What features of neighbourhoods are worth preserving?

Updates: The Global Cities at Risk website is focused upon a topic addressed in this blog post. A July 30, 2013 Atlantic Cities article notes that rising sea levels could submerge substantial parts of 1,700 U.S. Cities. An August 20, 2013 Globe and Mail article highlights the predicted effects of rising sea levels as does an August 22, 2013 New York Times article.

A March 5, 2014 CBC article is entitled: “Climate change may put UNESCO World Heritage Sites underwater.”

[End of Updates.]


The purpose of the essay, in keeping with Jane’s Walk, is to encourage conversation.

Mike James and Jaan Pill led a Jane’s Walk in South Long Branch on May 6, 2012 and look forward to leading walks on May 4 and 5, 2013.

Mike James of Brampton celebrates his free coffee as a Tim Hortons Roll Up Your Rim contest winner at Cloverdale Mall, during Government and Community Services Fair, Feb. 23, 2013. Jaan Pill photo

As part of publicity for this year’s Jane’s Walks, we had a display table at the Government and Community Services Fair at Cloverdale Mall on Feb. 23, 2013. We much enjoyed the event.

As an outline of its principles indicates, “Jane’s Walk is a non-partisan initiative that strives to include a wide array of voices and ideas in discussions about cities, neighbourhoods and community engagement.”

What is preservation?

Preservation involves keeping things around that otherwise would be destroyed. Some things get preserved and some things are lost forever. In the long run, the planet will experience another ice age and many things will be lost under glaciers. Eventually the sun that warms our planet will burn out. In time the universe will disappear. But in the meantime, we try to preserve at least a few things worth preserving.

The preservation of historic buildings, by way of example, appeals to at least some people. One of the first things I learned in my role as a heritage proponent is that many people wouldn’t care less if a given building is lost or destroyed. I found that useful to know. I see that as an opportunity for public education. It’s great to have a realistic baseline. It’s useful to know the nature of the task that confronts a person with an interest in heritage preservation.

Ontario Heritage Act

The Ontario Heritage Act enables designation of historic buildings under specified conditions.

Occasionally, buildings get preserved when legislation enables such preservation. The possible designation of 28 Daisy Avenue is driven by a narrative involving application of the Ontario Heritage Act in pursuit of the preservation of the oldest remaining building in Long Branch (Toronto not New Jersey).

Heritage preservation is also an underlying theme in the Mimico 20/20 story as it unfolds. It is inspiring, in my view, to know that City Council has an interest in community input regarding heritage preservation and redevelopment in Mimico.

A related concept is adaptive reuse of heritage buildings as outlined in a Feb. 23, 2012 Toronto Star article.

Often an economic argument is advanced with regard to preservation of historic buildings. When you preserve a building, and give the matter some thought, in some cases you create a tourist destination. In such an event, history may be preserved, or it may become part of some other narrative. How that unfolds depends on circumstances, and tends to be a source of fascination for students of urban history.

Preservation of church buildings in Toronto

The story of the Wesley Mimico United Church comes to mind with regard to nuances that may emerge in conversations regarding preservation.

The Etobicoke Historical Society favours the designation of the the church’s building, within the context of a re-purposing based upon the ongoing participation of the church’s congregation in the life and work of the local community.

The re-purposing involves creation of life lease housing for seniors within the interior of the church, with the main floor retained for use by the congregation and community groups.

Such a re-purposing involves modifications to the front and sides of the church while maintaining the goal of historical preservation.

Another perspective regarding the preservation of Wesley Mimico United Church envisions a scenario in which the congregation ceases to be involved with the church building, and the church is re-positioned, with its facades intact, as a high-end condo.

With regard to Wesley Mimico United Church, an argument has been advanced that the church’s congregation is part of the history of Mimico, and warrants preservation as a heritage resource.

This is an argument that warrants discussion and consideration. It represents a point of view that is a legitimate part of the ongoing conversation regarding ‘What warrants preservation?’

Shoreline preservation in Manhattan and other flood-prone cities

In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed my interest in what will happen in Manhattan if climate change leads to a rise in sea levels causing submersion of key areas of the city.

The story of Manhattan in the face of climate change stands to be repeated in coastal cities around the world, assuming current climate trends continue.

The question that arises is: Can we view rising sea water levels as a heritage preservation issue? In such a circumstance, heritage preservation refers not only to historical buildings but also to preservation of low-lying urban and rural landscapes across the planet.

As well, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, addressing climate change would be a key task for any person concerned with heritage preservation.

Preservation of ways of life in Toronto

Research such as summarized in the Three Cities within Toronto project indicates that what has been termed the ‘middle class’ has been eroding since the 1970s. My sense, from what I’ve read of research in this area, is that this is an ongoing global phenomenon that is accelerating.

