As Measured in Feet: A trek across Toronto

by Nicholas Hune-Brown and J. Graham Lee

The Toronto Star, June 25, 2006

The authors, at the end of Toronto's sprawl

“You know, when you backpack in Toronto all you see is crap,” says one of the teenagers smoking cigarettes outside the Mac’s convenience store. It’s 10 at night on Victoria Day Sunday, and we’re standing in the rain in a dimly lit plaza north of Finch. With our travel knapsack and open map, we know we must look like particularly clueless tourists – the victims of some wildly inaccurate guidebook to Toronto’s charms – but we’re too tired and cowed to correct him. Besides, at this point, after a full day spent trudging through the GTA’s streets and subdivisions, we’re almost inclined to agree.

We had started our trek more than 12 hours and 50,000 steps earlier, at eight in the morning on the edge of Lake Ontario. Our plan was simple: to walk across the city, starting from the harbour and winding our way north to the first stretch of completely undeveloped land nearly 60 kilometres away.

The question, of course, is why? Our stock answer was a macho echo of Mallory’s response when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. Why spend two days trekking across the city, wearing out our sneakers on 60 kilometres of Toronto-area cement? Because it’s there.

The real hope, though, was to get a tangible sense of the city’s sprawl. Toronto’s growth is either impressive or depressing, depending on your attitude. Since 1989, the city has approved the development of 9,100 acres a year (compare this to Portland, Oregon’s 1,700). The Greater Golden Horseshoe is the third-fastest-growing area in North America, with over four million people expected to move here in the next 25 years. Toronto isn’t just going the same route as sprawling American cities, it’s leading the pack.

But learning statistics about sprawl can’t possibly provide a real sense of Toronto’s enormity. How can you really understand the scale of Toronto’s vast suburbs, we reasoned, without doing something as foolish as trying to walk through them?

Step 1

At eight in the morning, Queen’s Quay Terminal is completely empty. The weather is grey and drizzly, but we’re full of energy and enthusiasm. We are two determined young men uniquely suited to this task: Nicholas Hune-Brown, who recently completed his thesis on suburbia, and Graham Lee, who has been walking since before the age of 5. With us, in addition to our youth and vigour, are all the necessary supplies: raingear, a tent, two sleeping bags, some apples, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a Kellogg’s Special K pedometer that we carefully set to zero as we take our first step north.

There’s a somewhat surreal feel to the near-empty city as we stroll away from the lake, past the glass skyscrapers and stone buildings of Front Street. Down here, the skyline seems to change hourly. More than 17,000 condos were sold in the Toronto area last year, and more pop up every day.

We head east on Queen, past closed restaurants and shops, and then turn up Parliament, skirting the edge of Regent Park and the community housing buildings that are in rubble in the first step of the city’s massive revitalization program.

Ahead of us, we can see the grey apartment towers of St. Jamestown. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s “Towers in the Park” concept, the huge apartment buildings were built in the 1950s with the hope of attracting young, middle-class couples. Today, the neighbourhood is mostly made up of new immigrants and is one of the poorest parts of Toronto. With about 18,000 people living in 18 towers, it’s also the densest area in the country – the antithesis of so many of the sprawling subdivisions we see later in our walk and also, one suspects, a symbol of the kind of urban living so many people go to the suburbs to avoid.

Heading east, we pass through the quiet, leafy streets of Cabbagetown – a neighbourhood named for the poor, cabbage-eating Irish immigrants who moved here in the 19th century and have since been displaced by affluent urban professionals – before quickly passing through Riverdale Farm and onto the Don Valley trail.

Toronto’s extensive ravine system, including the trail up the Don River, is possibly the city’s most distinctive characteristic, and we have a natural disaster to thank for it.

After 1954, when Hurricane Hazel caused major flooding in the city’s river valleys and killed 81 people, the government placed major limitations on construction in the flood plains, and they became parkland. By 1966 Metro Parks controlled nearly 5,500 acres, two-thirds of which were in the outer suburbs.

