Thursday, November 26, 2009

Plan for the Future

Man, I am just nerding out a little vis-a-vis all this New Urbanism that Toronto is grooving on. I went to class today and this Charles Campbell fellow was talking about all the ways his citizens group is trying to mess with the new development along West Queen West. Having tried, for last three years, to squeeze blood from a stone re: housing, money, power, respect for our little housing co-op that could, it was super gratifying to hear of even modest successes in the fight against the glass tower'd landscape that's infecting Toronto the Good's downtown core. Plus, with the Richard Florida interview in the last issue of Spacing talks about how, while LA has film and New York has - what? everything, I guess - Toronto has this rep as a burgeoning proponent of the New Urbanism school of thought that makes me gleeful.

New Urbanism, for the unconcerned or ignorant, is a school of thought that basically prioritizes residents (those of who work, live, move and shop within the city walls) over the concerns of things like cars - which led to the ultimately defeated Spadina Expressway proposal - or the fake-landed-gentry, big lawn, big garage, total bullcorn that leads to projects like, oh, all of suburbia. It likes its architecture modestly futuristic, its foodstuffs local, and its streets walkable. New Urbanism is not without its detractors - there are problems with how much it costs to integrate all the expensive facets of NU into a workable site (you know how transit systems cost money? Yeah) - but it's really captured the imaginations of a generation of regional planners, city councillors, and urban dwellers.

The nice thing about this moment in urban design is that Toronto's been leading the guard for a while. Ever since Jane Jacobs blew a raspberry at New York City and started working in Toronto, we've had a smug little cachet of people who have claimed her as a personal saviour. While Jane Jacobs did not, in fact, save lives, she was huge in the 1970s in putting the stop-work order on a variety of ill-advised projects (the aforementioned Spadina Expressway), as well as ones that, in hindsight, might have been a case of good idea/bad timing. In any case, much like a reverse Michael J. Fox, Canadians got to gloat over an American made good on our turf.

Despite the recent uglification of some of Toronto's downtown (ROM? OCAD? AGO? BARF.), during which Borgian structures have had their way with unassuming older buildings, there's also been a real effort to promote Toronto as a city people can actually, you know, live in. Section 37 projects, which trade a developer's desire for more height/units/penile surrogates for community benefits like low-income housing, parks, libraries, and so on. While it's sort of lame that the city isn't funding those projects themselves, I'll takes what I can gets. Section 37 brings subsidized housing to the downtown core, parks to the financial district, and, maybe someday, waterslides to the elderly.

Even if I wander off the road labelled "urban planner" in favour of the path labelled "co-op developer" or the trail of breadcrumbs through the underbrush called "writer," it's exciting to live in a city where community design is something the community actually talks about. With the advent of Spacing (full disclosure: I'm doing an internship there), a network of active and chirruping neighbourhood associations, and an explosion of development in the past ten or fifteen years, Toronto has a chance to create a space for itself on the world stage as a leader in best-practice consideration while it develops its communities and businesses. Man, it's going to be exciting to watch Toronto either shine or fail. I vote shine.


  1. On "Barf", the AGO/ROM/OCAD, and the false note (song) in new-urbanism:

    I agree that these new buildings are not aesthetic - but I disagree that aesthetics, at least the aesthetics of pleasantness, is the only measure by which we can say a building is appropriate, or even great. These buildings are not kitch - they are not cheap replications of contemporary architecture, they are (in italics) contemporary achitecture (I think).

    This relates to the biggest weakness of new urbanism - when it means turning cities into living museaums, when it privledges a nostalgic aesthetic rather than what is appropriate now, and what moves us towards the future.

    It's interesting that you ended the post with the dichtomy "shine or fail". "Shine" can mean both/either the superficial glint which blinds, or the emmanenating-truth-from-within-showing-itself-forth (the genuine). Places like Ikea "shine", or "sing" - but only for a while. After enough exposure, they are revealed as lifeless repositories of superficial crap. This is the aspect of new urbanism showed up in the wood-frame and brick walled row housing (i.e. the false neighborhoods surrounding york university). Looks solid (at first), looks old (not really), but actually it's nostalgic tinny crap with no corner store, no cafe, no open mike night, no kids, etc...

