Long before shovels touch the ground and communities take shape, the marketing machine for new Toronto condominiums—and increasingly, rentals—renders lobbies of lounging young professionals, coffees or cocktails shared over a pristine kitchen island, and some iteration of a swimwear terrace scene. Then there's the tastefully appointed model suites, which invite you to picture yourself in a streamlined new home in the sky. "But where are you going to put your shoes when you come in?" the City of Toronto's Ann-Marie Nasr asks. "Or the stroller?"
They're simple, elementary questions, but ones that too often become pressing only after residents have moved in. For households with children, the livability of high-rise suites becomes an especially acute concern, as residents find themselves struggling to adapt their living spaces to meet the needs of families. Developed by the City of Toronto in collaboration with planners Urban Strategies Inc. and a consulting team of industry experts, the Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities initiative—recently introduced on UrbanToronto—attempts to set out a blueprint for improving the quality of life in Toronto's high-rise communities.
So what does that entail for the planning process, and how did these design guidelines take shape? To get a better grasp of the draft plan and its genesis, I spoke to two of its authors: Nasr, City Planning's Manager of Strategic Initiatives, and Urban Strategies' Emily Reisman.
"In the last four or five years, we've really started to focus more on lived experience as a basis of planning policy," says Nasr, explaining that much of the City's impetus to create new guidelines draw on "listening directly to what people had to say." Sparked by feedback from condo consultations—part of a Living in the City survey conducted after the 2011 census—the impetus to draft the new guidelines came directly from resident feedback, including the "CondoHacks," which revealed how nine Toronto households adapted their living spaces to suit family needs.
"What we heard was that people wanted to stay in the city," Nasr stresses, "and they'd already gone through the process of self-editing what they needed in their living space." But for many urban families, even a streamlined use of space means "there isn't enough storage, and people have to re-arrange their furniture to have a family meal, or they have to put the stroller in the bathtub. These are really bread and butter issues, and in many cases the housing stock does not accommodate those issues," Nasr stresses.
In an urban context, solutions to these issues don't just mean building bigger units—though it certainly means that too—but finding ways to knit child-friendly amenities into the urban fabric of the community. "What we found is that people really embraced the shared economy," says Reisman, explaining that "residents realize that not everyone needs their own little play kitchen or giant toy truck."
Beyond shared playrooms, the realities of dense, urban living, means that many of the features and amenities typically associated with the detached home become communal. And if the park—or the POPS—becomes the backyard, then some of the design solutions for family-friendly density must also lie beyond the walls of the home. Drawing from the first-hand experiences of Toronto's high-rise residents, the guidelines address the needs of children and families at three scales: the neighbourhood, the building, and the unit.
Starting at the neighbourhood scale, the City is working to create a network of parks and green spaces, together with new schools and community facilities. Toronto's Downtown core suffers from a shortage of public parkland, with sharp population increases making the dearth of open space more acutely felt.
For children and families, local, easily accessible playgrounds and parks are a necessity. Through a combination of "POPS, mid-block connections, and new public parks," networks of green space are promoted as a means of creating more intimate, albeit permeable, community spaces. New playgrounds—which should cater to a range of ages—are an important part of the mix, providing kid-friendly spaces within easy walking distance of highly populated urban neighbourhoods. And all of it should be designed with a sense of "whimsy," the guidelines admonish.
"These type of green spaces and playgrounds are important, but they can't replicate the functions of larger public spaces like Rail Deck Park," Reisman notes. While the kind of all-day park experience—think Trinity Bellwoods or New York's Central Park—in large, marquee spaces, isn't really possible in neighbourhood parks, they allow for play and outdoor activity to be incorporated into the daily routine.
The guidelines prioritize placing family-oriented units on the lower levels of high-rise complexes, with podium structures—which should include L- and C-shaped forms to allow for sheltered public spaces below—housing many of the larger two- and three-bedroom suites. For parents and guardians, it means informal supervision is possible directly from the home, with kitchens and balconies/terraces positioned to allow vantage points to the open space below.
"All three scales work together that way," Nasr explains, stressing that considerations at the neighbourhood level impact the configuration of buildings, as well as individual units. For the mid-block playgrounds and local parks to be thrive, the buildings above need to be designed with regard to their surroundings. Meanwhile, for individual homes to be livable for families, the availability of amenity spaces in the building plays an equally important role.
"People need space to be messy in the house," says Reisman, describing the spaces for shoes and jackets, "and arts and crafts projects," that are practically never a consideration—let alone a selling point—in model suites and renderings. For big school projects and more boisterous playtimes, however, "communal spaces can play an important role," with amenity areas fostering community engagement while providing auxiliary space.
At the scale of the individual unit, however, the Growing Up draft plan lays bare the inadequacy of thousands of Toronto's 'family-friendly' new condominiums in no uncertain terms. For a three-bedroom suite, an optimal size of 106 m² (1,140 ft²) is outlined, with 90 m² (969 ft²) identified for two-bedroom units. Those numbers reflect fairly obvious quality of life issues, like bedrooms with windows and real closets, and a space to put the stroller. By contrast, ≤900 ft² three-bedroom homes continue to come online each year in Toronto.
But should the design of three-bedroom units really be bound to a 106 m² optimum? Are C- and L-shaped podiums the best—or the only—viable solution to accommodating families in high-rise neighbourhoods? And for that matter, how can "whimsical" design elements ever be prescribed and regulated?
The last question prompts a smile from Reisman. "I know, how can you prescribe whimsy," she jokes. "You can't dictate 'that's not enough whimsy.'" But then, the Growing Up guidelines "aren't really an attempt to teach good design or urban planning," Nasr adds. "Ultimately, it's about bringing these questions into the planning process right from the beginning."
"If these guidelines become obsolete in five years, we'll consider that a success," Reisman stresses, "because that'll mean that designers and planners have been thinking about these issues, and that they've found new design solutions." For that to happen, however, a shift in the development industry needs to take place. Developers, planners, and architects, need to start thinking more about families. "That's what's at the heart of it," Nasr concludes, "it's about bringing these issues to the forefront, and making sure we're asking the right questions throughout the process." Hopefully, that's exactly what will happen.
All told, the Growing Up guidelines present intelligent and generally thoughtful suggestions, but none of the individual ideas are particularly revolutionary or novel. They don't need to be. Rather than dictating a prescriptive set of regulations, the new guidelines are meant to spark a paradigm shift in development by putting the overlooked needs of children and families at the forefront of development, design, and planning, for high-density urban communities.
If you'll pardon the indulgence of a Thomas Pynchon quote, it brings to my mind a line from Gravity's Rainbow. "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers," Pynchon writes. And that, as much as anything, may be why some Toronto families have no choice but to put the stroller in the bathtub.
Along with Urban Strategies, the City's Growing Up draft plan was created in partnership with a consulting team consisting of the 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.
In the meantime, you can learn more about Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities, via our previous article, as well as the City of Toronto's official website. A full copy of the draft plan also available here. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment on the space below this page.