Retail and Economic Mobility

November 17, 2013
By: Reurbanist

I have been helping to organize an event held by the City of Toronto called the Chief Planner Roundtable. One of the common themes emerging from these discussions is how the design of our suburbs is not conducive to economic mobility for new immigrants. In the past, newcomers to Toronto lived in neighbourhoods like Kensington Market where the fine-grained layout made it comparatively easier to open a small independent business. Ground floors were converted into stores and restaurants, while upper floor residential areas could be used to manufacture products during the day. In contrast, the “tower in the park” apartment blocks commonly found in Toronto’s suburbs lack these opportunities due to the physical separation of land uses and absence of low cost commercial space. As suburbs have become the primary catchment area for new immigrants, providing opportunities for economic mobility is critical.

Jane Exbury Towers - a series of five towers built in the late 1960s.

Jane Exbury Towers - a series of five towers built in the late 1960s.

Planning work is underway to tackle these challenges through the Tower Renewal program, but there are two important existing retail elements in suburbs that are supporting economic mobility; unanchored strip malls, and merchant markets.

Unanchored strip malls found throughout the Toronto region are categorized by a one to two level structure setback from the street behind parking. Retailers and restaurants are found on the first floor, and services and office are located above. Despite their aesthetics, these strip malls are the unsung heroes in lower income suburban neighbourhoods, allowing small businesses to get a foothold in the market and grow. I live a few kilometers from Dundas and Hurontario in Mississauga where many such plazas can be found adjacent to older apartment blocks. The intersection is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and vibrant places in the region, despite the incredibly pedestrian unfriendly design.

Keelegate Strip Mall - a mix of ethnic restaurants, laundromat, and a adult video store.

Keelegate Strip Mall - a mix of ethnic restaurants, laundromat, and a adult video store. Did not win any urban design awards.

Merchant markets, such as the one held on weekends in Downsview Park, may be even more important for economic mobility. With approximately 475 retailers, Downsview Park Merchant's Market provides a low barrier entry point to starting a business for immigrant families. The market is a true jumble of nationalities, from Afghan food, South American DVDs, Tibetan crafts, Persian rugs, and a stall selling nothing but Qurans. The randomness of the place is characterized by a vendor selling flashy hubcaps located beside a small Peruvian restaurant serving up ceviche. The market gives insight into a whole world rarely seen by downtown Torontonians. Don’t get me wrong, I love the ethnic neighbourhoods of inner Toronto, but for the most part they are no longer a true reflection of modern immigrant life. For more on the market, I suggest reading the article linked to below which contrasts two retail extremes; Downsview Park Merchant's Market and Yorkdale Shopping Centre.

Selling the dream: Yorkdale Shopping Centre and the Downsview Park Merchant’s Market may peddle different visions of Toronto-style striving, but if you’re looking for the future of the city, it’s on offer at both.
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I visited Downsview Market as I had heard great things about the food court (all true), but left wondering how we can do better at supporting economic mobility for newcomers to Canada. I strongly believe retail offers great opportunities, as it has historically, to support immigrants.  We need more business incubators like Downsview Market, and we need to provide appropriate retail spaces that allow growing businesses to expand into permanent brick and mortar locations.

About Reurbanist
Reurbanist™ believes retail offers cities the best opportunity to recreate their urban fabric.

Developers, investors and governments around the world are recognizing how retail offers enormous opportunities. Retail is the glue which holds communities, neighbourhoods and mixed use developments together.
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