Toronto Reborn

By Ken Greenberg
Foreword by David Crombie
Afterword by Zahra Ebrahim

Toronto Reborn
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An incisive view of Toronto’s development over the last fifty years.

In Toronto Reborn, Ken Greenberg describes the emerging contours of a new Toronto. Focusing on the period from 1970 to the present, Greenberg looks at how the work and decisions of citizens, NGOs, businesses, ... Read more


An incisive view of Toronto’s development over the last fifty years.

In Toronto Reborn, Ken Greenberg describes the emerging contours of a new Toronto. Focusing on the period from 1970 to the present, Greenberg looks at how the work and decisions of citizens, NGOs, businesses, and governments have combined to refashion Toronto. Individually and collectively, their actions — renovating buildings and neighbourhoods, building startling new structures and urban spaces, revitalizing old cultural institutions and creating new ones, sponsoring new festivals and events — have transformed the old postwar city, changing it into an exciting modern one.

Ken Greenberg

Ken Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher, writer, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto and Principal of Greenberg Consultants. He is the author of Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder and Toronto Reborn; Design Successes and Challenges. He was selected as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2019 and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Toronto.


Toronto as Crucible

I arrived in Toronto in 1968, immigrating from the United States inthe period of great turmoil caused by the war in Vietnam.

Although I relocated under duress, I immediately felt welcomed. The cityfelt remarkably malleable, not fully formed. It seemed to be still evolving, opento new ideas and desires, receptive to reshaping by me and other new arrivals. Ihad the sense that this was a place where I could contribute and most fully bemyself. Toronto was on the cusp of a great change, and I was quickly caughtup in the unfolding story of my adopted city. After completing my studies, Iworked as a young architect, and then founded the Division of Architectureand Urban Design at the City of Toronto, running it for ten years under thedirection of three mayors: David Crombie, John Sewell, and Art Eggleton.

Through this stint at city hall and later work as a professional (andengagement as a citizen), I have had a front-row seat as a participant andobserver during decades of remarkable, often inspiring — and at times frustrating— change in this extraordinary city. I shared some of this experiencein my earlier book, Walking Home, published in 2011, in which Torontohad a role among many cities. This book gives me a chance to come back towhat is happening in Toronto almost a decade later in a more focused way.

Each of us has some stressful formative experiences that motivate (andsometimes obsess or even traumatize) us. One of my own subterraneandrivers comes from my childhood peregrinations. Moving from place toplace, often abruptly, changing cities, countries, neighbourhoods, schools(sometimes in mid-year), and friends was disruptive to say the least, even ifsometimes it felt exciting. In hindsight, I realize that this constant dislocationhas led to an intense compensating homing instinct, and, though coupledwith a taste for travel, a need to be rooted in a place. This, in part, iswhat steered me to my career in urban design and to my intense love affairwith Toronto. Like an attentive lover, I have been sensitive to its changesand moods ever since.

I am convinced that something out of the ordinary, if not truly unique,is occurring in Toronto. It feels like the city is emerging from a chrysalis. The processes of continual redefinition and renewal have ever been in playin our city, and there have been other periods of enormous upheaval andgrowth spurts; but in the last fifteen years or so, the direction has alteredwhile the pace of change has intensified and accelerated. Fuelled by a powerfulvortex of market forces and demographic pressures, Toronto has becomea locus for immigration, investment, and development, and our currentspectacular growth shows no sign of abating.

Toronto is being transformed by the simultaneous pressures of enormousand sustained growth; an unparalleled increase in the city’s diversity,bringing an expansion of the talent pool and new ideas; an imperative toachieve greater environmental sustainability; and relentless, often disruptivetechnological innovation. The city is very rapidly becoming more vertical,denser, and more mixed.

All of these factors are present to some degree in other places, but inToronto the first and second — radical growth and an increase in the ethnicdiversity in the population — are at unusually high levels. These forcesare converging to form a crucible in which radical change and innovationare being galvanized. It is rocking the status quo of previous assumptions,familiar ways, rules, and practices, and pushing us out of our comfort zone. The city is at the tipping point, in the throes of a rebirth.

I have come to believe that Toronto has moved to a new level and isat a decisive moment of transformation into a new type of city: changingas much in kind as in scale. The contours of this new city are becomingvisible, emerging from the old established roots — literally arising on theframe, the traces, the memories, and the structures (physical, social, economic,cultural) of an older Toronto. The city is being pushed into this newterritory by an infusion of new, boundary-stretching ideas and forces.

I believe that much of what has led to the remarkable transformationalshift underway in Toronto can be traced back to a critical turning point inthe late 1960s and 1970s, which I described briefly in Walking Home. Atthat time, my introduction to the city and the launch of my career coincidedwith a dramatic series of events that set the stage for what was to come. Toronto was a city on the verge of massive change in line with the anticitypolemic of that era. But then, a dramatic series of events occurred, settingthe stage for a major course correction.

