With a greater regional population of eight million residents, Toronto is one of the largest and fastest growing metropolitan areas in North America and Canada’s emergent global city. Toronto is both exceptional and typical in its continental context. Originally an indigenous peoples’ crossroads, a British military garrison and town were established at Toronto in the 1790s and a municipal government was incorporated in 1834. Its 19th- and early-20th-century history of railway and industrial development, and also European immigration, is similar to other cities of similar vintage. While geographically proximate to Midwestern “rustbelt” cities, Toronto evaded their postwar fate; indeed, the region’s growth profile and diversified manufacturing, services, and agricultural economy more closely resembles that of postwar boomtowns in the American New South and Southwest than formerly dynamic, but now struggling, Great Lakes cities. Once smaller and economically and culturally secondary to Montreal within Canada, greater Toronto is now the country’s largest metropolitan area, predominant economic engine, and English-speaking cultural center. Toronto is further distinguished from many American cities in having become a hyper-diverse attractor of immigrants since the 1980s. A predominately white and British city as recently as 1970 (indeed, author Wyndham Lewis characterized Toronto as a “mournful Scottish version of an American city” in 1940), more than half the population of both the central city and the broader region is now foreign born and nonwhite. Toronto is thus a globally significant crucial case in urban immigrant integration and social cohesion. Academic scholarship on Toronto lacks comprehensive coverage and an identifiable progression of schools of thought. Most works focus on illuminating specific historical events or social and economic phenomena rather than situating the city and its development in a broader context. Nonetheless, these works cumulate to illustrate Toronto’s contemporary and historical relevance to urban studies. This article generally excludes comparative works in which Toronto is one of several cases unless the treatment stands on its own. It also excludes works that focus primarily on provincial-level matters, although it should be acknowledged that the Province of Ontario plays a much greater role in the municipal sphere than do other Canadian provincial and American state governments.
The two-volume series Careless 1984 and Lemon 1985 is the only general scholarly history of Toronto from its founding to the near-present. Robinson 1933 remains the only detailed history of region’s early history under French rule. Masters 1947, Goheen 1970, and Russell 1984 provide detailed general scholarly perspectives on the city’s 19th-century development, while Armstrong 1988 focuses more on people and personalities. Levine 2014 is an accessible recent popular work. Spelt 1973, Nader 1976, and Relph 2014 each provide historically informed profiles of the city’s postwar transformation. An unresolved and often implicit theme is the degree to which Toronto’s reputation as “the city that works” was shaped by British culture and, relatedly, whether depictions of consensus and order reflect postwar scholars’ anti-American sentiment and unexamined acceptance of elite control while masking a history of intolerance and conflict on class, ethnic, and religious lines.
Armstrong, Frederick H. A City in the Making: Progress, People & Perils in Victorian Toronto. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1988.
Historian Armstrong explores Toronto’s 19th-century history through four lenses: the city’s physical and infrastructural development; its first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie King; brief biographies of different “types” of Torontonians, including a Scottish immigrant, members of the growing black community, an early architect, and a philanthropist; and the experience of disaster and recovery during the great fires of 1849 and 1904.
Careless, J. M. S. Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company and National Museum of Man, 1984.
Historian Careless’s accessible and richly illustrated chronological history emphasizes social and economic change as historical drivers. It focuses more on elites than social forces.
Goheen, Peter G. Victorian Toronto, 1850 to 1900: Pattern and Process of Growth. Research Paper no. 127. Chicago: Dept. of. Geography, University of Chicago, 1970.
Urban geographer Goheen works from a Chicago-school social ecology perspective in a quantitative analysis of property assessment rolls to show how industrialization spurred growing spatial segregation of the city’s population by class. This analysis is interspersed with useful qualitative description, statistical tables, and mapping.
Lemon, James. Toronto since 1918: An Illustrated History. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company and National Museum of Man, 1985.
A continuation of Careless 1984, geographer Lemon’s detailed and comprehensive social, economic, cultural, and political historical narrative is inflected by his anti-Americanism, emphasizing British order and collectivism in contrast to American possessive individualism as the key to Toronto’s social success.
Levine, Allan. Toronto: Biography of a City. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2014.
Author Levine’s engaging and well-documented popular historical “biography” of the city proceeds through vignettes that portray Toronto’s evolution as a succession of collective personalities. Its focus is descriptive rather than explanatory. The book benefits from its recency, devoting its final third to the rapid growth, social transformation, and political tumult of the post-1970 period.
Masters, Donald C. The Rise of Toronto, 1850–1890. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1947.
Working from an economic history perspective, Masters charts Toronto’s rise to economic and cultural dominance of its regional and later national hinterland. Proceeding chronologically, he describes Toronto’s infrastructural expansion; the emergence of business elites, firms, sectors, and associations; the emergence of churches and other faith organizations; and the evolution and political positions of newspapers, all in the context of macroeconomic booms and busts.
Nader, George A. Cities of Canada, Volume Two: Profiles of Fifteen Metropolitan Centres. Toronto: Macmillan, 1976.
Complementary to Spelt 1973, with greater emphasis on historical land-use change. On Toronto, see pp. 190–243.
Relph, Edward. Toronto: Transformations in a City and Its Region. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Humanistic geographer Relph focuses primarily on the rapid transformation of the city-region’s ordinary landscapes since the 1960s, concluding that while Toronto lacks beauty and a singular identity, its multiplicity of living spaces has created positive opportunities for its residents. Relph’s book is notable for its nonjudgmental perspective on suburban spaces and suburban life.
Robinson, Percy J. Toronto During the French Régime: A History of the Toronto Region Form Brûlé to Simcoe, 1615–1793. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933.
This early, lengthy chronological history spans the period from the arrival of the French in indigenous territory, French–British conflicts over the land and the founding of competing garrisons and culminates with the American Revolution and the founding of the original Town of York in 1793. Contains extensive excerpts from archival documents and correspondence, as well as cartographic material.
Russell, Victor L., ed. Forging a Consensus: Historical Essays on Toronto. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Edited by the City of Toronto’s chief archivist in honor of the city’s sesquicentennial, the collection includes scholarly essays by academic historians on a range of subjects, including public utility ownership, policing, ethnic conflict and accommodation, and local governance. Authors emphasize the importance of an emergent hybrid Anglo-American civic culture in Toronto’s development as a well-regulated, orderly “city that works.”
Spelt, Jacob. Toronto. Canadian Cities Series. Toronto: Collier-Macmillan Canada, 1973.
While dated, geographer Spelt’s narrative and statistical profile of the city and its economic, social, and physical development and context remains useful due to its comprehensiveness and detail.
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