I've been out and about in the city with a new point and shoot camera I bought recently (the Canon S110 - which I highly recommend). Looking around at Toronto, I am often brought face to face with the utter hodgepodge of Toronto's urban form and architecture. I used to think this was a bad thing but I've come around on this - a city's built form should tell its story, and in this sense Toronto's hodgepodge is its story. None of the clean lines of Haussmann's Parisian boulevards here, Toronto is a city marked by chaotic waves of growth and immigration, from a frontier Upper Canadian fort, to one of the most international places on earth. This could not have happened cleanly in roughly only 200 years, and has created it own odd beauty. In some of these pictures you can see the interposing new city on the old, a transformation in progress. Now we just need to get our infrastructure
I sometimes get a bit cynical about the current fetish of urbanism that increasingly pervades our popular culture. The desirability of urban living is not in question, but the issue of how those of average means can afford it, is something the media and pundits seem to widely ignore. Toronto and many other Canadian cities have become very expensive places to live, out of all proportion to income levels. Have a look at this City of Toronto economic report. On page 4 you'll see a chart of employment going back 25 years. What you'll notice is that current employment levels are actually slightly lower than the peak in 1989. In 24 years net job growth has been zero in Toronto and today the unemployment rate stands at almost 10% (vs. 3% at the peak of the economy in the late 80s). Median household income has been flat since 2000 at around $60,000 per year. Virtually all the job and income growth has been happening in the suburbs, and at the top of the income scale. Still giant condo towers rise like prairie poplars downtown and prices rise year after year. There is clearly high demand for housing in the core but this appears to be more motivated by lifestyle than economic drivers. Most people I know are concerned with finding an affordable, decent apartment in the city - and many of these people have good jobs. This subject comes up more and more in conversation - who is buying all these glitzy condos? It doesn't seem to be anyone I or my friends know.
From the perspective of infrastructure, affordable housing is a tough issue. Most governments, at least in North America, got out of the business of building housing on a large scale decades ago. The central challenge is how to maintain existing public housing stocks. I don't believe that the solution to housing affordability lies in governments expanding their role as a landlords. I do think, however, that some of the innovative partnerships that have been used to build public infrastructure could be looked at as a means to build more affordable rental and purchase housing in large cities. There are some examples of this in Canada such as the Regent Park redevelopment in Toronto, though I would suggest that the private, market based housing there is still too expensive for most, and the public housing insufficient in number. Really what is needed is something to fill the gap: housing for middle income earners. Governments could facilitate this better, as is seen in other jurisdictions, through policy changes, regulation, and in some cases tax breaks and financing tools. I'll write more about this in the future and provide some examples. I'll also write about the idea of smaller, more affordable cities in Canada doing more to attract creative, entrepreneurial types.
The liveability of cities and their innate urbanity has to go beyond innovative design, or even good transit. Cities need to meet the basic needs of people across income ranges; that is not something one hears talked about much, but it is an essential social role for infrastructure. One sometimes hears the lamentation that places like London and Manhattan are not as interesting as they once were. Maybe that's because no one can afford to live there anymore. I hope Toronto doesn't follow suit in this respect.
Have urbanists used this as a call to arms to put all of their energy into helping those left behind in the knowledge/creative class economy? No. Instead, urban advocates have gone the other direction, locking onto this in a reductionist way to develop a set of policies I call “Starbucks urbanism.” That is, the focus is on an exclusively high end, sanitized version of city life that caters to the needs of the elite with the claim that this will somehow “revitalize” the city if they are attracted there.
I was pleased to see this article by Aaron Renn on the New Geography website (originally appeared on his Urbanophile site) because it raises an issue that I believe is too often overlooked in today's cult of the city. I love cities, of course, but I wonder sometimes if the direction that that larger global cities (and those aspiring to be that) are going is really just intensifying unspoken class boundaries and the associated inequality. My thesis is that infrastructure is ultimately social as much as economic, so this perspective is an important one to me, and, as I've tried to argue, not often seen in the political discourse. Indeed, as the author alludes, urbanists often get upset when it is suggested that their policies favouring gentrification cater mainly to the already wealthy. Certainly this is the case in Toronto where the inner city condo and population boom mainly serves high-earning professionals who live downtown - it has to because at $750 a square foot, none but the highest earning can afford to live in these condos. Lower income folks are increasingly driven to older suburbs or exurbs that are seen as painfully uncool, and rarely feature in discussions of building infrastructure to serve them. Toronto has a pitiable record at building affordable housing in the core these days, and the focus on transit is mainly geared towards downtown, where jobs tend to be either at the top or bottom ends of the income spectrum (as Saskia Sassen has written about). This is a complex issue, of course, but creating spaces for people of all income levels to live and work should be a key focus of city and infrastructure building. Simply admonishing suburban/non-urban living as unsustainable is not effective without understanding the economic factors and policies, infrastructure and otherwise, that drive it.
I recently moved neighbourhoods in Toronto. I was living in an older inner city area near the lake, but the opportunity to housesit for someone and not pay rent for a while beckoned, so I'm in an area well north of downtown that I recall from my childhood as being suburban, but that has changed drastically since then. I've taken some shots walking and in my car since moving up here; it's really quite astounding how a place that 25 years ago was bungalows and strip plazas has transformed itself, though not always in good ways. This area, Willowdale, seems to have morphed into an unusual hodgepodge of city and suburbia without the clear benefits of either. The roads remain too wide and the urban amenities too few despite brave attempts to include parkettes and walking paths. The contrasts of urban form are too jarring; the bungalows and storefronts give way to 30 storey condo and offices towers, and without a design language to bring any sense of coherence. It looks a little like the sort of development one sees in developing countries in Asia: the need to accommodate growth trumps all other considerations. It's good that Toronto is intensifying, though I wonder if we could do it better, with a mix of densities and better, more appropriate infrastructure. This area needs more green space, bike lanes and transit before it starts to feel like a real urban neighbourhood.
Hi! My name is Tom Broen and I've started this site to further my interest and begin a conversation on the subject of public infrastructure as a social catalyst. Please check out any of the resources on here and feel free to join the discussion.
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