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Azure January February 2023 issue cover

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A Wexford Heights strip mall, angled shot showing a wide array of business densely packed behind a portico, with parking lot in foreground.

The street is packed. It’s a glorious Saturday, and I’m lost in the festival crowd, basking in the sun-drenched splendour of a summer afternoon. The faces and families number in the thousands — the mosaic of races and ethnicities that define a multicultural metropolis. Closed to traffic, the busy thoroughfare is animated by some 130 vendors as aromas of falafel, roasted corn, Hawaiian barbecue, Hakka, gyros and jerk waft sweetly through the air. On either side of the festivities, some of North America’s best restaurants line the street, their outdoor tables melding with the throng. Over 250,000 people gather here over the course of the three-day fair. This is Toronto’s beating heart.

Not everyone would agree. The annual Taste of Lawrence plays out well away from the city’s downtown, in the Wexford Heights neighbourhood within the suburban district of Scarborough. From behind a windshield, the 850-metre stretch that hosts the festival can flash by in a blur of eclectic strip malls lined with restaurants, nail salons and grocery stores, as well as churches and parking lots interspersed with the occasional apartment building. It’s far from the city’s largest galleries and museums, financial towers and upscale fashion boutiques — or a subway station. And the culinary scene is an approachable counterpoint to the high-end downtown destinations recently anointed with the city’s first Michelin stars.

A vendor sells colourful flags in a strip mall parking lot during World Cup 2022.
Scarborough’s Wexford Heights features an eclectic range of businesses, including vendors selling flags during World Cup 2022.

For all that, it’s also a far cry from the white, upper-middle-class enclaves that still shape cultural perceptions of North American suburbs. As Taste of Lawrence demonstrates, the neighbourhood is anything but sterile and boring. “Our festival has always been a point of pride for us, as we showcase and celebrate the diversity of our community,” says Yani Zhao, the festival’s co-chair.

While landscapes of single-family homes and cul-de-sacs do characterize much of Scarborough’s built environment, the community is a vibrant hub of Caribbean, Chinese, African, European and South Asian immigrants, including one of the world’s largest communities of Sri Lankan Tamil expats, and white residents now make up less than 25 per cent of the population. As a child, I attended Czech language classes in a pocket of the district called Masaryktown, which boasts one of the country’s few such enclaves. In a city that aggressively markets itself as the most culturally diverse in the world, suburban communities like Scarborough, often overlooked, epitomize that aspiration.

After the Second World War, the trend of suburbanization remade North American cities. As new highways, shopping malls and subdivisions snaked across the continent — and swaths of inner-city neighbourhoods were razed to make way for them — middle-class white homeowners decamped for new suburban communities, leaving behind low-income, racialized urban cores. But “white flight” ran in more than one direction. An inverse trend accelerated toward the turn of the millennium: Young white residents returned downtown, and they slowly but surely gentrified the vibrant urban communities that contrasted their boring suburban roots.

It’s a deeply oversimplified narrative, but one that’s meaningfully shaped both our communities and our dominant cultural script of the urban–suburban divide: If cities were dangerous, diverse and dense, then postwar suburbs were safe, monocultural and white. It was never that simple. In her 2019 book Radical Suburbs, Amanda Kolson Hurley traces the varied histories of life on the American urban peripheries. From a socialist Quaker commune in Pennsylvania built to challenge segregation to an anarchist-founded tiny-house town in New Jersey and a co-housing experiment outside Pittsburgh, suburban communities (including postwar enclaves) were home to a wide array of cultural, architectural and socio-economic ways of living. In Canada, where patterns of white flight and urban disinvestment were not as stark, some mid-century suburbs — including Scarborough — were developed as affordable immigrant destinations shortly after the Second World War.

