By Emma Dunn, Michael Piper and Zoe Renaud
Urban growth and development in Toronto is not limited to its downtown. Like many North American cities in the twentieth century, Toronto experienced rapid growth through dispersal that is often lamented as urban sprawl. This term commonly denotes unplanned and free market development. In Toronto, however, dispersal is anything but accidental. Unlike many cities in the United States where a lack of regional planning policies and regulations has created an aura of self-organization, Toronto's suburban growth, with its multiple peripheral agglomerations, has been systematically planned and documented.
Toronto's systematic urban expansion provides a case study that describes the structure of urban dispersal. As the city is not fully planned, its structure can be understood as a set of rules for a game within which private interests play out their desires at the regional scale. In this context, it is possible to see legislative rules, such as zoning, and unwritten economic rules, such as agglomeration economies, intermix. For example, in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) shopping malls have evolved as partly planned centres and infrastructural attractors that ground the urban periphery. Unlike the relatively unregulated retail development in the United States, malls in the GTA were not allowed to overlap their retail catchment areas. So while such redundancy has led to the decline and death of certain malls in the States, in Toronto they are thriving locations around which new regional development occurs. Understanding the rules of sprawl in Toronto provides a basis for parsing the logic of such dispersal in other North American cities.
We have created an online publication that speculates on the rules of the city's territorial organization as a relationship between financial forces and morphological aspirations. Mallopoly (mallopoly.ca) uses a game format to model the built-up form around ten regional malls in Toronto. Based on Monopoly, the popular board game about land speculation in the late nineteenth-century mercantile city, our proposed game is scaled up to the dispersed landscape of today’s polycentric metropolitan region. Malls in the GTA serve as anchors for the many centres and edge cities that make up the contemporary megalopolis. Over the last 40 years, other buildings have been built around malls, producing a quasi-civic aggregation whose latent formal logic has yet to be fully studied in architectural or urbanism terms. Our game environment provides a fictional abstraction that helps designers understand the economic logic for these growing agglomerations.
The Game Board
The game board sets the locations where players’ movement and action occurs. Organized around transportation lines and malls, Toronto’s game board is set in the post-World War II era during a market housing boom. At the time, focus was on housing for the middle class, as well as sustained governmental measures to ensure even distribution of social housing throughout the GTA. Thus, the majority of the GTA’s regional malls and highways were constructed from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s. Built on greenfield sites in the city’s periphery, malls were developed either immediately before or soon after highway construction. For some sites, rail lines soon followed. Buckminster Fuller’s 1968 urban plan envisioned a series of megastructures as nodes in a peripheral infrastructural network. (1) This plan, along with a series of other comprehensive plans, structure Toronto’s regional development using dispersed nuclei, often gathered around malls, and shaped by the infrastructures that connect the region. (2) Over the next 40 years, institutional, transport or service buildings were strategically planned and located around the already significant mall structures.
The game board illustrates the resulting polycentric nature of the megalopolis. It isolates these moments of agglomeration to understand the organizational logic of this specific regional pattern, which has long been lamented as a nondescript landscape of loose objects and self-interest.
A Property card depicts each of the ten mall sites and describes the attributes that give it value. We derived this value from a set of conditions, such as infrastructural access, density, and access to services. In the context of Toronto, these value attributes provide a way to understand why and how the economies and diseconomies of suburban agglomeration draw different kinds of development to varied locations. In his early theorization of peripheral town centres, Ebenezer Howard described the ingredients for urban dispersal: cheaper property at the city’s edge accessible by extra modes of transportation. (3) These economies contribute to the distribution of development from the city centre to edge city sites. Nevertheless, the increased land value of densifying agglomerations push dispersal of building development farther from edge cities, to other empty sites, a phenomenon described by Robert Lang as edgeless cities. (4)
Along with growth in Toronto’s centre, development at edge city locations has been spurred by cheaper land, highway access, and, in some cases, transit lines. Many current regional planning maps of Toronto focus on these innate growth centres. And while there has been some success in increasing the density of these sites, there are infrastructural and economic limits to how much one can build there; as these sites increase in value, development leapfrogs to other vacant locations along the highway.
Mallopoly aims to model these economies and diseconomies of agglomeration. The property cards quantify the relative value of these sites. Sites in close proximity to public transit and with higher densities, for example, are more expensive to build on, but they also have higher rents. In making choices about how to build in the proposed game—whether high density or spread out, more or less civic space or services—players experience a fundamental conundrum of planning: development of public amenities encourages density, but contributes to rent hikes for residents.
