In Part 1 of our DenseCity series, we took a look at the current planning framework that governs density in Toronto, exploring where we build and why. While this analysis explains current growth patterns in the city, it is important to understand that the policies in these documents did not materialize out of nothing when they were crafted in the mid-2000s. The planning profession is more often than not reactionary; that is, it builds off of the existing conditions of the city in order to project a preferred path forward into the future. Toronto has a long history of density, the foundations of which have created the city we know and love today.

Density, Toronto, HistoryApartment towers in the east end, image by Lori Whelan.

As we explore the thought and planning behind Toronto’s previous waves of development, it brings into context the issues plaguing the City today, and may present some interesting talking points about where to go from here.

A Density of People: Early Development, 1890-1940

Toronto at the turn of the century was a burgeoning city, experiencing a rapid and aggressive expansion as a booming economy brought new residents flocking to the town in droves. The built form during this time was mainly single- or semi-detached dwellings, with extended commercial strips of tightly-packed rows of storefronts criss-crossing the city. Height was reserved for commercial buildings in the downtown, while walk-up apartments, generally characterized by 3 to 5 storey apartment blocks located along major roads, were popping up outside of the core throughout the later years. Toronto was mostly a low-rise city (by today’s standards), with the myriad of church steeples defining a good part of the skyline—not entirely what comes to mind when speaking of a dense city.

Density, Toronto, HistoryView looking west from City Hall tower in 1911, image via City of Toronto Archives.

What is important to note, however, is that despite the not-so-dense built form, Toronto had a surprising density of people. Many of the detached dwellings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries either hosted multiple families under one roof, or were gradually chopped up into smaller apartment units. Toronto’s notorious slum which was located in the area where City Hall sits today, and colloquially called The Ward, was known for its tiny back alley housing, poor living conditions, and extreme overcrowding. As the wealthy and middle class gradually moved farther and farther from the city centre, their leftover homes—in areas like Parkdale, the Annex, and Cabbagetown—were inhabited by greater and greater numbers of people. Even some of the historic mansions of Rosedale were once used as rooming houses by the mid-20th century.

Density, Toronto, HistoryAerial view of The Ward in 1910, image via the City of Toronto Archives.

This density of people was one of the main factors that fuelled the mass construction of Toronto’s sprawling suburbs. Overcrowding was perceived to go hand-in-hand with unsanitary living conditions, poverty, and poor quality of life. The social stigmas of living in the city’s historic housing stock were inescapable, and when the next population boom hit after the war, the exodus to the suburbs began.

Building Out, Building Up: Density in Post-War Toronto

By the time World War II came to an end, Toronto was bursting at the seams, with development just beginning to creep across its borders. Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York were mostly areas of farmland with a sporadic collection of old villages, summer cottages, and an occasional estate. But this was all about to change.

Density, Toronto, HistoryMap showing history of urban development up to 1958, image via 1960 Metro Toronto Official Plan.

In 1943, the City of Toronto published its first-ever official Master Plan for public viewing, which, despite being rejected by City Council, was the first comprehensive document to envision a future plan for the city, and proposed some influential ideas that carried through to subsequent planning documents. Most notable in the Plan was a proposed network of highways and rapid transit, precursors of the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway, and the reconstruction of “blighted areas” in the inner city, foreshadowing what was to come for Regent Park and Alexandra Park. One remarkable aspect of the plan that is still relevant today was the proposal for a pair of rings of protected green space around the city that created a strictly defined urban area. The inner ring corresponded with the Humber and Don Valleys, recognizing the importance of protecting Toronto’s ravines, while the outer ring began near the current-day city limits and extended to the Oak Ridges Moraine, which forms the basis of today’s Greenbelt.

Density, 1943 Master Plan, TorontoMap of the 1943 Master Plan, image via the City of Toronto 1943 Master Plan.

A decade later, in 1953, Metro Toronto was formed as a governmental body overseeing the planning and municipal issues of the six former municipalities, one of the first of its kind in North America. It published an Official Plan for the metro area in 1960, and while this document was never actually made official by the respective governments, its contents were nevertheless highly influential in planning decisions made across the city. Many of the policies laid out were expansions upon planning policies already in place that had been implemented over the previous two decades, and so are indicative of the approach to density at this time.

There were two aspects to the built form presented in the Metro Plan: on the one hand, it advocated for the suburban typology, building complete neighbourhoods of single-detached dwellings anchored around schools, employment, and shopping malls that provided ample green space and an increased quality of life for families. On the other hand, it advocated for increasing residential densities throughout the entire planning area, including most of the inner city, largely in the form of rental apartment buildings.

Density, Toronto, HistoryNorth York suburbs in 1964, image via the City of Toronto Archives.

