December 7, 2017 | suburbs
Let me be clear. Toronto suburbs are not going any where. They are still growing. Many people still dream of owning their own house, which is much more attainable in the suburbs. Something is changing though. And it’s changing fast. Some suburbs are starting to act more like cities.
In other words, Toronto’s inner suburbs of the future will be much more like cities of today. I am talking specifically about Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York, the “ex-burbs” that were once their own municipalities before amalgamation with Toronto.
Before we get started, let me offer a simplified history of how suburbs around North America got started. After World War II, there emerged a dream that the middle class could live in their own homes with their own yards on a tree-lined streets. They would be driving distance of the downtown where one or both adults could work. Back then, there would be some traffic, but the commute was not bad. Cities like Toronto were covered in parking lots. So, it was easy to drive into the city to work at an office, park almost anywhere at a reasonable cost, and then drive home to the suburbs when you’re done.
Many smaller towns like Mississauga, Oakville, or Etboicoke exploded into suburban communities. In the suburbs, car was king. So, suburbs grew to accommodate cars. Streets were wide. Highways were plentiful. Big box stores and malls came along with lots of parking for everyone. It was a City Planner’s nightmare. This is when the notion of urban sprawl came along.
To a large extent, many middle class Torontonians moved to the suburbs. It was not like Toronto had no one left behind. Toronto became the spot for new immigrants, LGBT folk, hippies, cool kids, singles, university professors, and the middle class who stayed in Toronto.
Suburbs seemed to work for a while, but then came traffic. That made suburbs less appealing. Then came gentrification and the desire to live in a city once again. Suburbs were tagged as soul-less, boring places with no street life or walkable streets. They became, in the eyes of some, a failed experiment. So this made the return to the city even more appealing.
As with many things in life, the suburbs became more complicated places than just a place to put a lot of low density houses where cars can move easily. Many people still love the dream of owning a house (or a large condo), which is generally more attainable in the suburbs at a better price. And who could blame them for that? So, some suburbs are still expanding. Many immigrants from the past 50 years, and their descendants, that started in the city have decided to move to the suburbs. There are the Italians in Woodbridge. South Asians in Brampton. The Chinese in North York.
Still, there are a group of suburbs that may be coming to an end. As I mentioned, these are what some call exburbs. They still have many of the attributes of suburbs, but they are rapidly urbanizing. The exurbs were separate entities until Toronto amalgated in 1998. At that time, some believed the money that these suburbs had would keep the city financially healthy by combining certain services, and offering a stronger tax base. Oddly enough, in the next 20 years or so, the old city of Toronto began to generate a great deal of wealth as it further urbanized and the condo boom took hold.
City living in Toronto, and in much of the world, became in so much demand that there are now pressures on the closest communities with land to spare to supply housing to a supply-strapped city. The original suburbs next to the city are increasingly absorbing the priced-out, city-loving people into their neighbourhoods. This would include Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York, the lands of bungalows, Costco and strip malls, with some older stock housing as well.
Let’s take Etobicoke for example. Like many suburbs, it has a big mall (Sherway Garden) and no centralized downtown. It has, however, generated smaller villages in the city like Toronto has. Many of these are in older neighbourhoods closer to the lake like Mimico, New Toronto, and Long Branch. Long Branch, as an example has a large number of new condo townhomes along Lakeshore where there has been an explosion of independent businesses with indie coffee shops and walkable streets. Even the parks along the lake are much more frequently used than in the past. Most recently there has been some densification plans along the Queensway which is currently a mix of car dealerships, box stores, Mom and Pop shops, and grocery outlets. It’s a strange mix of suburban blandness with hip urban specialty shops like one for delicious French macarons. Most recently, there has been a greater number of low rise condos proposed along this strip that will densify the area and make it much more walkable. We’re not talking giant 80 story condos, but ones that are integrated into the neighbourhood. In the future, the Queensway will still honour the auto, but it may become much more pedestrian friendly as more people live on the street.
In North York to Richmond Hill, we have seen how the expanding Toronto subway has urbanized Yonge Street. I’m sure this will be the case if the subway is expanding to Scarborough. Even though the Shepherd subway line in North York is not near profitable, it has led to an great deal of development along the Sheppard line.
Of course, all development won’t take place along subway lines in the exurbs exclusively in the future. There is a lot of warehouses, parking lots, fields, business parks, and end-of-life strip malls to be turned into condos or better planned business areas. With much of Toronto’s parking lots largely filled with condos now, there will be much more pressure on the areas to densify.
Of course, where one suburb moves on, others pop up. The expansion around Durham region is a good example of the expanding Toronto suburb. Also, we still have suburbs that are not inner suburbs or outer suburbs, but suburbs in the middle, like Mississauga. These suburbs are changing though. There is smarter development here now. There is a will to go back and fix the messy sprawl that made them. Possibly those suburbs will be next to feel to push of urbanization. So much so that they may be unrecognizable in the decades ahead.