Let me be clear. Toronto suburbs are not going anywhere. They are still growing. Many people still dream of owning their own house, which is much more attainable in the suburbs.
Something is changing though. And it’s changing fast. Some suburbs are becoming more like cities.
Toronto’s inner suburbs of the future will be much more like cities of today.
Specifically: Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York.
You know, the “ex-burbs” that were once their own municipalities before amalgamation with Toronto.
Before we get started, let me offer a simplified history of how suburbs around North America got started.
After World War II, there emerged a dream. The middle-class would live in their own homes with their own yards on tree-lined streets. They would be driving distance from downtown. One or both parents would work there. Sure, there would be some traffic, but the commute wouldn't be bad.
Cities like Toronto were covered in parking lots. So, it was easy to drive into the city to work at an office, park almost anywhere at a reasonable cost, and then drive back home to the suburbs.
Many smaller towns like Mississauga, Oakville, or Etobicoke exploded into suburban communities. In the suburbs, the car was king. So, suburbs grew to accommodate cars. Streets were wide. Highways were plentiful. Big box stores and malls came along with lots of parking for everyone.
It was a city planner’s nightmare. This is when the notion of urban sprawl came along.
To a large extent, many middle-class Torontonians moved to the suburbs. But the city became the spot for new immigrants, LGBTQ folk, hippies, cool kids, singles, university professors, and some middle-class who stayed in Toronto.
Suburbs seemed to work for a while, but ...
Then came traffic.
Now suburbs were suddenly less appealing.
Then came gentrification. Along with it, the desire to live in a city once again.
Suburbs were now tagged as soul-less, boring places with no street life or walkable streets. In the eyes of some, suburbs had become a failed experiment.
And so the return to the city became more appealing.
As with many things in life, the suburbs became more complicated places than just a place to put a lot of low-density houses where cars can move easily. Many people still love the dream of owning a house (or a large condo), which is generally more attainable in the suburbs at a better price.
And who could blame them for that?
Today, some suburbs are still expanding. Many immigrants from the past 50 years, and their descendants, that started in the city have decided to move to the suburbs. Italians in Woodbridge. South Asians in Brampton. The Chinese in North York.
Still, there are a group of suburbs that may be coming to an end.
As I mentioned, these are what some call ex-burbs. They still have many of the attributes of suburbs, but they are rapidly urbanizing. The ex-burbs were separate entities until Toronto amalgamated in 1998. At that time, some believed the money that these suburbs had would keep the city financially healthy. It could combine certain services and offer a stronger tax base.
Oddly enough, in the next 20 years or so, the old city of Toronto began to generate a great deal of wealth as it further urbanized and the condo boom took hold.
City-living in Toronto, and in much of the world, became so much in demand that there are now pressures on the closest communities with land to spare to supply housing to a supply-strapped city.
The original suburbs next to the city are increasingly absorbing the priced-out, city-loving people into their neighbourhoods. This would include Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York. The lands of bungalows, Costco and strip malls, with some older stock housing as well.
Let’s take Etobicoke for example.
Like many suburbs, it has a big mall (Sherway Gardens) but no centralized downtown. It has, however, generated smaller villages in the city like Toronto has.
Long Branch, for instance, has a large number of new condo townhomes along Lakeshore. There you'll find an explosion of independent businesses with indie coffee shops and walkable streets. Even the parks along the lake are much more frequently used than in the past.
Most recently there has been some densification plans along the Queensway. Currently, it's a mix of car dealerships, box stores, mom and pop shops, and grocery outlets. It’s a strange mix of suburban blandness with hip urban specialty shops like one for delicious French macarons.
There has also been a greater number of low-rise condos proposed along this strip. This will densify the area and make it much more walkable. We’re not talking giant 80-storey condos, but ones that are integrated into the neighbourhood.
In the future, the Queensway will still honour the auto, but it may become much more pedestrian-friendly as more people live on the street.
From North York to Richmond Hill, we have seen how the expanding Toronto subway has urbanized Yonge Street. I’m sure this will be the case if the subway expands to Scarborough. Even though the Sheppard subway line in North York is not near profitable, it has led to a great deal of development along the Sheppard line.
Of course, all development won’t take place along subway lines in the exurbs exclusively in the future.
There are a lot of warehouses, parking lots, fields, business parks, and end-of-life strip malls to be turned into condos or commercial areas. With much of Toronto’s parking lots largely filled with condos now, there will be much more pressure on the areas to densify.
Of course, where one suburb moves on, others pop up.
The expansion around Durham region is a good example of the expanding Toronto suburb. Also, we still have suburbs that are not inner suburbs or outer suburbs, but suburbs in the middle, like Mississauga.
These suburbs are changing though. There is smarter development here now. There is a will to go back and fix the messy sprawl that made them. Possibly those suburbs will be next to feel the push of urbanization.
So much so that they may be unrecognizable in the decades ahead.