Walking north up the trail, we see dozens of birds: red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, even a heron. It’s a gorgeous walk, and if we ignore the roar of the highway we can almost convince ourselves we’re in the country. The hours and steps pass like lightning and, by lunchtime, 21,264 steps, we’re ready to head off the trail and into suburbia.

Our next stop is at Flemingdon Park, a collection of red-brick “garden” apartment buildings and windswept greenspaces. This was one of the city’s first high-rise suburbs and a model for the countless other apartment buildings for low-income families that dot the outskirts of Toronto.

The park itself is just a strip of green that runs under a series of power lines, more of a default creation than a preplanned piece of public space, but when we’re there we find an entire Sri Lankan cricket league on three makeshift cricket pitches. The 35 teams come from as far away as Montreal and converge beneath the lines each weekend to compete. We take a few moments to enjoy the game and chat with the players.

Before heading north to Don Mills, we walk over to the old IBM building at Eglinton. IBM was in the avant garde of the corporate-suburban movement – one of the first companies to move out to the suburbs and stake their claim to a huge plot of land. Buildings like these marked a shift from transit commuting to car commuting. Like Flemingdon Park, it is one of the many underwhelming historical landmarks of suburbia we seek out on our trek.

Don Mills is another. As the first fully planned subdivision in postwar North America, it will undoubtedly be made a UNESCO world heritage site one day. But even though it’s arguably the first North-American suburb, wandering through the subdivision’s cul-de-sacs and crescents makes it clear that, with Don Mills, developer E.P. Taylor and company got the formula bang-on: The place looks like any other subdivision. It has comfortable-looking bungalows, expansive lawns, and the ubiquitous basketball hoops that seem to sprout like weeds in suburbia. Throughout our walk we see variations on this simple bungalow-lawn-carport design stamped across the outskirts of Toronto.

Step 41,592

By the middle of the afternoon, it is becoming clear that the cliche is entirely true: The suburbs just aren’t made for walking.

After a quick lunch at Don Mills Mall, we find ourselves turning in circles on crescents and cul-de-sacs that don’t lead anywhere. When we decide to stick to the major arteries, we’re forced to trudge up faceless corridors where tall wooden fences cut us off from the neighbourhoods on either side.

At seven o’clock, after more than 50,000 steps, we have reached Sheppard Ave., the midpoint of our trek and the end of our rope. Even though we’re exhausted, it’s way too early to pitch our tent, so we head to Fairview Mall to enjoy some discount sushi and catch a movie.

Skipping the line for The Da Vinci Code, we go to Over the Hedge and are pleasantly surprised. In our weary, slightly disoriented state, the animated feature about a group of forest animals that wake up from their hibernation to find themselves surrounded by the ominous and mysterious suburbs resonates with us deeply. The turtle, we feel, is a kindred spirit. We can relate to his mixed feelings about suburbia: confusion and disorientation, a love of the fruits of development (like cineplexes and discount sushi) combined with a perhaps irrational fear of what it may bring.

As we leave the movie, the sun is setting and the gentle drizzle of the afternoon has returned. The temperature is dropping and our bag seems to be getting heavier with every step. Despite the familiarity of the area, a strange sense of alienation has settled over us. We are just a phone call or a bus ride away from dozens of friendly homes where we could happily spend the night; by looking at Toronto all day with analytical eyes, we have been cut off from it.

It is in this state, walking along Finch toward our campsite, that we come under attack. We hear a bang and look at the embankment above to see a figure shooting a Roman candle out over the street while another runs down the stairs carrying a baseball bat over his shoulder. For a brief moment – before we realize our attackers are just a couple of 14-year-old practical jokers – their intent is devilishly clear: to blind us using their fireworks before bludgeoning us to death.

By the time we reach our destination, we’re wet, frozen, and paranoid. With clumsy fingers we pitch our tent in a power-line green space similar to the one at Flemingdon Park. The scrubby grasslands gently slope into a valley, and we can see downtown North York in one direction and apartment buildings in the other. There is no one around; the only sign of movement is the occasional passing car on Bayview. The rain picks up, so we scramble into the tent, burrow into our sleeping bags and break out the Jack Daniels, hoping for an untroubled sleep.

