October 29, 2018

Lawrence Heights revitalization aims to weave the community back into the city

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Despite what the techno-capitalists would have us believe, disruption has been part of life since the beginning. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes bad. Usually a bit of both.

Postwar city planning is a telling example. Once considered innovative, even enlightened, it was born of the highest of hopes. Its promoters set out to remake cities according to Utopian ideas they thought would lead us to a brave new world.

Yet, we have reached a point where one of the most pressing challenges facing contemporary city-builders is what to do with the good intentions that now line the highway to hell. Or is that the road to suburbia, or, closer to home, social housing?

A recent example is what’s happening at Lawrence Heights, the sprawling neighbourhood completed in 1962. Like its predecessors, Regent Park and Alexandra Park, it was built at a time when social housing preoccupied planners and architects. It was also an era when many big thinkers saw the city as an anachronism whose days were numbered. Their alternatives grew out a desire for a neater, tidier world in which everything — and everyone — had its place. The organic messiness of traditional cities would be replaced by something clean, coherent and convenient.

In Lawrence Heights, the urge to leave the city behind is evident in the pattern of dead-end streets that stopped short of the larger urban context. The housing itself was stripped down and repeated over and over to achieve economies of scale. All very well, of course, but hardly a recipe for architectural delight. Little wonder residents named their neighbourhood the Jungle. It didn’t help, either, that roads were organized seemingly to make it hard not to get lost.

Like Regent Park, the north-end neighbourhood is now being torn down for a model community. Built by private sector developers — in this case, Metropia and Context — the 21st-century version aspires to be a continuation of the city.

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