Families play in a splash park in Corktown Common, a green space near Toronto's waterfront that opened in 2014. New residential towers are being built in the area.
Families play in a splash park in Corktown Common. Courtesy of the City of Toronto

Toronto wants its high-rises to be better places to raise kids.

From the 1950s through the ’70s, Toronto built up. High-rises appeared downtown as well as in suburban areas, and a good number of them featured spacious layouts and amenities such as playgrounds to attract and accommodate families.

In the past decade, the city has seen another surge in vertical housing, but of a different sort. Buildings of five or more stories, which comprise 80 percent of the city’s new housing, have been constructed primarily for singles and couples without children. Less than 10 percent of recently built downtown high-rises, for instance, have three or more bedrooms.

Yet many Toronto residents want to live downtown or in dense nearby areas as their families grow. Already, almost 40 percent of the city’s households include three or more people. To address this issue, Toronto’s City Planning Division conducted a study in 2015 on how new housing with more than 20 units can better accommodate the needs of households with children. The study’s authors met with nine families living in high-rises downtown as well as in suburban areas such as Scarborough Center and Humber Bay Shores in Etobicoke, which were incorporated into Toronto proper in 1998. “We wanted to understand their experience, the challenges they face, and how their daily lives can be improved,” says co-author Andrea Oppedisano, a planner with the city.

The study resulted in a set of guidelines that are not only applicable to Toronto, but to cities across North America and beyond that are looking to better accommodate vertical family life in dense urban districts. Earlier this week, Toronto’s City Council voted to adopt the guidelines; they will now be used in the evaluation of new and under-review proposals for multi-unit residential properties across the city.

The authors recommend that 15 percent of a new building’s units include two bedrooms, and 10 percent include three bedrooms. They note it’s best to place these larger units near each other and on lower floors, with adjoining outdoor spaces. Such a situation fosters interaction among families and lets adults supervise kids outdoors from an indoor vantage point, giving children the chance for observed, yet independent, play.

Toronto’s City Planning Division advises constructing playgrounds adjacent to high-rises, so children can play freely while parents supervise from their lower-floor units. (Courtesy of the City of Toronto)

The guidelines also advise adding ground-floor businesses in high-rises, such as pharmacies and affordable grocery stores, to promote active street life and a community that can conveniently meet its basic needs. The authors particularly recommend ground-floor or second-floor childcare facilities that have a good amount of indoor and outdoor space themselves, but also use nearby parks for recreation.

Within the units, Oppedisano says one of the main problems she and her colleagues found was a dearth of storage space for items like strollers. “We found that some families were storing their stroller in the bathtub,” she says. The guidelines thus advise providing space for stowing bulky items in buildings’ lobbies or apartments’ entryways.

The authors also recommend including laundry facilities in each unit. An in-unit washer and dryer make life much easier for a family—and they also allow those who do the wash to keep an eye on the kids, instead of running back and forth to a communal laundry room. In addition, many family members whose units had a balcony or patio noted that they were too small to really use. As such, the guidelines advise making such attached outdoor spaces larger so that an entire family can gather in them.

Researchers found that families didn’t have enough storage space for strollers, and were keeping them in bathtubs. (Courtesy of the City of Toronto)

Of course, larger spaces in central areas mean higher prices, and Toronto, like many cities, is already dealing with a crisis of affordable housing. A recent report from Ryerson University’s Center for Urban Research and Land Development argued that Ontario’s government has caused the crisis by failing to provide the correct balance of housing types, encouraging the construction of too many condos and not enough single-family homes. Through its guidelines, the City Planning Division aims to increase the supply of such family housing—albeit in high-rises. As the authors note, their recommendations consider “how needs traditionally met in low-rise housing could be translated into vertical living.”

The authors suggest that this strategy occur in tandem with other housing policy initiatives aiming to make dwellings more affordable, such as inclusionary zoning and the use of Section 37, in which a property owner can offer a “community benefit” in exchange for constructing something that doesn’t comply with zoning regulations; the benefit can take the form of affordable units. For instance, a property owner may be allowed to build a residential tower higher than zoning permits, as long as they set aside a number of units for low-income residents.

“Our objective is to build an inclusive city and future-proof our housing stock,” says Oppedisano.

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