A Future Vision for the North American Suburb

The Tower Renewal Project

Much of the discussion focused on suburban development has been to either affirm or to reject the value of the lifestyles provided by low-density developments. The criticisms of sprawl, as outlined by Alex Krieger in his article, ‘The Costs – and Benefits? – Of Sprawl’, centres around a few common themes: its ugliness, the sociological problems it produces, its ecological costs, and the homogeneity it produces through single-use zoning. Yet, having identified these maladies, there has been a dearth of literature regarding the possible remedies for these perceived problematic conditions.

Evidence points to the tide turning, as there seems to be a greater understanding and appreciation for the importance of creating a more sustainable future. In Europe, there have been renewed interests in the regeneration, renovation, and reinvigoration of the periphery as a viable strategy. Likewise, in Toronto, a recent project, ‘The Tower Renewal Project’, attempts to address many of the problems associated with sprawl not through retreat but through repair. Thus, instead of inaction, demolition, or retreat, ‘The Tower Renewal Project demonstrates an alternative method in which through careful analysis, dissection, and understanding of existing local suburban conditions, regenerative strategies could be tailored to help ameliorate many of the troubling aspects of sprawl.


“For most Americans, it has always been easier to retreat than to repair. This has led to schizophrenic urbanism – people making new places that evoke old qualities while being oblivious to the consequences of abandoning exemplary places made earlier. This self-perpetuating cycle of American urbanization – expanding rings of new development, disinvestments in settled areas, wasteful consumption of resources, obsolescence, highway congestion, economic (now more racial) segregation, homogeneity, always leading to new cycles of perimeter development – is finally being acknowledged as self-defeating.” - Alex Krieger1


Introduction


Criticisms of Suburban Sprawl and the Development of a Viable Approach Towards Restoring the Suburbs

Much of the discussion focused on suburban development has been to either affirm or to reject the value of the lifestyles provided by low-density developments. The criticisms of sprawl, as outlined by Alex Krieger in his article, ‘The Costs – and Benefits? – Of Sprawl’, centres around a few common themes: its ugliness, the sociological problems it produces, its ecological costs, and the homogeneity it produces through single-use zoning.2  Yet, having identified these maladies, there has been a dearth of literature regarding the possible remedies for these perceived problematic conditions.

Evidence points to the tide turning, as there seems to be a greater understanding and appreciation for the importance of creating a more sustainable future. In Europe, there have been renewed interests in the regeneration, renovation, and reinvigoration of the periphery as a viable strategy. Likewise, in Toronto, a recent project, ‘The Tower Renewal Project’, attempts to address many of the problems associated with sprawl not through retreat but through repair. Thus, instead of inaction, demolition, or retreat, ‘The Tower Renewal Project demonstrates an alternative method in which through careful analysis, dissection, and understanding of existing local suburban conditions, regenerative strategies could be tailored to help ameliorate many of the troubling aspects of sprawl.


Toronto’s Unique Suburban Morphology

During the immediate post-war period, although many countries in Western Europe and North America experienced many of the same conditions, which would foster suburban growth, the manner in which each proceeded differs from one another. Toronto, from an early date, recognized the importance to controlling and regulating the suburban tide. They attempted to align the vision of their city to one described by Lewis Mumford, “A modern city, no less than a medieval town…must have a definite size, form, and boundary. It was no longer to be a mere sprawl of houses along an indeterminate avenue that moved towards infinity and ended suddenly in a swamp.”3 Thus, Canadian planners in the post-war period aimed to limit urban sprawl and to give the periphery a definite shape and thus were the only North American region that included high-density suburban growth in its post-war urban planning.4

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Toronto’s population increased dramatically. Fearing uncontrolled sprawl, planners sought alternative ways to meet growing housing demands. Thus, they looked to European models as possible solutions to meet their needs. Of particular importance was Sweden’s strategy of creating new towns (such as Vällingby and Farsta) consisting of high-rise apartment complexes connected by lines of a new subway system.5  Toronto thus began an ambitious project of constructing a number of new ‘satellite towns’ with the concrete slab as the main housing typology. The main difference between the European model and the Canadian model is that unlike the Swedish model in which most of the housing is public, the new apartment complexes are privately developed but directed by public policy. Moreover, although these clusters of high-density nodes are aligned along main arterials to align it to major services, not all are connected to a high-speed public transit system. Regardless of these shortcomings, the complexes proved so successful in the early days that between the 1950 and 1970, these apartments accounted for 60 percent of all new residential construction.6

Figure 1: Aerial photo of North Toronto, showing clusters of residential concrete slabs.

