Greening slabs: over-cladding

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Cenceptual framework of basic high-rise over-cladding strategy

With much of this high-rise housing stock now passing some 40 years of service, deterioration of the building envelope is widely evident as is these building’s increasing environmental impact on the region. Leaky sieves which pre-date building science, they require far more energy than necessary. It is time building performance was upgraded to the expectation’s of the 21st Century.

The single most effective strategy in reducing the ecological footprint of our stock of aging concrete residential towers is the application of thermal over-cladding.

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A productive landscape: permaculture and tower blocks

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Toronto high-rises under construction in former farmers fields, early 1960’s

The idea of the tower in a genuine ‘park’ or ‘landscape’ setting was a popular notion after the Second World War. As a result, during the post-war boom in Toronto, a minimum of 60% open space around multiple dwellings was promoted as a best practice. If developers wanted larger buildings, they were to provide a greater ratio of open space to building footprint. The results are the large towers and 90% open space found across Toronto’s suburbs.

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Thorncliffe Park

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Thorncliffe Park from the air, looking downtown, early 1970’s

Thorncliffe Park was a bold 1950s plan by the Town of Leaside to redevelop a former racetrack overlooking the Don River. Conceived in 1955 it was proposed to be the first apartment neighbourhood in Canada. Though breaking ground slightly after neighbouring Flemingdon Park, it was recognized internationally as an ambitious attempt to better organize population growth in response to the sprawl found in Toronto’s outer boroughs.

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The Bijlmermeer: An Amsterdam Success Story

The Bijlmermeer under construction, late 1960’s / Ongoing renewal, since early 2000s

Toronto can learn how its apartment neighbourhoods could evolve by looking at the successes of other cities. Take the Bijlmermeer for instance, a large tower block district outside of Amsterdam, reminiscent in certain respects to modern communities in Toronto.

Begun in 1966, the Bijlmermeer was an ambitious housing experiment built in vacant farmland south-east of the city. It was envisioned as a secondary centre for the region, and planned for 40 000 dwellings as well as 60 000 new jobs. It was promoted as Western Europe’s most completely functional satellite community.

However the plan was never fully realized. The jobs and amenities never came and it remained in a gradual process of decline for nearly 30 years. It was quickly dismissed as a planning and social failure.

[A more detailed case study of the Bijlmermeer can be found in the European Best Practice Document of the Report Tower Neighbourhood Renewal in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (CUG+R/Province of Ontario, 2010)]

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Toronto/Moscow: Comrades in towers

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Comparison of tower districts in Moscow (top) and Toronto (bottom)

Next time you are in Chicago or Philadelphia try looking for an apartment tower neighbourhood outside the city core – the kind we have throughout Toronto. They’re rare in North American cities but common in other Commonwealth countries, like Australia, and they are an even more significant force in many European cities, such as Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and especially Moscow. Aspects of Toronto suburbs display a remarkable similarly of what can be witnessed across the globe.

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Jane and Finch: Progressive intent

Aerial photo of Jane and Finch

Aerial view of Jane and Finch, Courtesy of Lance Dutchak

Each area of the City has evolved with its own history. Take District 10 – the area we now know as Jane-Finch. The 1962 master plan proposed to transform the existing farm lots in the area into a complete community based on a set of principles that focused on employment, servicing, and social equity.

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Poverty and Aging Towers


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Map 1: Toronto’s post-war apartment towers and rapid transit, overlaid with the wealthy ‘City #1’ (Grey) and intensification zones (Red).

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Map 2: Toronto’s post-war apartment towers and rapid transit, overlaid with the impoverished ‘City #3’ (Grey) and Priority Neighbourhoods (Dark Grey).

Toronto is quickly becoming a polarized city. New research out of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto has revealed startling trends related to changing income distribution patterns across the city.

