Seeking to supplement the City of Toronto's ongoing Tower Renewal Program, the City's Planning Department has recommended new guidelines to improve quality of life in Toronto's high-rise communities and foster more responsible development in the future. As part of a five-year review of the City's Official Plan, the Planning Department's Staff Report proposes loosening restrictions on ground-level retail in older high-rise towers, and tightening guidelines regarding the impact of infill projects on the surrounding community. 

Aimed at Toronto's large stock of aging Le Corbusier-inspired "tower in the park" communities, the Tower Renewal Program has been set up to ensure that older high-rises can be cost-effectively retrofitted with energy efficient improvements, bettering quality of life while saving money on energy costs. However, while renovations of the towers have been successfully addressing some of the direct infrastructural problems faced by Toronto's mid-century high-rises, the City is considering new policies aimed at improving socio-economic conditions and encouraging community development.  

A 'tower in the park' community in North York, image by Marcus Mitanis

New guidelines proposed by the City's Planning Department encourage policy changes that would promote more retail and entrepreneurship within Toronto's high-rise communities by further loosening by-laws and zoning restrictions that currently prevent new commercial activity in residential towers. The new recommendations expand on the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning proposal, brought forward in 2014, which advocated for allowing a limited number of small commercial operationssuch as grocery stores, barber shops, and cafesto operate at the base of residential towers currently isolated from such services.

In addition to the RAC proposal, City Planning is now also encouraging fresh food vendors and community gardens to serve communities currently facing limited walking access to fresh food. The proposed changes would see currently unused land utilized for small-scale agriculture, while the social aspects of retail and communal gardening may also encourage stronger community bonds. 

Many "tower in the park" communities in Toronto and throughout the world are built according to architectural principles based on outdated paradigms of urbanism that are largely out of sync with the realities of 21st century life. Zoned and built without retail or significant communal space, the towers initially catered to automobile commuters who sought a green oasis away from the city, embracing a car-oriented lifestyle that geographically displaced commercial and residential activity. However, life in many of these high-rise developments turned out very differently from what the planners and architects of the time envisioned.

Apartment towers at Don Mills and 401, image by Marcus Mitanis

Mid-century high-rise communities saw incomes fall as suburban exodus and cultural changes saw significant demographic shifts among residents, many of whom no longer owned the cars expected to conveniently connect them to the wider city. These factors left many communities socially and economically isolated, two problems that the current proposals are designed to redress. New retail and communal gardens can provide much-needed goods to under-serviced markets, while also helping build more closely knit communities. 

Alongside the aforementioned changes, which would amend the City's Official Plan to provide direct social and economic benefits to high-rise communities, the Planning Department has also recommended somewhat stricter guidelines for new infill developments, in order to ensure that they provide tangible benefits to the existing community.

Another view of towers in North York, image by Marcus Mitanis

In addition to replacing the communal space taken up by new buildings' footprints with new amenities, the report suggests that new infill developments should be mandated to provide new infrastructural benefits—whether in the form of repairs or renovations of current facilities—or expanded amenity space to residents of older buildings. This means that the large-scale capital flowing into new development would be linked to the well-being of the existing community, providing a connection between current residents and the new developments that at times seem alienated from the wider urban context they inhabit. 

As Toronto's mid-century housing stock ages, a commitment to maintain quality of life and strong community bonds is vital to ensuring the well-being of a city at risk of becoming increasingly socially stratified. The current proposals go some way towards ensuring the well-being of Toronto's older high-rises, providing new economic and social opportunities that help create more vibrant communities, and, indeed, a better and more livable city.


Interested in the future of the Tower Renewal Program? The staff report will be discussed by the Planning and Grotwth Management Committee on September 16th at 9:30 AM at City Hall (Committee Room 1). A statutory public meeting will also be held on November 16th. We will keep you updated as more information becomes available.