Tag Archives: urban design

World Town Planning Day – Toronto

With the premise “the best way to know your city is to walk it”, a ‘walkshop’ exploring Toronto was organized for the annual World Town Planning Day 2011, uniting young planners and urban thinkers alike.

The November 8th event was hosted by members of the Canadian Association of Planning Students. A few dozen civic-minded people with varied backgrounds joined the guided walking tour that connected five significant local destinations where keynote speakers shared their insights on the city’s planning matters.

The tour teed-off at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) where Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, Manager of Diversity Management and Community Engagement at the City of Toronto, wowed the group with stories from her 40-year involvement in neighbourhood activities, for which she and others have championed an array of successful urban initiatives. Ramkhalawansingh described the planning undertaken for significant cultural buildings and how they were enriched as a result of community engaged processes, such as the AGO, which expanded its outreach programs; and OCAD University, whose ”building as a bridge” design addressed residents’ concerns of blocking views to the adjacent park and increased street access. Along the way, she pointed out various social housing projects that have been well integrated into the fabric of the built environment.

The second stop on the tour was Union Station, the central hub for all inter-city transit in Toronto. Armed with a steel railroad spike from back in the day, Glenn Miller, Vice President of Education and Research with the Canadian Urban Institute, enlightened the troops with the history of Union Station and its revolutionary role in the development of the city. An advocate for public transit and transit-oriented land use, Miller explained that the station’s multi-million dollar refurbishment in progress will increase its functionality, and stressed the need for more hubs of this scale in the city, in conjunction with, what else, good land use plans. (Fingers crossed!)

The tour continued onwards to St. Lawrence Market where Christopher Hume, notable architecture and urban critic for the Toronto Star, addressed the city’s ongoing waterfront revitalization project. Hume generally encourages planners to be more proactive, emphasizing that planning cannot be left to the private sector exclusively – it needs rules and clarity. “Planners should take back their profession from the lawyers”, said Hume. (Amen to that!) While discussions of the built landscape frequently centre on the predominance of high-rises, at least in this city, Hume stated that it’s the condition at street level that often makes for a great building project, and that “it’s not always about height.” Many can agree that the planning process of Toronto is flawed but the city is still growing at a massive rate – it’s one of the biggest condo booms in the world. “The future is not about houses anymore but about condos/apartments, social housing, tower renewal, co-ops, transit, suburbs and a focus on inner Toronto,” Hume remarked. He re-iterated the need for thoughtful city planning, emphasizing that is not an “abstract process” that the average person cannot understand or get involved with in a meaningful way. It requires a commitment and collaboration with members actively engaged in the community.

With 40 years of urban planning experience and the title of Toronto’s Chief City Planner (1996-2004), Paul Bedford has seen it all. The passionate advocate and public speaker continues to serve on various boards and advisory committees and is adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Bedford’s advice for the young planners in the group: 1) make a difference; 2) give the best professional opinion you can; 3) connect with people and constantly work at that relationship using effective media. (Get them behind your planning vision!); 4) have good priorities and principles and stick to them; and, 5) take calculated risks and be prepared to push the envelope. “Be both in tune with and ahead of where folks are in your city,” noted Bedford.

Bedford praised nearby Berczy Park as “a bold move that took political will and courage.” Once an asphalt parking lot adjacent to the historic Gooderham ‘Flatiron’ Building, the site was converted to a beautiful park, an oasis in a busy downtown environment. For him, the creation of this public space is an example of the design theory ‘urban acupuncture’ as it, in turn, lead to a broader restoration of the area, adding value and infusing new energy.

The tour marched onwards, convening next at planning and urban design firm Urban Strategies’ downtown office where associates Andrew Goodyear and Shonda Wang presented the Alexandra Park project, the revitalization of an existing site and what will be “the first public housing community in Toronto’s history without government funds.”

Alexandra Park is a residential area with a strong sense of community but suffers from an aging building stock and a fractured layout. Goodyear talked of the planning process and described the site-wide redevelopment, whose master plan will provide better housing options, improve community amenities, and increase open space and pedestrian priority areas. The presentation was followed by a walking tour of the nearby site, giving the group a hands-on experience of some of the challenges it currently faces. This innovative model introduces market housing (and some retail) as well as zero displacement, the housing component of which will generate sufficient reserves to cover the cost of the revitalization, giving the project near economic self-sufficiency.

The last stop of the tour was 401 Richmond St. W, a historic 200,000sf building in downtown Toronto that is home to anything and everything under the creative umbrella. Once a factory, the building was purchased in 1994 with the purpose of revitalizing, restoring and creating an arts-focused centre. The interior, with its exposed brick and original post and beam construction, lends itself beautifully to spaces for a varied tenant directory: galleries, studios, day care, micro-enterprises, and Swipe – one of the last independent bookstores in Toronto, and focusing exclusively on design.

