The Past and Future of City Building in Toronto
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The Past and Future of City Building in Toronto

Toronto's outgoing Chief Planner Gary Wright talks social cohesion, civic engagement, and the history of Toronto's cityscape.

Photo by {a href=””}kevbo1983{/a} from the {a href=””}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

The city of Toronto has changed tremendously over the past four decades, and outgoing Chief Planner and Executive Director of the City Planning Division, Gary Wright, has been in the thick of city planning throughout. In his final annual conversation with the public as Chief Planner, at an event held this morning (hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute, the Cities Centre at University of Toronto, and NRU Publishing), Wright spoke about the city’s past, its future, and the intricacies of city building.

Wright began working in planning in 1974, during a citizen-driven epoch of neighbourhood development. In response to the transition from surface transit to underground subway development along the Bloor-Danforth corridor, Bloor West business owners set up the city’s first Business Improvement Area in 1970, and throughout the decade others would follow—an energetic, community-minded time for city planning in Toronto. The 1980s, marked by recession, would be different. Wright recalls one particular development, an office tower at the northeast corner of Queen and Yonge in the mid-1980s, as being particularly momentous. “It’s just a reminder: you look out here—and what are they talking about, like 119 cranes in downtown Toronto or something like that?—and we were absolutely delighted that there would be one crane.”

The 1990s and onward, with economic growth and the amalgamation of Toronto proper with its five adjoining boroughs, brought about dramatic changes to city planning. Suddenly, city planners were forced to cooperate with a number of different mindsets—“a much bigger city with much different interests.”

“Amalgamation helped us all learn,” Wright recalls. “There’s lessons learned from everywhere, doesn’t matter whether it’s in Scarborough or Etobicoke or North York. Now we find the commonality of those languages, the commonality of those structural changes that we work with all the time. So, we think differently.”

Apart from the geographic growth of the city as a result of its expanded boundaries, Wright points out the concentration of downtown development as a trend to keep tabs on, particularly the ongoing residential growth happening south of Front Street. He thinks this is a positive step for invigorating the city’s core, and is dismissive of complaints regarding a glut of highrise construction.

“We don’t need to tell the tall buildings story anymore,” he says. “There’s just a whole variety of development trends in the city. As we’re going to see, there’s a considerable amount of mid-rise development happening on our avenues. There are small townhouse developments. There’s a whole range of development trends that have happened, and are happening, in the city.”

What does worry Wright is an intangible: the widening income disparity apparent throughout the city, with high-income populations concentrated along the city’s inner core, low-income populations relegated to the city’s northeastern and northwestern shoulders, and middle income populations rapidly ceasing to exist.

“We can’t solve income inequality problems through planning renewals,” Wright admits, “but we should be thinking about how we attract investment, potentially, to parts of the city that don’t have investment now.”

Wright sees income disparity as a planning issue because of its effect on social cohesion. “One of the reason Toronto works well is that there’s a fabric of social cohesion,” says Wright, citing recent riots in London and Paris as examples of what happens to a city when that fabric begins to tear. “What I’m concerned about is that, over time, income inequality is going to affect social cohesion. It’s something we have to think about, and we need to be informed by these things.”

Looking forward, Wright sees citizen engagement and collaboration as essential for city building—the harnessing of social cohesion for momentum.

“We live in a very interesting, complex, interactive society in which all different kinds of people and influences make us think about where we’re going next,” he says, citing the necessity of fostering collaboration between developers, activists, businesses, politicians, media, and philanthropists in order to foster positive, and effective, growth.

“Cities need to reinvent themselves in terms of their development. They need to reinvent themselves in terms of the civic institutions, and they need to also think about how they reinvent themselves in terms of governance, because societies change. How people interact with cities change.”

He adds, with conviction, “Citizens matter.”

CORRECTION: December 9, 2011, 9:55 AM This post originally said that three boroughs were involved in Toronto’s 1998 amalgamation. There were actually five. We regret the error.