanded, and highways buried underground to make way for lakeside promenades. Toronto at present is not the kind of city apt to win any quality of life surveys, except flawed ones like The Economist's. The present pro-car mayor isn't helping matters. Not enough history has survived in the city so citizens will have to show some ingenuity to right the wrongs of the past. In short, Toronto was a city of contrasts when my family lived there and a city of contrasts it remains. Best of luck to them. 

I think it's back to the US next time. I'm leaning towards Boston.