Juri Pill once described Toronto as “Vienna surrounded by Phoenix.” In contrast to the central city—a bastion of progressive urbanism which, under the intellectual and moral guidance of Jane Jacobs, avoided the meat ax of modern postwar urban renewal—Toronto’s suburbs have tended to be dismissed in pejorative terms as gray, flat sprawl. In the Globe and Mail, William Thorsell once portrayed them as the banal counterpoint to the vibrant exclusivity of the central city and its readily gentrified Victorian fabric; “a classic suburban wasteland, the newer the horribler.”
A cursory examination of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), however, reveals an urban landscape characterized by dramatic, and rapid, change. New built forms, social centralities, geographies of access and exclusion, and rhythms of everyday life are radically redefining how the GTA functions and how it is experienced and understood. Toronto’s suburbs can no longer be considered as relatively homogenous in terms of their built environment or social structure, nor can they be seen as subservient spaces that perform a secondary, ancillary role relative to the political, economic, and cultural Mecca of the downtown core. They are diverse, dense, and complex. They are ports of entry for immigrants to the global city, centers of production and commerce, and loci for new forms of urban politics and civic engagement.
The scale and complexity of Toronto’s suburbs, so often only partially glimpsed from the window of a moving car, train, or plane, are difficult to take in or represent visually. Yet snapshots of the regional city begin to unveil the multiplicity of urban spaces and urbanity beyond Toronto’s lauded central city and provide an opening into the dynamic urbanization and modes of urbanism unfurling at the cutting edge of the global metropolis.
Canadian Pacific’s 690-acre Vaughan Intermodal Terminal (pictured) is Canada’s largest intermodal yard. Opened in 1991 and expanded in 2005, the facility now handles 700,000 twenty-foot containers a year.
Vaughan Intermodal Terminal is barely visible from Rutherford Road or County Road 50, but viscerally discloses a long-term locational shift of distribution facilities away from their historical position adjacent to the urban core (and traditional port and rail infrastructure) towards the urban fringe, where road and airport connections are ubiquitous and large plots of cheap real estate are readily available. An extended complex of single-story distribution warehouses, industrial buildings, and factories, crisscrossed by a network of superhighways and rail lines and centered on Pearson International Airport, constitute a vast swath of the GTA’s northwest suburbs. This landscape serves as the counterpoint to the glamorous face of “global Toronto.”
The relocation of manufacturing and distribution services from downtown has enabled the gentrification of the inner city’s former working-class neighborhoods, established the grounds for a heated urban land market—clearly embodied in the condoization of downtown and the city’s formerly industrial waterfront—and fostered Toronto’s famed (image of) progressive urbanism and “urbane” lifestyles lauded by Richard Florida, amongst others.
The GTA’s suburbs are now a pivotal economic space for southern Ontario, NAFTA, and the international economy
These urban dynamics reflect something more than the long-run suburbanization of industry; they illustrate the grounding of globalization beyond the glittering towers and financial institutions of the urban core. The technological advances of “just-in-time” post-Fordist production techniques and the containerization of shipping—in addition to trade neoliberalization—have substantially restructured the organization of both global production networks and city-regional space. Consequently, the GTA’s suburbs are now a pivotal economic space for southern Ontario, NAFTA, and the international economy, and hold an alternate global centrality to that presented by Bay Street.
Cities in waiting
Taking their cue from the province of Ontario’s landmark “Greenbelt” and “Places to Grow” growth management legislation, many of Toronto’s neighboring municipalities have actively embraced a reframed planning agenda centered on intensified, nodal urban development. Competing suburban downtowns are rapidly rising up along Highway 7 and Highway 427 to challenge the primacy of Toronto and radically reorient the center-periphery dynamics of the region. Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan, and Markham are what urban theorist Roger Keil evocatively terms “cities in waiting”: emergent sites of urbanity at the cutting edge of suburban transformation. Not only are their built environments undergoing a profound reshaping in accordance with provincial mandates, but densification, mixed-use development, and multiple modes of mobility are restructuring everyday suburbanism away from lifestyles traditionally understood and experienced through automobility and the single-family home. The city of Vaughan’s 2020 strategic plan, for example, envisions the transition “from a growing suburban municipality to a fully urban space.”
