There's no shortage of health risks that come with living in the big city: smog, traffic accidents and the petri dish of communicable diseases that is your subway ride to work.
But a new report from Toronto Public Health to be presented to its board Monday (September 23) identifies an unlikely threat that it says is affecting the well-being of thousands of residents: outdated zoning bylaws.
Across the GTA, more than a million people live in high-rises, many of which are grouped in clusters that were built in the inner suburbs between the 1950s and 80s. These postwar tower neighbourhoods were often zoned as strictly residential, which means they're governed by bylaws that prohibit any commercial activity beyond a small tuck shop on the ground floor and restrict community uses of the property.
Shopping, employment, recreational programming and medical services are a car or transit ride away, making them difficult to reach for many tower dwellers, some of whom already face mobility challenges associated with old age, poverty, and substandard access to public transportation .
The tower neighbourhoods "don't have the features of what is considered a complete community," says Monica Campbell, director of healthy public policy for TPH. "They are not very walkable - they don't have good retail access to a local barbershop or drug store or to fresh fruits and vegetables within a five-minute walk."
Ironically, Toronto's postwar tower clusters were originally envisioned as far superior alternatives to inner-city tenements that bred disease and crime. Planners isolated the high-rises in empty fields with plenty of green space and fresh air, and mandated lots of parking so middle-class residents could drive to work, shopping and other amenities.
"That may have worked in the 50s, but with shifting demographics these apartments are often places where new immigrants come, where people with low incomes are residing, and they often don't have cars," says Campbell.
The report, called Towards Healthier Apartment Neighbourhoods, proposes seemingly simple changes: soft landscaping to enhance walkability, removing physical barriers to surrounding neighbourhoods, and installing better lighting. These smaller alterations would be permitted by current zoning.
But many other improvements the report recommends are prohibited by current bylaws, like converting unused parking space into children's play areas, permitting outdoor food markets and home-based retail businesses, leasing buildings' multipurpose rooms to fitness, recreation or health service providers, erecting sheds for community garden projects and allowing ground-floor grocery stores.
Current planning rules "may be preventing apartment neighbourhoods across the city from emerging as economically vibrant, well-served and healthy communities," the report concludes.
Officials with the Tower Renewal program, which was set up during David Miller's term to address deteriorating conditions in Toronto's more than 1,000 high-rise apartments, say that overhauling the zoning regime is critical.
"We think it's really one of the key factors in bringing these neighbourhoods the kind of facilities and activities that will make them good neighbourhoods," says Eleanor McAteer, project director in the Tower Renewal office.
McAteer says that for many residents, better access to the amenities currently prohibited by the bylaws is as high a priority as physical improvements to crumbling buildings.
The report's authors believe now is the perfect time to revisit the zoning bylaws. City planning staff are now working on the massive task of harmonizing dozens of pre-amalgamation zoning rules into a single bylaw, and Toronto Public Health is asking that its report be considered as part of the process, which should wrap up early next year.
Joe D'Abramo, acting director of Zoning Bylaw and Environmental Planning, says he broadly supports the report's recommendations, but figuring out how to apply them is complicated. He suggests restrictions under the residential zone category could be eased, but completely re-zoning apartment clusters as mixed commercial-residential areas would be more difficult.
"I think there are some things we can do with our regulatory regime, no doubt about it," D'Abramo says. But "undoing the existing zoning is painstaking and challenging."
Edit: The tower neighbourhood report was authored by the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal, for Toronto Public Health. This information was initially ommitted from this story. NOW regrets the error.