18 July 2008

Cosmopolitan Dynamics of Multicultural Cities

the outer edges of TorontoIan Chodikoff
With the variety of ethnic and cultural groups found across the inner and outer suburban rings of the Greater Toronto Area, architects need to improve their understanding of the miscellaneous informal activities and physical adaptations to our built environment developed by communities living in these suburban spaces. More discourse on this subject is required to anticipate and respond to the spatial and design challenges associated with our increasingly large cosmopolitan cities. Toronto is growing by 100,000 citizens every year and a majority of this growth is attributed to those arriving from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. There are tremendous design opportunities afoot.

Canadians are accustomed to believing in the merits of multiculturalism. This is understood by nearly every citizen, as well as the world beyond which views us as being tolerant to a multitude of cultures, religions and ways of life. However, this dangerously glib mentality will not ensure Canada’s position as a leading global innovator in its approach to architecture and urban design. With respect to the multitude of immigrants arriving each year, our design professions need to develop a more proactive approach to diversity. A useful way to devise a methodology that anticipates the needs of a new era of cosmopolitan cities is to examine the suburban fringes of the Greater Toronto Area.

The first generation of postwar suburban buildings in the 1950s spawned new thinking in the possibilities of our suburban landscapes. Don Mills, Erin Mills, Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Parks each offered fresh perspectives relating to the densities and building types available to the new middle-class. When Flemingdon Park was completed in 1967, it marked a significant transition in the history of Toronto’s public housing where families —single-mothers or otherwise— could live peaceably in a medium-density environment with easy access to schools and playgrounds. Its original architects never intended the cultural composition to be as diverse as it is today, with women in saris strolling at night on wide sidewalks alongside immature trees trying to buffer the noise of the busy arterial roads.

With subsequent generations, the original schools and shopping areas have changed. A 2004 renovation to the Flemingdon Park High School by Stephen Teeple allowed a 40-odd-year-old school serving over 30 different cultures in adjacent communities to thrive and co-exist in a rich and meaningful way. Teeple’s renovation engages and furthers a culture of diversity set within a neighbourhood containing wholesale distribution centres built 20 years ago. Flemingdon and nearby Thorncliffe Park now contain silk traders from India, Pakistani restaurants and halal butchers.

Postwar apartment towers, townhouses, shopping centres, office buildings, religious buildings, parks and schools of the Greater Toronto Area’s suburbs have collectively contributed to the foundation of a deep and meaningful cultural landscape, enabling a diverse range of communities to be altered and replaced by a new reality — one of global connectivity and entrepreneurship. Relationships developed amongst the variety of social networks found across the Greater Toronto Area are being reworked and enriched by immigrants arriving with social, intellectual and financial capital, contributing to the social and economic benefit of our respective communities. Entrepreneurial activities flourish within a suburban infrastructure, allowing 1960s strip malls along Eglinton Avenue in Scarborough to be remodelled into new businesses that sell hejabs, hookah pipes or Sri Lankan cuisine. Underutilized parking lots in front of these strip malls evolve, transforming themselves into sophisticated social spaces operating equally well during the day and at night. With festivals like ‘The Taste of the Lawrence’, a popular food and cultural fair that takes place in July (now in its second successful year), a diverse community of Greek, South Asian and Persian backgrounds celebrate over a weekend of food, commerce and fun — this is something that the rest of the world can learn about, provided we continue to allow these urban spaces to flourish.

It is clear to even the most casual observer that a highly motivated series of private initiatives activated by vibrant ethnic and cultural communities has developed a process of evolving informal urbanism. It also remains clear that many of the strip malls located across the Greater Toronto Area provide useful palimpsests for cultural diversity. Advertisements for English as a second language, computer skills, tax and accounting services, as well as medical walk-in clinics allow the careful passerby to deconstruct the various components of such a diverse and complex network of interconnected communities. These are just a few examples of the many possible urban design outcomes for architects; the challenges of multiculturalism are an opportunity to develop a toolkit capable of analysing the processes that affect the cultural contexts of Canada, while providing new possibilities of design innovation.

And, entirely new communities are being built from the ground up. A short drive away, on the southern boundary of Markham just north of Scarborough, lies the expansive Pacific Mall. This suburban commercial enclave is the perfect arena from which to examine the creation of a shopping centre specifically designed for a mostly Chinese community. The transformation has been outstanding. Individual storeowners have collectively created entire commercial environments essentially foreign to a non-Asian visitor. At first glance, the commercial framework is relatively straightforward, but the dynamics are constantly changing and are highly indicative of global connectivity. Hundreds of tenants are divided into commercial tiers where kiosks sell items from unlocked cell phones, food, jewelry, cheap handbags to running shoes. Beneath the surface of legitimate trade lies a few more informal streams of commerce, where illegal CDs of the latest films and fake handbags are sold to trustworthy clients. And the role of the architect? The agglomeration of restaurants and food fairs have coalesced into a string of economic activity that has created a parallel city in Markham. In a few years, the nearby Markham Civic Centre, designed by Oleson Woreland Architects and landscape architect Janet Rosenberg will heighten the awareness of this new suburban environment with a network of a variety of mid- to high-density developments in a community that has seen its population grow from 20,000 to 200,000 in the last two decades. The Town of Markham is duly proud. The influx of foreign capital and urban development has contributed to the success of this municipality.

When John B. Parkin Associates completed the Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation in Don Mills in 1956, Toronto’s then mostly white suburbs had embraced Modernism, joining the ranks of global cities engaged in progressive architecture and urbanism. Another modernist building in Don Mills, the Bata Building (also by John B. Parkin Associates), is set to be replaced by the new Global Centre for Pluralism, designed by Mumbai-based architect Charles Correa and funded by the Aga Khan Development Network, based in Geneva.

This kind of transformation represents a new era of urbanism shaping the Greater Toronto Area’s suburbs — an urbanism connected to the religious, historical and cultural networks of the world while the Greater Toronto Area evolves into a cosmopolitan city-region.

Chodikoff, Ian. 'Fringe Benefits' On Site review, no. 18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Ian Chodikoff and On Site review

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