Toronto , Canada

Tower Neighbourhood, Tower City

ERA Architects Inc.

April 16, 2015

Mixed-use zoning opens doors to new opportunities for community, connection and commerce in Toronto’s tower cities

Photo credit: ERA Architects

Photo credit: ERA Architects

Every season I have to convince the city that these are not businesses. We have to tell them that we are building communities and supporting local enterprise. If we don’t give them opportunities, how will these newcomers feel confident and integrate?” — Sabina Ali, Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee

Sabina’s struggle with the City of Toronto may now be at an end. As of 2014, the new Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zone permits a number of small-scale commercial and community uses on highrise apartment sites. Mixed use zoning is more than a planning tool or an investment consideration.  For many newcomers, this means new opportunities for ventures that contribute to the vibrancy and diversity of their neighbourhoods.

Initially approved for 500 of Toronto’s 1200 sites, these highrise apartment buildings represent almost 20% of Toronto’s public housing stock and are predominantly privately owned, unlike in European cities, where apartment neighbourhoods tend to be publicly owned and run. According to Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects, and key initiator of the Tower Renewal Project, this creates its own set of challenges, as well as potential efficiencies and opportunities for community development.

Tower City

The Toronto area contains the second largest concentration of high-rise buildings in North America. The majority of these are modern concrete residential buildings, built during the City’s post-war expansion. The Tower Renewal Project is an initiative to re-examine these buildings’ remarkable heritage, neighbourhood histories, current place in our city, and future potential in a green and equitable Toronto.

A key goal of the Tower Renewal project, says founder Stewart,  is to ensure that “healthy, complete, and vibrant neighbourhoods are better able to respond to local needs and opportunities, by allowing for a full range of uses within these neighbourhoods: commercial activity, social activity, and community services – amenities that most areas of Toronto take for granted.”

While the RAC zoning changes seem to make perfect sense in an urban setting, they have been a long time coming: ”Surprisingly, these uses within Apartment districts have until now been largely prohibited. This is because the zoning of Apartment areas was conceived in the 1950s when Toronto’s suburbs were thought to function very differently. While this worked for the car-centric suburbs of fifty years ago, it has prohibited the appropriate evolution of these neighbourhoods in response to ever changing local needs, opportunities, and aspirations. So although the communities themselves have evolved, the physical neighbourhoods have largely remained fixed.”

The evolution of Toronto’s arrival cities

One of biggest changes in the highrise, or tower neighbourhoods throughout the city of Toronto  has been their designation as “arrival cities” to the thousands of new immigrants fueling Toronto’s growth over the past 30 years. Coined by journalist Doug Saunders, the arrival city concept positions “world’s great cities as living systems, as dynamic, vigorous, complex systems that evolve in response to the needs and aspirations of the people that inhabit them. One of the key attributes of self-organization is course correction: a kind of opportunistic adjustment to changing conditions that present both challenges, and opportunities that affect the survival of the ‘self’.”

Saunders sees these tower communities and ‘arrival city’ neighbourhoods as a launchpad to the middle class. Offering cheap affordable rent, access to  community networks and proximity to work, the arrival city incubates immigrant success by providing the newcomer with the necessary ‘conditions for investment’ in a promising future: housing, employment and a path to citizenship or full membership in the host community. In Saunders’ model, high turnover and persistent low socio-economic indicators paradoxically signal the success of the arrival city neighbourhood – the newcomer arrives, connects, settles and moves on to a better life.

In Toronto’s tower city neighbourhoods the reality is more nuanced. For Graeme Stewart,  Toronto’s arrival cities are transient for some, a first step towards integration; while for others  these dense, highrise communities are home. Either way, newcomer and longterm resident alike are interested in making them better places to live: “The vast majority of people who live in these buildings like their neighbours, like their apartments, and feel that they’re invested in where they live. They know there is huge room for improvement, But, they’re not saying ‘get me out of here’, they’re saying ‘how can we make our neighbourhoods better.'”

Neighbourhood Assets

People like Sabina Ali at the Thorncliffe Centre Women’s Committee,  epitomize Jane Jacobs’ vision for inclusive neighbourhoods: “Immigrant neighbourhoods that succeed in holding on to their striving populations are neighbourhoods that improve with time. They become civic assets in every respect, social, physical, and economic. Progress on the part of the population is reflected in the neighbourhood. Increasing diversity of incomes, occupations, and visions, education, skills and connections are all reflected as increasingly diversified neighbourhoods. Time becomes the ally, not the enemy, of such neighbourhoods.”

