Soccer in the condo hallway, a stroller in the bathtub, and a public school two neighbourhoods away. For some Downtown Toronto families, this is part of everyday life. Although life in the urban core has plenty to offer young families, most of Toronto's new high-rise communities weren't designed with children top of mind. Now, as the development boom and its residents mature, the City of Toronto is creating new planning guidelines to ensure that high-density communities better meet the needs of children.

Already a year in the making, the Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities initiative provides new guidelines to promote more youth-friendly development. The newly released Growing Up draft plan lays out the City's priorities, with policies addressing urban wellbeing at three scales: the neighbourhood, the building, and the unit. 

CityPlace, King West, and a future park? Image by Edward Skira

At the neighbourhood scale, the City is working to promote a strong network of parks and green spaces, as well as schools and community facilities. As it stands, Toronto's Downtown core suffers from a drastic shortage of public parkland—compared to other parts of the city—with sharp population increases making the dearth of open space more acutely felt. 

The guidelines call for a diversity of park types, providing everything from play areas—which should be "non-prescriptively" programmed to promote imaginative play—to spaces that function as outdoor living rooms and dog amenities. Adding more detail to the policies in the City's Official Plan, the guidelines lay out specific criteria for park design, providing frameworks for issues such as park layout, age-appropriate playground programming, and material finishes.

The City's vision for a complete community, click for a closer view, image via City of Toronto

A similarly fine-grained approach is applied to schools, child-care facilities, and streetscapes. The guidelines encourage "opportunities to co-locate schools, parks and child care facilities as well as other community services," with educational and community hubs set to be flexibly programmed and located close to transit. Streetscape policies also call for ample "eyes on the street," made possible by fine-grained retail and unobstructed storefronts, with Section 37 funds geared towards "community-based groups and not-for-profits, such as food co-ops," to further stimulate a safe and engaging street-level experience. 

Expanding the unadventurous aesthetic standards that characterize too much of Toronto's recent built form, the guidelines also promote the introduction of "whimsical elements" in architecture and urban design. "Whimsical forms can become wayfinding elements and help orient children by creating a sense of place, inclusivity and a feeling of belonging," the study argues, citing Paris' Giraffe Child Care Centre as a prominent design example. Furthermore, the promotion of ecological literacy and civic engagement is also identified as an urban design priority.

Toronto's new Berczy Park is one of our few places of whimsy, image by Craig White

Moving to individual buildings, the guidelines encourage "a critical mass of large units," which provide much-needed family housing stock, while serving to "enrich the social life of the building by fostering community and social interactions." Large units should mostly be concentrated at the lower levels of new buildings, ensuring easy access to the outdoors while facilitating informal supervision and reducing elevator dependancy.

The guidelines build on the City's existing planning policies, which already call for 10% of units in major residential developments to be (at least) three-bedroom suites. A 15% target for two-bedroom units is now also outlined, while new regulations would require residential amenity spaces to feature more significant child-friendly programming. 

Ideal programming for a high-rise, image via City of Toronto

As the illustration above shows, the City's embrace of more family-oriented housing and 'whimsical' design does not entail a move away from the 'podium and point tower' typologies that characterizes so many of Toronto's new high-rises.

Ideal mid-rise and high-rise programs, image via City of Toronto

Designed badly, bulky podium structures can hamper pedestrian permeability, also providing too little opportunity for fine-grained retail. However, through greater use of C-shaped and L-shaped podia, the City hopes to create more intimate green spaces to benefit families, preserving a sense of human scale, while putting eyes on the street. Many of these mid-block POPS would also provide additional pedestrian connectivity, in the hope of creating more fine-grained urban blocks. 

Public space configuration, image via City of Toronto

Finally, the design of individual units tackles child-friendly urbanism at a more intimate scale. "Any unit larger than one bedroom should be thoughtfully designed to accommodate children," the study concludes. To meet the needs of children and families, suites should be considerably larger than the new homes now entering the market. For two- and three-bedroom suites, the plans identify optimal unit sizes of approximately 90 m² (969 ft²) and 106 m² (1,140 m²) respectively.

Compared to market standards—which are now thankfully beginning to trend towards slightly larger homes—the layouts of these child-friendly homes seem decidedly generous. Although spacious compared to many of Toronto's new-build condominiums (which include three-bedroom units under 900 ft²), the general standard is "based on the sum of unit elements" necessary for households with children.

For starters, there should be a place to put the stroller other than the bathtub, with larger unit entries mandated, providing additional storage. Ensuite laundry facilities are championed as an important quality of life feature, while spacious kitchens—ideally with windows overlooking the POPS play areas beneath—are also prioritized.

Although many of the existing balconies and terraces that adorn Toronto high-rises are relatively seldom used, the guidelines push for private outdoor spaces to be included with larger units. To better integrate balconies and terrace into homes, the guidelines call for spacious outdoor areas that "extend the living space," with configurations that allow the balcony/terrace to effectively slide into the living room in warm weather.  

Ideal units, image via City of Toronto

For sleeping spaces, the goal is to avoid the cramped de facto den spaces that sometimes manage to be legally classified as bedrooms. A 11 m² standard bedroom size—excluding closet—is outlined, with a minimum room size of 8 m² mandated for smaller units. Operable windows are also identified as a key feature, with full-height closets, and desk space, also encouraged.

A unit adapted three ways, image via City of Toronto

According to the guidelines, suites should also be "adaptable and allow for layout change over time." To that end, movable walls and foldable furniture are touted as design solutions to create more flexible spaces. Seen above, a 106 m² is configured as a one-, two-, or three-bedroom living space. 

Given the wide range of possible design solutions, however, the optimized suite size standards recognize "flexibility in how designers can arrange unit elements, resulting in a variety of unit sizes, depending on the layout and efficiency of the connecting spaces such as corridors."


The City's Growing Up draft plan was created in partnership with a consulting team consisting of Urban Strategies, MBTW Group, Hariri Pontarini Architects, Jane Farrow, and Jeanhy Shim. In the coming months, the City will continue to refine and finalize the plans, with "a draft handbook detailing the guidelines and performance standards and policy directions to encourage family-friendly housing, neighbourhood programs and amenities," set to be published in the Fall.

We will keep you updated, with a more in-depth look at the urban design plans coming next week. In the meantime, you can learn more about Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities, via the City of Toronto's official website, with a full copy of the draft plan also available here. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment on the space below this page.