According to city planners, Vaughan Metropolitan Centre (above)—the geographic locus of the city’s transformation—is not intended to be suburban at all. Viva, York Region’s bus rapid transit (BRT) network, forms the infrastructural backbone of this ongoing process of city building. Designed and built through a public-private partnership agreement, Viva introduced express bus operations in mixed traffic along the arterial Yonge Street and Highway 7 corridors in 2005. “VivaNext,” the current phase of BRT development, has begun the process of constructing dedicated bus-only “rapidways” and “vivastations” in the median of York Region’s key thoroughfares.
Based on the introduction of rapid transit technology, the town of Markham foresees Highway 7 evolving as an urban boulevard—lined with trees, sidewalks, and mixed-use development—that can accommodate pedestrian traffic, rapid transit, and improved east-west automotive movement.
By integrating multimodal transportation networks, the GTA’s cities in waiting are places of multiple speeds and scales of movement that offer the potential to retrofit, reconfigure, and reimagine autocentric and atomized suburban space.
Mobility and immobility
If the densification and regional connectivity of Toronto’s cities in waiting offer an alternative, urban imagining of suburban development, they do not present a panacea for automobile-dependent movement, nor do they provide equal access to urban mobility. This is particularly true for inner suburban communities which developed at the height of the postwar boom but now find themselves bypassed by regional integration and on the wrong side of the intensified socioeconomic polarization characteristic of many global cities.
Low-income and visible minority residents in neighborhoods such as Jane-Finch (above), as well as the many new immigrants who are increasingly making Toronto’s suburbs home, lack rapid transit connectivity to both downtown Toronto and the region’s emerging growth hubs. Located in northwest Toronto, Jane-Finch is a mere five-minute drive from Vaughan’s new downtown complex, yet for a resident without access to a car, the same trip would take half an hour on two buses and require the payment of two fares.
While the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) Spadina subway extension will bring rapid transit to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre in close proximity to Jane-Finch, the line bypasses the neighborhood’s existing low-income residential districts to target service at York University and areas amenable to new-build development. On one hand, this problem reflects the connectivity challenges presented by the sheer scale of space and time in the suburbs. On the other, however, the break between geographic proximity and propinquity is decidedly political and illustrative of the boundaries of municipally defined transit providers.
Pan-regional rapid transit offers a potential infrastructure fix, yet the introduction of new transportation must negotiate a complex array of required uses and scales of mobility—local movement with frequent stops and fast, regional trips with limited access—if it is to avoid reproducing the marginality of many inner suburban communities. Carpooling and workplace shuttle programs financed by the province and regional employers through “Smart Commute”—a collection of local transportation management authorities—provide an alternative and innovative response to the mobility challenges of sustainable transportation and city-regional mobility, albeit one premised upon more individualized movement than public transit.
The death & life of strip malls & industrial courts
Inner suburban Toronto is where postwar factories are reborn as infill housing (or worse, until recently as big-box power centers). Their retail counterparts—strip malls—increasingly appear as “soft targets” for intensified development. In both cases, old factories and strip malls seem to many observers to be obsolete reminders of Toronto’s postwar embrace of the car–spaces that might be rendered more “urban” and “productive” via compact, mixed-use redevelopment.
With the specter of suburban decline used as a backdrop, reurbanization or intensified development has emerged in the last half decade or so as Toronto’s official pathway to inner suburban revitalization. If all goes according to the city’s official plan, over the next several decades many of the low-rise commercial structures that line inner suburban Toronto’s major avenues will disappear, and mid-rise buildings with commercial units at grade and residences above will take their place.
Far from being unused or abandoned, many old factories and strip malls across inner suburban Toronto are bustling hubs of activity
There are, of course, a few wrinkles in the mix. Aside from questioning the scale of the transformation envisioned and whether it can produce the more complete streets that urbanists rightly advocate, there is also the issue of what is lost. Far from being unused or abandoned, many old factories and strip malls across inner suburban Toronto are bustling hubs of activity. They have become a flexible and integrative infrastructure for new immigrants of limited means, who locate businesses, cultural centers, and places of worship in them. Shabby and unloved by many, these modest buildings perform an important function in an increasingly diverse, uneven, and socioeconomically polarized Toronto: they provide low-cost spaces where newcomers and new ideas can take hold in an otherwise expensive and exclusionary city.
