The explosive growth of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) over the last 30 years has captivated a generation of Torontonians. Decades of suburban expansion, manifested in cookie-cutter subdivisions and nondescript, parking lot-moated big-box outlet malls, spread like a rash outward from the core of the city, absorbing both agricultural land and small towns in the process. This phenomenon, known as urban sprawl, has been largely mitigated here in recent years by the 2005 creation of the Greenbelt, a vast development-protected swath of land encircling the growing GTA. The enforcement of this no-build zone surrounding Canada’s largest urban centre is widely acknowledged to have fostered the recent high-rise housing boom in Toronto.

Toronto skyline as seen from Centre Island, image by Jack Landau

Urban sprawl has affected cities across the globe wherever automobile ownership has soared, becoming a constant issue in the urban planning community since the mid-20th century. The postwar quest for a pastoral suburban paradise, far from the perceived noise and grime of city living, created a car-oriented culture that changed the way we developed and experienced our urban areas. Now we have run out of adequate space to move and store all of our cars, and it seems that only higher densities and better public transit offer hope for the future of North American cities.

Suburban subdivision under construction in Mississauga, image by Jasonzed

A recently released collaboration between Time Magazine and Google offers great insight on the global effects of urban sprawl, as well as many other issues including climate change, through a comprehensive collection of satellite imagery spanning from 1984 to 2012. Besides the amazing time-lapse images of cities with unprecedented growth such as Dubai, or captivating climatic changes like melting glaciers, one of the options caught my eye, and thus created the spark for this article. If you have by chance already loaded the link posted above, click “Explore the World” on the bottom right to check out locations across the globe. Now just enter a location, any location! Before you start typing T-O-R… however, you might want to check out the video posted below. The clip is a timeline of the individual frames spanning from 1984 to 2012 of the Toronto region, playing them at a decreased speed to get a better feel of the immense growth our city has experienced in the last 30 years.


While that covers the GTA as a whole, you are able to zoom in a bit closer by visiting the Google/Time link, and get a better look at specific areas of the city. While the changes to the region are more apparent from the wider angle, it is always interesting to zoom in and see landmark megaprojects appear in the blink of an eye. Take a closer look and you will notice major structures like SkyDome, and arteries like Highway 407 appear on the map where there was nothing but dirt the year before. Look even closer and you will notice the progressing growth and infilling of the Outer Harbour East Headland, more commonly known as the Leslie Street Spit. 

High-rise residential towers overtaking the Toronto skyline, image by Jack Landau

As was mentioned earlier in the article, the development protected zone surrounding the city, known as the Greenbelt, has seemingly put a halt to the decades-long advance of suburban expansion.  By 2006, the effects of the Greenbelt are clearly visible through timelapse satellite imagery, causing a development shift back in towards the city proper, a shift that has seen the recent completion of several downtown landmarks with several more to come.