There are plenty of examples of resourcefulness and inventiveness in keeping with the spirit of the building, like glass-filled passageways and an expanding roof garden. “We’re interested in things that really fit well with what’s already here … nothing too fancy … to keep things simple,” says Erin MacKeen, Director of Community Development and Communications for Urbanspace Property Group who owns and operates the facility.

Most fittingly, the tour wrapped up in front of a portrait of the legendary Jane Jacobs, who called Toronto ‘home’. 401 Richmond contributes to the vibrant culture in this city by hosting countless events and exhibits, by encouraging idea sharing and dialogue, and by promoting urban revitalization. Positive transformations in the city need sustained public engagement and transparency, and each begs the question, “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?

[A panel discussion entitled “Staying the Course – What Have Planners Learned About Implementation?” was held later that evening at the University of Toronto. This public event was organized by the Canadian Urban Institute in collaboration with Association of Ontario Land Economists. It was a full house.]

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My exploratory trip to the Tdot (a.k.a. Toronto)

A taste of Toronto, soon-to-be my new home.  So as not to be utterly overwhelmed by the novelty, I kept a mission list to a minimum in this, my first exploratory trip.  Leaving my adopted city of Boston is going to be tough – roots have grown deep over these past 11 years.  I came very close (within inches, really) to moving to the ‘Tdot’ 4 years ago but it didn’t pan out because I was not ready to separate myself from the likes of ‘Beantown’.  Over the course of my life, I have resided in and made a couple dozen trips to Europe and yet, scandalously, I have rarely visited Toronto, a major pulsing city a measly 4 hours away from where I grew up:  Ottawa.  I cannot complain, though….hello, Europe?! But unbeknownst to me, a megapolis was growing, evolving, and drawing people from all corners of the world.

Whilst hitting the streets during my 5-day stay and polling friends and strangers that live there, I discovered that Toronto is indeed a wonderful and liveable city.  Naïvely, I thought it was solely a field of skyscrapers.  Of those glass high-rises there are aplenty, many having sprouted in the past few years to meet the burgeoning condo demand of downtowners.  But there are so many plays of scale there.  I was pleasantly surprised to find numerous neighbourhoods or, dare I say, arrondissements, with different qualities, some with a small village feel:  you’ve got your industrial-turned-art district, hipster, bohemian, trendy, and posh areas, the financial and entertainment zones, the beaches and so on.

As the world’s most ethnically diverse city, Toronto also has distinctive shopping districts and markets that offer a wide range of unique experiences: vibrant retail areas that’ll disorient you and make you think you’re elsewhere.  Ok, perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch to say but the Greek, Portuguese, Italian, Indian, Chinese communities, to name but a few, are each a ‘country’ in itself.  I came across scores of teenagers seamlessly flipping back and forth between English and foreign languages, presumably their family’s native tongue – something I can relate to.  And it is no surprise to see many business owners from Europe setting up shop there, benefitting from opportunities that they cannot get on the other side of the pond.  Toronto is home to heaps of independent shops, galleries and restaurants, suave Internet cafés sandwiched between tattoo parlours and Shawarma eateries.  Personally, I was all over the mid-century modern venues stocked with Scandinavian furniture and décor.  Put me in front of anything with the ‘Design within Reach’ label (a knockoff of a classic, rather) and look out!  I’ll covet it like a treasure trove.  The highly acclaimed Toronto International Film Festival may have helped put this city on the cultural map but it goes far beyond that – it has become one of North America’s most dynamic arts and design communities.

People in Toronto have a sense of humour. You can do what you want here (generally speaking) and be whomever you want.  (And frankly, coming from Boston, it’s refreshing). You can find everything and anything here.  And in my walks I encountered distressingly attractive and stylish people… another bonus to relocating. 🙂  Like anything, there will be pluses and minuses, I’ll give up some things and gain others.  But I’m ready for the new adventures a metropolis affords.  Word on the street is that initiatives are in place to make Toronto into a New York.  I can believe that.  With neighbourhoods on the upswing, a booming real estate market (almost as if there was no recession), and an established major banking center:  these all bring serious cashola to the once ‘Big Smoke’.  It may not have a reputation of being the prettiest of cities (note aforementioned nickname ‘Big Smoke’) but it’s getting better at creatively filling in the blanks.  Concrete Toronto is in a form of continuous development.