The site of the former Lily Cup factory (above) once produced disposable cups for fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Tim Hortons. For a fleeting time, before it was demolished in 2010 to make way for the Lilly Factory Towns (now under construction), it was home to a South Asian banquet hall, and then the Bangladesh Canada Hindu Cultural Society and its Mandir (temple). The redevelopment of the Lilly Cup and much of the northern portion of Oakridge Industrial District in southwest Scarborough brings new, more compact housing to the postwar suburb, but paradoxically makes it less mixed-use. Factories that once provided hundreds of middle-income jobs have been replaced by townhouses with little, if any, retail or office space incorporated into the mix. The Bangladesh Canada Hindu Cultural Society, meanwhile, has relocated to a small industrial building off O’Connor Drive in nearby East York.
Global city, global suburbs
Located on the north side of Steeles Avenue, the boundary between the city of Toronto and York Region, Pacific Mall is reputed to be the largest indoor Asian mall in North America. Open 365 days a year, most weekends the mall is jammed with cars on the prowl for an elusive parking space. Inside, the main floor is made up of several hundred tiny retail condo units arrayed on corridors named after Hong Kong streets. On the upper floor, there is a bustling food court and restaurant area, video arcade, and nightclub.
More than simply a shopping center, however, Pacific Mall is visible evidence of both the shifting pattern of immigrant settlement in the GTA and the significant flow of transnational capital into Toronto’s suburbs. Rather than settle upon arrival in an inner-city neighborhood proximate to one of Toronto’s two downtown Chinatowns, starting in the 1980s affluent Chinese immigrants, mainly from Hong Kong, began to move directly into suburban areas—initially in the Agincourt section of north Scarborough (amalgamated with the city of Toronto in 1998) and then increasingly further north in Markham and Richmond Hill. An initial Chinese commercial cluster emerged along Sheppard Avenue East in Agincourt in the mid- to late-1980s, followed later by the development of so-called “Asian theme” malls, with Pacific Mall, opened in 1997, now the archetypal model.
Several decades on, the result resembles what geographer Wei Li has termed an “ethnoburb,” or multiethnic suburb dominated by the residential concentration and businesses of one minority group. In 2006, forty-three percent of the GTA’s nearly half-million Chinese-Canadians called either northwest Scarborough, Markham, or Richmond Hill home. In a reflection of its size and affluence and a demonstration of its ability to be an active participant in the production of suburban space, Toronto’s suburban Chinese community supports an array of businesses offering specialized goods and services, and has further opened the opportunity for international investment in commercial and real estate ventures.
Contested (sub)urban futures
The pathway to a different suburban future in Toronto may eventually run down the middle of the city’s major suburban thoroughfares. In early 2007, then-mayor David Miller and chair of the Toronto Transit Commission Adam Giambrone announced a bold plan to construct an expansive 120-kilometer light rail network, bringing higher-order transit to underserved suburban districts. “Transit City,” as it became known, received provincial funding and seemed to be a done deal until it emerged as an election issue in 2010. Rob Ford, the right-wing populist who ultimately won the mayoral election by carrying all the city’s inner suburban wards, campaigned in favor of building subways. Shortly after assuming the mayor’s chair, he reaffirmed his support for subways and declared at a news conference that “Transit City is over, ladies and gentlemen.” Extending the Sheppard Subway eastward to an eventual terminus at the Scarborough Town Centre had been one of his key campaign promises.
Though the political wrangling over Transit City and other transit projects has been much discussed, a closer look at the transformation of inner suburban Toronto—not only what has transpired, but what the city envisions for it—reveals the contours of a new spatial disjuncture in the city. Not the city-suburban divide that was much discussed following the election, but a more localized one developing within inner suburban areas themselves. The incremental urbanization of the avenues, which calls for more transit-oriented and pedestrian/cyclist friendly streetscapes, stands in sharp contrast to the more intensely car-oriented lives found in residential subdivisions located off the avenues, along winding suburban collectors and in quiet cul-de-sacs.
It is too soon to tell what the political impact will be, but much hinges on whether future residents, especially those drawn by new mid-rise condominiums and transit infrastructure along the avenues, will find common cause with residents of the aging rental towers that already line many suburban arterials, or with homeowners nestled in the sea of single-family homes between the avenues.