As the Metro Plan describes, the push for apartment dwellings was in response to a huge upswing in market demand for this housing typology. Several new anticipated phenomena fuelled this: first, the emergence of “non-family housing” created the need for smaller, more affordable dwelling units, as younger populations were increasingly moving out of their family households to live on their own prior to marrying or starting families. Secondly, there was plenty of “un-doubling” that was taking place, as low-income families that were previously living in shared arrangements were seeking to move into new, affordable rental units, thereby easing the overcrowding of the older city. This was in addition to the huge influx of new residents in the post-war economic boom.

A result of this new demand led to a unique characteristic that defines much of Toronto: our suburban apartment neighbourhoods. Planners advocated for suburban density for several reasons. Many of the inhabitants were projected to be families, and it was seen as desirable to place these complexes closer to green space and away from the clutter of the city, also favouring the tower-in-the-park typology. Including density in the suburbs was further viewed as a way to integrate social diversity, as it was projected that lower-income inhabitants or immigrants would be renting while middle and upper class residents would purchase the nearby detached homes. As well, the density in the farther reaches of the urban area was a way to justify the supply of public transit and infrastructure.

Density, Toronto, HistoryMap illustrating apartments and residential areas in 1958, image via the 1960 Metro Toronto Official Plan.

These apartment neighbourhoods were not just placed anywhere, as the Plan did include brief descriptions of criteria needed to support density. It pushed for proximity to transit, proximity to green space, and adequate infrastructure as prerequisites. As well, there is the first evidence of text to protect Toronto’s neighbourhoods of single-detached dwellings, as it was stated that density should be located so as to minimize its impact on existing residential areas, a precursor of today’s protective Neighbourhood zoning.

Density, Toronto, HistoryView of Thorncliffe Park in the early 1970s, image courtesy of the Tower Renewal Partnership.

Another aspect of post-war planning that deserves mentioning is that of Renewal Areas, better known today as Regeneration Areas. These were typically older portions of the inner city with deteriorating housing stock that were deemed to be of poor quality and in need of rejuvenation. These neighbourhoods were candidates for added density within the city, where older buildings were demolished to make way for new high-rise rental apartments. The Renewal Areas were largely concentrated in a ring around the Downtown Core, encompassing the eastern areas out to the Don, north to Bloor, and the western reaches, stretching almost to High Park.

Density, Toronto, HistoryView of St. James Town, likely in the 1980s, image via City of Toronto Archives.

The implementation of Renewal Areas began with widespread demolition in the 1950s, as seen in places like Regent Park, Moss Park, Alexandra Park, and the former Gerrard Village around Bay and Gerrard Streets. However, the backlash from these projects was swift, and Toronto learned early on from the decimated communities that a revised approach to Regeneration Areas was preferable. Subsequent planning documents advocated for a more piecemeal demolition strategy; maintaining existing properties where possible, and demolishing only when necessary. This explains areas like Parkdale, the Annex, North Downtown, and Yonge-Eglinton, where it is common to find high-rise apartment blocks plunked down in the midst of older structures.

Density, Toronto, HistoryView of Yonge & Eglinton in 1962, image via City of Toronto Archives.

Finally, it should be noted that the 1960 Metro Plan makes first mention of establishing Centres outside of the Downtown Core, identified as growth areas in our current Official Plan. It states that employment should be integrated into suburban areas, and that, “it is considered desirable to supplement the main centre of the [planning area] by several outlying sub-centres, each serving about half a million people…Such secondary centres are most likely to develop at major shopping centre locations and should be surrounded by residential developments of relatively high density”. The Plan laments, however, that these may be difficult to establish given the absence of any existing “historical nuclei or transportation nodes”.

Density, Toronto, HistoryPresent-day view of North York looking west along Sheppard Avenue, image by Jack Landau.

Without explicitly stating it, it appears that even in post-war Toronto, planners were subconsciously wary of the impact of urban sprawl, recognizing the need to constrain development to a defined area, increase densities within that urban area, and protect access to green space in the process. Higher density developments were part of the intent from the beginning, and were indeed encouraged at all levels as a way to manage growth. Planners were well aware of the effects of traffic congestion, from which Toronto was already suffering, and projected the problem to worsen as the city expanded; their solution was denser development and a variation in suburban land uses, combined with a network of highways and rapid transit across the area. Some of their ideas, it appears, are still being implemented to this day.

Density, Toronto, HistoryMap showing projected population density and transportation network, image via 1960 Metro Toronto Official Plan.

Cracks in the System: When Density Began to Go Awry

By the early 1960s, following more than a decade of high-rise apartment buildings, opposition from residents regarding the higher density developments was reaching a fever pitch, prompting Metro Toronto to carry out a sweeping survey of its apartment stock in 1966. The resulting report found that indeed there were problems arising from this typology, but it reached some rather surprising conclusions for which the planners were not to blame.

To begin with, the Study found that municipal governments, recognizing the economic gain that would come from added density, were attracting developers to their cities through incentives that would allow either overdevelopment of sites or the placement of density at inappropriate locations. The competitive deal-making between municipalities was even found to be placing density in direct violation with the policies of the Official Plan.

