Sewell and the Suburbs
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Sewell and the Suburbs

Toronto poster boy John Sewell has been hard at work. Building on the research that he conducted for a 2005 lecture series, he has written a new book, The Shape of the Suburbs, that attempts to explain how Toronto’s suburban communities have spread over time and how they have shaped Toronto. Because of its insight, the work has been selected for Pages Books and Magazines’ This Is Not A Reading Series, and on Tuesday night at the Gladstone Hotel, Sewell had the opportunity to not read his book.

Instead, eighty or so people showed up to watch Sewell sit on a discussion panel (moderated by Kim Storey of Brown and Storey Architects) with Jack Heath, the deputy mayor of Markham, and Steve Parish and Rob Burton, the mayors of Ajax and Oakville. Storey and the event’s organizers pre-selected five major discussion points that centred on a few of the new book’s themes (i.e. Toronto’s urban planning proposals from the 1960s, the cultural divide between Torontonians and their suburban allies, public transportation, and the contribution of water and sewage systems to Toronto’s suburban landscape), and each subject was presented to the panel through pointed questions intended to invoke debate. Unfortunately, this structure did not engender any constructive answers: the three public servants often got lost in their words and refused to confine their replies to the topic at hand. (In case you forgot, they are politicians.)
But that doesn’t mean that the event wasn’t a success. In fact, some over-arching themes became fairly evident through this peripatetic discourse and these should be addressed the next time anyone sits down to discuss any sort of development plan for the GTA. First, it became clear that we must adopt a new model for zoning. Parish claims that “we’re still doing the same two-dimensional planning and making the same mistakes that we did in the 60s, 70s, 80s, [and] 90s,” meaning that we continue to look at a map and arbitrarily assign areas of land that will be used for certain types of development. We must instead take the land’s resources and location relative to other communities into account in order to appropriately assess what it can be best used for. For example, a new community in Durham Region is not contiguous to any other populous neighbourhoods, and its distance to other suburban communities has made it a nightmare for public transit officials who must efficiently connect it to their current transit system.
We also must not submit to the will of developers who focus on low-cost growth and achieving enormous economies of scale. In the GTA’s past, succumbing to their plans has resulted in pipes being laid in formations that inhibit the development of vibrant communities above ground because the infrastructure below has already dictated how neighbourhoods must be organized.
Finally, going forward, any discussion of Toronto’s suburbs must mitigate the difference of opinion between Torontonians and people who live in the GTA. To the former, Toronto is viewed as its own unique city and the suburbs are mutually exclusive communities; to the latter, the GTA is an expansive extension of the city of Toronto. Until these paradigms are reconciled and the GTA is viewed as a whole, inter-connected community, a comprehensive plan (for transit, for business development, for anything) cannot be drawn up. It is simply too hard to try to establish strategies for sustainable urban growth when constituents of the two areas do not view their cities in the same light.
Because it’s hard for anyone to reach any solid conclusions on the future of the GTA in a ninety-minute discussion, uncovering these over-arching ideas was a welcome surprise. But these concepts alone are not what made the event worthwhile: it was much more important that the panellists agreed to come together and talk, even though they gained few political points from their own constituents for doing so. (The event was downtown, not in their own cities.) A gathering of community leaders, open to the public, cannot go unappreciated when the topic is as highly bureaucratic as the future development of the GTA. Bringing these leaders together was a very small step forward for Toronto and its surrounding suburban communities, but it’s small steps that can help foster the momentum needed to make a monumental change.
Photos by Tim Kiladze/Torontoist.