The topic interests me because I’ve been recording oral history interviews with Long Branch (Toronto not New Jersey) residents for several years, getting a sense from first-hand accounts of life in the community from the 1930s until the 2010s.

The Three Cities in Toronto studies at the Cities Centre, University of Toronto, underline a change in demographics across Toronto as a whole.

The publication referenced in the previous sentence [you can click on the link to access biographical details] notes (p. 18) that in 1970 a majority of Toronto neighbourhoods (66%) had average incomes and there were very few neighbourhoods with very low income.

By 2005, however, according to the above-noted study, “only a third of the city’s neighbourhoods (29%) were middle-income, while slightly over half of the city’s neighbourhoods, compared to 19% in 1970, had residents whose incomes were well below the average for the Toronto area.”

Long Branch is among a minority of Toronto neighbourhoods maintaining a status since 1970 as a middle-income neighbourhood.

Long Branch has remained since 1970 within the category defined as City #2, where the increase or decrease in individual income has been less than 20%.

Between 1970 and 2005, the middle-income area of Toronto shrank dramatically, while the high-income area (City #1) increased slightly and the low-income area (City #3) increased substantially.

Income support programs in Ontario

The above-noted report argues (p. 21) that:

“The polarization of the city need not continue. It is not inevitable. The jurisdiction and financial capacity of the federal and provincial governments are sufficient to reverse the trend. A wealthy nation can use its resources to make a difference. Income support programs that keep up with inflation and are based on the cost of living and tax relief for households in the bottom fifth of the income scale can address inequality.

“Assistance with households’ most expensive budget item – housing – through social housing and rent supplement programs (which exist in most Western nations), will free up more of a household’s meagre monthly income for other essentials.

“The provincial and municipal governments could implement specific policies to help maintain and promote mixed neighbourhoods. These include inclusionary zoning, whereby any medium-to-large new residential developments must include 15% or 20% affordable rental units.

“Also, the Province of Ontario could keep its promise to end vacancy decontrol – the right of landlords to charge whatever they wish for a rental unit when a tenant moves – and thereby discourage the displacement of low-income residents in gentrifying areas.

“Implementation of the Transit City plan and the Tower Neighbourhood Renewal initiative are also essential for making City #3 desirable for both its residents and for a broader socioeconomic mix of households.

“The segregation of the city by socio-economic status need not continue. It can be slowed and reversed.”

To put it another way, the report argues that the middle-income demographic warrants preservation.

Trends in middle-class employment is a subject of related interest as Chrystia Freeland highlights in a Feb. 14, 2013 Globe and Mail article. The above-noted article refers to trade and technology as middle class job killers. A Feb. 23, 2013 Toronto Star article addressing similar themes notes that half of Toronto and Hamilton jobs are of a precarious nature.

The study on which the latter article is based was also the subject of a Feb. 23, 2013 Globe and Mail opinion article. An article about how to deal with the changing employment landscape appeared in The Toronto Star on Feb. 25, 2013.

Freeland’s most recent book is entitled Plutocrats: The rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else (2012).

Preservation of New York neighbourhoods

Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, a 2011 overview of Jacobs’ legacy published by the American Planning Association, brings attention to the fact that Jane Jacobs’ West Village home in New York, a narrow three-story building where she lived with her family in the 1950s and 1960s, was on sale in 2009 for $3.5 million.

In the introduction to the book Max Page, who has written extensively about the history of heritage preservation, notes that Jacobs along with fellow residents saved the neighbourhood from destruction in the early 1960s.

Through saving the neighbourhood, she and others “won an important victory that would ultimately bring down the urban renewal edifice” (p. 8).

The urban planning forces that Jacobs addressed, head-on in the early 1960s and beyond, are documented by Ken Greenberg (2011) and Peter Hall (2002) among others.

In his commentary, Page adds (pp. 8-9) that “while she saved the neighborhood, she did not foresee what it might become – an area nearly uniformly for the wealthy. On the outside, everything has been preserved – a remarkable victory against yet another urban renewal project.

“But behind the façades, the neighborhood has been utterly transformed by a postindustrial, post-Fordist, [that is, after the age of large-scale mechanized mass production] globalized economy that has re-sorted  New York, clearing Manhattan of the working classes in order to make way for those at the top of the new Gilded Age. Without intending to, and perhaps without being able to see clearly enough into the future, she made the neighborhood safe for $3.5 million townhouses.”

Such a quotation opens a door for conversation about Jane Jacobs’ urban planning legacy in an age of neoliberal economics.

Among the conversation topics that come to mind is a Feb. 24, 2013 Globe and Mail article regarding the role of high-end Manhattan condos as investment vehicles. A  March 2, 2013 New York Times article about eight-figure prices for New Delhi bungalows comes to mind as well. A Jan. 23, 2013 article in The Guardian addresses a similar scenario in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

A March 13, 2013 New York Times article highlights issues related to attempts to preserve a Paris neighbourhood.

