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.]