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Tower Renewal Project Artist Network

Toronto’s modern high-rises are everywhere. Housing hundreds of thousands, they are the backbone of our City. Yet what is their place in our collective identity? Though superficially homogenous, each have specific contexts and histories. In the coming months, the Tower Renewal Artist Network will bring together those engaged in cultural production related these structures. What…

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Learning lessons from Crescent Town

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In the 1960’s, high-rise towers were thought to be the best solution to meet the growing need for rental units, while efficiently organizing new housing with services. The resulting apartment neighbourhoods help us recognize how quickly the city evolves, and how each generation tries in different ways to address the challenges of growth, social and community needs. Take Crescent Town near Dawes Road and the Danforth.

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Greening Aging Slabs

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Potential green modifications to existing modern high-rises and their properties

The apartment slab buildings built during the 1960s and ‘70s are among the most energy inefficient housing types in the city; however, they may also be the best candidates for green retrofit. While their density aids other aspects of sustainability, this stock of apartment towers demands as much as 20 per cent more energy per square metre than a contemporary single-detached home. Certain efficiencies are gained from reduced land coverage and transit use, but the buildings themselves perform poorly.

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Pockets of inherited high density

For Toronto, the most significant planning question may not be the form and placement of new density, but how to turn our enormous pockets of inherited high density into genuinely sustainable and complete communities.

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Flemingdon Park: North America’s first high-rise newtown

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Flemingdon Park master plan, including housing, community facilities, commerce, employment and natural space, 1958

Toronto’s aging apartment neighbourhoods are not all the same. They are predominantly based on the idea of the tower-in-the-park; they have large simple tower blocks placed in abundant open space. But after that common denominator there are plenty of differences which provide each of these neighbourhoods with their own individual character.

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A City of Towers


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Data from CMHC, compiled by E.R.A. Architects and the University of Toronto

While Toronto’s current condo boom is the largest in North America, with 18,000 built last year across the GTA, it is dwarfed by the 1960’s post-war apartment boom. In 1968 alone 30,000 apartment units came on the market.

Contrary to common wisdom, the most significant legacy of modern suburbanization in Toronto is not the single family home, but multiple unit, high density dwellings. After the war, city planners and CMHC actively encouraged the development of modern apartment towers in the expanding region based on the tower-in-the-park typology. By the mid-1960s, at the peak of Toronto’s first mass housing boom, nearly 40% of the city’s housing stock and 77% of housing starts were apartments of this type. By the end of this boom, new “multiples” outpaced new single detached and semi-detached housing by a ratio of 2:1.

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Toronto’s towers make city unique

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Uno Prii Towers amid post-war bungalow, Jane Street, North of 401, late 1960s

What makes Toronto unique? One of the least recognized answers to that question is that Toronto has more high-rise buildings than any other city in North America, outside New York. The majority of these are concrete modern residential towers, built in the post-war boom of the 1960s and 70s.

Following the war, when most North America cities began sprawling without order, Toronto’s Metropolitan Government implemented a regional plan. Municipal and CMHC housing policies supported high density as a means to provide needed rental housing and contain growth. For the form of this high density, they overwhelmingly favoured the model of the “tower in the park”. Subsequently, the suburban apartment became the most popular form of housing for a period of twenty years, representing the overwhelming majority of housing starts. Unique to their European and American counterparts, these apartment neighbourhoods, which sprang up throughout the GTA, were privately financed and marketed as modern homes for a growing middle class.

The result is a hybrid suburban form, where typical tract housing sits next to tower complexes more reminiscent of peripheral Moscow or Belgrade than the suburbia on this side of the Atlantic. Toronto may be the only City worldwide where seas on bungalows and modern towers make up the typical suburban landscape.

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Welcome to Toronto Tower Renewal

Welcome to the Toronto Tower Renewal blog. The Tower Renewal Project is an initiative to re-examine Toronto’s  remarkable stock of modern residential high-rises, their heritage, neighbourhood histories, current place in our city, and future potential in a green and equitable Toronto. Currently, Toronto Tower Renewal is a partnership between ERA Architects, the City of Toronto,…

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