CASE

Full-Stop on the Expressway? Collective Organization Against the Spadina Expressway

March 16, 2019 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
September 8, 2018 Scott Fletcher, Participedia Team
September 7, 2018 Keisha Maloney

The Spadina Expressway was one of a series of planned highway routes designed in 1960 by the City of Toronto to make the downtown core more accessible. However, its construction was met with a high degree of backlash from the local Torontonians.

Problems and Purpose

The Spadina Expressway was one of a series of planned highway routes designed in 1960 by the City of Toronto to make the downtown core more accessible. However, its construction was met with a high degree of backlash from the local Torontonians whose houses would be demolished in the process. The citizens were frustrated as politicians and city officials neglected their demands for alternate visions for the city including preserving communities, preventing environmental degradation and promoting public transit[i]. The opposition formed a coalition called Stop Spadina Save Our City Coordinating Committee (SSSOCCC). The group organized demonstrations, crowded political meetings, and researched links among various politicians to the highway[ii]. As a result of the actions by the SSSOCCC, the Spadina Expressway (SE) was never constructed, and the blueprints were discarded in 1971. The decision to cancel the Spadina Expressway greatly changed the landscape of Toronto as it demonstrated to council members that small-scale community networks were highly important to the citizens of the city. 

Background History and Context

During the postwar period, Toronto faced rapid growth which could have led to a weak-centered, dispersed metropolitan region – a fate that many thought possible as a result of the minimal office and retail construction occurring in the downtown core until the 1960s[iii]. Throughout the 1960s, “public sector decisions contributed to the long-term maintenance of centralization in Toronto despite ongoing suburbanization”[iv]. At this time, the city built-up a network of urban transportation including subway development and commuter train services[v]. The rapid growth of the financial sector in Toronto led to an immediate demand for office space within the downtown core, which ultimately translated to a need for people to access the downtown area with ease. The city implemented expressways at a slow rate as they did not face pressure from the federal government, which allowed Toronto residents to see the urban impact of such expressways experienced by nearby cities, mainly Montreal[vi]. As a result, backlash to the Spadina Expressway in the 1960’s manifested. 

The SSSOCCC set out to abolish the creation of the Spadina Expressway as its construction would destroy residential areas[vii]. Urban residents were determined to fight the SE as it represented postwar auto-centric planning targeted to promote growth[viii]. Toronto’s urban expressway construction was “partial” reflecting global understandings of city aspirations during the 1970’s[ix]. The main purpose of the protests were to prevent increased access to the city center, and instead securing residential land for communities within the city. Unlike the construction of the Don Valley Parkway which rises above industrial land, Spadina was home to urban ravines, underdeveloped natural spaces and sparsely populated residential areas including Kensington Market, the Annex, Casa Loma and Chinatown[x]. The SE would have dumped a great deal of traffic into many of the residential neighborhoods in the heart of Toronto[xi]. Local urban planning writers such as Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, among others, argued that the city needed to preserve small-scale neighborhood life[xii]. The debate over the SE was focused primarily on the best method to respond to regional and local needs, as there was no explicit city development agenda. As a result, the decision against constructing the SE was not focused on meeting elite expectations regarding what a “world class city” might need[xiii]. The creation of the SE would have marked a change in the community design in Toronto and challenged the sense of belonging within a city, a reality local Torontonians were unwilling to accept. 

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

When the SSSOCCC was formed in 1969, young idealists, academics, professionals, students and housewives allied to fight the expressway[xiv]. Although anyone was welcome to join the SSSOCCC, another administrative team also joined the fight against the SE – OMB (Ontario Municipal Board). Members of this organization are appointed for life and have no formal training in regard to city administration and planning[xv]. City planning activists and scholars, notably Jane Jacobs and Alan Powell, were involved in the series of protests against the municipal government, and would later be joined by John Sewell, a forthcoming Toronto Mayor[xvi]. The OMB was involved in every step of the decision-making process for the SE, and contributed to its ultimate dissolution[xvii]. The role of this organization demonstrates that grassroots activism was not solely responsible for the defeat of the SE – unique legal battles simultaneously took place[xviii]. The agreement reached by the OMB to cancel the SE served as a palatable, legitimate and respectable determinant that Premier Bill Davis used as a reason to cancel the development[xix]. The OMB drew on public hearings from around the area to determine their decision[xx], signifying the elevated role of citizen involvement and participation in the decision-making process by both the OMB and municipality. Further, in terms of funding, there was little need to gather funding as the organization was made up of members and volunteers who committed their time and energy to lobbying and protesting.