In conjunction with the construction of these new ‘satellite towns’, city planners also identified the area directly north of Steeles Avenue (a major arterial which defined the northern edge on Metropolitan Toronto) as a greenbelt. Hence, city officials had hoped to fill the area bounded by the newly defined greenbelt and Lake Ontario and to leave outlying areas alone.

This has resulted in high-density clusters distributed throughout the region and a fact that very few people are aware of: Toronto contains the second highest number of high-rise buildings (over twelve storeys) in North America with approximately 2000 and lags only behind New York City. Chicago, with the third most, lags behind with only 1000 or so high-rises.7 The difference with these three cities is the whereas in both New York and Chicago, most of the high-rises are concentrated within the urban core, most of the high-rises in Toronto are organized into clusters which are dispersed across the entire city. The main reason for this vast difference between the Canadian and American model is that the single family detached house had been and continue to be the preferred form of housing in the United States.

There were many virtues to these developments. Not only did it help meet the growing need for rental units due to a rapidly increasingly population, it created densities which made public transit service to the suburbs viable. The second is that without them, the region would be significantly more sprawling. Also, organizing housing into high-density clusters help align communities with Metro’s services. Even Buckminster Fuller remarked, “In Toronto, an unusually large number of high-rise apartments poke above the flat landscape many miles from downtown. This is a type of high-density suburban development far more progressive and able to deal with the future than the endless sprawl of the U.S”8

Yet, what was once a prominent feature of a progressive suburban model has fallen in disrepair. After being in existence for nearly forty years, their popularity has waned. Consequently, most of the residents in these buildings now are low-income immigrants due to their low costs. Thus, even though these buildings contain a multitude of different ethnic groups, the diversity it contains is masked through its uniform facades. Moreover, in many of these areas, the population is equivalent to some downtown neighbourhoods and at times with twice the density. Yet, unlike the downtown neighbourhoods, these suburban areas lack a main street, commercial areas, or any public venues such as libraries. Thus, many of the low-income residents either have to wait for a bus or to drive to run a simple errand. In addition to the social problems these complexes produce, the concrete apartment slabs have become energy hogs. Since they were built in an age when ‘conservation’ was not a major consideration, single-pane windows and exposed slab edges which contribute to greater energy consumptions.



The Tower Renewal Project


Demolition versus Renovation

Having recognized the many problems associated with these suburban slabs; there has been much debate in terms of what to do with these buildings. Many view demolition as the most straightforward solution. Yet, Graeme Stewart, an architect from ERA Architects, has proposed an alternative approach. He posits, “In a culture of sustainability, demolition is a waste of new resources and of embedded energy already expended in the original construction.”9 Instead of viewing these clusters of high-density slabs as a detriment, he sees it as an incredible resource, which if properly handled, has the ability to radically transform and improve many neighbourhoods across Metropolitan Toronto.

He thus developed along with his firm the ‘Tower Renewal Project’ and persuaded the City of Toronto that these clusters of high-density nodes not only provide a good opportunity for green retrofits which will help Toronto meet its environmental goals, but a rethink of zoning policies will also help improve these towers by encourage more public life.

Although the project is still in the formative stages, it has been designed to grow into an ongoing multi-partnered, multidisciplinary research and implementation effort.10 The Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative (whose mission includes the commitment towards preserving the environment), through the Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program has earmarked Toronto as one of sixteen initial cities to receive funding. Five major banks, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, UBS and ABN Amro provide the main source of funding; and collectively, they will contribute $5 billion dollars to help cities across the world to retrofit buildings to make them more energy efficient. In addition to the Clinton Foundation, other partners in this project now includes the City of Toronto, ERA Architect, the University of Toronto, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, Toronto Community Housing, and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.