After all, suburbia itself remains “a dizzyingly broad category,” Kolson Hurley writes. “The term refers to semi-rural areas where strip malls nibble at farmland and those where tall towers loom over the city line.” Today, over half of Americans live in such places, and racially diverse communities are now growing faster than predominantly white ones. “My suburban experience includes riding the bus as people chat around me in Spanish and French Creole,” Kolson Hurley notes, reflecting on her life in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. “It’s living in a condo with no yard or garage, and having neighbours who hail from Tibet, Brazil and Kenya as well as Cincinnati.”

A shot of a slab form apartment building, with a loading=
Toronto’s suburbs are characterized by integration of high-rise towers and single-family homes — often on the same block.

In fact, suburbanization is a global trend, and the most rapid development is occurring in the urban margins, according to Toronto-based scholar Roger Keil. “The urban century is really the suburban century,” Keil writes in Suburban Planet. “In a majority urban world, most activity in terms of the expansion and contraction of urban population, built form and economic activity will occur in peripheral areas.”

And this global phenomenon dates back millennia. Even some 5,000 years ago, notes Kolson Hurley, “the suburbs of Ur stretched miles beyond the city.” In ancient Rome, meanwhile, the peripheries were the site of both country house retreats and heavy, polluting industries like leather tanning and brick-making. Throughout medieval times, long before lawns and interstates, walled cities around the world often expanded by growing beyond their fortifications. Even the most stereotypically “placeless” cul-de-sac of faux historic North American McMansions occupies colonized Indigenous land — and cultural histories that stretch back thousands of years.

But the city proper used to be the first stop and ultimate destination for newcomers. In Manhattan, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is dedicated to preserving the memory of immigrant experiences. Housed in a pair of former residential buildings, the institution — which was opened in 1988 — sits on a site that was previously home to over 15,000 people from more than 20 countries. Today, it is no longer surrounded by immigrant communities but by some of the most expensive real estate on the planet — where the average one-bedroom apartment rents for US$3,500 per month — and within an urban core where traces of the past are rapidly disappearing.

In Toronto, many of the inner-city neighbourhoods and older “streetcar suburbs” that served as immigrant hubs in the 20th century still retain elements of their Polish, Chinese, Italian, Jamaican and Portuguese cultures. But even as construction cranes and soaring condo towers remake an increasingly expensive downtown core, the region’s rapid population growth is especially concentrated in suburban environments; outlying municipalities like Milton, Brampton and Oshawa are now among the fastest-growing places in North America, while Vaughan and Markham — so-called “boomburbs” — are now categorized as cities in their own right. Even mid-century “suburbs” (a word that’s becoming increasingly nebulous) are now growing more slowly than these outer counterparts; Scarborough, which has formed part of Toronto’s city proper since a 1998 amalgamation, is a prime example. It’s a pattern established well before the COVID-19 pandemic’s much-touted — though overstated — urban exodus.

And those in positions of power are eyeing further expansion. In November of 2022, Ontario passed Bill 23 (More Homes Built Faster Act), which has opened up swaths of protected “greenbelt” land to developers. Meanwhile, “leapfrog development” beyond the frayed urban growth boundary is already stretching the region into the exurban distance. Much of this new development embodies the familiar ills of North American sprawl — from geographical isolation and car dependence to carbon cost and environmental destruction — and is marketed with the same ideals of pristine lawns and white picket fences that form the enduring stereotypes of suburban life. Facilitated by violently misguided land-use policies, these ongoing growth patterns merit the staunch progressive opposition they face: In transit-connected, amenity-rich downtowns like Toronto, much more growth ought to be channeled into the core.

Interior shot of Pacific Mall, inside the asian heritage wing.
Just north of Toronto’s city limits, Markham’s Pacific Mall is the largest indoor Asian shopping mall in North America.

At the same time, however, such stark dichotomies shouldn’t dictate our perceptions of the suburbs that have existed for generations. While we certainly shouldn’t build more single-family sprawl, we must understand and appreciate the complexity and nuance of what’s already there.