Participation Recruitment and Selection

Local citizen participation largely took the form of lobbying municipal leaders, which the SSSOCCC was greatly successful at. With activists like Jane Jacobs and Marshall McLuhan at the helm of the opposition, politicians were targeted which made the SE the most important and controversial issue in the municipal election in 1969[xxi]. Grassroots activism took the form of writing to the Premier, the Cabinet, and notably, members of the OMB[xxii]. Additionally, rallies were organized by activist leaders declaring Toronto as a “living organism…more than just concrete and steel”[xxiii]. A petition was sent to the Metropolitan Toronto Transportation Committee with 15,709 signatures – one of the largest petitions submitted by a citizens’ group[xxiv]. Notable to the success of the activism was the “intellectual debate about city planning, and not just an emotional knee-jerk reaction”[xxv]. The citizens had the advantageous context of living in a formally institutionalized democracy which legitimized their participation and protest, which arguably enabled the success of the citizen action. By having legal channels to voice their concerns, and an institutionalized rule of law, the opinions of citizens were formally recognized by governance decision makers. A wide variety of bureaucratic actors’, including ratepayers, resident associations, school boards, the Metro Toronto Labour Council and even councils of the City of Toronto[xxvi], were keen to abolish the SE. However, the SSSOCCC was primarily made up of concerned individuals, home owners, and city dwellers who were invested in ensuring the sense of community vis-à-vis the physical geography of Toronto. What united the myriad of actors was their desire to preserve the “authenticity” of the city – regardless of their social background, occupation or political affiliation. While it is wrong to argue that there was little divisiveness among the group, their end goal was united – only viable to the group was the abolition of the SE – which created a homogenous and effective movement.

Methods and Tools Used

This case serves as an example of the success associated with highly targeted citizen participation. In Toronto, during the Spadina Expressway debate, the citizen actors targeted city councillors and employed the abilities of well-known participants to propel their movement. Although targeting politicians directly, and garnering support from field experts is not possible in all forms of citizen participation, the use of highly targeted tactics is exportable. Targeted actions demonstrate succinctly what the movement is working to achieve and shows decision makers that this is not a “knee-jerk” reaction. Thus, the main method employed during the Spadina Expressway protests was targeting politicians directly through walk-ins and protests, face-to-face meetings, and pressuring them to take action by galvanizing support from prominent city planners.

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

As a result of the pressure city councillors faced, the Spadina Expressway was cancelled on June 3, 1971 by Premier William Davis. The voices of the SSSOCCC were heard and responded to, demonstrating the strength of regional democracy at the time. The citizens of Toronto were able to hold their representatives accountable to their needs via protests, walk-ins and petitions. This landmark decision shaped the future construction of the city. Small communities and local development continue to be valued by the city to some extent. Premier Davis was cited as saying “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile,” Davis told the legislature, “the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve the people, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to stop.[xxvii]” The legacy of the SE encouraged citizens to become more involved in city planning throughout the next decade.[xxviii] In an attempt to find a compromise between the Province, which was advocating for the commuters, and the City Allen Road was transferred from the Province to the City. The land was used to build the Allen Expressway which served to block future extension attempts and give the GTA (greater Toronto area) easier access to the downtown core[xxix]

Influence, Outcome, and Effects

The most significant outcome for the SSSOCCC and the OMB was successful disruption of the expressway construction. This would serve as a landmark decision, meaning that municipal decisions would represent the needs of those most effected by city plans – in this case, small communities within the city. In contrast to many city decisions made around the world, elite interests did not determine the outcome. In Toronto, institutional structures and political coalitions play a major role in policy decisions[xxx] which likely contributed to this outcome. In contrast, following the decision to abolish the SE, Toronto continues to be marked with a patchwork of expressway routes and incomplete rapid transit networks[xxxi]. In the coming years the lack of an additional expressway will prove detrimental to automobile traffic flow as the Gardiner Expressway faces reconstruction, leaving many with limited options for reaching the downtown core[xxxii]. However, the area where the SE would have been constructed is a vital urban neighborhood within the city which has become accessible by subway and streetcar lines[xxxiii]. City councillor Adam Vaughn stated the outcome was “the most transformative moment in the city’s history”[xxxiv].  

It is important to note that there were a number of counter-protests, however they were much more ad-hoc and not as impactful. Most significantly, the majority of the Toronto residents were not in favour of the expressway.

