I remember coming to Toronto. The year was 2000, and I vividly recall the excitement of moving into our first Canadian apartment. Our new home was a high-rise community just west of the Allen Road, with the houses of Upper Forest Hill—which still strike me as mansions—and the elite public schools that serve them, within easy walking distance. We were on the subway line, with access to an impossibly big underground garage, and an immaculate array of lawns and flower beds meeting the porte-cochere that fronted the ornamental lobby. There was even a pool.

My first home in Canada, image via Google MapsMy first home in Canada, image via Google Maps

A decade earlier, my family lived in New Belgrade, in the heart of a much larger cluster of Le Corbusier-inspired tower-in-the-park buildings. There was no subway, no underground garage, and no such thing as a lobby. Much of the grass was—and is—either overgrown or resigned to dirt, while flowers bloomed in lovely ad hoc private gardens on public land. As for the buildings themselves, streaks of rust lined the cracked concrete, and a handy neighbour would have to be summoned when the elevator stalled, somehow jerry-rigging the thing loose with a screwdriver. 

Mid-block commercial uses in the 'blokovi' neighbourhood in New Belgrade, image Mid-block commercial uses in the 'blokovi' neighbourhood in New Belgrade, image by Stefan Novakovic

Yet, for all the cosmetic niceties of life in Toronto—and the very real benefits of living in a tolerant, diverse, and prosperous Canadian metropolis—there was nowhere to get a cup of coffee. We were lucky to have a supermarket and a corner store down the street, but it was nothing like the farmer's markets, food stalls, cafés, salons, restaurants, pharmacies, and grocery stores that give life to most every New Belgrade block. Years later, it's still common for my visiting parents to stop and chat with neighbours and acquaintances on the street. But amidst Toronto's pristine lawns and open space, there didn't seem to be as many places to play; not for me, and not for the coterie of older Belgrade men that could throw good bocce without removing the cigarettes from their mouths. And we never properly met most of our new neighbours.

The good news is that Toronto's apartment neighbourhoods are poised to become more vibrant, active, and healthy. Adopted by Council in 2014, ratified by the OMB in 2016, new Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning allows for non-residential uses in Toronto's apartment neighbourhoods. It may sound bureaucratic and bland, but the impacts promise to be liberating. According to the City, RAC zoning allows small-scale non-residential uses, such as markets, pop ups, small business, food trucks, classes, and community services "at more than 400 sites that were previously zoned for residential use only."

Stylized drawing showing current state of tower neighbourhoods, image by Daniel Stylized drawing showing current state of tower neighbourhoods, image by Daniel Rotsztain via City of Toronto

It means that neighbourhoods similar to mine—and, more importantly, the significantly more isolated mid-century tower communities throughout North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough—can be animated with new retail and community programming. Along with stores and businesses, the new zoning will allow for clinics, gyms, libraries, community centres, and gardens, to be included at the base of Toronto's older high-rise communities.

The RAC future? image by Daniel Rotsztain, via City of Toronto The RAC future? image by Daniel Rotsztain, via City of Toronto

As it stands, the plots of green space that surround Toronto's tower-in-the-park communities tend to be underutilized. Built for the car, many of our dense, suburban apartment neighbourhoods have become the point of arrival for tens of thousands of new immigrants. Never quite becoming the idealized communities of upwardly mobile young professionals envisioned by mid-century planners, many of Toronto's suburban tower clusters are now occupied by new Canadians, who are significantly less likely to own cars, often making essential goods and services difficult to access.

While my own family was lucky to live in a tower community directly on the Spadina subway, similar tower-in-the park clusters are built with proximity to highway infrastructure, rather than mass transit. Speaking at a recent panel discussion on RAC zoning, the Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders argued that escalating "suburbanization of immigration and poverty" is making the shortcomings of Toronto's suburban tower communities more acutely felt.

North York tower community, image by Marcus Mitanis North York tower community, image by Marcus Mitanis

Saunders added that the lack of "eyes on the street" brought about by a near-vacant street-level hinders public safety—a problem most acutely felt by women. In addition, the inclusion of commercial activity can create new economic opportunities for residents, too many of whom currently face daunting commutes—and the negative effects that come with them—to find employment. 

Besides the declining rates of car ownership, and the growing concentration of poverty in the suburbs, communities where walking to buy groceries or take out a book from the library isn't possible tend to suffer in terms of culture and public health. Joining Saunders at the panel, the City of Toronto's Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, explained that the proximity of community amenities—whether walk-in clinics or public gardens—has "significant impacts on mental and physical health."

Moderating the panel discussion was ERA Architects' Graeme Stewart. As one of the primary architects of the City's Tower Renewal Program, the Jane Jacobs Prize winner has long been one of Toronto's most vocal champions of RAC. Rounding out the varied and multi-disciplinary panel were the City's Costanza Allevato, Director of Community Resources, Social Development, Finance and Administration division; Michael Mizzi, Director of Community Planning, City Planning, along with Jason Thorne, General Manager of Planning and Economic Development, City of Hamilton; Gobal Mailwaganam of CAPREIT; and Ayan Yusuf of the Rexdale Community Health Centre;

Preparing for July 10th's panel discussion, image by Stefan Novakovic Preparing for July 10th's panel discussion, image by Stefan Novakovic

Given the potential of Toronto's underused spaces to provide new retail and public amenities, the liberalization of residential apartment zoning was widely accepted as an initiative to celebrate. Enhanced community safety and economic inclusivity, as well as the potential for improved public health and community-building, make the idea an obvious winner. But to what degree will it actually happen?

It won't be so easy. Saunders warned that the "path dependancy" created by a decades-long precedent of strictly residential zoning may discourage property owners from actively pursuing new uses, and "the hassle that comes with them." Following the panel discussion, a member of the audience warned that the substantial retrofits required for new retail and commercial businesses will be costly, potentially making the goal of starting a local business out of reach for many aspiring entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, the implantation of RAC zoning is likely to be a very positive step forward for Toronto, and the thousands of new Canadians that call its communities of suburban towers home. 

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More information about RAC zoning is available on the City's website, via the Tower Renewal Program portal. A full cop of the RAC bylaw is also available here. Want to share your thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page.