Around 1 a.m., the sound of an enormous explosion jolts us both upright. We stare through the nylon window of our tent and watch the side of the apartment building across from us explode into flames. It’s only some more kids firing fireworks off a balcony, and no doubt the red and green sparks showering off the building could be seen as beautiful. But to us it just seems sinister. We zip up our tent and try to fall asleep with the roar of thunder and the bang of fireworks in the distance.

Step 58,578

In the morning, we’re woken up by a golden retriever sniffing outside our tent. The rain has stopped, and in the light of day the green space that had seemed so menacing the night before looks like a perfectly pleasant park.

We stick our heads out and meet a troupe of early morning dog-walkers looking at our tent with understandable suspicion. Stumbling out, we smile in a way we hope is ingratiating and try to explain that we’re not vagrants, but journalists. In the filthy state we’re in, camping at the edge of their subdivision, this hardly sounds credible, so we quickly pack up camp and hit the road.

The morning is bad. Really bad. Because of an overly ambitious route that zig-zagged us from the Bridle Path to Fairview Mall and back, we covered almost 40 kilometres yesterday. Today every step counts double. The weather has improved, but our blisters and weariness make the going much slower. It takes us forever to walk up Bayview to Steeles Ave., the official boundary between Toronto and York Region, and we look enviously at the groups of cyclists in spandex whizzing past us.

This far north, the blocks are enormous but not without interest. On one particularly religious stretch of Bayview, we pass a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a synagogue and a Zoroastrian temple. It’s obvious that the conventional wisdom about suburbia as a world of white, Leave it to Beaver-type families is outdated. Between 1991 and 2001, 42 per cent of people who moved here were immigrants, and it shows. The squat grey plazas that dot the major suburban arteries aren’t just big-box outlets but centres of multicultural variety, with kebab shops squeezed between dim sum restaurants and Jewish delis.

By the time we reach Highway 7 and Bayview, development is patchy, so we head west to Yonge. Although Toronto is spreading outwards in all directions, this spread is by no means uniform. Housing developments creep along the major arteries before eventually filling in the gaps. It’s a pattern that happens again and again; many of the major intersections we’ve passed while moving north – Bloor, St. Clair, Eglinton and Lawrence – were all once part of suburbia before being transformed by a population influx.

After some half-priced fish and chips and a couple pints of ale at the scrupulously recreated London Pub, we head into Richmond Hill, a pretty little 19th-century town that has been caught by Toronto’s sprawl. Its main drag, with actual shops and restaurants, is the final stretch of urban coherence before the chaotic free-for-all of development to the north. The fact that the street is lined with storefronts we can actually use means that we don’t feel quite so much like unwanted visitors or trespassers. Further north, when the sidewalk disappears entirely, this feeling is unavoidable.

Step 77,001

The final leg of the trip, straight up Yonge St., is gruelling. By 70,000 steps, all that’s left of a once dynamic city is strip malls, subdivisions, and dozens of car dealerships. The cliche about North America being built on the car rings ever truer. In a single block, we pass three dealerships, a parking lot hawking used cars, and a garage offering a “tint sale” and a special deal on rims. Somewhere near 16th Ave., a Mercedes SUV cruises past with a vanity license plate that reads “MERGERS.”

As we crest the hill at Stouffville Rd. we’re able to see the Oak Ridges Moraine ahead of us – the end of our trek.

The moraine is both a unique ecosystem and the site of several enormous developments. One of the ironies of subdivisions like these is that they’re always marketed based on whatever has just been paved over. Walking up this final stretch of Yonge, we pass billboards with pictures of red cardinals and rabbits advertising “beautiful homes in a natural paradise” and inviting us to “explore nature’s lifestyle up close and personal.” As the kind woman at a sales office tells us, the major selling point for her subdivision is the fact that it’s “built right on a unique ecosystem.”