I woke up with the sun rising over Lake Ontario, a body of water so enormous it might as well be a sea.  And as if there wasn’t already enough happening, there is also a massive ongoing revitalization of Toronto’s harbour front.  Development plans to strengthen the ‘blue edge’ are still much in the works but I saw various projects already constructed:  flexible public spaces and facilities, wave decks, bridges, parks, and beaches, all contributing to create a destination that connects people to the water.  The open/green space encourages year-round use so I strolled the waterfront, sans dog, liking the wind-catching willows that create a soft buffer and scoping out informal beach furniture scattered across the south end of the site that transforms it from an urban park to an urban beach.  Naturally, being mid-winter, it wasn’t particularly animated (i.e. dogs few and far between) so I’m psyched to see it come spring.  While we’re on the topic, let me take this opportunity to clear up the common misconception of foreigners that Torontonians are trudging through snowdrifts in a barren northern climate.  They aren’t.  If the cityslickers are wearing fur-lined parkas, it’s for stylin’ reasons because those jackets are all the rage!

I saw but a fraction of the city on this short trip, but enough to already come to some conclusions.  Toronto is ‘the new black’, at least for me.  So stay tuned.   In the meantime, be sure to check out what’s happening in Vancouver, a Canadian city with international attention because it is hosting the winter Olympics in just 2 short weeks…

NYC & all things ‘Design’

It seems that whenever I visit New York City, it’s a guaranteed good time.  This particular trip revolved almost exclusively around Design:  design shops & galleries, design events, and a stay in a boutique hotel to boot.ace_lobby

The Ace Hotel, located in the gritty wholesale district, opened in May and it seems, has been covered in every (design) magazine.  Though perhaps not defined by any specific time period or style, it’s a remixed Americana, visible in the interiors’ mélange of furnishings, lighting and finishes, reclaimed pieces, and vintage finds.  In contrast to the layered and historical lobby, our room was very efficient and kind of quirky.  We appreciated the turntable, the jersey robes, and the wooden hangers labelled with affirmative words:  “You look good in this.”  Custom-designed furnishings like the desk and coat rack curiously used plumbing pipes, demonstrating how stock materials can be re-appropriated to make something elegant but simple.  Overall, we were impressed to see how consistently the brand is carried through every single thing in the hotel.

I let my friend Traci orchestrate the trip.  I happily went along with her splendid suggestions, knowing full well I wasn’t taking a risk since we like much of the same things.  We wandered from one design node to another, Google maps on iPhone guiding us through the city.felt exhibitfelt wrap

First on the itinerary was a visit to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to see, in particular, the exhibit ‘Fashioning Felt’.  We went because Traci has an ‘unnatural’ interest in felt.:)  In fact, she is co-owner of Filzfelt, a Boston-based company which sells industrial felt imported from Germany for a range of purposes:  product design, architecture and home furnishings.  The exhibition showed firstly historic examples and continued with innovations in the handmade felts, and explored varied contemporary uses of this ancient and versatile material.

Organized by The Nature Conservancy, the other noteworthy exhibit ‘Design for a Living World’ showcased sustainable projects by ten leading designers.  They were commissioned to develop new uses for harvested materials “in order to tell a unique story about the life-cycle of materials and the power of conservation and design.”  The featured designers and places included:  Maya Lin using certified wood from Maine, Yves Béhar’s cocoa tool in Costa Rica, and Isaac Mizrahi fashioning pieces with Alaskan salmon leather.  I enjoyed viewing the prototypes, drawings, and finished products created by the designers.elevated path

Next up was a stroll on The Highline, of which the first completed sections opened in June.  Emerging from an open ideas competition soliciting re-use proposals, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro collaborated with other visionaries to create a public park on the old elevated freight train infrastructure.  It called for huge site prep:  before the landscaping could take shape, everything on the structure (rails and all) had to be removed and rehabilitated prior to returning the pieces to their original location.  This ‘signature landscape’, which floats 30ft above the ground, consists of  a walking surface of smooth concrete planks that taper into the surrounding native plantings which push up through seams, fixed & moveable seating, and energy-efficient LED lighting elements.  Everything is just so beautifully integrated, with such attention to detail.  But after all, isn’t that what they say: “God is in the details?”

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I retrace our next steps:  a visit to the Young Designers Market, Droog, Housing Works Bookstore Café, as well as some shopping in Uniqlo, MOMA, Marimekko, and Matter in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Park Slope.  In the name of Design, fashion in this case, I endured a truly nightmarish scene as hawk-eyed shoppers combed the racks at the lavish Barney’s New York Warehouse Sale.  Posters on the walls read:  “You’re not done yet.  Buy more!”

All weekend long we explored the power of Design.  If you appreciate good design, regardless of whether it’s at a large or a small scale, you see the value and are more likely to pay for it.  Only two of our stops didn’t quite resonate with the theme of (high) Design.  For one, we had dinner at Hill Country Barbecue Market – a ribs & live music kinda place where you carry your meal on a tray.  Secondly, we inspected the items of the Soho store Evolution, with its framed bats, anatomical models, fossils, tribal masks, larva paperweights, and freeze-dried mice.  One might argue – Natural Evolution – that’s the most perfect design of all!!graffiti