Ecological Sustainability

One of the key problems which the Tower Renewal Project attempts to rectify is the environmental problems caused by suburban development. Suburban developments are usually criticized for its ecological costs. The low-density developments and single-use zoning it produces makes it difficult for public transit to service the area because it lacks the critical mass. Consequently, people are forced to use cars to run errands resulting in more cars on the road. Another point of attack is that single-family houses are not as efficiently to heat. Moreover, suburban developments are criticized for taking up too much land.

Thus, it would seem that the density these suburban slabs would it more ecological. But, counter to intuition, since these concrete slabs were build nearly half a century ago, they are in fact less energy efficient than a typical suburban bungalow. Recent research has conducted by Dr. Ted Kesik and Ivan Saleff from the University of Toronto has demonstrated that in fact, these slab apartments consumes 20 percent more energy per square metre than a contemporary single family detached house.11  Thus, despite the advantages created by increasing density such as reduced land coverage, the buildings themselves are not very efficient.

Graeme Stewart thinks the towers’ simple, standard, and sturdy forms make them easy to retrofit. What he envisions is that as these buildings are approaching its fortieth birthday, these towers could be stripped back to its skeletons, and then redressed in energy efficient, and attractive cladding.12  These retrofits are expected to produce efficiencies that would make a 200 units apartment building produce lower greenhouse-gas emissions than fifty traditional bungalows.13 Thus, retrofitting these aging slabs could significantly reduce carbon emissions and help Toronto meet its environmental goals.


Place-making and The Creation of Sustainable Neighbourhoods

In addition to improving the towers’ ecological performance, the Tower Renewal Project also aims to improve the sociological performance of these slabs. Originally, the tower-in-the-park model was by Le Corbusier as a remedy to the unsanitary and congested conditions of the 19th century. Yet, in Europe and in Canada, the parks on which the towers sit on have not functioned as Le Corbusier has envisioned. Instead of being an active communal space, these ‘parks’ are often times fenced off with little or no active uses.

In Toronto, the problem with reactivating these fenced off outdoor spaces is that current planning regulations prohibit any other types of uses. Stewart is pushing for the city to relax its zoning laws to allow the introduction of mixed-used programs on the desolate lawns. Consequently, Stewart claims that ‘formerly isolated towers will be knit back into the urban fabric by means of retail and service outlets, libraries, schools, cinemas, restaurants.’

By doing so, not only could this reactivate a formerly dead ground plane, it also eliminates food deserts as these clusters of suburban slabs are often times under-transited. Thus, the only choices people are faced with are to either wait for a bus, or to drive to run simple errands. By introducing these mixed-infill programs, the need for any type of transit is eliminated for simple tasks such as grocery shopping. Moreover, introducing mixed-programming at grade will also alleviate a sense of placelessness and encourage entrepreneurship and local participation.

Despite the tremendous benefits the Tower Renewal Project can potentially accrue, there are fears that once these buildings have been retrofitted, gentrification will occur. Anticipating this problem, the City of Toronto is ensuring that all the new developments will occur in a highly regulated environment, and that one of the main stipulations is that residents will continue stay in their units, and that there will be controls on rent.14

When the new retails and other programs have been built, revenue generated by the new programs will be funnelled back into the costs of retrofitting these towers. “Greening these towers is more than simply retrofits and energy counts; it is investing in and fostering sustainable communities.”15


Conclusion

20th century sprawl has introduced a wide range of problems such as long commute times, higher service costs, waste of land, etc… For Toronto, they are in a advantageous position for possessing a stock of high-density residential towers which could be retrofitted with green mechanical systems and infilled with mixed programs to help alleviate many of these issues. The Tower Renewal Project has demonstrated that there is an alternative approach when attempting to address the many problems associated with sprawl. Instead of retreat, one can, through careful analysis, propose an alternative that intelligently respond to many of the attendant problems produced by sprawl. John Barber, a reporter from the Globe and Mail wrote, “One thoughtful initiative can change the direction of an entire city. As the mayor has recognized, this is one of them. After years of neglect, the suburban slabs are now the prime focus of Toronto’s quest for both sustainability and social justice.”16