Toronto’s guide to its future in 1969, its Official Plan (like that foundin many other cities at that time), called for a kind of progress inspired bythe principles of what was then the modern movement in city planning. Among other things, it was based on a full embrace of the private automobile,including massive highway construction (with a complete interwovennetwork including the Spadina, Scarborough, and Crosstown Expressways);ripping up streetcar tracks; separating places of living from places of workas much as possible; replacing traditional main streets with shopping malls— the Dufferin, Pape and Gerrard Malls were, in fact, built as prototypes;demolition of major civic buildings — Union Station, Old City Hall, andthe St. Lawrence Market were all considered for demolition — to make wayfor the new; and a call for widespread “urban renewal. ” A vast boomerangshape indicating proposed demolition appeared on a city document, hoveringominously over the whole downtown and adjacent inner city neighbourhoods. In other words, a gutting of the city was in the offing, preparingit to be remade in the name of a then widely held view of “modernity. ”

To many, these were frightening prospects. A citizen resistance grewout of a unique amalgam of the city’s traditional small c conservatismand a new, left-of-centre coalition, motivated by a sense of civic empowermentand led by an engaged civic leadership. The resistance grew like asnowball, gaining momentum as new champions emerged. In a series ofhotly contested municipal elections, an increasing number of progressivecity councillors were elected, supported by grassroots activism and communitybacklash.

Once they had a majority, the new “reform council,” led by belovedmayor David Crombie, used their mandate to reverse course, rejecting thedominant postwar modernist template. With the unlikely intervention ofthen premier William Davis, they famously put a highly symbolic nail inthe coffin of the Spadina Expressway, which would have eviscerated a seriesof downtown neighbourhoods, and cancelled a whole network of othercity-damaging highways in its wake.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the change. This was a completeabout-face for the city, one that would have far-reaching consequences,setting Toronto on a very different trajectory. The car wassignificantly dethroned as the primary mode of transportation; plans torip up streetcar lines were thwarted, making Toronto one of the few citieson the continent to retain this form of transit. Urban renewal and “blockbusting”of long-established neighbourhoods to make way for tower-inthe-park style redevelopment was halted. Heritage preservation wasembraced, saving a number of cherished structures from demolition —including the St. Lawrence Market, now the throbbing heart of a revitalizedneighbourhood; the glorious 1898 Richardsonian Old City Hall;and the magnificent beaux arts Union Station.

The middle class stayed or returned to inner-city neighbourhoods. Population attrition was reversed. The city’s traditional neighbourhood mainstreets, which had also been scheduled for transformation into car-centricarterial roads, were seen with fresh eyes and received new support fromstrengthened and decentralized neighbourhood planning site offices andthe widely imitated Toronto invention of BIAs (Business ImprovementAreas co-funded by the city and local businesses), of which Toronto nowhas more than any other city.

The separation of land uses (dividing where people lived from wherethey worked, with an onerous commute by car to bridge the gap) had beenexposed as a failed model for urban living; it was not delivering what itpromised. The vision of contented citizens able to live in quiet, pastoral suburbanneighbourhoods and then make their way quickly to work via widehighways was belied by the reality of the growing inconvenience of congestion,negative impacts on health caused by a sedentary, car-dependent lifestyle,unanticipated social isolation, and mounting environmental impacts.

The reform council pushed back against the “suburbanization” of thedowntown core, fighting to prevent the spread of widened roads, a profusionof surface parking lots, and segregated land use. A new CentralArea Plan was formulated that introduced mixed-use zoning to the city’sdowntown core, and that would eventually bring hundreds of thousandsof new residents into the heart of the city to enliven the previously sterilenine-to-five central business (only) district.

The big planning and design challenge: how to actually implementthe course correction. This was the challenge that drew me to city hall as ayoung architect with a growing interest in urban design.

David Crombie recruited me in 1977, along with a whole corps ofyoung, motivated change agents. Working with the newly elected politicians,we formed a think tank, a kind of collegial brain trust. We came frommany backgrounds, and not all were formally educated as “planners,” butwe shared a mission.

We played different roles on a team dedicated to stopping the speedingfreight train of “modernization” and shifting to another paradigm forthe city’s future. I headed the newly minted Urban Design Group, whichbecame the city’s Division of Architecture and Design, and my team andI were called upon to play a central role in this transformative moment. Itwas exhilarating.

We were trying to articulate a competing vision for the city, and wewere working in a pressure cooker. Our vision was based on faith in theexisting city. Its basic tenets were to move away from land use separations,car dependence, and urban renewal, instead aiming to protect the city’s existingneighbourhoods and architectural heritage, halting the expansion ofurban expressways, promoting public transit and pedestrian environments,and encouraging downtown living, with lively main streets as vital neighbourhoodspines.

We had a sense of tremendous transformational potential, applying newideas and concepts that connected all the way from the city street to the cityregion and expanding the array of available tools and strategies. We aimedto make big moves, pivoting from defence to offence, from stopping theSpadina Expressway to creating the mixed-use Central Area Plan, launchingthe mixed-income St. Lawrence Neighbourhood for ten thousand newdowntown residents on a stretch of obsolescent industrial sites and anchoringit with a linear park on an abandoned rail corridor, and expanding therole of Business Improvement Associations to support local shopping streets.

