As a relative newcomer to Toronto (about three years in the city), I've been slow to explore. I seem to constantly be stumbling across new neighbourhoods.
As I wander the city, I break apart the built form I see. Guessing at the origin and chronology of the buildings around me, reconstructing neighbourhoods to learn more about how the city developed. Trying to identify what's original and what's infill, what life was like all through the history of a place.
It's an added bonus that while I still am a student I have free access to rich sources of census data, current and historic to satisfy my curiosity.
It was in a moment when I had stumbled outside of my usual territory that I found myself looking up at a high-rise in Toronto's inner suburbs. At present we contemplate and debate the progression of density throughout the city. But evidently, the city has a long history of density throughout its centre and periphery. But how common was this highrise form in suburban neighbourhoods in the past?
When I mapped residential form in Toronto as recorded by the 1981 census I thought I knew what to expect. While I have known of the city’s history of high rise suburban living, I was surprised to see the true geography of housing nearly 35 years ago. The idea of a dispersed and detached suburban residential form does not hold for the city at the beginning of the 1980s. Toronto was a city that in many areas embraced the promise of high-rise living. Even then, suburban communities in East York, Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke and into Mississauga contained a large number of mid-rise and high-rise dwellings. You can see many examples of buildings built during this period throughout the suburbs. Suburban form in Toronto has long been somewhat vertically oriented. Any suggestion to the contrary comes from an incomplete understanding of Toronto's built history. Toronto has long been a vertical city.
The present-day high rise communities that extend to the east and west of downtown had yet to be built. Instead, through this map, we observe these communities in their still nascent form, existing as the city’s former streetcar suburbs of the 1920s and -30s. These neighbourhoods of attached housing and industrial uses (not mapped) would be redeveloped into communities of high-rise and mid-rise living.
Understanding the development of Toronto and the region requires close attention to the history of the city. It is not simply a story of sprawl and redevelopment but of unique geographies of growth and change. In navigating the present challenges of densification and intensification, it is interesting to remember that these forms have long been a part of the history of the city. As infill and redevelopment continues throughout toronto dense forms of development can be adapted to match the needs of communities outside of the downtown. Mid-rise housing to match the character of avenues in stable residential areas and family sized units can provided needed solutions for future development in the city.
Want to see how Toronto has changed since 1981? Check out the maps available through the Atlas of Suburbanisms.