Perceptions of reality in the land of Oz

In Toronto high rise development is popping up throughout the urban core., accessed November 29, 2013.

In Toronto, high-rise development is popping up throughout the urban core., accessed November 29, 2013.

As explained by Toronto based planner, Toronto is best understood through the lens of neighborhoods. Each neighborhood bears a distinct character. Knit together, these neighborhoods create the tapestry of this international city. One such neighborhood, the area of Ossington, known for its characteristic low-rise retail development and residential areas, is being confronted with pressures of growth. Many of the buildings in this district were built in the nineteenth century, giving it a specific look and feel. Many have been converted into hip shops and restaurants. Neighborhoods like this starkly contrast the high-rise development rapidly occurring in the urban core.

Bold accentuation of Toronto's cultural amenities at the Royal Ontario Museum., accessed November 29, 2013.

Bold accentuation of Toronto’s cultural amenities at the Royal Ontario Museum., accessed November 29, 2013.

In the mid-1990’s Toronto shifted from “neighborhood planning to the imperative of reinvestment“. Since then the City’s has aimed to attract the creative class, attempting to leave behind the image of being an industrial city. Within the last fifteen years famous architects, such as Daniel LibeskindFrank Gehry, and Will Alsop, have made their mark within the city, enhancing the cultural climate to entice the creative class to Toronto. However, this investment in the cultural and education sector was overshadowed by the private investment of developers seeking to cash in on the action in the downtown core. Young professionals, empty nesters, and immigrants are the primary groups purchasing downtown condos. Private capital tends to focus on residential towers, embracing concepts of New Urbanism that encourage mixed-used and amenities within walking distance. This development is also bringing a gentrification of lower rent housing, segregating along racial and social lines in the name of removing housing stock “considered physically substandard and socially problematic”.

Snapshot of an Ossington street. Accessed November 29, 2013.

Snapshot of an Ossington street. Accessed November 29, 2013.

The growth of high-rise residential development in Toronto and the implications of the shifting emphasis of city growth has been the focus of much research done by Ute Lehrer, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at York University. At the recent SACRPH Conference on planning history, she presented her recent research on the neighborhood of Ossington (Oz). In this presentation, she began by questioning what image of Toronto is being built through the advertising of new developments and what the consequences are. She highlighted the contrasting views of the everyday residents in Oz with those of a developer planning a new housing complex for the neighborhood, to demonstrate differences of identity, real, perceived, and proposed.  Although there is an increasing demand for housing in the Toronto area, many residents desire the maintenance of a way of life in the place they live. New developments sell more than just property, they also sell a lifestyle and an identity. The implementation of these new developments changes the social fabric of the community by what is chosen to be included and excluded. A planned development for the property at 109 Oz proposes a mixed-use residential building, featuring private lofts with furnished and landscaped terraces, claiming to be “unquestionably, undeniably Ossington”. The following video presents a contrasting viewing of what Ossington is:

Unique style in Oz Accessed November 29, 2013.

Unique style in Oz Accessed November 29, 2013.

The interviews of residents quoted in Ms. Lehrer’s presentation, presented perceptions of the residents of the neighborhood that completely differed from what the developers are interpreting the character of the area to be. While residents saw this neighborhood as a place that fosters interaction, houses localized, small-scale retail and restaurants, and residential areas, the developer planning the 109 Oz project saw opportunity to market this area as an amenity to hip young professionals. Instead of encouraging integration into the grass-roots community, this development encourages exclusivity, interior focus, and separation from its environment. Oz can be viewed from inside this complex with little need to leave the luxury. Clearly, the developer has a different idea of what this neighborhood is and what it should be.

The perceptions of reality in the land of Oz will shape its future. Based on the views of residents and developers, there is tension over what that future will look like as the values within each of those spaces are renegotiated.