It’s time we did away with the neighbourhood-stultifying bylaws that make Toronto’s suburbs unwalkable.
Toronto and other GTA municipalities should update their zoning bylaws and allow suburbanites to convert their homes into cafes, stores, and cultural centres. This would be a revolutionary change that’s been happening very successfully in other areas of Toronto for decades.
These suburban zoning bylaws that ban businesses in residential areas are Toronto’s secret villain. Only a villain so dull sounding can stay hidden for so long. But these laws have been hugely negative: by limiting the supply of walkable neighbourhoods, they keep the urban areas expensive. In a city where people are rapidly getting priced out of the core, having a vast suburbia lacking urban amenities is one of the biggest problems hindering Toronto’s growth and greatness. This villain afflicts much of Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke, and the many suburban municipalities making up the GTA. It also affects urban-adjacent suburbs such as Rosedale, Forest Hill, and Mount Pleasant, which are huge pockets of residential wealth in the middle of Toronto.
Dating from the mid-century heyday of the suburban planning era, these bylaws segregate businesses out and keep these areas used solely for single-family homes. The result is neighbourhoods that are not walkable and have no street life. They are neighbourhoods that require punishingly long hikes to get to grocery stores, cafes, or services. This pushes out young people, who move in droves from suburbia to a vibrant downtown with skyrocketing rents, and the business-banned suburbs fail seniors, who often find that with declining mobility they are isolated in homes where it is impossible to walk to services and community hubs. The situation is only going to get worse as a greater share of the population starts aging in these stagnant suburbs.
This problem began when developers and planners became the ones deciding where is urban and where is not. They built, and continue to build, suburbs with these anti-urban bylaws, offering only a choice between service-lacking suburban homes and service-rich urban condos. The solution is to give more power to individuals and communities to make cities, which is how all great cities have been made. Look at vibrant streets, like Mirvish Village, Baldwin Street, or west Howard Street, where shops in converted homes have created the most successful urbanism without central planning or development.
It’s not specifically the built form of the suburbs that makes them unappealing; the buildings there—the houses—are perfectly fine. What deadens these areas is the homogeneity of the uses these buildings are put to. But a building that looks like a house can easily be altered and put to another use. Toronto’s two most iconic and walkable neighbourhoods, Yorkville and Kensington Market, were created like this 100 years ago. If the City took away restrictive zoning, suburban areas will change as local people set up stores and services in converted single family homes and these neighbourhoods will develop organically into complete and vibrant communities.
The current urbanization regime sees density and services arrive bit by bit along arterial roads where rising property values entice developers to build upwards, with bylaw variances allowing commercial use. This strategy makes developers the sole drivers of new services and neighbourhoods.The developers profit off their control of urban supply and demand. But this is a strategy that brings services at a decades-long pace, far too slow to provide price relief and ownership opportunities for the thousands of people who would like to live in a service-rich community now but can’t afford to. And equally bad is the type of spaces that developers and planners encourage: expensive and uniform corporate-managed spaces filled by banks and chain store brands. It was announced recently that Google applied to develop a 12-acre lot in downtown Toronto in response to a recent City request for proposals. That’s what a neoliberal planning regime looks like—it’s easier for a multinational company to be given the right to develop a wholly branded neighbourhood than for ordinary citizens to change theirs. No wonder the city is getting so expensive. Our laws should not make it impossible to start a local ice cream shop while bending over backwards to help build corporate projects. Opportunity should go both ways.
But it is a blessing in disguise that the biggest problem in Toronto urbanism is a zoning issue, because unlike other issues that require billions of dollars (such as new subway lines) changing bylaws is not expensive. Once City Council changes the zoning laws, citizens would be the ones spending money to change the city.
Of course, NIMBYs will object, and that’s understandable. A free-for-all of rapid, drastic change is not going to be good for neighbourhoods. The process must be regulated and done slowly. The City must issue small-scale commercialization permits with strict guidelines: Permit seekers must show that their business wouldn’t lead to an increase in car traffic, would have a low impact on parking, and would not lead to additional late-night noise or add odours to the street. The permit would only be given to certain types of businesses, so no concert venues, car repair shops, or chain stores. And the City would be judicious in where these permits are issued. Ideally, they would be in service deserts and next to reasonable locations, like parks or churches. People from the community would be able to either support or speak against individual permit applications, just like any other permit the City issues. A good example of this already existing is Riverdale Perk at 633 Logan Avenue, a little coffee shop in a residential neighbourhood, which is offensive to nobody.
The permit office should parcel out permits to create a situation where you can go six blocks in any direction anywhere in Toronto and find one or two services. For instance, from my house in North York, you have to walk 12 large suburban blocks to get to the only services available, at Bayview Village. Why isn’t there a little ice cream store or cafe on the first floor of one of the brand new townhouses built across from Bayview Village Park, six blocks away? My home has a walk score of 38 out of 100. Gradually, the City should rezone wherever necessary until every home has a walk score of at least 50. The point isn’t to make all of Toronto like downtown or Kensington Market; just add reasonable access to services that will benefit the neighbourhood. The suburbs would still be the quietest neighbourhoods with the most green space, but they would be better off by virtue of a few local amenities. If a neighbourhood wanted to opt out of this scheme, it could cease issuing these permits altogether, or, alternatively, request that the City issue more of them and to try becoming a new Kensington Market.
The result is that we’d all have whole new areas to visit, use, and enjoy. Look at a map of Toronto: Rosedale, Forest Hill, Mount Pleasant—right in the middle of Toronto, some of the nicest streets and architecture in the city, but also not places most people go because there is nothing for them there. Imagine if you could walk those leafy summertime streets and find a coffee shop or a little bistro on the ground floor of a converted mansion. Or imagine yourself in one of Toronto’s diverse outer suburbs, passing a yoga studio or dental clinic or a small arts space.
People already operate small-scale businesses out of their homes in legal grey areas, cutting hair in their basement, or making dumplings for sale, or sewing wedding dresses in their living rooms. The City should allow these businesses and create the opportunity for all neighbourhoods to develop from the grassroots level. The best urbanism comes not from architects, developers, or planners, but from local people bringing services to their neighbourhoods. Unless Toronto allows the suburbs to change, they will continue to disadvantage the young, the elderly, and anyone who wants a great city. Let’s change a few laws and create suburbs that have life in their streets.