2021 Workshop

Urban Cemeteries: Evolving Functions and Identities

Cemetery surrounded by high rises.
York Cemetery and the surrounding city of Toronto, August 2021. [Jeff Jang]

Contemporary cities are repeated reconciliations between past and present. Although collaging across time may be the fundamental practice of urban architectural design, one component of urban life seems exempt from the rule: cemeteries. We tend to believe, tacitly at least, that cemeteries are permanent and immutable. Cities change, but their cemeteries don’t. This assumption leads to inevitable clashes in places of rapid urbanization, where cemeteries can become detached from everyday life, occupying space that could be more useful for the living. One such conflict, between established cemetery and developing city, is currently playing out in North York, Ontario.

We tend to believe, tacitly at least, that cemeteries are permanent and immutable. Cities change, but cemeteries don’t.

Located some fifteen kilometers from Toronto’s core, North York was mainly farmland when the 200-acre York Cemetery was established in 1948.1Susan Goldenberg, “York Cemetery Final Resting Place for Tim Horton, Russia’s Last Imperial Grand Duchess,” Toronto.com, April 28, 2021. It was designed as a garden cemetery, a pastoral retreat from the city center, but its ruralness didn’t last long. A post-WWII building boom meant that single family homes quickly saturated the area, and development encroached further in the 1960s. Since then, North York has undergone immense urbanization, with the construction of condominiums, office towers, restaurants, small businesses, and civic buildings, to the degree that some parts of North York resemble downtown Toronto. York Cemetery now lies a block away from a major subway station, shopping mall, performing arts theater, and the six-lane thoroughfare of Yonge Street.

The demographics of North York have changed apace. Rather than suburban single families, North York is now home to residents who vary more in age, nationality, and living arrangements. According to the 2016 census, half of North York’s residents are immigrants; more than half live either alone or with a partner, and half live in multistory dwellings.

As these changes took place, York Cemetery has remained largely the same. Since 1948, the cemetery has made no significant architectural changes and considered no new use patterns.

Forestalling change any longer, however, may be impossible. The cemetery is located in an area where access to real estate is depleting and motivation is high for further urbanization. Toronto’s population is expanding at an unprecedented rate, and the North York Secondary Plan, set out by the City of Toronto in 2015, mandates increased building density and expansion of transportation infrastructure. In November 2020, North York surpassed Toronto as the priciest city in Canada for renting a one-bed apartment. 2Editors, “North York Surpasses Toronto Proper As Priciest City in Canada to Rent 1-bed Apt.,” Storeys: Real Estate News, November 13, 2020. As housing and land becomes scarcer, the pressure on York cemetery will continue to mount.3This pressure is not completely unprecedented. In 1966, 18 hectares of York Cemetery, which were then empty, were sold to make space for development. See Goldenberg, “York Cemetery.”

Clearly, York Cemetery’s initial design, a garden cemetery detached from the urban core, is no longer valid. It is now a cemetery embedded within the city. But how exactly can York Cemetery keep pace with changes in North York? It’s time to challenge the notion of permanence in urban cemeteries like this one.

Left: Aerial view of York Cemetery, 1928. [Courtesy Toronto Public Library] Right: Aerial view of York Cemetery, 2021. [Via Google Maps]

Granted, intervention in cemeteries is a complex and controversial topic. For spiritual reasons, many would insist that cemeteries should be infinitely preserved. There was a massive public outcry when 3,700 graves in Bukit Brown Cemetery in Singapore were exhumed in 2015 to clear space for roads, houses, and shopping malls.4Kristen Han, “Land-starved Singapore Exhumes its Cemeteries to Build Roads and Malls,” The Guardian, August 7, 2015. Cemeteries also have ecological importance. As scientists have argued, urban cemeteries are critical in maintaining urban biodiversity, and such greenspaces can even harbor endangered species.5See Nélida R. Villaseñor and Martín A. H. Escobar, “Cemeteries and Biodiversity Conservation in Cities: How do Landscape and Patch-level Attributes Influence Bird Diversity in Urban Park Cemeteries?” Urban Ecosystems Vol. 22, No. 6 (July 2019), 1037–1046, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-019-00877-3; and Viktor Löki, et al., “Biodiversity Potential of Burial Places — a Review on the Flora and Fauna of Cemeteries and Churchyards,” Global Ecology and Conservation Vol. 18 (April 2019), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00614.

It’s possible for York Cemetery to retain its dignity as a burial ground, and simultaneously to serve the public as a multi-use greenspace.

Another possible scenario is to commercialize the cemetery. York Cemetery is nearly at maximum capacity, after which it will need a perpetual care fund for maintenance. Perhaps it could be rented or leased for income-generated programs. Such hybridization would establish a more productive use for the space, and the cemetery might become more actively engaged with the city. On the other hand, certain commercial activities would likely offend those whose family members are buried there.

The ideal situation in my view is neither of these, but rather to engender a transformation that makes York Cemetery a valuable component of everyday life in North York. As the city changes, the cemetery should be understood not only as a place for mourning, but also for celebration, companionship, contemplation, and nature-based recreation. People used to picnic in their local graveyards, and they could again. 6Jonathan Kendall, “Remembering When Americans Picnicked in Cemeteries,” Atlas Obscura, October 24, 2018. I believe it’s possible for York Cemetery to retain its dignity as a burial ground, and simultaneously to serve the public as a multi-use greenspace. Urban cemeteries can no longer remain passive lands with a single function. They should be utilized to enhance the public life of the city. Doing so honors both the living and the dead.

Notes

  1. Susan Goldenberg, “York Cemetery Final Resting Place for Tim Horton, Russia’s Last Imperial Grand Duchess,” Toronto.com, April 28, 2021.
  2. Editors, “North York Surpasses Toronto Proper As Priciest City in Canada to Rent 1-bed Apt.,” Storeys: Real Estate News, November 13, 2020.
  3. This pressure is not completely unprecedented. In 1966, 18 hectares of York Cemetery, which were then empty, were sold to make space for development. See Goldenberg, “York Cemetery.”
  4. Kristen Han, “Land-starved Singapore Exhumes its Cemeteries to Build Roads and Malls,” The Guardian, August 7, 2015.
  5. See Nélida R. Villaseñor and Martín A. H. Escobar, “Cemeteries and Biodiversity Conservation in Cities: How do Landscape and Patch-level Attributes Influence Bird Diversity in Urban Park Cemeteries?” Urban Ecosystems Vol. 22, No. 6 (July 2019), 1037–1046, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-019-00877-3; and Viktor Löki, et al., “Biodiversity Potential of Burial Places — a Review on the Flora and Fauna of Cemeteries and Churchyards,” Global Ecology and Conservation Vol. 18 (April 2019), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00614.
  6. Jonathan Kendall, “Remembering When Americans Picnicked in Cemeteries,” Atlas Obscura, October 24, 2018.

About the Author

Jeff Jang

Jeff Jang is currently a Master of Architecture student at University of Toronto with a Bachelor’s of Architectural Science from Ryerson University. He is interested in the mutable qualities of built form, and the ways in which structures adapt to dynamic landscapes. Prior to his M.Arch studies, he designed at various international firms, including Herzog & de Meuron and Diamond Schmitt Architects. He plans a career as a practicing architect, developing responsible and responsive architecture.