On a broader scale, the Spadina case demonstrates the strong institutional capacity for successful movements. Where citizens are formally recognized by their state, they have the ability to achieve more of their demands. Whereas in many contexts throughout the world, the governance systems are often not accountable or responsive to the demands of their citizens. Thus, only in specific contexts can these tactful forms of institutionalized citizen participation (penetrating and acting within the confines of the administrative state) be successful – namely responsive and representative democracies. Penetrating administrative and bureaucratic systems as the SSSOCCC did is a difficult feat when political systems and the state itself are difficult to navigate. One could argue, employing institutionalized citizen participation was accessible in this case only via prominent figures in city planning – namely Jane Jacobs. However, it is important to contend that Canada too, is not in all cases a responsive and representative democracy. In this particular instance, the municipal government was responsive to the demands of citizens, but such participation does not always produce similar results at the provincial and federal level in Canada. For example, the protests against missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada has not been responded to, to the same degree. Furthermore, since the 1970s such actions have arguably not challenged politics to the same extent in recent years, regardless of the political level. The political climate today is much more polarized and citizens are increasingly empowered in their grievances as a result of social media and internet outlets. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Evidently, the citizen action taken in regard to the construction of the Spadina Expressways was successful. This is a result of the protest tactics used by social groups to directly target the municipal government in highly tactical and intelligent ways. Although one could argue that such tactics are not necessary for successful citizen participation, in this case they were vital in disrupting the construction of the expressway as it held the city accountable to its citizens. This success is largely related to the context of the movement, both politically and historically. It is important to note that while the exportability of these tactics is uncertain, citizens in countries throughout the global south and global north (which may be non-democratic), can organize in their own intelligent ways which is dependent on the specific context. This once again raises the concern of the ability to employ the tactics used in this case to the broader contexts of citizen participation where governments do not provide formal channels for citizen participation. The tactical employment of well-known city planners and highly educated, influential scholars and civil servants was integral to the success of the citizen action. 

The success of the movement demonstrates the responsiveness of decision makers when a movement is highly organized. The collectivity of the city and persistence demonstrated to the city councillors that the demands of the citizenry could not be ignored. However, the context of the Spadina Expressway debate must be considered when considering the tactics as exportable regarding participation in development. Toronto was governed by a democracy, the politicians were highly accessible, and in the context of the 1960’s, protest in North America was widespread and hard for governments to ignore as a result of the Vietnam War. These factors undeniably played a role in the success of the citizen action, however, the use of targeted methods of participation to achieve empowered citizen participation could likely be exported to other instances of citizen participation. Nonetheless, the success of the movement empowered the citizens of Toronto as their actions garnered real, impactful results. Thus, the final decision by City Hall to cancel the construction of the SE was made. 

It is difficult to critique the activism as it was orderly, sufficient, and extremely successful, however the cancelling of the expressway left behind a series of “ghost” lots, which the city has done nothing with since buying up the land to construct the SE[xxxv]. In September 2017, the city issued a report detailing the Expressway Properties which reads as a “map to lost graves of old political battles”[xxxvi]. Fifty-eight Spadina Expressway Properties remain, and the city is plagued with the responsibility to sell them off once again[xxxvii]. Thus, although the activism was successful, the leftover properties are largely unused and strain the city’s resources, and the exportability of the tactics used by the SSSOCCC to a broader context is questionable. SSSOCCC activism has prevented the onset of new expressways being built through vibrant communities reaching across the city. While this makes automotive traffic more complicated, it increases the necessity of strong transit infrastructure – a project the city continues to improve. This politicization has had a domino effect on the construction of expressway networks across North America becoming a landmark decision and an important precursor to municipal reform[xxxviii].

See Also 

References

[i] Robinson, Danielle. “Modernism at a Crossroad: The Spadina Expressway Controversy in Toronto, Ontario ca 1960-1971.” The Canadian Historical Review 92 no. 2, (2011): 295-322.

[ii] Barc, Agatha. “Nostalgia Tripping: The Spadina Expressway Debacle.” BlogTO, July 12, 2010.

[iii] Filion, Pierre, Igal Charney and Rachel Weber. “Downtowns that Work: Lessons from Toronto and Chicago.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24, no. 2 (2015): 20-42.

[iv] Filion, Pierre, Igal Charney and Rachel Weber. “Downtowns that Work: Lessons from Toronto and Chicago.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24, no. 2 (2015): 25.

[v] Filion, Pierre, Igal Charney and Rachel Weber. “Downtowns that Work: Lessons from Toronto and Chicago.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24, no. 2 (2015): 20-42.

[vi] Perl, Anthony, Matt Hern and Jeffery Kenworthy. “Streets Paved With Gold: Urban Expressway Building and Global City Formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24 no. 2, (2015): 91-116.

[vii] Robinson, Danielle. “Modernism at a Crossroad: The Spadina Expressway Controversy in Toronto, Ontario ca 1960-1971.” The Canadian Historical Review 92 no. 2, (2011): 295-322.

[viii] Robinson, Danielle. “Modernism at a Crossroad: The Spadina Expressway Controversy in Toronto, Ontario ca 1960-1971.” The Canadian Historical Review 92 no. 2, (2011): 295-322.

