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This Toronto development replicates suburban living in a high-rise

Toronto’s CityPlace was designed for young professionals. Those professionals grew up and had families—and now they have new needs.

When Toronto’s CityPlace development was planned in the 1980s, the 30-building condo project near the city’s downtown had a specific kind of tenant in mind: young professionals willing to forgo space for proximity to the jobs and action in the center of the city. But as the last of the project’s high-rises and condos near completion, the roughly 18,000 people living in them are defying expectations. CityPlace has unexpectedly become home to hundreds of families.

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“What happened is young people have embraced living in the downtown core and also raising families in the downtown core,” says Gary Pieters, a resident and former president of the CityPlace Residents Association.

[Photo: Michael Muraz/courtesy ZAS Architects]

But the buildings themselves weren’t really designed to accommodate families, he says. People have resorted to what Pieters calls “hacks” to make tower life more conducive to the needs of families. Dens have been converted into children’s bedrooms. Corridors have been designated as playspaces. Shared rooms are made available for playdates and birthday parties. One room was even turned into a miniature golf course. Lacking both abundant space within their units and other communal space in the towers, residents have been clamoring for more. “We wanted social infrastructure that improved the quality life for residents,” Pieters says.

Now, after years in the works, a new part of the project is adding much needed family-friendly and community-oriented space to CityPlace. With a community center, two public schools, a public park and childcare facility, the project, called Canoe Landing, is setting a new standard for how to bring neighborhood amenities to high-density residential developments.

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[Photo: Michael Muraz/courtesy ZAS Architects]

These community amenities were part of the plan from early on, according to Ann-Marie Nasr, director of parks development and capital projects for the city of Toronto. But it took time to convince local officials in the city and the school system that such a project was actually needed. “The idea was always that it was a vertical community, not just tall buildings. At the time people thought we were dreaming,” says Nasr, who previously led the city’s comprehensive planning process for downtown. “People thought everybody would take their children and leave for typical single-family housing, and what we have found is people do enjoy the convenience and interesting opportunities of living in a more urban area.”

By 2016, the need for more family-friendly infrastructure at CityPlace was undeniable. “Even from the first community meetings, the front hall was packed with strollers. You almost couldn’t walk in because of all the strollers,” says Peter Duckworth-Pilkington, principal at ZAS Architects, which designed Canoe Landing. “There was a plan but there was a need for the detailed design to catch up to where the community already was.”

[Photo: Michael Muraz/courtesy ZAS Architects]

The resulting design came from a process of working directly with the city and the residents of CityPlace, which gave the architects a more comprehensive idea about what role a combination school and community center could have.

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“What we really heard from the community was this desire for the third space, that isn’t work and that isn’t home, where community can grow and foster, and also replicating some of the things that you would normally get in a house that would not necessarily be available in this denser living,” says Duckworth-Pilkington.

That led to an emphasis on spaces that could be used by the various sub-communities within CityPlace, from community kitchens for gatherings and canning parties to rooftop gardening spaces for the neighborhood’s balcony farmers to sports fields and playgrounds. In conjunction with the Ontario Science Centre, part of the community center’s has also been turned into an indoor play area, providing space for kids to play during winter. The design also includes a significant amount of unprogrammed space, especially in the community center’s lobby, where people can come and gather for events, for coworking, or just for a third-place-style hangout. “The design really came out of this work with the community, to take a standard city template and adapt it to this really new and evolving and different community for Toronto,” Duckworth-Pilkington says.

[Photo: Michael Muraz/courtesy ZAS Architects]

Though the project called for several individual elements—the two schools, the community center, and the park space—ZAS Architects’ design combined them all together. The two schools share several spaces, including corridors and gymnasiums, and the community center has park space integrated onto its roof, along with the indoor playground and unprogrammed social spaces.

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“By combining all of these facilities into one, we come up with a much more sustainable building strategy. There’s less site that’s required, there are fewer building materials that are required,” says Paul Stevens, senior principal and founder of ZAS Architects. He says this plan reduced the amount of site by around 30%. “That’s substantial. Especially when you’re talking about million-dollar-an-acre properties in the downtown area.”

This spatial efficiency helps build the case for these types of community amenities at other high-density residential developments in the city. Nasr says the community participation, planning and design process behind Canoe Landing has helped to inform some new city guidelines for designing vertical communities with children and families in mind. “In Toronto over 94% of our growth is in vertical communities,” Nasr says. “So we have to get good at that, and we have to partner with developers to see how we can make all of this happen in a way that people will not only just buy their first unit there, but will live their entire lives in those communities.”

Canoe Landing was completed in 2020, and though many of the community amenities are closed during the pandemic, the schools have been operating. Pieters, who moved to CityPlace in 2005, says the project is helping to turn the tower community into a more well-rounded neighborhood. He expects that families will begin to make up an even larger part of the increasingly diverse residential population. “A lot of people with families want to move here, but a lot of young people who have a taste for good urban living also want to move here,” he says. “What I think it’s done is created CityPlace as a purposefully built mixed residential community.”

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