Vienna Surrounded by Los Angeles
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Vienna Surrounded by Los Angeles

Photo by Maryam S. from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Between the 1950s and 1990s, the urbanized area of the GTA more than tripled from 193 square miles to 656. Yet, in the same time period, the population only doubled. Toronto became, former mayor John Sewell writes, “a city that resembled Vienna surrounded by Los Angeles.” In The Shape of the Suburbs (UTP, 2009), Sewell sets out to investigate how low-density sprawl became the predominant urban form in the suburbs beyond Metro Toronto, what is now the 905 region.
With a sharp eye for how small administrative details reveal larger philosophical viewpoints, Sewell breezily digs into the minutiae of government reports, planning documents, royal commissions, and legislation to develop a highly readable historical account of how, in the absence of planning, the 905 region was shaped by the construction of super-highways, transit routes, and the provision of water and sewage infrastructure.

Sewell begins at mid-century, looking at sprawl within Metro Toronto, the regional government created by the province in 1953 to balance regional necessities and local perspectives. The Metro Federation was able to leverage the densely urbanized city’s highly developed planning expertise and ability to borrow money for infrastructure construction on the fringes to ensure that development occurred in a structured and orderly fashion.
Although the Metro Federation covered only 240 square miles, the Metro Planning Board’s jurisdiction spread for 720 square miles. So Metro’s 1959 Official Plan presented a comprehensive planning vision for the entire region that took into account everything from demographic growth to freeway construction and how all these factors influenced each other. Although never formally codified for reasons unrecorded in the historical record, the 1959 Official Plan became, at least within Metro, “a touchstone for staff decisions to flourish even if the context was less formal than some might have wished.”
In contrast, the provincial government showed little leadership on region-wide planning. When it eventually took initiative, the Toronto-Centred Region Plan fell flat upon its release in 1970. Sewell demonstrates his acute grasp of how planning and politics collide when he notes that hostile local politicians resisted the TCR Plan “as little more than provincial meddling” and as an attack on growth and municipal authority. So the province returned to the reduced role it had already been playing, as the mere subsidizer of suburban development.

As a result, in the 905 region, the cart was put before the horse. Infrastructure was built before any thought was given to an over-arching planning vision. With neither extensive planning expertise nor the ability to borrow money, municipalities outside Metro couldn’t initiate development on their own. So they found an enabling partner in the provincial government. Beginning with the QEW, super-highways—built by the province without much thought to their long-term impact on adjacent lands—became magnets for development. Water and sewage infrastructure were constructed with substantial provincial subsidies.
Financial responsibility for the provision of hard services was therefore divorced from the approvals process and municipalities did not have to give a true considering of the real costs of real estate developments. The availability of infrastructure rather than land-use plans shaped sprawl. In 1965, when Brampton and Bramalea were serviced through the South Peel Scheme—one large sewer pipe along the Credit River to Brampton and another up the Etobicoke Creek further north—the province figured that because the added cost was negligible, they’d maximize the sewer’s capacity by buying the largest pipe that could be trucked to the site. Once the sewer was in place, local developers fought for access. Again and again, the province repeated the process throughout the region with ad hoc actions and reactionary policies.
Few limits were placed on new sub-divisions and municipalities routinely amended the local official plan so that new developments would fit. Any provincial attempts at systemic reform, Sewell argues, “were quickly trampled by narrow local interests.”

In Sewell’s hands, local suburban politicians come off as short-sighted and parochial, yet ambitious and greedy for development dollars. Their treatment is demonstrative of one downside to The Shape of the Suburbs. This is a book about the suburbs written from a central city perspective. Sewell is never quite able to escape being a downtowner, and he isn’t particularly sensitive to the suburban perspective.
It’s most noticeable when Sewell discusses politics. The city is seen as progressive, the suburbs as reactionary. And, as the book progresses, the suburbs become seen as a generic mass, not as individual communities. As a result of his perspective, the chapter on transit is really about Toronto itself, and the burden suburban development has placed on the TTC. Once economically self-sufficient, the TTC suffers under the weight of servicing low-density neighbourhoods; and it’s become a commuter service for suburbanites at the expense of downtown residents.
Likewise, Sewell provides a prolonged discussion—and critique—of the dissolution of Metro, which he considered an ideal regional federation, in favour of amalgamation into a megacity. His argument here as interesting and as thoroughly researched as every other chapter in the book, but its concentration on Toronto proper doesn’t seem to fit a book on the suburbs except to show that, for Sewell, amalgamation, like subsidizing sprawl, represented another terrible provincial decision.
Despite maintaining an objective distance for much of the book—even going so far as to refer to himself in the third person several times—at moments, Sewell undoes his objectivity with asides like calling Mel Lastman “a dealmaker and a buffoon.” For most of the book, Sewell deftly dissects an array of government documents to provide a useful and readable survey of Greater Toronto’s suburban development.
It’s unfortunate that the book’s strengths are a tad undone by the Toronto-centric perspective, which seems to prevent his addressing key issues, such as the commercial development in the outer rim and the daily outward migration of workers that this creates, or his seeking out the perspective of the residents themselves and why they’ve chosen the suburbs as home.