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Toronto Reborn

Toronto Reborn

Design Successes and Challenges
by Ken Greenberg
foreword by David Crombie
afterword by Zahra Ebrahim
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Toronto as Crucible

I arrived in Toronto in 1968, immigrating from the United States in the period of great turmoil caused by the war in Vietnam.

Although I relocated under duress, I immediately felt welcomed. The city felt remarkably malleable, not fully formed. It seemed to be still evolving, open to new ideas and desires, receptive to reshaping by me and other new arrivals. I had the sense that this was a place where I could contribute and most fully be myself. Toronto was on the cusp of a great change, and I was quickly caught up in the unfolding story of my adopted city. After completing my studies, I worked as a young architect, and then founded the Division of Architecture and Urban Design at the City of Toronto, running it for ten years under the direction of three mayors: David Crombie, John Sewell, and Art Eggleton.

Through this stint at city hall and later work as a professional (and engagement as a citizen), I have had a front-row seat as a participant and observer during decades of remarkable, often inspiring — and at times frustrating — change in this extraordinary city. I shared some of this experience in my earlier book, Walking Home, published in 2011, in which Toronto had a role among many cities. This book gives me a chance to come back to what is happening in Toronto almost a decade later in a more focused way.

Each of us has some stressful formative experiences that motivate (and sometimes obsess or even traumatize) us. One of my own subterranean drivers comes from my childhood peregrinations. Moving from place to place, often abruptly, changing cities, countries, neighbourhoods, schools (sometimes in mid-year), and friends was disruptive to say the least, even if sometimes it felt exciting. In hindsight, I realize that this constant dislocation has led to an intense compensating homing instinct, and, though coupled with a taste for travel, a need to be rooted in a place. This, in part, is what steered me to my career in urban design and to my intense love affair with Toronto. Like an attentive lover, I have been sensitive to its changes and moods ever since.

I am convinced that something out of the ordinary, if not truly unique, is occurring in Toronto. It feels like the city is emerging from a chrysalis. The processes of continual redefinition and renewal have ever been in play in our city, and there have been other periods of enormous upheaval and growth spurts; but in the last fifteen years or so, the direction has altered while the pace of change has intensified and accelerated. Fuelled by a powerful vortex of market forces and demographic pressures, Toronto has become a locus for immigration, investment, and development, and our current spectacular growth shows no sign of abating.

Toronto is being transformed by the simultaneous pressures of enormous and sustained growth; an unparalleled increase in the city’s diversity, bringing an expansion of the talent pool and new ideas; an imperative to achieve greater environmental sustainability; and relentless, often disruptive technological innovation. The city is very rapidly becoming more vertical, denser, and more mixed.

All of these factors are present to some degree in other places, but in Toronto the first and second — radical growth and an increase in the ethnic diversity in the population — are at unusually high levels. These forces are converging to form a crucible in which radical change and innovation are being galvanized. It is rocking the status quo of previous assumptions, familiar ways, rules, and practices, and pushing us out of our comfort zone. The city is at the tipping point, in the throes of a rebirth.

I have come to believe that Toronto has moved to a new level and is at a decisive moment of transformation into a new type of city: changing as much in kind as in scale. The contours of this new city are becoming visible, emerging from the old established roots — literally arising on the frame, the traces, the memories, and the structures (physical, social, economic, cultural) of an older Toronto. The city is being pushed into this new territory by an infusion of new, boundary-stretching ideas and forces.

I believe that much of what has led to the remarkable transformational shift underway in Toronto can be traced back to a critical turning point in the late 1960s and 1970s, which I described briefly in Walking Home. At that time, my introduction to the city and the launch of my career coincided with a dramatic series of events that set the stage for what was to come. Toronto was a city on the verge of massive change in line with the anticity polemic of that era. But then, a dramatic series of events occurred, setting the stage for a major course correction.

Toronto’s guide to its future in 1969, its Official Plan (like that found in many other cities at that time), called for a kind of progress inspired by the principles of what was then the modern movement in city planning. Among other things, it was based on a full embrace of the private automobile, including massive highway construction (with a complete interwoven network including the Spadina, Scarborough, and Crosstown Expressways); ripping up streetcar tracks; separating places of living from places of work as much as possible; replacing traditional main streets with shopping malls — the Dufferin, Pape and Gerrard Malls were, in fact, built as prototypes; demolition of major civic buildings — Union Station, Old City Hall, and the St. Lawrence Market were all considered for demolition — to make way for the new; and a call for widespread “urban renewal.” A vast boomerang shape indicating proposed demolition appeared on a city document, hovering ominously over the whole downtown and adjacent inner city neighbourhoods. In other words, a gutting of the city was in the offing, preparing it to be remade in the name of a then widely held view of “modernity.”

