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Dear 2015: New Rules for Smart, Sustainable Development in Toronto

This post is written as part of an Oct. 6, 2015, group blogging event, co-hosted by Meeting of the Minds and Morris Strategy Group, with the prompt, “The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.” Based in Toronto, author Gordon Stratford, MRAIC, LEED AP BD+C, is the design principal for HOK in Canada and a member of the firm’s design board.


Dear Torontonians of 2015:

It is an honour to write this letter to you, especially because your proactive attitude and persistence served as important catalysts for the city I now have the privilege to enjoy. Much has happened in the 35 years since you challenged the inherent sluggishness of municipal structure and pressed for real change.

At first, there was resistance to your vision, with fierce debate, stonewalling and stalemate. In the end, no one could counter the evidence that time was not on our side, and our city council approved sweeping new development rules for immediate implementation. Faced with a continued inability to address serious climatic changes, energy shortages, and the failure of our physical and social infrastructure, provincial and federal authorities overwhelmingly approved these dramatic measures.

Today, flying into Toronto gives one a bird’s eye view of these new rules at work. In contrast to the omnipresent urban blanket over parts of the city, newly developed areas have an open, green pattern of urban weave. This is a direct result of the council’s keystone Hi-Lo Density rule, which requires every new development to include an interdependent high- and low-density strategy. High-density, mixed-use development is welcomed, provided it is closely connected with low/no-density open space located within a five-minute walk. The density mix is driven by a ratio between each development’s population and the infrastructure and open space that will support that community.

The Hi-Lo rule works on several levels. It ties population to sufficient supporting services and open space, enables universal access to natural light and views, favours pedestrian focus, and ensures sufficient social and cultural green amenities. It also reduces the heat island effect of dense cities, provides arable land for urban agriculture and gardens directly tied to population, brings back declining flora and fauna, and creates visible neighbourhoods of civic pride.


This new urban model assimilates and reverse engineers concepts from the emerging phoenixes of New Detroit, Mich., and New Hamilton, Ont., in your time, as well as the pastoral/urbane balance of Berlin. For our city, this model has essentially replaced the old concepts of urban vs. suburban with a more egalitarian community pattern.

Toronto’s city council also had the foresight to create additional legislation that supports smart, sustainable development.

Green 85 requires the cumulative total surfaces of a development to be at least 85 percent green. This overlay to the Hi-Lo rule promotes the creation of parks, personal space and agricultural development while preventing the urban heat island effect.

The Old Is New rule mandates that developments focus on the reuse and revitalization of existing buildings, combined with new infill. This reduces the carbon footprint of new construction and celebrates the character of our city’s existing built environment.

Loose Fit–Long Life requires the master plan for every development to include convertible design strategies, laying the foundation for the future reuse of existing buildings. This rule focuses on building typologies that are easily adaptable to suit a wide range of potential uses for a fully mixed-use neighbourhood.

The Loose Fit–Long Life strategy proactively encourages public and private enterprises to infuse themselves into neighbourhoods. It advances trends already underway in your time, including dispersed university and college urban campuses, just-in-time mini-manufacturing (maker studios) and remote, agile work styles.

Not surprisingly, the areas of Toronto developed according to these new rules have become the places of choice to live, work, shop and enjoy life. Sparked by your advocacy 35 years ago, many councilors openly acknowledge that the rules should have been enacted earlier, especially given the clear evidence you provided of other cities already undergoing significant changes. Because of the seeds you planted, the city has also foregone its traditional guideline approach in favour of binding rules. Congratulations and thanks!



We invite you to join the conversation or comment on this post on Twitter, using #Dear2015 and tagging @HOKNetwork.