The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl

By John Sewell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

In the introduction to this, a sort of unintentional sequel to The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning (University of Toronto Press, 1993), Sewell writes that it “would be difficult to call me a dispassionate author.” Good, because while his statistics-gathering and charts-and-graphs comparisons are indispensable, we must remember that Sewell, a former mayor of the City of Toronto (1978-80), comes at city planning from a biased, anti-big business perspective. This was the 1969 city councillor who rode his bicycle to work and would later be dubbed “Mayor Blue Jeans” by the Toronto Sun for his countercultural and environmental beliefs.

For example, in Chapter 9, “A Triumph of Suburban Values,” two fictional yet “quintessential” scenarios are placed side by side for comparison: a suburbanite’s “nerve-racking” and “you-against-the-world” car trip to work versus an inner city-dweller’s neighbourly jaunt on idyllic public transit filled with chatty people in “a real rainbow” of skin tones.

Funny. I live in a Macklin Hancock-esque late-1950s suburb that’s considered close to downtown by 21st-century standards, and have an experience that’s pretty much smack-dab in the middle–I don’t fight traffic and public transit is at my door. And yet, while Sewell is obviously colour-blind to these sorts of grey areas, I desperately want to love him despite his literary disability.

Who else would don the urban archaeologist’s hat and go spelunking through forgotten records rooms and musty old reference libraries to confirm that there was “no regional planning document in North America similar to the Metro plan” of 1959, or to interpret that its very success lay in the tension caused by representing both regional and local interests? Where else could I ingest some half-baked 1962 MTARTS (Metro Toronto and Region Transportation Study), then get queasy looking at the 1959 Master Plan for Bramalea, a map so full of discontinuous, looping streets it almost swims off the page like a scaly, wet fish?

However, despite the solid research, something is amiss: the mid-century Metro planners that were judged so harshly in the 1993 book are now portrayed as near geniuses compared to the cowboys of the 905 region. Without proper planning controls, this Wild West (and north and east) outside Metro’s borders became “a large and unruly animal with a mind of its own” that continues to sprawl today. To add insult to injury, Toronto itself blew away what had been a “perfect structure” of governance by creating the amalgamated Megacity in 1998, which “disabled council members” and rendered “local government in Toronto dysfunctional.”

Then again, who but Sewell to get his hands dirty with the nitty-gritty of superhighways, sewers and scandal? No one, but it’s too bad that while telling the much-needed story of the 905, he continues to forget that there’s life between Milton and Parkdale or between Riverdale and Ajax (hint: Etobicoke and Scarborough) and it is in these (grey) areas that sprawl might very well be squashed with infill, whether that’s via second storeys on strip malls or townhouses surrounding point towers. Reviewed by Dave LeBlanc