The game pieces are averages of generic observed building types found around the ten GTA malls. Each building type has been studied based on its lot size, coverage, density, parking allotment, and placement. Buildings observed in Toronto can be organized into four functional categories: residential (townhouses, slab towers, and point towers), infrastructural/service/public (institutional, transit, and parking decks), work (office towers), and commercial (strip mall, small box, and big box).
Successful building types become industry norms for a period of time; once they are tested and proven, risk-averse developers copy them until the market is saturated. An initial densification happened through enlarging the malls and colonizing their surroundings with smaller structures such as strip malls. Some malls, like Scarborough Centre, were planned as transport hubs as early as the 1970s. Other malls became attractors for the modernist slab tower ensembles of the late 1970s. In the following decade, small business and office centres started appearing around the malls/transport hubs. By the late 1990s and 2000s, the big box commercial formats became common. Tall, downtown-like, point towers around malls have only appeared in the last ten years. With suburban development, these standard types are placed on a site with buffers of open space or parking surrounding them. As cautious repetition is the motto of market-based urbanization, it seems that this densification through spaced-out standard types will continue.
Mallopoly is played by strategically adding new game pieces to the areas around each mall. Different types of buildings with varied functions and quality can be added to shape the density and diversity of the object-buildings and of the spaces created between them.
The Technique Cards establish spatial relationships between buildings in a mall cluster, and are based on observed recurrent spatial patterns around the ten chosen locations. They describe emergent forms of market-based densification and can also be used to plan a more civic-minded future for these centres. These approaches are mostly mall-centric, due to their dominant size and the timing of construction. Fringe parcels form rings around the malls and are linked by other urban or architectural devices. Physical limits result in different approaches to development around the malls, such as mirrored development located across arterial roads.
It has become popular to apply ideas found in the city centre when planning development of mall sites. For example, the creation of street walls and perimeter blocks (i.e., form-based codes) have been introduced in some cases. Our techniques show ways to add density that reflect the existing organizational logic of the sites. Our techniques borrow from successful late modernist architectural precedents, such as those developed by Alison and Peter Smithson or Oswald Mathias Ungers, where relationships are created through juxtaposition, contrast, or subtle modification. They are based on the object-building-in-landscape logic that gave rise to mall agglomerations in the first place, rather than an idea drawn from a centre morphology. Beyond the empirical nature of the game, we propose it as a method to explore future density derived from the logic of the present condition. The purpose of Mallopoly is to provide an explanatory diagram of the potential organization of regional suburban territories so that designers can understand how to better intervene.
The persistent evolution of these malls over the last 60 years is evidence of their value to the areas they serve. More thoughtful property planning or development could moderate the value of a mall’s surroundings to allow an incremental and successful public-private progression. Existing building types can be modified or repositioned to shape public amenities. New techniques for placing buildings can build on existing patterns to create new spatial arrangements. Toronto’s negotiation of planning policies and market forces may offer a model that can be applied to other sprawling, North American cities. This research speculates that by understanding the underlying logic and collective nature of such seemingly individualistic landscapes, architects and planners can re-evaluate contemporary theories on the opportunities and potentials for subversion of market-based urbanization.
(1) Fuller-Sadao and Geometrics Architects Engineers Planners, “Project Toronto: A Study Proposal for the Future Development of the City and Region of Toronto” (Proposal sponsored by The Telegram and CFTO-TV Toronto: Cambridge, MA, 1968).
(2) Fuller-Sadao/Geometrics Architects Engineers Planners, “Project Toronto,” 18–28.
(3) Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow (Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2009).
(4) Robert E. Lang, Edegeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2003).
Michael Piper is an architect and Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Toronto. His design and research focuses on the relationship between urban form, public space, and the policies and economies that effect their production, with particular attention to the suburbs.
Zoe Renaud graduated with honours from the University of Toronto with a published project on the spatial politics of work in the harbour city. She has collaborated on projects focusing on the economic and socio-political makeup of contemporary Canadian suburbs and Moscow. She currently practices architecture in Rotterdam.
Emma Dunn is an Intern Architect in Edmonton, Alberta. She is a graduate of the University of Toronto and continues to collaborate on projects that challenge normative representations of the contemporary city.