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“It’s always life that is right and architecture that is wrong” Le Corbusier, 1942

In 1950, 45-55% of urban households across Canada had built their own home. By 2000, this had been reduced to less than 2%. Cities before 1950 grew up within a grid pattern of agricultural lots that were gradually subdivided along emerging new streetcar corridors and sold off to individuals or small builders who built their home on a step-by-step basis, as their household and the city expanded.

Cities after 1950 were “fully planned” to accommodate completed housing and social facilities, including schools, parks and shopping centres which residents simply moved into. Changes to these houses were discouraged by restrictive zoning regulations.

In 2007, with thanks to David Hulchanski (see, we discovered that the “unplanned” neighbourhoods (48% of the city) within Toronto are occupied by majority middle- and upper-income earners, and the “fully planned” neighbourhoods (54%) by majority lower-income earners. In other words, before 1950, when original and new property owners working with land surveyors were more directly involved with settlement, the more likely their incomes were to rise. After 1950, when landowners of large assemblies, working with surveyors, planners and architects assumed responsibility to pre-planning land subdivision and pre-designing housing, the more likely residents’ incomes were to fall.

In light of the above, we need to take lessons learned from both these periods – the unplanned and the fully-planned - to create a new balance between land-use planning frameworks and the zoning which enacts them - as these are put in place by governments; and the individual initiatives of land-owners and builders to accommodate themselves within these frameworks. We need to:

  • Render planning and zoning regulations more visible through “how-to” on-line manuals that target existing individual landowners/developers and builders.
  • Prepare Neighbourhood Growth Plans for growing neighbourhoods that plan for their gradual densification over time and empower existing landowners/developers to participate alongside major developers in accommodating growth
  • Based on these plans, focus municipal investment on the upgrading of existing engineering, transit and social services that define the public realm to accommodate growing and changing populations.
  • Create more permissive (i.e. “as-of-right”) forms of zoning that broaden the range of permitted uses, champion mixed-use, and encourage both new construction and renovations-and-additions to existing structures.

Housing ourselves is Toronto’s largest economy, and the single largest wealth-builder for most families. The Canadian Home Builders Association and Altus have estimated that total construction activity in Ontario between 2010 and 2016 amounted to approximately $240 billion. The contractor renovations-and-additions portion of this work amounted to roughly $120 billion. Altus estimated that $47 billion (i.e., 40%) of the latter can be attributed to the “underground economy”- meaning residential improvements carried out without building permits. An additional $16 billion has been estimated as revenue leakage to underground builders from federal and provincial government-funded projects. Our plans for the next 25 years need to embrace the full range of investments in housing by not only developers and governments but also property owners/developers and local builders.

Embrace the messy and unplan for it!