Macleod’s Landing, the subdivision-in-progress, looks like a war zone. The enormous, muddy field is littered with backhoes and the skeletons of monster homes. We climb over a fence and walk through empty streets, past incomplete houses and front yards that are little more than construction rubbish heaps. When the wind picks up, the dust blows into our eyes and it feels like we’ve stumbled into some surreal mash-up of affluent suburbia and war-torn Afghanistan. On streets with names like Silver Maple Lane – where there isn’t a blade of grass, let alone a full-grown tree – we’re amazed to find that eager families have already moved in amongst the rubble.

This subdivision is the end of our trek. North of it is a thin strip of protected moraine, and beyond that, Aurora, Newmarket and other entirely new exurban landscapes that will remain unexplored. After two days of walking, we’re ready to stop. We’ve reached, at least momentarily, the end of Toronto’s sprawl.

In some ways, Macleod’s Landing could be the end of sprawl for Toronto in a much larger sense.

When we talk to the executive director of the group Environmental Defence, Rick Smith, about the Stouffville Rd. development a few weeks later, he tells us he remembers the subdivision well. He camped out here in 2003 to protest the building of 6,600 homes on the ecologically sensitive moraine. The plot of land was the site of a well publicized battle between developers, environmentalists and the McGuinty Liberals, who eventually had to break their campaign promise to stop the project when developers began clearing the trees and scraping away the topsoil.

“I think that was the turning point,” Smith tells us. “It was such a brazen act on the part of the developers that I think people really began to take notice. It moved the government to action, and I don’t think you’ll see something like that happening again.”

Since the battle at Stouffville Rd., the McGuinty government has introduced a greenbelt initiative that halts growth on 600,000 acres of protected land around the city. Just a week ago, the province announced a progressive “Places to Grow” plan, which will curb sprawl by forcing 40 per cent of the four million people expected to move to southern Ontario in the next 25 years into existing urban areas.

More importantly, the last few years have seen a change in Toronto’s attitude towards sprawl. Slowly but surely, municipal leaders are discovering that the increased property taxes they get from new developments often don’t cover the costs of the infrastructure needed to service them. The government is beginning to realize that paving over important headwaters and prime farmland isn’t always the smartest policy.

And the public is gradually coming to the conclusion that maybe a nice backyard and a basketball hoop on a quiet cul-de-sac aren’t worth sitting in gridlock for several hours each day.

Despite the ultramodern townhouses being erected, then, the Stouffville Rd. development-in-progress seems a little old-fashioned. Fifty years after developers at Don Mills created the classic suburban design – cul-de-sacs that feed into collectors, houses with large yards located near schools – the pattern may have had its day.

In all likelihood, the future will look less like this field of houses and more like the areas we’ve already walked through – the downtown condominiums we passed nearly 90,000 steps ago, or the mixed-use main street of Richmond Hill.

In fact, the same week that the McGuinty government announced its plan to force 40 per cent of new growth into existing urban areas, the Greater Toronto Homebuilders’ Association announced that, at least momentarily, we’re already there. In May, 45 per cent of all new homes sold in the GTA were apartments in high-rise condominiums.

The townhouses and monster homes rising from the mud at Stouffville Rd. won’t be the last suburban homes ever built, but it’s possible that this muddy development at the edge of the city marks the beginning of the end of a particular type of unconsidered Toronto sprawl.

What’s certain, today, is that it’s the end of sprawl for us.

We leave the subdivision and stagger back toward Yonge St. down an unused lane lined with silver maples. It’s a beautiful road, one of those grand driveways you imagine must have once led to a large farmhouse in the middle of the country.

From the lakeshore to this lane, 88,687 steps on the Special K pedometer, it has all been city. To get here, we have used two different maps and walked through two different area codes. We’ve traversed the limits of entire transit systems, walked through dozens of subdivisions, and seen more Tim Hortons than we’ve bothered to count.

At the end of the lane, we stop for a moment to catch our breath. Looking south on Yonge, we can just make out the hazy forms of downtown Toronto in the distance, the CN Tower like a Tinkertoy on the horizon. Then, cursing, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try to find the nearest bus stop.