To many, these were frightening prospects. A citizen resistance grew out of a unique amalgam of the city’s traditional small c conservatism and a new, left-of-centre coalition, motivated by a sense of civic empowerment and led by an engaged civic leadership. The resistance grew like a snowball, gaining momentum as new champions emerged. In a series of hotly contested municipal elections, an increasing number of progressive city councillors were elected, supported by grassroots activism and community backlash.

Once they had a majority, the new “reform council,” led by beloved mayor David Crombie, used their mandate to reverse course, rejecting the dominant postwar modernist template. With the unlikely intervention of then premier William Davis, they famously put a highly symbolic nail in the coffin of the Spadina Expressway, which would have eviscerated a series of downtown neighbourhoods, and cancelled a whole network of other city-damaging highways in its wake.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the change. This was a complete about-face for the city, one that would have far-reaching consequences, setting Toronto on a very different trajectory. The car was significantly dethroned as the primary mode of transportation; plans to rip up streetcar lines were thwarted, making Toronto one of the few cities on the continent to retain this form of transit. Urban renewal and “blockbusting” of long-established neighbourhoods to make way for tower-inthe- park style redevelopment was halted. Heritage preservation was embraced, saving a number of cherished structures from demolition — including the St. Lawrence Market, now the throbbing heart of a revitalized neighbourhood; the glorious 1898 Richardsonian Old City Hall; and the magnificent beaux arts Union Station.

The middle class stayed or returned to inner-city neighbourhoods. Population attrition was reversed. The city’s traditional neighbourhood main streets, which had also been scheduled for transformation into car-centric arterial roads, were seen with fresh eyes and received new support from strengthened and decentralized neighbourhood planning site offices and the widely imitated Toronto invention of BIAs (Business Improvement Areas co-funded by the city and local businesses), of which Toronto now has more than any other city.

The separation of land uses (dividing where people lived from where they worked, with an onerous commute by car to bridge the gap) had been exposed as a failed model for urban living; it was not delivering what it promised. The vision of contented citizens able to live in quiet, pastoral suburban neighbourhoods and then make their way quickly to work via wide highways was belied by the reality of the growing inconvenience of congestion, negative impacts on health caused by a sedentary, car-dependent lifestyle, unanticipated social isolation, and mounting environmental impacts.

The reform council pushed back against the “suburbanization” of the downtown core, fighting to prevent the spread of widened roads, a profusion of surface parking lots, and segregated land use. A new Central Area Plan was formulated that introduced mixed-use zoning to the city’s downtown core, and that would eventually bring hundreds of thousands of new residents into the heart of the city to enliven the previously sterile nine-to-five central business (only) district.

The big planning and design challenge: how to actually implement the course correction. This was the challenge that drew me to city hall as a young architect with a growing interest in urban design.

David Crombie recruited me in 1977, along with a whole corps of young, motivated change agents. Working with the newly elected politicians, we formed a think tank, a kind of collegial brain trust. We came from many backgrounds, and not all were formally educated as “planners,” but we shared a mission.

We played different roles on a team dedicated to stopping the speeding freight train of “modernization” and shifting to another paradigm for the city’s future. I headed the newly minted Urban Design Group, which became the city’s Division of Architecture and Design, and my team and I were called upon to play a central role in this transformative moment. It was exhilarating.

We were trying to articulate a competing vision for the city, and we were working in a pressure cooker. Our vision was based on faith in the existing city. Its basic tenets were to move away from land use separations, car dependence, and urban renewal, instead aiming to protect the city’s existing neighbourhoods and architectural heritage, halting the expansion of urban expressways, promoting public transit and pedestrian environments, and encouraging downtown living, with lively main streets as vital neighbourhood spines.

We had a sense of tremendous transformational potential, applying new ideas and concepts that connected all the way from the city street to the city region and expanding the array of available tools and strategies. We aimed to make big moves, pivoting from defence to offence, from stopping the Spadina Expressway to creating the mixed-use Central Area Plan, launching the mixed-income St. Lawrence Neighbourhood for ten thousand new downtown residents on a stretch of obsolescent industrial sites and anchoring it with a linear park on an abandoned rail corridor, and expanding the role of Business Improvement Associations to support local shopping streets.

Combining strategies and tactics, we changed the way planning and urban design were done in Toronto on the fly. Mayor Crombie controversially introduced a forty-five-foot “holding bylaw” to buy time to prepare the Central Area Plan. We pursued a policy of “de-concentration,” linking development and diversification of land use to transit capacity, exporting office space to emerging downtown centres in Scarborough, North York, and Etobicoke.

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Le Quartier du Musée

Le Quartier du Musée

Histoire et architecture
tagged : regional
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Par une chance indéniable, le grand feu d’avril 1900 s’arrête avant d’atteindre ce quartier. Ainsi, le Quartier du Musée est un des plus anciens secteurs de la ville et ses bâtiments dépassent parfois les cent ans de présence.

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a story of a heritage manor house on Vancouver Island
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Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Montreal

Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Montreal

Second Edition
tagged : regional, quebec
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