[VIDEO] Toronto’s mother of all suburbs: Don Mills

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Noor Javed

March 21, 2009

To mark Toronto’s 175th birthday, the Saturday Star is presenting turning points in the city’s history that have helped make it what it is today. Torontonians share a love-hate relationship with suburbs – places that are home to many thousands, yet decades later still struggle to be accepted as a crucial part of the city’s past.

When businessman E.P. Taylor unveiled plans in 1953 for Toronto’s first master-planned suburb, Don Mills, the world gasped.

North York’s planning department called the vision for the 850-hectare site “preposterous.” Media from around the world critically eyed the subdivision. The city at large wondered about the feasibility of this ambitious development at Don Mills Rd. and Lawrence Ave. E., which promised to provide mixed-income housing for 30,000 people and work for 25,000 more.

“Don Mills was a conscious way of developing a new community,” said Karl Frank, who worked as the landscape architect with Project Planning Associates Ltd., a company owned by Macklin Hancock, chief planner for Don Mills.

It wasn’t Toronto’s first suburb, of course. But until then, cropping up on the edges of the city, such areas had been built block by block, with little central planning. Even residential areas built from blueprints in the 1920s and ’30s, such as Leaside, the Kingsway and Lawrence Park, were tiny by comparison.

Taylor, Hancock and their colleagues dreamed of creating a completely new modern town, an ideal that still serves as the de facto planning model for the city’s suburbs.

“There was an idea in the planning world around this time that neighbourhoods should be developed complete,” said Richard White, a research associate and history lecturer at the University of Toronto. “So you can’t just build houses, you have to build churches, schools and public parks. You have to have a range of incomes, a place where the working-income people would live, and where upper-income people would live. You had to build the entire neighbourhood unit.”

The land was divided into four quadrants. At the middle, a town centre and industries. In the centre of each quarter: an elementary school close enough to walk to. There were lower-cost apartments, and both small and large houses.

“I don’t think there were many areas like this at the time,” said Frank. “It just wasn’t done.”

But even within neighbourhoods, planners could be innovative. Rather than cookie-cutter houses, Hancock planned 53 modernist designs for homes and meticulously chose the colours and finishings for each. The houses were angled, with ample front and back yards, set off curving streets, with cul-de-sacs to reduce traffic to “keep children safe.” More than 11 per cent of the land was saved as green space.

“When you focus on the school and park, you automatically get a social feeling and people gravitate to each other,” said Frank.

Taylor dreamed big, but it was the right time. In the postwar era, need outweighed skepticism. Few houses had been built in Toronto, although the population had boomed with immigration. Taylor, who had originally intended to build a brewery on his land, capitalized instead on pent-up demand for homes.

In October 1953, the first house went up on Jocelyn Cres.

Other suburbs inspired by Don Mills soon followed: the adjacent Victoria Park Village and Humber Valley Village in Etobicoke.

But over time, Don Mills turned from model to scapegoat, the symbol of everything wrong with suburbs: urban sprawl, congestion and reliance on four wheels. “It’s funny that now that suburbs are viewed as being car-dependent places,” said White. “In Don Mills, the idea was coherence and walkability.”

“New urbanism,” a far denser model built on traditional urban grids, where transit and pedestrians trump the car, is now trumpeted as the wave of the future.

There are those who say the influence of Don Mills persists only in the curvy roads, central schools and adjacent parks characteristic of suburbs across the country.

But at a deeper level, Don Mills also taught planners how to build neighbourhoods: how the layout of a street can shape a community, and how a well-designed community will last for years.

Despite the changes that have swept through Don Mills over the past five decades, its continuing sense of community is a testament to Taylor’s vision, said Frank, who has lived in the area since the ’70s.

“Don Mills will continue to exist because of its neighbourhoods. As long as they can exist the way they do, and they will because of their layout … you will find there will be this cohesion.”

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HOW NEIGHBOURHOODS GREW

1913: Leaside is incorporated as a town, amalgamated into East York in 1967.

1911-1930: Mimico, New Toronto and Long Branch are founded, along with several other suburbs: North York, East York and the village of Swansea. Forest Hill and Kingsway Park are developed as model suburbs with strict architectural guidelines. Forest Hill, incorporated in 1924, features restrictions on size and setbacks.

1924: U.S. city planner Clarence Perry presents his vision for a developing suburb at the National Council of Social Work held in Toronto. Highlights: Community has an elementary school at the centre, a library, movie theatre, church. Shopping, business buildings and apartments at the periphery. Family homes have backyards. Interior streets curvilinear, with through traffic discouraged.

1942: New City Planning Board of Toronto advocates that the metro area be zoned for neighbourhoods with “each providing all the essentials for satisfactory living, employment and recreation.” The “new town” notion develops.

1946 and later: Thousands of homes are built to house a flood of returning soldiers. Minimalist 1,000-square-foot bungalows are the early version of an affordable entry-level home.

1948: Humphrey Carver, inHouses for Canadians, provides a basis for suburban planning, with several neighbourhoods forming a town no bigger than 50,000. Each neighbourhood would have its own elementary school and five would share a high school.

1950s: Postwar baby boom and demand for affordable housing leads to creation of Don Mills, situated a controversial distance of 11 kilometres from downtown.

1960s: Larger, fancier houses are built as a reflection of new-found affluence. The two-car household becomes an accepted feature.

1991-2001: Some 70 per cent of Toronto’s population growth takes place more than 20 kilometres from the city centre. By the turn of the century, roughly three-quarters of residents live in suburbs.

– Compiled by Star library

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