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Once Upon a City: How Don Mills changed city building

For-sale signs were greeted with wild enthusiasm when E.P. Taylor’s Don Mills development project launched in 1953. No one knew it would turn out to be the most significant real estate project in Canada, influencing suburban development for decades.

Postwar Toronto was starved for housing. This 834-hectare fresh, futuristic development was thrilling. Yes, it was out in the sticks — almost isolated by ravines, displacing 20 small farms that dotted the area around Don Mills Rd. and Lawrence Ave. E., 12 kilometres from downtown Toronto.

The project design was daring, risky and largely guided by Macklin Hancock, a 27-year-old from Mississauga. He was studying urban planning at Harvard and deeply immersed in the principles of William Holford, who created the postwar English “New Towns” concept, and Walter Gropius of Bauhaus school fame.

In one of those happy twists of fate, Hancock’s father-in-law, Carl Fraser, was Taylor’s executive in charge of this new project. Hancock was aware of their discussions with U.S. planners and innovators about making it a new community, not just a housing development. And when they needed someone to co-ordinate planning on the project, the idealistic, enthusiastic Hancock persuaded his father-in-law to let him take the lead. In March 1952, young Macklin Hancock signed on and the project (which he later named as Don Mills) was underway. It was his first big job.

Hancock visualized the project as a completely self-sufficient town, with its own identity. This was to be a place that was affordable to everyone, designed to encourage neighbourliness; cars were to be separated from pedestrians and green space to be treasured.

Working with his assistant, 25-year-old architect Douglas Lee, Hancock divided the site into four quarters bisected by Lawrence Ave. E. and Don Mills Rd. Each quadrant was a neighbourhood wrapped around a school, a park and a church. The quadrants revolved around the centre, where he placed all the communal services, such as a shopping centre, curling rink, hockey rink, community centre and library.

Next came a radical innovation. Instead of repetitious grids lined with identical houses, Hancock devised curving streets all ending in T-shaped intersections and cul-de-sacs. This created a maze-like street pattern that slowed residential traffic and discouraged outsiders. Meandering footpaths connected homes to schools, shopping and library. As John Sewell wrote in The Second City Book: Studies of Urban and Suburban Canada, “it was thought that vehicles and pedestrians would never meet. To emphasize the point sidewalks were not provided.”

No cookie-cutter houses for Don Mills. Hancock devised a strict esthetic for the new “town.” All the homes, and commercial buildings, had to be of modern design by an approved modernist architect — John C. Parkin, Peter Dickinson and Henry Fliess were among the chosen.

By 1954, at least 53 different housing designs were ready to build. All construction had to use approved colours and materials; even the fences were controlled in height and appearance (three feet high and of an open design). The controls were not to dominate but to “help ensure that the new community had its own special feel in the early stages until residents could impose their own sense of community,” wrote John Sewell.

The modernist homes still sit comfortably on the wonderfully wide lots — 60 by 100 feet was the average size. The streets have a gracious, open and garden-like feel, especially now that the city has grown tightly around old Don Mills. But the plan also included rental row houses, lowrise apartments and semi-detached homes. This was a plan for a true mixed-income community.

Two more big ideas filled out Hancock’s plan. One was green space. All around the “new town” were greenbelts, which partly survive. To the east was the Don Valley, to the west Wilket Creek Park, to the north E.P. Taylor’s Windfields Estate and the IBM golf course, and to the south Flemingdon Farm. They flowed in and out of the quadrant parks.

The other idea was strict separation of land use. Commercial uses were in the centre and zones for light industry and other business activity encircled the residential area, never mixed. If people could live and work in the same community, Don Mills could be a real town, not just another dormitory suburb.

That’s a lot of regulations. But as it was funded entirely by private enterprise — a Canadian first — the corporation called the shots. E.P. Taylor even underwrote much of the cost of municipal services, taking on significant risk and ensuring control over everything from the overall plan to street signs. This, too, had never been done before.

What did new residents have to say about living there?

“We decided on Don Mills because we disliked the idea of living in an average development where the houses were like boxes row on row. We wanted to live in a neighbourhood that wasn’t monotonous, where we wouldn’t feel impelled to escape from our street at every opportunity,” said Peter Slaughter in Canadian Homes and Gardens in November 1954. His family was one of the first to move in.

Wilfred Bauman, a pastor who bought in 1957 still lives on Bradgate Rd., said: “Everything you needed was here. To me it’s genius, like living in a small town.”

By 1954 the sales were spectacular. Hancock quickly gained international recognition as a planner and went on to form his own design firm, which planned dozens of projects, including Erin Mills, Flemingdon Park, Expo 67, Century City in California and other locations around the world.

Success led to widespread imitation, and what seemed innovative and extraordinary when Hancock planned Don Mills is now standard design. Whenever you see residential streets curving back on themselves instead of marching in tidy grids, when housing lots are square, not long and narrow, and houses are sited broadside to the street, when backyards butt against arterial roads and subdivisions are anchored by a shopping mall, and especially when you crave a mid-century-style ranch bungalow, you are seeing the Don Mills effect.

Changes have diminished the “new town” concept as Toronto engulfed the site. Highrises are going up in the commercial areas and the original architecture is steadily giving way to eclectic new builds. Part of the south greenbelt buffer became Flemingdon Park and the golf course and E.P. Taylor’s estate to the north were subdivided. But much of Hancock’s vision is still there.

In 2004, in an interview with Dave LeBlanc in the Globe and Mail, Hancock recalled those early, exciting days. In the postwar period, he said, “Canada suddenly flowered, it wanted to be modern, it didn’t want to be ancient, it didn’t want Victorian houses. What it wanted was housing for the future that people could afford.”

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