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Tower renewal

Before I went to bed last night, I stumbled upon this Globe and Mail article talking about Toronto’s Tower Renewal programHere’s a snippet:

“In the postwar period, Canadian cities, particularly Toronto, grew differently from those in the United States, following a European-style model of regional planning. Regional governments insisted on building suburbs that were dense and housed people of all income levels. Apartment towers helped balance out the pricier single-family houses that middle-class people preferred – and a generation of new Canadians, and those migrating from rural Canada, arrived to fill those apartments. It was good planning on a massive scale, in line with the market.”

If you know Toronto’s urban landscape, you’ll know that this is true. The city is dotted with suburban tower clusters, many of which were built in the 60s and 70s during our last high rise boom. But these towers have now aged and the Corbusier style “tower in the park” planning ideology has proven to be a failure.

The Tower Renewal program is designed to not only retrofit those buildings, but also reposition how those buildings fit in with the larger urban fabric. In most cases, that’ll mean adding more density to the site and activating the street level through retail and other uses.

It’s absolutely the right move. I think that suburban intensification is something we’re going to have to do all across the board to correct some of the planning mistakes we’ve made in the past and to make our cities more livable.

But the real question in my mind is whether we can transform the way people think about high rise living.

If you take a look at the snippet I included above, what is basically being said is that we built towers for poor people and immigrants coming to Canada. We slapped a “park” on the end of the neighbourhood’s name (Regent Park, Flemingdon Park, Thorncliffe Park, etc.) and thought we had created something really quite nice.

Some neighbourhoods, such as St. James Town, were initially intended to attract young and hip urbanites. But was it ever really the King West of its day? The middle class preferred single family houses and that’s where they went, leaving the tower communities to those who had no other choice.

Today, many of these tower communities represent one of Toronto’s 13 “priority neighbourhoods.” These are neighbourhoods considered to be in social and economic need. Given this outcome, there’s no shortage of people comparing our new high rise communities, such as CityPlace, to older ones such as St. James Town. Is history repeating itself?

But I think things are a bit different this time around. We’re building more condos than rental apartments and we know that housing tenure can matter. There’s been a return to cities. People genuinely like living in walkable communities close to amenities. The region is becoming increasingly harder to navigate by car. And the price of single family homes is no longer within the reach of many middle class families.

What all this mean is that I think Toronto is in the early stages of transitioning to a city where more and more people actually live and raise families in multi-family dwellings. I disagree with the notion that we’re already there, because even though we have lots of high rises, they’re often viewed as a stepping stone towards a more desirable form of housing.

The true test will be when this generation of condo dwellers grows up and decides to have a family. Will they stay put or once again search out the seemingly necessary single family home?

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