Density, Toronto, HistoryFlemingdon Park in 1964, image via City of Toronto Archives.

More importantly, however, were issues of land value and market demand. It was generally cheaper for developers to purchase vacant lands to build on from scratch, rather than to purchase and consolidate properties in the inner city with existing structures already on them. As well, designating lands as Renewal Areas immediately increased their speculative land value, making them less desirable for developers to purchase, and inadvertently creating the need for higher density to compensate.

Furthermore, redevelopment within the inner city was disincentivized by the potential investment risks of Renewal Areas. The deteriorated parts of the city earmarked for higher density were home to low-income residents that were most likely to be the tenants of the new developments, promising a disproportionate economic return in exchange for the costs of consolidating and building on expensive properties. They also carried with them the social stigmas of poverty that turned away prospective middle-class renters. Higher density was therefore frequently placed on the fringes of already stable residential neighbourhoods to attract a wealthier tenant base and reduce the investment risk. In turn, local residents of these neighbourhoods became increasingly hostile toward this infringement of density.

Density, Toronto, HistoryView of High Park neighbourhood and Bloor Street in 1978, image courtesy of John Chuckman.

The report also pointed to a tricky chicken-and-egg scenario, where infrastructure upgrades were necessary to allow redevelopment to happen, but the income from the redevelopment was needed to finance the infrastructure improvements. This resulted in many high-density developments constructed without the necessary infrastructure, and even led to a development freeze in certain areas until upgrades were complete.

Finally, the 1966 report on apartment housing identifies a scenario that perhaps might still be relevant today:

"The developer, trying to meet the great demand for his product, has encountered frustrating zoning and other administrative delays, and has had to assume an increasingly greater share of the municipality’s responsibility for providing the public services and facilities required by his developments which the municipality at large cannot readily supply. The architect has been required to reconcile his principles of design and environment with the requirements of a heavily burdened client and in a competitive atmosphere which is frequently incompatible with these principles. The sociologist has had occasion to become increasingly concerned with social behaviour and mental health in the urban society he sees being developed."

Density, Toronto, HistorySt. James Town, image by UrbanToronto Flickr Pool contributor AshtonPal.

The report led to changes in the metro-wide policy on density, but it came near the end of the widespread tower boom and had minimal effect. Following the rise of public resistance to big-government policies, epitomized by the successful campaign led by Jane Jacobs to cancel the Spadina Expressway in 1971, planning policy in Toronto turned from a top-down approach to a more inclusive consultative process, and, combined with an economic downturn, signaled the end of the frenzied post-war development period. Density continued to be built both in the suburbs and the inner city in the later decades, but the torrent pace eased up through the 1980s and 90s, and policy changes led to more gentle density, best characterized by the St. Lawrence District redevelopment, conceived of in the 1970s and constructed through the 80s and 90s, and praised for its mixed-use, mixed-demographic mid-rise approach.

Density, Toronto, HistoryView looking east of the St. Lawrence District between 1980 and 1987, image via City of Toronto Archives.

Is History Repeating Itself?

Flipping through old planning documents, it is interesting to note that in policies regarding the placement of density, not a whole lot has changed. Proximity to transit, green space, employment, community services, and infrastructure are still cited as criteria for density today, along with a mix of social classes and a concentrated mix of uses. The approach to implementing density has shifted according to acceptable practices, but the basic principles behind managing density have remained fairly consistent. 

Density, Toronto, HistoryProposed Land Use Plan from the 1960 Metro Toronto Official Plan.

What this analysis exposes, perhaps, is a gap between the well-meaning intentions of planners, and the actual implementation of their policies. While these policies may sound good in theory, it is ultimately up to politicians and the private industry to translate them into buildings.

Whether or not this gap has been bridged over the past 60 years is up for debate, given that many of the issues faced by post-war planners and developers sound similar to some of the issues surrounding our present-day development boom. Problems with land value dictating the amount of density, market demands affecting distribution of density, and issues of delays and added costs caused by infrastructure improvements may have all resurfaced. Then again, perhaps Toronto has solved some of these issues, as present-day density seems to be rather controlled in its placement and has adhered more or less to the policies of the Official Plan. Only time will tell whether the Toronto of the 2000s managed to solve what the Toronto of the 1950s couldn't foresee; hindsight, they say, is always 20/20.

Density, Toronto, HistoryView of Downtown Toronto skyline, image by Francisco Silva.

In the coming instalments of the DenseCity series, we will be speaking to major players in the development industry, both from the private and public sectors, to gain a more complete understanding of what happens behind the scenes when a development application is tabled, and how their respective views of density are translated from policy into built form. In the meantime, keep checking back on UrbanToronto to get updates on all the developments happening across the city, and get in on the discussions by checking out their respective Forum threads.