John Sewell on the Burbs

Discussion in 'Politics (Toronto Issues)' started by AlvinofDiaspar, Feb 3, 2006.

  1. From the Globe, by Dave DeBlanc:

    Sewell still learning after all these years


    Friday, February 3, 2006 Page G4

    John Sewell has worried about urban planning and been fighting his good fight for longer than I've been alive -- and I'm 37 years old.

    As a young law student in 1966, he was asked to attend a meeting concerning an urban renewal scheme that would have seen a little working-class neighbourhood at Queen and Parliament, Trefann Court, bulldozed for a forest of high-rises on par with the newly minted St. James Town.

    It was an old story: On the city's demolition books since the late 1950s, the in-limbo neighbourhood really was becoming a slum since property owners saw any investment as pointless. Assuming the role of Trefann Court's "David," the underpaid yet overachieving Mr. Sewell and his small, determined group took on the city-as-Goliath and ultimately won. The experience was a crash course in city planning and sealed his fate as an activist.

    "And then, of course, my interest just grew and grew and grew," he says.

    "You know, once you look at Regent Park and say 'how did it get there, it's so different than everything that surrounds it' -- that allowed me to get into a whole other bunch of subjects." Thus his fate as an educator -- his most important role -- also was sealed.

    On Monday, Mr. Sewell kicks off the Toronto Society of Architects' inaugural forum at the recently restored Gladstone Hotel. He will give the first of four lectures in a series called "The shape of the Toronto suburbs: Why they are like they are."

    But Mr. Sewell won't be talking about the inner-city suburbs of Etobicoke, North York or Scarborough. Since he dealt with some of that in his The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning (University of Toronto Press, 1993), this time he's speaking about planning (or the lack of it) in "the 905."

    When York University first asked him to speak on the subject this past autumn, Mr. Sewell admits he "knew very, very little about what happened just outside the boundaries of the former Metro Toronto." So he jumped at the chance to learn, and perhaps gather material for another book.

    While inner-city suburbs had the benefit of borrowing against the wealth of the newly formed metro government (1953) to build infrastructure, areas just outside those boundaries did not.

    There, governments were small townships "with virtually no resources" and "often run by the farming community," which had no expertise in land-use planning, he says.

    That left the door open for the provincial government to step in and provide services. The result was that sometimes the townships didn't develop enough land to generate the necessary revenue to pay back the province.

    "It meant that everybody across the province helped pay a subsidy for the 905 areas," Mr. Sewell says.

    This provincial intervention, surprisingly, explains in part how our highway system developed, too. Many of the 400-series roads were on the books as early as the 1930s, even though some didn't get built for 50 more years. That is what Mr. Sewell calls "serious planning," and it forms the basis for his first lecture.

    "What I have not been able to find is a single document which says 'you know, maybe the way we build these roads is going to have some impact on urban form,' " he says.

    He has also uncovered a rejected 1965 proposal by political scientist Thomas J. Plunkett that would have seen the creation of a dual government for the areas west of the metro border -- one that would have encouraged growth along the lake and as far north as Brampton, and another that would have discouraged it in outlying regions. The result of not adopting the model, he says, has been that "development has been allowed to happen everywhere -- 'Hey, King City, you don't want it? You're gonna get it!' "

    All of this is new research for the former mayor, who has been educating others (and himself) from behind a lectern since his radical, no-necktie, rabble-rousing years. While he insists he wasn't totally anti-development back then, he does admit that his wardrobe choices were definitely anti-establishment.

    "What I wore was a defence for me," he recalls. "It allowed me to be who I wanted to be, because I was saying, 'I'm not one of you guys; I'm allowed to do what I want.' "

    He remembers that when he was an alderman, his father asked him to lunch at his club, and he was refused entry. "C'mon, he's a member of city council," said Sewell senior, to which they replied: "We know that; he still has to wear a tie."

    As for the upcoming lecture series, Mr. Sewell hopes it will "spark people into a real interest about other questions about the 905 so that we can get lots of new information.

    "I feel as though I'm just embarking on a subject that hasn't been written about in any great detail."

    The first lecture is entitled "The real story behind the superhighways, 1930 to now," and admission is free, as it is for the others. Reception begins at 6 p.m., Monday, Feb. 6, at the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St. West, and the lecture starts at 7 p.m.

    Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Sunday mornings. Inquiries can be sent to


  2. Citywriter

    Citywriter Guest

  3. Chuck100

    Chuck100 Guest

    I think that Mississauga and Markham have finally woken up. Even today they are by no means perfect, but compared to the rest of their 905 counterparts there's a difference.
  4. spmarshall

    spmarshall Guest

    Anyone going to this tomorrow? I think Sewell is at his best when he is talking to an audience and talking about Toronto's planning past, unlike say his performances at public and council meetings.

    I'm planning to go there almost straight out of work and be there around 6 or 6:15, if only to get a good seat. I plan be on the 501 getting on at Victoria or Yonge around 5:30.
  5. JoeyCuppa

    JoeyCuppa Guest

    I'm going to try and make it.
  6. I'll be there! Joey - it'll be fun to meet you, and SPM, good to see you again! I won't likely get there until 6:30 - 6:45. so save me a seat!
  7. cdl42

    cdl42 Guest

    I'll be there.
  8. spmarshall

    spmarshall Guest

    That was fun. It started out well, with the 501 Queen taking 18 minutes from Yonge to Gladstone, which has to be a record for a weekday around 5:40.

    There was a big crowd, with some familiar faces. Got to ask Steve Munro about what he thought about the new subway cars. His response was quite interesting (mostly about the seating arrangement, which I agree does not need all permeter seating).

    Sewell was, as I thought, at his best, when he's talking about planning history. Not the John Sewell that appears at public or Council meetings.
  9. JoeyCuppa

    JoeyCuppa Guest

    Sorry guys, I missed it. Rough day at work, and I completely forgot and went home. Realized it once I got home but was too zonked to get my butt down to the Gladstone. :)
  10. wyliepoon

    wyliepoon Guest

    I was stuck in the "Burbs" last week with that big snowstorm, so I couldn't make the last lecture. But I plan to make it to tomorrow's lecture.

    Who else is planning on going?
  11. I will be back tonight. Sewers don't sound quite as glamourous as expressways, but I figure I'll learn more tonight.

    Don't get there late - it was packed last week!

    And yes, are you coming SPM, BB, CDL, JCUPPA?

  12. cdl42

    cdl42 Guest

    I'll most likely be there.
  13. Sewer talkin' Sewell will have to go ahead without trash talkin' Babel, alas.
  14. Well, hopefully *next* week Red-Tape talking Sewell with be graced with the presence of Black-tape wearing Building Babel.

    Just a thought...

  15. interchange:

    My baritone friend Gianmarco will be there again. Try and get him signed up for the forum, eh?

    Red tape. More fun than brown sludge. I expect I'll catch that one.

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