Endnotes

1. Krieger, Alex. “The Costs – and Benefits? – of Sprawl.” Sprawl and Suburbia University of Minnesota Press, 2005, pp.52
2. Krieger, Alex. “The Costs – and Benefits? – of Sprawl.” Sprawl and Suburbia University of Minnesota Press, 2005, pp. 46
3. Hall, Peter. “The City on the Highway.” Cities of Tomorrow Oxford University Press, 2002. pp. 322
4. Stewart, Graeme. “The Suburban Slab: Retrofitting our Concrete Legacy for a Sustainable Future.” Greentopia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto, Coach House Press, 2007. pp. 135
5. Hall, Peter. “The City on the Highway.” Cities of Tomorrow Oxford University Press, 2002.
6. Stewart, Graeme. “The Suburban Slab: Retrofitting our Concrete Legacy for a Sustainable Future.”  Greentopia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto, Coach House Press, 2007. pp. 136
7. Mays, John Bentley. “A City of Tall, Aging Buildings.” The Globe and Mail November 2006: pp. G3
8. Stewart, Graeme. “The Suburban Slab: Retrofitting our Concrete Legacy for a Sustainable Future.” Greentopia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto pp. 139
9. Stewart, Graeme. “Faulty Towers.” The Toronto Star March 2007: pp. B5
10. Stewart, Graeme. “The Suburban Slab: Retrofitting our Concrete Legacy for a Sustainable Future.” Greentopia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto pp. 139[1] Stewart, Graeme. “Faulty Towers.” The Toronto Star March 2007: pp. B5
11. Stewart, Graeme. “The Suburban Slab: Retrofitting our Concrete Legacy for a Sustainable Future.” Greentopia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto pp. 132
12. Stewart, Graeme. “Faulty Towers.” The Toronto Star March 2007: pp. B5
13. Stewart, Graeme. “Faulty Towers.” The Toronto Star March 2007: pp. B
14. Stewart, Graeme. “Faulty Towers.” The Toronto Star March 2007: pp. B5
15. Barber, John. “Neglected high-rises hold the key to a sustainable future.” The Globe and Mail May 2007: pp. A2


Bibliography

1. Barber, John. “Neglected high-rises hold the key to a sustainable future.” The Globe and Mail May 2007: pp. A2
2. Byers. “Toronto in Clinton Green Plan.” Toronto Star May 2007: pp. B2
3. Hall, Peter. “The City on the Highway.” Cities of Tomorrow Oxford University Press, 2002.
4. Jones, Ellen Dunham. “Seventy-five Percent: The Next Big Architectural Project.” Sprawl and Suburbia University of Minnesota Press, 2005
5. Krieger, Alex. “The Costs – and Benefits? – of Sprawl.” Sprawl and Suburbia University of Minnesota Press, 2005
6. Mays, John Bentley. “A City of Tall, Aging Buildings.” The Globe and Mail November 2006: pp. G3
7. Mays, John Bentley. “Creating Housing Goals the Market Can Live With.” The Globe and Mail June 2007: pp. G4
8. Mays, John Bentley. “Recladdding Aging Stock of Condos Would Pay Off.” The Globe and Mail June 2007: pp. G5
9. Smith, Mike. “Towers of Power: How We Can Turn Wastelands between Suburban Buildings into Villages.” NOW Magazine June 2007: pp. 54
10. Spears, John. “Green Living: Concrete Slab Apartments Gain New Life with Retrofits.” Toronto Star May 2007: pp. G8
11. Stewart, Graeme. “Faulty Towers.” The Toronto Star March 2007: pp. B5
12. Stewart, Graeme. “The Suburban Slab: Retrofitting our Concrete Legacy for a Sustainable Future.” Greentopia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto, Coach House Press, 2007. pp. 132-143

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