Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: "a refreshing new interpretation of urban planning in Toronto"

For this book review, we thank Daniel Ross, a PhD candidate in urban history at York University and an editor of (find him there & at

Richard White, Planning Toronto: The Planners, The Plans, Their Legacies. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016. 450pp. incl. notes, illustrations, bibliography.

Reviewed by Daniel Ross

In this study Richard White examines Toronto’s efforts to plan the urban environment from the Second World War through to the 1980s. As the subtitle suggests, he is interested not just in the plans—fascinating as they are in their own right—but in the people who made them, and the impact they had on the city. Planning Toronto does not ignore broad social and economic trends like postwar reconstruction or inner-city gentrification, but like other planning histories it is above all about ideas: notions of how cities should be, imported from abroad and adapted to local circumstances with varying degrees of success. Well-researched and readable, White’s book provides a clear and compelling account of past planning initiatives, as well as some useful insights for students of today’s debates over the urban future.

Planning, White emphasizes, was slow to take root in Toronto. Municipal regulation of development—building heights, setbacks, neighbourhood zoning—was well-established by the early 1900s, but the idea of something more visionary was viewed with suspicion by the city’s mostly conservative political establishment. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s, and the obvious infrastructure demands created by the expanding suburbs, that the city established a planning system. Actually, not one system, but several; one of the strengths of Planning Toronto is White’s clear differentiation between the urban agendas of three layers of government. Metro Toronto, by far the most dynamic of the three, occupied itself with facilitating and sustaining urban expansion, making major investments in public transit, sewers, parks, and—perhaps most famously—roads and expressways. Faced with an aging inner city, the City of Toronto sought to renew and modernize, but also to protect. Not to be outdone, in the early 1960s the Ontario government launched its own initiative in planning at scale, the mostly-ignored Toronto-Centred Region.

A veritable blizzard of plans, and all within a fifteen-year period that surely ranks as Toronto’s planning moment. At no time since have we dreamt so big, or had such unshakeable faith that urban problems could—and should—be solved by public expertise and modern technology. By the early 1970s both Metro’s expressway network and the city’s urban renewal program had encountered crippling citizen opposition. Resistance to expropriation of property widened into a larger political critique of the whole planning enterprise, predicated as it was on placing public goals ahead of the interests of affected communities. Perhaps those goals—efficient automobile circulation, modernization of housing stock—needed to be rethought, too. While this is often described a victory for democracy, the author argues that it also reflected a return to Toronto’s tradition of conservative localism.

As this observation suggests, White is offering readers a refreshing new interpretation of urban planning in Toronto. He resists portraying modernist planners as heavy-handed technocrats, instead emphasizing the ways they adapted planning theory to local conditions, for example by rejecting aggressive urban renewal (although too late for the neighbourhood that became Regent Park), or linking expressway plans to the expansion of rapid transit. That latter point is an important one. If in 2016 Toronto seems incapable of making decisions about badly-needed transit infrastructure, it is in no small part because we no longer have the strong planning institutions we had fifty years ago. The community-engaged model that replaced metropolitan planning has many strengths, but the ability to pursue collective goals despite local resistance is not one of them.

Another important theme of Planning Toronto is that planning’s reach almost always exceeded its grasp. Even in the heyday of Metro Chairman Fred “Big Daddy” Gardiner, many more plans were made than were implemented. As White admits on page 5, planning was never “the sole, or even the prime, creator of the city’s physical form.” Many of the most recognizable results of Toronto’s growth, including streetcar suburbs full of million-dollar homes, downtown skyscrapers, and around 2,000 concrete slab apartment towers, were built with little or no public planning oversight. Demographics, real estate markets, and private initiative have always mattered just as much to the city’s development as comprehensively-planned futures. That point is also made in another recent survey, Christopher Armstrong’s Making Toronto Modern: Architecture and Design, 1895-1975 (McGill-Queen’s, 2014). Both authors would probably argue that Toronto’s conservatism and respect for the market have served it fairly well in the past; whether that will remain the case is a different matter. Anyone interested in Toronto’s struggles with planned and unplanned growth, past and present, should pick up Richard White’s book.

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