Scarborough’s Path of Progress

Unmangling a Master Plan for Greater Scarborough Centre

Local progress (toward big goals) takes unpredictable paths. Blame politics. Or, blame the globalized economy. Blame shifting population settlement patterns. Progress in a city or city district is if anything — a big debate. Have things progressed? we ask. Are we making progress toward our goals? Pronouncing on progress requires that goals be set in order to be striven for and measured. In a large city shared goals can only ever be general, and therefore they lack an inborn ability to compel and motivate. Like a team of athletes, city districts share broad goals while it’s the individual sets of goals that give the city composure and character. As convenient as it would be, we can’t start out by asking: Is Toronto making progress? We have to first inquire into the health and trajectory of each district. First: Is the south/north/west/east progressing toward its internally-ratified goals? Then: Is Toronto as a whole progressing? That’s to say: Are Toronto’s four districts progressing in concert with i) one another and ii) their regional neighbours (of Peel Region, York Region and Durham Region)?

As the City constructs the Downsview subway extension, a debate rages on about the necessity of an extension from Kennedy to Sheppard. Opponents of this extension promote the conversion of the SRT into an LRT line. This debate exemplifies the challenges inherent in planning a mega-City. The mono-desire for financial efficiency held by the other three districts is pitted against the internal, long-standing goal of the fourth district to build a subway to and through its downtown. Uniting these two distinct conversations is the current reality of a shared tax base. This common financial burden continually pressures the east and west districts to take less risks in the building of public works for projected future needs.

But does the debate merely.. bifurcate? Does a mega-City issue only have two sides? What aspects of city-building are being obscured to us?

Missing from this graphic is the additional stop promoted for Danforth / Eglinton, known for decades by Scarborough planners as a requirement for a McCowan line.

Major planning in today’s mega cities has three aspects to it (at least!). These are: District Development & Design, City Growth & Coordination, and Regional Mobility & Economy. In our desire to be a new and united “City” we’ve transposed the natural order of priority-production and eliminated new-scale metropolitan thinking from our public conversation. We mistakenly consider all-City priorities first and foremost, without giving full consideration and esteem to each district’s trajectory and ambitions. This is most extreme in the case of Scarborough district.

Below is a (very) rough analysis of the Scarborough Centre debate. Note that I did not say “Scarborough Subway” debate. That is a politically-charged phrase maintained by both sides. That way of framing the investment strategy has little correspondence to the decades-old discussions held by local residents and planners across the spectrum.


What is Scarborough’s trajectory and what are its ambitions?

Scarborough has been slower to grow and in-fill than the rest of Toronto. This is due in part to the restraining, conservative growth policies maintained by Scarborough’s voters—which a mega-City was intended to put a crack in. As the whole region continues to intensify it can only be seen as selfish and uncooperative to not permit new styles of density and residential in-fill in traditionally 1–2 storey areas of Toronto. Scarborough does want to grow, but its vast territory has made the building of consensus very challenging. Since the 1970s, Scarborough Town Centre has been seen as a means toward consensus, an island of activity capable of uniting the interests and agendas south and north of the 401. But as the 1980s chugged on the Town Centre ‘project’ slowed to a halt. As Scarborough communities attempt to make poverty and prosperity shared priorities, it’s important to understand the cohering role of Town Centre as a shared endeavour that unifies the visions and investments of the district as a whole.

Town Centre / Civic Centre Master Plan, prepared by DTAH firm
DTAH firm’s 3D rendering of Scarborough Centre

Many people don’t realize that ‘Town Centre’ is more akin to a super-centre made up of approximately four planning precincts: Brimley, Town, Civic and McCowan. While growth will continue in Civic Precinct, change will be greatest in the other three. The new library is meant to herald a new era of Scarborough Centre architecture and beautification. It’s also going to be a fun hang out spot. An Apple computer lab with 3D printing is planned. Yes!

Scarborough Civic Centre Library Branch

Some readers may know Scarborough Centre too well, others unsure how to even get there. If you’re coming from downtown you generally take the subway to Kennedy Station, walk up two levels, then transfer onto the celebrated and hated SRT train, which noisily brings you north to Lawrence Station, Ellesmere Station, Midland Station, and finally.. Scarborough Centre. Once landed, the rider descends one storey to visit the mall or City Hall, or else descends two levels for TTC, GO and Greyhound buses. This hub is equally local and regional, Scarborough’s backbone of mobility.

