Moving toward complete, economically diverse, and convenient communities for apartment neighbourhoods

Pedestrian amenities are few and far between in many of Toronto's tower neighbourhoods

Pedestrian amenities are few and far between in many of Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods


Our guest blogger this week is Graeme Stewart. Graeme is an Associate with E.R.A. Architects in Toronto where he leads urban research and design projects. Read more about Graeme here.

Over the past several years, United Way Toronto, the City of Toronto, Toronto Public Health, ERA Architects, the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal, and many others have been collaborating on a project called Tower Neighbourhood Renewal.

Tower Renewal aims to enable the hundreds of Apartment Neighbourhoods found throughout Toronto’s inner suburbs and beyond to emerge as integrated, vibrant, and diverse community hubs across the city.

One aspect has been to rethink and modernize the planning and policy framework of these neighbourhoods – to match rules and regulations with the lived realities, and resident desired change within these remarkable neighbourhoods.

The current challenge stems from the fact that most of these neighbourhoods were designed and built in the 1960s and ‘70s. At that time, it was assumed that a good neighbourhood was one where you would drive to work, drive to daycare, drive to the mall, drive to see friends, and so on. Every convenience was just a quick drive away.

Toronto’s zoning by-laws reinforced this kind of neighbourhood design through single-use zoning – apartments in one area, shopping in another, with little or no room for change. That is why we see so few shops, cafés, grocers, community centres, and other conveniences near Toronto’s towers.

Today, Toronto’s tower residents are not typically drivers or car owners: they rely on walking and transit to get around. That means that the neighbourhood destinations of the ‘60s are no longer within reasonable reach, and many neighbourhoods find themselves isolated, lacking the needed shops, services, local food, local childcare, local opportunities, and other ingredients of healthy neighborhoods.

It’s time for a change. And that change seems to be coming.

Through research, advocacy, and collaboration, a new zoning framework has been developed – the “Residential Apartment Commercial” zone – and is poised for implementation in hundreds of Toronto’s vertical neighbourhoods.

This new zone will remove barriers for a range of exciting small-scale businesses and community services. With a new legal framework that aligns better with residents’ needs and wishes, Apartment Neighbourhoods across the city can begin the process of incremental change – toward more complete, economically diverse, and more convenient communities for the hundreds of thousands of Torontonians that call these neighbourhoods home.

From pop-up markets, to cafés, to specialized community services, the aim of the new zoning is to allow services in and to let people experiment – to open new opportunities never before possible.

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 way for social agencies, local communities, architects, and the City to work together towards a brighter Toronto.

But changing the rules is just the start. The next phase of the project will be to work with residents, community organizations, and other stakeholders to realize this new zoning’s potential on the ground. This is an exciting time for Toronto, and there is much work ahead.