Combining strategies and tactics, we changed the way planning andurban design were done in Toronto on the fly. Mayor Crombie controversiallyintroduced a forty-five-foot “holding bylaw” to buy time to preparethe Central Area Plan. We pursued a policy of “de-concentration,” linkingdevelopment and diversification of land use to transit capacity, exportingoffice space to emerging downtown centres in Scarborough, North York,and Etobicoke.


Ken Greenberg has been one of our prominent guiding lights on urban development and city building. His book comes at an important time in our city’s history, which should be of interest to anyone who is truly concerned about our city’s future.

Although Toronto’s great diversity and social cohesion have been celebrated for decades, a deeper understanding of the city’s collective character remained elusive. In Toronto Reborn, Ken Greenberg weaves a bold new picture of Toronto, revealing its essence and distinctive style.

This is a delicious read for all North American urbanists. As Greenberg details the key initiatives that are shaping Toronto’s transformation, he couples a searing critique of past follies with a deep and compelling optimism that our inclusiveness, diversity, open-mindedness, and civility is resulting in a great city that is steadfastly Canadian, but also a world inspiration.

Toronto Reborn is a must read for all who care passionately about the future of Toronto. Having been deeply involved in so many of the exciting new initiatives that are re-inventing Toronto, Ken is able to offer an expert and unique history of these events. It is a hopeful and inspiring story of a series of out-of-the-box initiatives over the past fifty years that taken together add up to a new, inclusive, and progressive way to do city building. Will the promise of Toronto be fulfilled in the new political environment? Toronto Reborn sets out what is at stake.

Back when I decided that I wanted to understand more about city building I read Ken’s book Walking Home. In Toronto Reborn he builds upon his first book, all the while mindful of the implications of an archaic BNA Act and an anti-urban provincial government. Despite Toronto’s challenges Ken optimistically shares his thoughts on everything from the suburbs to nature and the waterfront. A must read if you want to imagine a better Toronto.

Toronto is at its greatest crossroads: Will it become one of the great, innovative and inclusive global city of the 21st century, or will it be stymied by its challenges of inequality, affordability, political polarization and its own meekness. Ken Greenberg’s Toronto Reborn tells the remarkable story of a city that has come so far, has so much promise, and can be a beacon for cities across the world. Mandatory reading for mayors, city-builders, businesses and everyone who is concerned with our collective urban future.

Ken Greenberg has played an instrumental role in reshaping Toronto for the better over the last forty years. In his book Toronto Reborn, we get his insights into those astounding changes and the challenges we must address to fully realize our city’s potential.

Dave Harvey, executive director of Park People

This book will be an invaluable resource for all people interested in cities, especially for those who call Toronto home. It will help develop a shared vision and make it even better for all, especially for the most vulnerable.

Gil Penalosa, founder and chair of 8 80 Cities

This book arrives at a critical moment in Toronto’s history. After several decades of explosive growth and social change — which Greenberg frames with insight and optimism — the city is suddenly being confronted with the dramatic policy shifts of a new provincial government. My hope is that the forces Greenberg describes can prevail, and that Toronto can continue its emergence as a global city.

We are incredibly fortunate to have Ken in our midst, not only observing and chronicling the evolution of our city, but actively shaping how our neighbourhoods are envisioned and built. His work in Regent Park and in our ‘city of the arts’ on the Waterfront has been enormously impactful. Ken's vision and voice are making Toronto an even better place to live, work, learn, and play.

Mitchell Cohen, president of The Daniels Corporation

City-building is not a job for those who want instant gratification. Ken Greenberg has been playing the urbanism long-game for six decades — his forethought and instincts on display in Toronto Reborn have been proven correct and the city is now reaping the rewards. But make no mistake: the challenges and obstacles facing Toronto, both political and environmental, are real and only intensifying. Ken has made those issues crystal clear and it’s up to the next generation of civic leaders to continue to point our city in the right direction.

Many cities claim their history, geography, people, and institutions make them different and newly desirable. But in Toronto’s case, this actually appears to be true — for all the above reasons and for one Ken Greenberg uncovers and explores in great depth: our use of design as a tool of renewal.

If you want to understand how a big city works, this is the book for you. By dissecting its organized chaos, Ken Greenberg reveals a complex Torontoism that offers lessons to other cities and a path forward for Torontonians themselves.

In Toronto Reborn, Ken Greenberg shows his in-depth knowledge and insights of urban design and the social and economic life of cities. This comes from a lifetime of helping cities around the world become better places for everyday people to live. Toronto Reborn is a must read for anyone interested in how and why cities change, and a call to action for those who have chosen Toronto as the place to live, work, and bring up their families. Ken’s values and insights have been a lifelong guide and inspiration to all people who live in cities.

Ken Greenberg’s Toronto Reborn is a great reminder of how far this city has travelled — just as we are poised for dramatically more change. We need to look back to remind ourselves how a values-based city — a city with a social conscience — evolved, and how that might influence our future.

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