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When Cities Grow, Do They Lose Their Soul?

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I travel a lot for my work; to Europe and various cities in North America. As many of you will have experienced, travel gives us a different perspective on our home towns. Home is still very much "home"... the place I'm always glad to return to after journeying elsewhere, whether it's for business or pleasure. But spending time in other places also enables me to see Toronto with fresh eyes.

Upon my return recently, I've been struck by the sea of glass and steel that's transforming my beloved hometown. Of course, Victorian neighbourhoods (like Parkdale and the Annex) and older industrial areas (e.g. the Distillery) still abound. But the dominant skyline of Toronto has become that of the high-rise condominium.

As a through-and-through city girl, I love this urbanization and development of our cities. And there are definitely examples of where an effort has been made to not only construct a building, but also create a place for people to congregate and build community -- such as HTO Park on the lakeshore and the park in Yorkville -- a welcome respite for shoppers and those living in surrounding condos!

But examples of truly successful and integrated dwell-live areas are too few and far between. I can't help but question if the current form of that growth is really a good thing for our city, for our communities and neighbourhoods. Boom times, of course, bring much that is good; modernization and development, an opportunity to innovate and attract leading architects. A good example of this is Frank Gehry's condo towers -- a collaboration with David Mirvish -- of which Gehry has said that "he wants the first six storeys to deliver a feel of 'old Toronto.'"

But boom times also create demand that outstrips supply. And sometimes this results in developers hastening to fill that market gap with little forethought for what they're building, how it will age over time, or contribute to the lifestyle and vitality of our cityscape. Because Toronto is my home town, of course I care about this! I also think about the real estate options that will face my son Justin, if he chooses to make Toronto his home.

Some of our older neighbourhoods; like the Annex, Cabbagetown and even my own small enclave of South Hill have so much character -- so much SOUL -- because they've grown organically over time. The homes there were built with pride and are now maintained with love. It's palpable on those streets and seems to have a knock-on effect on the street life -- even diversity of retailers, from independent stores to the reliable chains. This mix creates character and adds something for everyone -- a true "neighbourhood" experience.

Perhaps this is all simply a function of time... and with time the newer neighbourhoods, like those high-rise condo towers on the lake shore, will take on the same character as our beloved older neighbourhoods. But right now they don't feel quite the same. There's little soul in the newer construction in Toronto neighbourhoods, and I'm guessing the same could be said of many other Canadian cities like Calgary and Vancouver.

Of course, city planning and development is not my area of expertise. I come at this as a resident looking at how her own city is developing. I wonder how much of a city's character is planned "top-down" versus growing organically "bottom-up" over time?

When I travel, I look at cities like New York or Montreal and can't help but feel they do a better job merging old and new, preserving what's interesting and soulful; upgrading rather than tearing down. When I was looking for an apartment in New York, I was looking for a historic loft space in a 100+ year old building and this was entirely feasible. Toronto is, of course, a younger city (York was incorporated and renamed Toronto in 1834. But it was only in the second half of the last century that Toronto surpassed Montreal as the economic capital of Canada and its largest city). Even so, we should be doing a better job preserving and building upon the history we have.

This isn't only about housing, but also public spaces. The Highline in New York is an example of something old being reinvented and reinvigorated. It fits with the city; as a historic freight rail line it's long been part of the city. But now it offers a new perspective to tourists and residents alike. When I think of the ravines in Toronto, for example, I wonder if we could be doing more to make them vital and usable for commuters and tourists and just about anybody seeking refuge in a green and shady space.

I wish that the new construction contributed more to the overall lifestyle and beauty of our cities. It's one thing to throw up a condo tour and sell X number of units starting in the $300's (and yes, affordable housing should be celebrated in these inflated times). But where's the investment in the surrounding community and infrastructure? Who does that come from and how can we guarantee that what's built supports not only the demand for residences in a certain neighbourhood, but adds something to our cities that will stand the test of time.

When I look at other cities I love to be in; whether it's Paris, Montreal or New York... it's the sense of soulful evolution, honour given to both old and new that energizes and inspires me, that makes me fall in love with these places over and over again. But - most of all - it's character that transcends architecture or age. I hope that as Toronto continues to grow and thrive, we create a hometown that inspires that kind of pride and love.