The Heart of Our Cities: Ontario’s Downtown Malls and Their Transformations

Beginning in the late 1950s, many of Southern Ontario’s mid-size cities received a heart transplant. As North American suburbs boomed in the wake of WWII, downtowns across the United States began to experience severe social and economic strife. While Ontario’s cities had not yet felt these urban issues in full force, planners and economists predicted that our downtowns too would fall ill in the coming decades.

So, cities began to replace the heart of their downtowns with shopping malls to guard against urban blight. Vast public and private monies were invested in these structures, not to mention the hope and trust of citizens. Valuable property and historic buildings were sacrificed for the sake of these operations.

This experimental surgery was a near-complete failure. Far from resuscitating the city, these enormous buildings ignored the fine-grained streets and buildings of historic downtowns, leaving behind fortress-like walls, dead ends, service areas and parking structures that fractured the streetscape. Over time, even the retail performance of the malls declined, and today vacancies are common. However, these buildings have also slowly evolved new and useful functions, and despite their history, they may still hold the potential to become part of a vital downtown.

Based on research by Dr. Pierre Filion and Karen Hammond from the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo, This exhibition explores the twelve downtown malls in Southern Ontario mid-size cities (population: 70,000-700,000): Peterborough, Hamilton (2 malls), Kitchener (2 malls), Waterloo, Brantford, Guelph, London (2 malls), Chatham, and Sarnia. The research consists of the planning and development history of the malls, as well as interviews with planners, politicians, local historians, and mall managers.

Top: Market Square, Kitchener, ON, 1948; Bottom: Market Square, Kitchener, ON, 2011.

A man eats alone in the half-empty food court of Kitchener Market Square.
Shops added to the exterior walls of Waterloo Town Square, facing a new street that runs through the site—one of many transformations in these downtown malls today.

Curated by:

Nathan Storring


401 Richmond Street West
Ground Floor
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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