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Toronto’s housing crunch could be eased with laissez-faire urban planning

Pedestrians cross Spadina Ave. as they head west on King St. West in downtown Toronto, on March 21, 2017. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Premier Kathleen Wynne wants us to know she is taking action on housing. Last week, the Ontario government announced no less than 16 new measures, including expanded rent control and a non-resident speculation tax.

Amid all this frantic activity, much of it pointless or counterproductive, it’s worth remembering that, sometimes, the best thing that governments can do to be helpful is simply get out of the way.

Consider what has happened in the districts on the flanks of Toronto’s core known as “the Kings.” Ken Greenberg, a respected urban designer, told the story on a walking tour last Friday. At his side was Barbara Hall, mayor from 1994 to 1997. The walk ended with a screening of a new documentary about Jane Jacobs, the author and urban thinker. All three – Mr. Greenberg, Ms. Hall and Ms. Jacobs – played a part in the breathtaking transformation of the Kings.

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When Ms. Hall became mayor, the areas around King and Parliament in the east and King and Spadina in the west were desolate. They had once been the industrial heart of the country, producing furniture, garments and machinery. By the early 1990s, most of the factories had long since closed or moved. Brick warehouses stood abandoned. Many were demolished and turned into parking lots.

Artists and other urban pioneers had started to take over parts of the remaining old buildings for studios and even makeshift apartments, but the city frowned on the practice. Strict zoning rules forbid any use other than industrial in the Kings. The convention at the time was to divide cities into discrete zones – industrial, commercial, residential, recreational – and limit mixing of these uses.

Ms. Hall remembers how forbidding the Kings could feel, with empty sidewalks, sprawling parking lots and ghostly buildings. The success of a place could be judged by how it felt to be there, Ms. Jacobs had said. By that standard, the Kings were failing, and Ms. Hall worried they would drag Toronto’s successful centre down with them.

She brought together a group of advisers, including Mr. Greenberg and Ms. Jacobs. The result was a decision that seems radical even today: Knock down the zoning walls and let people do more or less as they liked with properties in the Kings. The city’s planners were skeptical. So were city councillors. But after a bit of a tussle, the change cleared city council.

The effect was remarkable. Architects, advertising firms and other creative businesses drawn by the brick-and-beam office spaces moved in. So did clubs, restaurants and coffee shops. Condominiums began to rise, drawing tens of thousands of new residents into the heart of the city. Mr. Greenberg says the Kings have attracted $8-billion in investment and 50,000 housing units since the city opened things up.

Go to King and Spadina today and you can feel the pulse of life all around. Those who joined Mr. Greenberg on Friday’s walk passed a playground full of laughing kids, sidewalks full of rushing office workers, busy pubs, a high-end hardware store, a dollar store, a grocery store, a luxury hotel, condominiums – even a strip club, an odd leftover from sketchier times. Today the Kings boast the kind of active, walkable streets, urban variety and mixed uses that Ms. Jacobs, who died in 2006, identified as the essence of a successful city.

Mr. Greenberg says the experiment is the most dramatic example he knows of what he calls “subtractive urbanism.” Just taking away restrictive rules and regulations can work marvels. It could go a long way to help ease today’s housing crunch.

The city could allow for housing on city laneways. It could abandon its fixation with holding onto “employment lands,” even when industry is moving out and housing could take its place. It could soften the planning rules that designate so much of Toronto as stable neighbourhoods and make it hard to build anything new or dense.

Cities will evolve on their own if authorities only let in a little light. Toronto didn’t have to bribe developers to move to the Kings. In fact, the city gained millions in new fees and taxes. It didn’t have to draw up a big, complex blueprint for what it wanted to happen, either. It simply got out of the way. Change – stunning, positive change – followed.