    What I'm trying to say is new urbanism can be genuine concern for community development, or it can be superficial "looks nice" ,"sustainable" greenwashed, overpriced, and underbuilt. And this is not disconnected with its emphasis on the "pretty", the nostalgic nice-ness instead of the dark current future.

    So, "Barf" yes, but I'll take barf over the substanceless nostalgia of the pretty.

  2. T, I agree with you in terms of some of the failures of New Urbanism that you sum up so succintly; it can provide more surface than depth, which makes it pretty to look at, but without have any moral or ethical heft.

    However, I dislike the current practice of adding on bejewelled sections to established buildings, because it seems to pay lip service to the idea of preservation. The ROM's crystal does nothing to preserve the character of the building, and radically changes the character of the intersection and the museum.

    I'll dispute your point about New Urbanism's attitudes towards preserving old buildings to create some sort of museum of the past; cities need a sense of themselves, and preserving old buildings to live, work, and play in allows folks to connect with the past in a visceral way. New buildings aren't terrible, but designers need to remember that they don't get built in a vacuum.

    I'm more interested in projects like CAMH's renovations on Queen Street, which are in character with the street and actually serves the community. Sure, it's glassy, but it was clearly a project that was carefully considered in terms of functionality, not just an interesting-for-the-sake-of-interesting addition to Toronto's skyline.

  3. Great to read the enthusiasm in your post, but curious why the older, wiser, patinaed, gritty, authentic, self-organizing urbanism that created the NYC's and Paris' and London's and Vancouvers' of the world should give way to the urbanism-lite of the New Urbanists?

    While Jane Jacobs at one point applauded the aspirations of Dwaney and Co., she saw through it just as quickly and distanced herself from their formulaic response to placemaking.

    Please be sure to look closely at the gate community building the New Urbanists loathe and simultaneously build before attaching with too much glee.

    Toronto has the guts, vision, wisdom, players to do it right, like no other places. Hold fast to what you are as you move forward and the world will say, "damn, if we only would have followed those wise ones in Toronto"

  4. I'm not opposed to new-urbanism preserving old buildings. I love preserving old things. What I'm opposed to is building new things that look "old".

    As for the bejouling old buildings i.e. the ROM, I think you're right that it isn't preservation. Evaluated on that ideal, it fails. I think the point is rather, transformation. Thinking about the AGO, I spoke with a representive inside about the renovation and how it might influence permanent exhibit aquisition, and I learned that the renovation is on a 30 year cycle - they only expect to keep it this way in 30 years, when there will be another major renovation. This constant cycling, I think, is the value of the "bejouling" - the bejouling is essentially transient. So, not preservation, but cycles of addition and destruction.

  5. I've looked into this camH reno, it does look good.

  6. Hopeful, I'm not sure I totally understand your reply. Paris and New York et al have a deeply rooted and patinaed (lovely word) way of examining their cities and their growth, in terms of sense of place and urban tradition; Toronto isn't in that league. I'm not actually sure Vancouver is either, to be honest. I'm not decrying the innovations of those older cities, but I think Toronto, as a younger city, has a chance to incorporate New Urbanism-style ideals into its growth in a self-concious way that may not be afforded to those older and more established places.

    Prioritizing ideas like neighbourhood identity, functional and acessible transit, pedestrian and cycling ease of use, intensification and a live-where-you-work ethos is something I think Toronto could really benefit from, and I'm pleased with the efforts the city and province have made to try that. If they succeed, Toronto will come into its own as those great places to live.

    T: point taken. Fake old buildings are creepy.

    I also hear you on the difference between preservation and transformation. My feelings about the ROM was that it was transformed for transformation's sake: "look at me! I'm fancy!" CAMH, on the other hand, preserved the spirit of the original project AND transformed the space into something nice to look at and, I assume, work in.