Let’s look beyond the stereotypes. Are all suburbs car-centric? Across Toronto, many low-density suburban environments boast uncommonly high transit ridership, even where a bus is the only mode available. What about cookie-cutter McMansions? The city’s inner and outer suburbs are also distinguished by a variety in built form, a unique combination of mid-century slab towers and harmoniously adjacent single-family homes. And those Wexford Heights strip malls? Many possess a greater density — not to mention variety — of retail per block than our busiest downtown streets.

Overall, North American suburban communities are now (relatively) poorer and more diverse than they were in the 20th century; they are no longer defined by patterns of white flight from the city. Here, Toronto’s peripheries offer another lesson. David Hulchanski analyzed the geography of income inequality in his seminal 2007 study The Three Cities Within Toronto; he saw an increasingly prosperous downtown core surrounded by a disappearing middle-class and a growing low-income periphery dominated by immigrants and people of colour. In the 15 years since, the trend has accelerated.

Power lines in a body of water, surrounded by trees and apartment buildings on an overcast day.
Across the Toronto area, mid-century apartment towers make for dense suburban living.

Our economic systems are reflected in — and reinforced by — geography. In the 21st century, the spatial manifestation of capital shapes cities and suburbs around the world. Banks, financial institutions and billion-dollar companies are selectively clustered in select urban centres — but the peripheries provide the labour force that supports them, from housekeepers and servers to mechanics and cooks. The urban geography of online retail offers a particularly acute manifestation of inequality: High-spending urban consumers are served by a wealth of fulfillment centres and warehouses on the outskirts staffed mostly by low-income pickers, drivers and attendants from marginalized communities. From Chicago to Los Angeles to Calgary, this stratification defines the shape of the modern economy, reflecting what geographer David Harvey dubbed the “spatial fix” of capital.

Linguistically and culturally, the suburbs have historically been defined (mostly by city-championing urbanists) in relation to their urban counterparts, but we’re finally understanding the peripheries on their own terms. A newfound appreciation for the possibilities inherent in suburbia is coming to the fore. Roger Keil is leading an academic reappraisal: As editor of the Global Suburbanisms book series, Keil has helped to introduce a range of perspectives that complicate our understanding of the periphery. But the books are also paired with a more playful, public-facing collection of postcards that translate seemingly “placeless” suburban milieux into iconic moments. “They are generic, but they are also specific,” says Keil. “They mark points in time. The Irish kid on the bike at the outskirts of Dublin after the financial crash, the mansion in Brossard [Quebec] in the rue Leningrad, the obscene graffiti in the outskirts of Belgrade in front of Tito’s suburbia.”

Suburban space is also the focus of the recent “Housing Multitudes” exhibition at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture. Co-curators Michael Piper and Richard Sommer eschewed top-down urbanist visions of “rebuilding” or “fixing” Toronto’s suburbs. Instead, their thinking is rooted in an understanding of how local malls and green spaces shape social dynamics. And, to address housing access on a grassroots level, the exhibition explores community-based economies that allow individual landholders to gradually adapt their lots, whether by building garden suites or subdividing a single-family home into multi-generational triplexes, as “citizen-developers.” The ReHousing project, as it’s called, is a collaboration between the University of Toronto, TUF Lab and LGA Architectural Partners.

Informed by landscape architect Fadi Masoud, the exhibition’s analysis of ecology is particularly impressive, drawing attention to suburban lawns and backyards, which are surprisingly diverse — partially thanks to intrepid immigrant gardeners. Envisioning new green-filled passages through existing cul-de-sacs and subdivisions, the sensitive landscape concept calls for a porous network of spaces to knit together pedestrian and plant life in communities that were planned for the car.

Blocks from Pacific Mall, St. Mark's Orthodox Cathedral is one of the area's many architecturally notable places of worship. Image shows a large mural on the beige byzantine-style church.
Blocks from Pacific Mall, St. Mark’s Orthodox Cathedral is one of the area’s many architecturally notable places of worship.