Jeff Bentley, Flickr

Getting to, from and around Scarborough Centre — the big debate:

One thing that everyone agrees on—the SRT system needs to be replaced very soon. In its journey from Kennedy to Ellesmere it runs along ground-level tracks, then does a dip and mounts onto an elevated structure on its way to Town Centre. The history of the RT has been well-documented, especially by Steve Munro. The RT is history!, though as I argue below its infrastructure can serve next-gen Scarborough in two or three different ways. Oddly enough, creative thinking about the RT line may hold the key to Scarborough’s future as an inventive and physically active metropolitan borough. Re-purposing the RT structures isn’t my idea, but I do want to offer context and a stronger vision for doing so.

As the map above illustrates, the big tension between an LRT or subway extension doesn’t centre around Scarborough Centre but to its east and north. If LRT, then transit access to Progress East, Centennial College, Sheppard East and Malvern. If Subway, then strategic local and regional subway access north and south of Highway 401. Tough call eh! What would you do? I believe the answer is a combination of both options.

The presentation of ‘either-or’ stems from a mega-City Council still acting as if the future won’t be very very crowded. Yes, the federal government needs to invest directly in the country’s largest city. But what if the larger issue is the form of Weak government we’ve uncritically accepted? Who is to lobby the PM and foreign investors, a Mayor who sits as equal with Ward representatives? Instead of asking how we can maintain and increase our transit infrastructures, we present to ourselves straw men in the form of either-or scenarios. Scarborough and the City of Toronto need light and heavy rail going in every possible direction. What’s the right mix? Answers can not and should not be determined solely by financial calculations. District design and development priorities must be weighed first, then considered alongside City and regional pressures and resources. Local politicians tend to re-inforce short-sightedness. Rarely if ever will they train our attention on future needs. So that role falls to us, the chattering and concerned parts of the population who voluntarily apply our skills and education and time to the advancement of the City as a whole.

Scarborough Centre: 2040

The subway has been extended up to Steeles, with a grandiose station at McCowan and Bushby. The Scarborough bus hub remains where it has always been, in the dead centre of STC. If you want people to get from the subway to the bus depot or vice versa, you need to have a viable plan / enticing path. There are three basic options: people walk over, they board buses near McCowan and ride in, or they take an LRT-type train 1 stop into STC. The 2nd option, busing in, doesn’t have many design ramifications. So let’s look at option 1 and 3 — walking and LRTing.

McCowan Station, Source: City of Toronto


If a person is exiting McCowan Station they could walk up the hill by the YMCA, around the Federal building and into STC. If the current plans for a McCowan “Span” and Food Market come to fruition, the transit rider could buy an apple then walk across a plaza-park daringly stretched across McCowan Road into the northeast entrances of STC. If an LRT has not replaced the SRT then people may filter along the old tracks into old Scarborough Centre station. The conversion of the SRT line into a pedestrian and cyclists pathway hasn’t been given a name yet. Let’s call this creative scenario the “Path of Progress”.

City of Toronto
North Bendale Community Association Website


However it shakes out, current enthusiasm for LRTs is bound to result in LRTs operating through or from Scarborough Centre area. They could begin at McCowan Station and head for Malvern. Or they may end up entering ‘downtown’ from another direction. If an LRT ran from Kennedy to McCowan then one could simply exit the subway at Bushby and catch an LRT upstairs. Rather than imagining a full LRT system passing through Scarborough Centre (see image below), what if we envisioned LRT / Commuter Train activity at its edges? How could we creatively re-purpose the elevated tracks between McCowan and Kennedy?

via UrbanToronto
via UrbanToronto

The Path of Progress

Supposing SmartTrack line is built, running northward to Unionville… Scarborough district should pursue the construction of a multi-modal line running from Ellesmere Station to McCowan (the “Path of Progress”). Its main features would be as follows:

  • custom-designed, driverless RT-type trains bouncing between Ellesmere-Centre and Centre-McCowan, with the west-side car operating on the north track line and the east-side car operating on the south track line
  • at Scarborough Centre the two trains could pull up adjacent to one another, with special doors designed to allow for boarding in-between
  • a peoples pathway would occupy the unused track spaces
  • Can this path be extended down to Kennedy Station?
  • How do we bring people to Centennial College and to Malvern?
  • Could the eastern extension of an “SRT” and the “Progress Path” proceed together, at least to Centennial College, giving equal value to transit, cycling and the pedestrian?

Sunday January 4th, 2014, Photo by @mpeers
Arriving at Town Centre by bus, I ascended the stairs to the top platform, a peculiar, suburban yet lively public space with trains, cyclists, and pedestrians converging into an organized chaos. I elected to walk along The Path to McCowan. As I left Centre the Span came into view, and from the same spot I could almost see into the Great [Food] Hall. A few steps further, and the wonderous Agincourt Tower overtook my eyesight. Looking ahead, down and into the distance I sensed something new was taking place, but I didn’t know what.