Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto's Sprawl Paperback – Apr 25 2009
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‘Thoroughly researched, Sewell creatively weaves an abundance of planning documents and historical maps into a compelling story making Shape of the Suburbs a rich and valuable contribution to the history of suburbanization.’ (Sally Turner Historical Geography, vol 39:2011)
'John Sewell has always had a remarkable clarity of vision, and in The Shape of the Suburbs he casts his penetrating eye on urban sprawl, a blight of the twentieth century that continues to threaten the twenty-first. Sewell traces the development of the Toronto region with an uncanny ability to dismantle rhetoric with data, and to hold good intentions to account with historical fact. This book reveals how land use decisions affect the way we live, work, and grow, and is a must read for those who wonder why our politics seem so limited.' (Alan Broadbent, author of Urban Nation; chairman and CEO, Avana Capital Corporation; chairman, the Maytree Foundation)
'[The Shape of the Suburbs] is invaluable... Sewell's documentary account will form an important part of the historical record.' (Joe Berridge, Literary Review of Canada)
'Toronto has been the subject of numerous books that deal with the city's fascinating past. John Sewell's new book, The Shape of the Suburbs, focuses on the city's modern-day history and its growth. Once made up of separate communities grouped under the 'Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto' banner, its current more unified status makes it the focal point of a .super city. known as the Greater Toronto Area. A recent story it may be, but this too is history.' (Mike Filey, author of Toronto, The Way We Were and the Toronto Sketches series)
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While the book is written from a neutral third person perspective, Sewell bears a somewhat personal relation to the material, as a member of Toronto's City Council of Toronto from 1969-1978 and a two year stint as mayor of Toronto. Furthermore, as a columnist with the Globe and Mail, Now Magazine and Toronto's Eye Weekly, Sewell was a leader of Citizens For Local Democracy which opposed the foundation of the new Megacity Toronto in 1998 and remains politically active until this day. Working out proposals and following endless debates would have played a large role in Sewell's life which reflects the writing style and context of his book; however this does not always contribute to clarify the central theme and is at times difficult for the reader.
After a short Preface and Introduction, Sewell begins describing the situation of the city of Toronto and its hinterland in the Mid-Century. At this time Toronto is a compact and dense urban area consisting of three urbanized municipalities surrounded by farmland and smaller settlements. At the end of Second World War, the city is confronted with accommodating high amounts of refugees and immigrants from Europe and the rest of the world. As Sewell states, smart government decisions resulting in the foundation of the Metropolitan Toronto (Metro) made it possible to generate growth in a smooth and cost efficient way. The success of Metro was the clear allocation of responsibilities and the retention of local governments.Read more ›
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1. In the 1940s, Toronto's transit surplus actually ran a surplus- and it continued to be more or less self-financing until the 1970s (when government decided to reduce suburban fares to the same level as city fares, and money-losing suburban rail lines were built). In some ways, these innovations were successful: ridership rose from 310 million riders in the mid-1940s to 460 million in 1990. But at a heavy cost: city-oriented Toronto transit costs .47 per rider, but suburban GO Transit costs 4.71 per rider. As a result, when transit subsidies were reduced in the 1990s, ridership nosedived.
2. 1940s planners favored policies that today would be considered pro-sprawl by many planners. For example, the city of Toronto's 1943 plan (like later plans) proposed that new areas be half as dense as older neighborhoods, and that numerous expressways be built. In those days, provincial legislation actually required the city of Toronto to directly pay for suburban roads, on the theory that its existence generated suburban traffic. And just as the federal government supported expressway construction in the United States, Ontario later paid for Toronto-area expressways.
3. The provincial government, responsible for water and sewer service, consistently sold service to newer suburbs at far less than the cost of provision: for example, in 1971, water cost .61 per gallon, about twice the cost of what ratepayers paid.
4. Despite these pro-sprawl policies, Toronto is still less car-dependent than American cities; in the older part of the city of Toronto, 51% of households have no car, and 60% of daily trips are by walking and cycling. And even Toronto's outer neighborhoods are far less car-dependent than their American counterparts. In inner suburbs, 17.4% of households have no car (as opposed to 7.8% in Cheektowaga, a not-particularly-wealthy inner suburb of Buffalo), though outer suburbs have car ownership rates comparable to those of the USA. And even Toronto's outer suburbs have 1.5 miles of transit ridership more day, about twice the regional average in Buffalo. This may be because Toronto suburbs, though far less compact than older parts of Toronto, are about twice as densely populated as most American suburbs. (NOTE: I got statistics about American suburbs from sources other than Sewell's book).
I do wish Sewell had devoted more space to design issues in the suburbs (such as road design, parking, and zoning) - the sort of policies that explain why Canadian suburbs are more thinly populated and car-dependent than their urban neighbors.