Tuesday, October 04, 2005

 

Toronto Is Terrific

I admit that this post is about a week late. However, this whole "graduate school thing" is rapidly shrinking the amount of time that I have to write for pleasure.

I tried to just think of a more clever title for this entry, but the above just says it all. Our urban planning program trip to Toronto was on many levels, absolutely terrific. For one, it was nice to get the hell out of Ann Arbor for a little while. Don't get me wrong, A2 as the locals call it, is a great town, just not a great city. As soon as we arrived in Toronto, the intensity of the large city filled me up with a feeling that I have not had since I lived in Boston. I welcomed its return.

While in Toronto, we all stayed in a great Hostel, called Backpacker's Canadiana. It was clean, in the middle of downtown, and even featured free food, drink, and plenty of communal space. In fact, on the back deck parties are encouraged. The owner even joined us, and allowed me a few sips off his bottle. Nice atmosphere.

Both Thursday and Friday were extremely busy days. We had meetings, briefings, and tours scheduled all day, everyday. We even had three of Toronto's young planners take us out on a "nightlife" tour, all while sharing with us the issues and problems of each neighborhood as we jumped from club to club, and bar to bar. What we quickly learned of Toronto is that if it were in America, it would be the most progressive city in the whole country. In one particular meeting we were briefed on the city's current planning strategy, and its accompanying master plan that ensures its success. The following are a few facts that would make most American urban planners want to pack up and knock on the doorstep of our friendly neighbors to the north.

- Toronto has a 30 yr. moratorium on all road construction (read highways, and large arterials)
- The City is considering removing the one expressway that does bisects downtown (Gardner Expressway)
-They spend 12-13 billion dollars a year on public transit ( with bus, streetcar, and subway their system is the 3rd largest in North America)
- All future development is being concentrated in only 25% of the city, which has been identified for having high growth potential. This in effect means that all historic neighborhoods will not be tampered with (75% of the city). Major corridors that are transit serviced will be intensified in height and use, and billions of dollars worth high density condos are going up along the waterfront.
- The Air Canada Center, the cities premier arena, only has 300 parking spaces, which are all underground. Everybody arrives on transit!!


Another positive thing that is occuring in the planning realm is that the City is currently in the process of dismantling Regent Park, a 70 acre housing project that is the largest in Canada. They will be replacing it with a mixed income, connected, transit serviced neighborhood. Everyone currently living there, will be guaranteed housing in the new neighborhood development if they so choose, and the neighborhood population will increase from 2,500 to 5,000. Yes, Toronto has a lot of exciting things happening. Smart people. They get it.

On the whole, Toronto is a safe, clean, and progressive city. Though I have two criticisms. The first being that when the city was participating in the project of modernism, they effectively wiped out most of the city's historic core. What remains are just a few historic structures surrounded by glass and steel (However, they managed to keepUnion Station, which is perhaps the most elegant train station in North America). In this this sense, both Montreal and Quebec City are much more connected with their own history.

The second criticism that I have, is that the entire downtown is connected by an underground mall. They call it the PATH system, and its one of the scariest things I have ever seen. The intention was to allow pedestrians to move freely about downtown, going building to building, without ever going above ground. From what I understand this is a good thing during the winter. However, the PATH itself is a completely disorientating sewer of commercialism, and it sucks way too much life off of the street. I instantly got "mall back" upon entering this subteranean hole. I say give me cold weather, not Cold Stone Creamery. Give me fresh air, not Airborne Express. Oh well, no place is perfect!

Toronto is great, check it out. Jane Jacobs lives there. You will not be dissapointed.

Comments:
Don't get too giddy on the Kool-Aid givento you by Toronto's planning staff.

They have some serious problems with gentrification and affordable housing.

15$ million on transit? Are those Canadian dollars? Chicago's system gets $450 million(US) in public money and they have a cheaper fare.

Toronto is already built to capacity, so the moratorium on road building is not too impressive.

Next time you're there, take a drive out to York Regional Municipality and you'll see big-time US-style sprawl.
 
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