[ix] Perl, Anthony, Matt Hern and Jeffery Kenworthy. “Streets Paved With Gold: Urban Expressway Building and Global City Formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24 no. 2, (2015): 91-116. 

[x] Perl, Anthony, Matt Hern and Jeffery Kenworthy. “Streets Paved With Gold: Urban Expressway Building and Global City Formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24 no. 2, (2015): 91-116.

[xi] Wellman, Barry. 2006. "Jane Jacobs the Torontonian." City & Community 5 (3): 217-222. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6040.2006.00175.x.

[xii] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xiii] Perl, Anthony, Matt Hern and Jeffery Kenworthy. “Streets Paved With Gold: Urban Expressway Building and Global City Formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24 no. 2, (2015): 91-116.

[xiv] Plummer, Kevin. “Historicist: The Provocative Street Players Crash the Levee.” Torotontoist, December 29, 2012.

[xv] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xvi] Barc, Agatha. “Nostalgia Tripping: The Spadina Expressway Debacle.” BlogTO, July 12, 2010.

[xvii] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xviii] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xix] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xx] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xxi] Javed, Noor. “How downtown slew the ‘beast’.” The Toronto Star, March 28, 2009.

[xxii] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xxiii] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xxiv] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xxv] Javed, Noor. “How downtown slew the ‘beast’.” The Toronto Star, March 28, 2009.

[xxvi] Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

[xxvii] Bradburn, Jamie. “Stop Spadina!” Toronto in Time: Tales of the City, Told in Words and Images.

[xxviii] Bradburn, Jamie. “Stop Spadina!” Toronto in Time: Tales of the City, Told in Words and Images.

[xxix] Bradburn, Jamie. “Stop Spadina!” Toronto in Time: Tales of the City, Told in Words and Images.

[xxx] Filion, Pierre, Igal Charney and Rachel Weber. “Downtowns that Work: Lessons from Toronto and Chicago.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24, no. 2 (2015): 20-42.

[xxxi] Perl, Anthony, Matt Hern and Jeffery Kenworthy. “Streets Paved With Gold: Urban Expressway Building and Global City Formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24 no. 2, (2015): 91-116.

[xxxii] CBC News. “Gardiner Expressway: What you need to know about the options.” CBC News. April 15, 2016.

[xxxiii] Perl, Anthony, Matt Hern and Jeffery Kenworthy. “Streets Paved With Gold: Urban Expressway Building and Global City Formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24 no. 2, (2015): 91-116. 

[xxxiv] Javed, Noor. “How downtown slew the ‘beast’.” The Toronto Star, March 28, 2009.

[xxxv] Micallef, Shawn. “Ghosts of Spadina Expressway haunt us still.” The Toronto Star. October 6, 2017.

[xxxvi] Micallef, Shawn. “Ghosts of Spadina Expressway haunt us still.” The Toronto Star. October 6, 2017.

[xxxvii] Micallef, Shawn. “Ghosts of Spadina Expressway haunt us still.” The Toronto Star. October 6, 2017.

[xxxviii] Robinson, Danielle. “Modernism at a Crossroad: The Spadina Expressway Controversy in Toronto, Ontario ca 1960-1971.” The Canadian Historical Review 92 no. 2, (2011): 295-322.

Filion, Pierre, Igal Charney and Rachel Weber. “Downtowns that Work: Lessons from Toronto and Chicago.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24, no. 2 (2015): 20-42.

Milligan, Ian. “’This Board has a duty to intervene’: challenging the Spadina Expressway through the Ontario Municipal Board, 1963-1971.” Urban History Review 39, no. 2 (2011): 25.

Perl, Anthony, Matt Hern and Jeffery Kenworthy. “Streets Paved With Gold: Urban Expressway Building and Global City Formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 24 no. 2, (2015): 91-116.

Robinson, Danielle. “Modernism at a Crossroad: The Spadina Expressway Controversy in Toronto, Ontario ca 1960-1971.” The Canadian Historical Review 92 no. 2, (2011): 295- 322.

Wellman, Barry. 2006. "Jane Jacobs the Torontonian." City & Community 5 (3): 217-222. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6040.2006.00175.x.

External Links

CBC News, “ Gardiner Expressway: What you need to know about the options”
BlogTO, “Nostalgia Tripping: The Spadina Expressway Debacle”

The Toronto Star, “How downtown slew the ‘beast’”

The Toronto Star, “Ghosts of Spadina Expressway haunt us still”

Notes

Lead Image: Spadina Expressway/The Star https://goo.gl/ZmKrCF

Other Images: Road Map Toronto https://goo.gl/daG7mX; Spadina Expressway Renderings/Spacing Magazine https://goo.gl/E4aNFW; "Stop Spadina"/Toronto in Time https://goo.gl/JTFdrj