Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
“Harbour City,” according to the famed urbanist, was to be “the most important advance in city planning” of the 20th century.
After decades of turning its back to the waterfront, 1970s Toronto seemed poised for an urban planning turnaround. Soon, urbanists and politicians hoped, 50,000 people would be living on 510 acres of artificial land known as “Harbour City.”
One year after rival city Montreal showed off Expo 67 on a man-made island, Ontario government and architect Eberhard Zeidler proposed to build their own to help fix Toronto’s waterfront woes. “A nice little mid-rise, mixed-use neighborhood would have gone a long way to injecting life back into the downtown,” Toronto writer Chris Bateman tells CityLab.
Creating Harbour City meant relocating the city’s island airport and using parts of the land for the effort. The project was to be connected to the rest of Toronto via a ring road. Auto traffic would be separate from pedestrian areas. It would have public transit, canals, and an assortment of modular buildings short on height, varied in use, and high in density. And it had the full support of one of Toronto’s newest residents, Jane Jacobs.
A film promoting Harbour City in 1970 by the Government of Ontario Department of Trade and Development.
Jacobs, who moved from New York to Ontario in 1968, served as a consultant on the project. Appearing in a promotional film for Harbour City in 1970 she proclaimed, “It may well be the most important advance in city planning that’s been made this century.” Standing in front of a large model of the development, Jacobs even pointed out the exact building she wanted to live in.
But Harbour City never came to be, even after the initial success of another man-made island by Zeidler. Ontario Place, a theme park, debuted in 1971 just as government officials were giving up on Harbour City. Although it was more like Expo 67 than Venice or Amsterdam, “with Ontario Place, we at least got a glimpse of what might have been for the rest of Harbour City,” says Bateman.
Ironically, a project that Jacobs was fighting against at the time helped lead to Harbour City’s demise. The proposed Spadina Expressway faced heavy opposition with help from Jacobs. Even though Jacobs argued the contrary, some opponents feared Harbour City would bring the proposed expressway closer to reality, stretching into downtown and the Gardiner Expressway that still runs today along Toronto’s waterfront.
And there were more environmental concerns. “I’m not sure dumping all that fill into Lake Ontario would have done the environment much good,” notes Bateman. “Then there would have been the boats, the garbage, and the inevitable pollution.”
Plans for the Spadina Expressway were scrapped in 1971; plans for Harbour City were, too, one year later.
Toronto has changed dramatically since then. Apartment and office towers continue to sprout up downtown while the waterfront becomes increasingly people-friendly. Still, it’s fun to imagine how the city would have turned out had Zeidler’s dream been realized.
“Harbour City would have had a profound effect on Toronto's waterfront,” says Bateman. “For better or worse, I don’t think we would recognize the place.”