SPACING FILMS: Powers of Towers from Spacing Magazine on Vimeo.

In fact, the RAC zoning changes formalize an existing trend in these communities: commerce and entrepreneurship. Re-zoning buildings for commercial use is a very important thing in Toronto, says former mayor David Miller, “because commercial activity happens in apartment buildings today. But it’s all sort of hidden. And, it’s illegal from a zoning perspective. In many of the buildings there are a lot of newcomers who are quite entrepreneurial. So that entrepreneurial spirit can be reflected and you can meet real needs of people if you rezone the buildings commercial at the base.”

Enter Tower Renewal

Catalyzed by the Tower Renewal project, the mixed use principle central to the RAC zone is long overdue. Championed by urban visionaries like Jane Jacobs, the change is necessary to unlocking partnerships with private property owners and developers.

The beauty of the current situation, says Stewart, is the strength of the business case. Renewal builds economic opportunity into a important, undeveloped asset ideally situated to respond to Toronto’s changing demographics, largely fueled by immigration. The optimism of Stewart’s vision starts with the question, “how do we take advantage of opportunities by allowing these places to evolve with the needs and aspirations of their residents? One of the unique advantages and reasons why these neighbourhoods evolved as arrival cities is that they have 2, 3, 4 bedroom units (unlike much of Toronto’s new condo development) that are able to accommodate the demographics of families migrating to Canada.”

As Stewart expands, “The buildings aren’t the problem. The systems around the buildings are the problem, in terms of allowing for economies to evolve, allowing for people to engage, and allowing them to act as the type of neighbourhood that Jane Jacobs would suggest can emerge. Something as simple as allowing a few chairs to be put on the ground floor with a restaurant operating can completely change the dynamic under which these buildings can operate. They’re flexible and they can evolve.”

For the city’s new immigrants, Stewart sees immediate potential: “Putting community services and communal spaces right where they’re needed makes a huge difference. As soon as community spaces go in there, the spin-off effects are remarkable.”

Where it’s been most successful, says Stewart, is where there’s already a community partner in the neighbourhood. For example, Thorncliffe Park, has Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, a thriving settlement service provider. They’ve been able to scale up and provide the necessary language, job training, settlement services, and more. Toronto is already rich with many of these organizations. Stewart says what’s needed is “a process of connecting the dots, of making sure that the towers became a real centre of the conversation about service delivery.”

Building a long vision through partnership

Working with public and private actors was essential to move the Tower Renewal vision to practical change in Toronto’s zoning laws. Toronto Public Health’s Healthy Toronto by Design report series stressed how local communities shape the health of their residents. The United Way of Toronto helped identify policy barriers and alternatives to enable Toronto’s apartment neighbourhoods to reach their potential.

Grassroots engagement of residents was essential, allowing community members to take control of their neighbourhoods. Working closely with provincial and city governments, landlords and building owners and community service agencies was essential to building a vision that will work for these neighbourhoods into the long term future.

As Stewart notes, “A City-wide zoning change of this type is a first for Toronto, and would not have been possible without a diverse group of collaborators and stakeholders working together, often in new ways. It is a testament to what is possible through collaboration, and perhaps the start of new ways for social agencies, local communities, architects, and the City to work together towards a brighter Toronto.”

As Toronto City Councillor, Peter Milczyn, said: “This is a change that 10-15 years from now we will look back and say ‘this transformed Toronto’”.


Making it Work for You:

  • Systems change takes time, patience and allies. Bringing significant change to something as complex as city zoning requires a deep commitment and ability to build effective partnerships in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.
  • The complexity of government bureaucratic change may be rivalled by trying to work with a diverse array of private sector actors. However, there are also unique opportunities.
  • Change needs to happen from the top down in systems change, but your greatest advocates will be at the grassroots. Even if change will result in a more livable, welcoming city for all, change will only seem useful to those immediately impacted. Be sure to work with, consult effectively and broadly and partner with grassroots partners who live in the areas where change will occur.
  • “Non experts” are experts about their own situations and lived experience. Their ideas will equal or likely rival so-called expert analysis. Be open to ideas coming from all actors involved.