April 28, 2009
by Canadian Architect
On April 22, 2009, Heritage Toronto presented three Heritage Toronto plaques commemorating Don Mills, one of Canada’s most significant housing developments. Though now known as a modern suburban development, Don Mills was once the site of a small farming community. Prior to that, aboriginal communities used the nearby branches of the Don River as transportation routes as well as sources of food and water.
In the 1950s, this rural community was transformed into one of Canada’s most significant postwar suburban developments. In the midst of a housing shortage after World War II, E.P. Taylor, one of Canada’s most powerful businessmen, acquired over 2,000 acres of farmland here. From 1953 to 1965, Taylor’s companies transformed the farmland into one of the world’s most innovative “New Towns,” complete with 28,000 residents, over 70 industries, one of Canada’s earliest suburban shopping plazas, schools, and recreation facilities.
Don Mills was the first North American land development of its kind to be entirely planned and funded by the private sector. Its master plan was designed by Macklin Hancock in consultation with some of the world’s leading urban planners. Centred around a common commercial and civic area, neighbourhoods are isolated from heavy traffic by looping roads and cul-de-sacs. Light industry was welcomed on the edges of the plan. In an effort to create a landmark Modernist community, careful attention was paid to everything from the architectural style and position of buildings to their exterior materials and colours. Existing trees were retained wherever possible and generous green space was provided.
Don Mills has become one of the most discussed planned communities in Canadian history. Challenged, on the one hand, by critics of sprawling suburban development, it has also received praise from around the world for its attempt to create a fully functioning town where residents can live, work, and play. The development’s success inspired imitation. After Don Mills, large private developments became the norm, with developers assuming the costs for the construction of public infrastructure such as roads and services for water and sewage. In 2009, Don Mills’ striking master plan remains largely intact – a landmark in urban planning.