An April 18, 2013 Toronto Star articleunderlines the attractiveness of high-end Canadian homes for international purchasers. The article is entitled:  Canada’s housing market drawing the big-money crowd. The subhead reads: Sotheby’s finds more foreign buyers looking to Canada as a safe and stable place to live.

Preservation of zoning codes

Heritage conservation districts offer an opportunity, in some cases, for communities to designate entire historic neighbourhoods. Such designations are not always a means whereby such neighbourhoods can be preserved as anticipated, as previous blog posts related for example to Port Dalhousie indicate. In some cases, however, they serve to protect historic built form that otherwise would not be saved.

Neighbourhoods that do not have historic designation for specified buildings or districts in place are unlikely, from what many have observed to date, to be able to retain the built form that has emerged during previous decades.

A Feb. 15, 2013 Toronto Star article by Christopher Hume outlines one particular strand in ongoing conversations regarding the history – and what may be the evolving nature – of building codes in the Greater Toronto Area and elsewhere.

It may be noted that Hume’s article is structured, above all else, so as to attract and maintain the attention of the viewer. This is a requirement that a newspaper columnist must typically meet, as I’ve noted regarding another article related to planning, by a Globe and Mail columnist.

I like to think of building codes as part of a community’s traditional – and evolving – cultural practices.

I refer to the Hume’s article in the spirit of advancing a topic for conversation.

Hume speaks of a Brampton suburban landscape featuring bungalows and side-splits. Bungalows, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition, describes a bungalow as a one-storey house. The latter dictionary defines a side-split as a split-level house having floors raised half a level on one side thus having an upper and lower basement and an upper and lower main floor. The same dictionary refers to the attributive noun ‘monster’ as referring to ‘huge: extremely large of its kind (monster home; monster truck).’

A June 15, 2013 Globe and Mail article highlights Brampton as demonstrating a new vision of Canada.

Preservation of low-density neighbourhoods

With regard to monster homes, Hume comments:

“Clearly, if these houses [bungalows and side-splits] met the needs of 21st century residents, there would be fewer people wanting to expand and/or tear them down. However, the world that produced these jealously guarded suburban enclaves has disappeared. They come from a time of optimism, an era that believed limits were a thing of the past and that prosperity would continue forever on its upwards trajectory.”

He adds:

“The low-density, land-intensive, car-based communities that were once so appealing make less sense than ever, not only because of congestion and rising fuel costs, but that inconvenient matter of climate change.

“The situation is exacerbated by the influx of immigrant populations whose domestic organization goes beyond the post-war North American ideal of mom, dad, two kids and a dog.

“The heritage defence is legitimate, but the built-form makes it hard to justify. Fifty or 60 years ago, the downtown core was being hollowed out by the flight to suburbia. Today that trend is starting to reverse.

“The difference is that urban housing tends to be dense, compact and, therefore, inherently sustainable. Unlike the suburban housing of the second half of the 20th century, city housing of the 1800s can be easily adapted to current conditions. The same can’t be said of the spread-out, lowrise housing of towns such as Brampton.”

Update regarding Brampton, Ontario

A Feb. 25, 2013 Toronto Star article updating the Brampton story is entitled: “Brampton orders monster home torn down.” The story’s subhead reads: “The city may itself have goofed in allowing a 6,600-square-foot house in a neighbourhood of more modest homes, but it now wants it demolished.” A March 16, 2013 Toronto Star article provides an update on the story.

It may be also added that bungalows remain a popular option for many buyers, according to a Feb. 26, 2013 Toronto Star article. A March 14, 2013 Globe and Mail article notes that the pursuit of an unpretentious bungalow in Long Branch is still on the agenda for some home buyers.

Large homes emerge in North York, Ontario

During the mid-1980s, I lived in a low-rise apartment building in North York near Bathurst and Wilson. Occasionally, I like to visit the neighbourhood to see the changes that have occurred.

In the 1980s, I would often go jogging from Bathurst to Avenue Road and back along side streets, north of Lawrence Avenue West, that run parallel to Lawrence. In those days, what were called ‘monster homes’ were starting to appear. Recently, over twenty years later, I went for a walk to see how things had progressed along the same streets.

What I saw was a remarkable transformation. The majority of houses along the streets in this part of North York are now very large in size. They dominate their lots. Sides of the very large houses are very close to the property lines.

Occasionally, bungalows are still visible. Usually they are found close to commercial areas, such as close to the east side of Bathurst north of Lawrence. Or they are found at the corners of streets. I have the impression that such locations may not currently be seen as suitable for construction of a very large house.

Lot severances in Long Branch, Ontario

The topic of severances of lots, as has occurred in Long Branch and Alderwood – and I’m sure elsewhere – is an additional great topic for conversation.

It will be among the topics that Mike James and I will introduce during our South Long Branch Jane’s Walks on May 4 and May 5, 2013.


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