Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Innovative Infill

Breathing life into Toronto's nooks and crannies

They are the spaces we ignore: Toronto’s alleyways and awkward corners, where the urban fabric droops like a gangly teenager’s ill-fitting shirt. Recently though, new ideas have emerged to deal with two of the city’s most overlooked spaces: its 300 kilometres of laneways  and the underside of its infamous Gardiner Expressway.

When architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe were looking to build a house in the early 1990s, they wanted something modern but affordable. This combination, however, is virtually unheard of in Toronto, where high land values and restrictive architectural guidelines (essentially, new houses are required to look like their neighbours) make it hard to build unusual houses in established neighbourhoods. Their solution? Build something out of sight, in a back alley. After finding a piece of property in the city’s east end that was used mainly for storing abandoned cars, they applied to the Ontario Municipal Board for permission to build a laneway house. At first, neighbours were alarmed and some protested against the project. Despite the complaints, however, Shim and her husband got the go-ahead from the OMB, and their concrete-block house was completed in 1993. “Part of the design is that it really protected everyone’s privacy,” says Shim. “Everything is really unobtrusive.”

In its ruling, the OMB went one step further than merely approving Shim and Sutcliffe’s house, declaring that laneway housing was an “untapped resource” that should be encouraged. Currently, laneway housing exists, but only as an exception to the rule: old coach houses and individual ventures here and there. Yet the laneway network’s potential is enormous. In 2003, Shim and fellow architect Donald Chong led thirteen architecture students in a design studio at the University of Toronto. They produced a collection of plans and visions that seized upon the opportunity to reshape the city one alleyway at a time. The studio’s work won a City of Toronto Architecture & Urban Design Award. This, along with the publication of Site Unseen: Laneway Architecture & Urbanism in Toronto, a book based on the studio, helped generate mainstream interest in laneway housing. 

Toronto needs a diverse range of housing. About 100,000 new arrivals come to the city each year, with more than a million expected over the next decade. The city’s current urban plan calls for the transformation of Toronto’s arteries into “avenues": transit corridors lined by high-density mixed-use buildings. While this strategy is ambitious, the kind of intensive redevelopment it requires will be disruptive and controversial. Laneway housing is a subtle way to incrementally increase the density of residential neighbourhoods—especially the tranquil inner suburbs that would be most resistant to change—without drastically changing their character. According to one estimate, opening up Toronto’s 2,433 laneways to residential construction could add more than six thousand housing units to the city centre.

The quantity of housing takes backseat to the type of housing offered by laneway dwellings: cheap, space-and-energy-efficient and flexible. “There’s not a lot of choice for people right now,” says Shim. “What we need are more layered neighbourhoods. What’s smart about laneway houses is that they use the existing infrastructure. They support the neighbourhood and make it denser without totally altering or warping the fabric of the city.”

Not only that, she adds, but laneway houses allow for more creative architecture—there’s no need to blend in with the neighbouring house’s preening façade—and they can serve as catalysts for cleaning up and greening back alleys. Perhaps most importantly, they are more affordable than the normal single-family houses that dominate most Toronto neighbourhoods. “They allow for a diversity of lifestyles,” says Shim. “They can only be a good thing.”

Unfortunately, not everyone at Toronto’s City Hall shares that sentiment. The city planning department loves the idea of laneway houses, but the Works Committee doesn’t. It worries that fire trucks might be too big to pass through alleys, and that laneway houses would be a drain on city services, that they would intrude on their neighbours’ privacy. In a vote last November, Toronto City Council opted not to establish a city-wide policy on laneway housing, forcing individuals like Brigitte Shim to obtain special permission to build houses in back alleys. Yet there is a growing demand for the kind of small, cheap, energy-efficient living spaces that laneway housing provides. Recently, a team of developers tried to convert a laneway commercial building into two residential lofts, but they were crushed by a Byzantine regulatory process. “People want ad hoc community life with big city amenities,” says Shim, and laneway housing can provide just that.

There is no mistaking the postwar concrete hubris of the Gardiner Expressway for the quaintness of a laneway, but it too brims with the possibility of creative infill. The Gardiner runs on top of the busy Lakeshore Boulevard—a featureless traffic funnel—halfway between Toronto’s financial district and its bourgeoning waterfront. Over the years, it has become a symbol of Toronto’s detachment from Lake Ontario and a perceived barrier to waterfront redevelopment. Finally, last October, after years of anticipation, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation released a lengthy and opaque report on the Gardiner’s future.

“It’s a completely indigestible document,” says John Lorinc, a longtime observer of Toronto politics and the author of The New City: How the Crisis in Canada’s Urban Centres is Reshaping the Nation. Still, he was able to uncover three basic recommendations buried within the report. The first two are variations on a theme: they would destroy all or part of the Gardiner, replacing it with enhanced ground-level roadways. It is the last recommendation, however, what he calls the “transformation option,” that really appeals to Lorinc. It proposes leaving the elevated structure of the Gardiner intact, suggesting that Lakeshore Boulevard—not the highway—is the real barrier between downtown Toronto and the waterfront. Under this plan, the boulevard would be moved, freeing the space under the expressway for recreational, community, industrial or commercial use

. “The whole underlying principle of the transformation idea is that it’s organic,” Lorinc explains. “You enable it by taking out the Lakeshore Boulevard from beneath [the Gardiner] and let it happen over time.”

What makes this option so attractive is that it is not only inexpensive, but it reconfigures Lakeshore Boulevard, the biggest obstacle to pedestrians. What’s more, the project creates space for new amenities to serve the residents of thousands of new condo units that are being built next to the Gardiner. Lorinc calls it “backfilling,” a way for the city to make up for the community services it is neglecting to install right now. He points to the Westway, an elevated expressway in London, as a model for the Gardiner. Since the 1980s, a non-profit trust has reclaimed twenty-three acres of land under the highway for things such as soccer fields, community space and shops. In one section, a weekend street market runs under the expressway, linking two commercial streets. Thanks to these reclamations, the Westway has become an integral part of the neighbourhoods it once divided.

Transforming the space underneath the Gardiner and developing the city’s laneways are exactly the kinds of creative ideas Toronto needs to address its rapid growth. The forgotten corners of the city are waiting.