Alongside these speculative proposals, the communities themselves have already brought many changes to the street scale. Toronto’s PlazaPOPS, which transforms parking lots into free, accessible gathering places, exemplifies urban intervention through deep local knowledge. The initiative grew from the University of Guelph graduate thesis project of landscape architect and urban geographer Daniel Rotsztain, who interviewed strip mall owners, retailers and community members about desired improvements to the local streetscape. What emerged was a vision of greater public seating and pedestrian space, a boon for visitors to cafés and restaurants. In 2019, a summer pilot project in Wexford Heights transformed a strip mall parking lot into a welcoming temporary park — and a social destination. And, this year, the West End Toronto suburb of Etobicoke saw four parking lots reimagined through low-cost, high-impact seasonal interventions. Led by Rotsztain and Guelph professors Karen Landman and Brendan Stewart, PlazaPOPS is now collaborating with the City of Toronto to turn the pilot into a city-wide program.

The public sector is gradually becoming involved in a number of community-led initiatives already underway. A partnership between Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services and the City of Toronto, Scarborough Cycles is devoted to building a cycling culture that reflects the needs of diverse residents. The initiative includes the popular Hijabs and Helmets program, which aims to empower hijab-wearing individuals by providing safe, inclusive and comfortable bike-riding lessons. Meanwhile, the Women, Trans, Femme: Bike Maintenance Workshops offer a similarly supportive educational setting. The grassroots organization supports a local cycling scene that is burgeoning despite a lack of adequate infrastructure.

From an airplane window, the political economy of capital flows and consumption is inscribed into the landscape. But a top-down view — whether from a plane or a planning department — inevitably misses individual experience. At street level, in homes, restaurants, houses of worship and public spaces, communities are much more than the spatial and socio-economic variables that shape them. To anyone looking to understand a place, urban or peripheral, residents are the real experts. Ultimately, the most meaningful re-evaluations of suburban spaces emerge from those who live there.

A sensitivity to hyperlocal culture defines Esmond Lee’s photography and installations. The lens of the Scarborough-based artist and academic reveals spaces of worship in converted homes and warehouses, as well as architecturally striking churches, mosques and temples across Scarborough. Flanked by a pair of bustling strip malls, the crisp stone and soaring minaret of the Scarborough Muslim Association’s Jame Abu Bakr Siddique create an elegant beacon on the streetscape. Scenes of rich, joyous and banal everyday life also draw his focus, from impromptu gatherings on an apartment lawn to pickup basketball games and street fairs.

Lee’s emphasis on the complexity of social life forms a counterpoint to the prevailing stereotypes. “We can all imagine what urbanism looks like, or what an idealized rural life on a farm looks like, but there aren’t images that produce equally complex spaces on the urban peripheries,” he says. “You look up ‘suburbs’ and you get stock images of cookie-cutter houses — but typology is a really reductive way of looking at communities and people.”

In this regard, the hit 2021 film Scarborough, directed by local auteurs Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, is a tour de force. Based on Catherine Hernandez’s 2017 novel of the same name, the documentary-style coming-of-age story follows a trio of children in the eponymous corner of Toronto — one that seldom sees the big screen. In my favourite scene, we follow Sylvie, a spirited young Indigenous girl, as she walks to the dollar store. On the way, she meets a man painting a mural, a kindly restaurant worker, an unscrupulous but friendly neighbour and, finally, her gentle, avuncular Ojibwa babysitter. All of them greet her by name. It’s a vignette that plays out across the urban fabric, from sidewalks and storefronts to parking lots. But more fundamentally, it plays out among neighbours, friends and acquaintances. In other words, a community — which is something we conjure wherever we are.

Postcards From Suburbia: Rethinking the Urban Peripheries

Despite an enduring cultural narrative of white picket fences and soulless sprawl, North America’s suburban communities are rich in culture, diversity and ecology.

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