4:42 a.m., one recent day in Toronto: Philipp Rode, executive director of the Cities Project at the London School of Economics, e-mails me to say, yes, he’d be happy to discuss the current budget crisis in Toronto and how other global cities are grappling with their own shortfalls but managing to stand by the need for better public transit and more public amenities. Turns out, his missive is the prelude to a day composed of a series of artful and crucial examples of what it takes to build a city like this one.
10:03 a.m.: Another e-mail arrives, from Stephen Teeple, architect of the nearly completed, amphibian-like pedestrian bridge in Pickering, a community severed by eight lanes of Highway 401 and GO train tracks. Teeple has shrouded what might have been a rude crossing of steel trusses with a cool double skin of perforated aluminum and big, elliptical eyes of glass. Because he creates edgy, exhilarating forms, Teeple had been selected for the project by Robert Prichard, then chairman of regional transportation authority Metrolinx; Leslie Woo, the organization’s vice-president of planning; and Larry Richards, a distinguished architecture professor. Together, they intervened like urban warriors to insist that the $22.5-million bridge be powerfully designed.
It might have been another piece of roadway dreariness. Instead, as a consultant to Aecon bridge engineers, Teeple has delivered what will become a highway design sensation – for people who are walking or cycling to public transit. At a time when Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has just initiated deep cuts to Toronto’s Transit Commission – a system already lagging seriously behind the service levels and sophistication of most other major metropolises – the pedestrian bridge on the eastern fringes of Toronto is an admirable act of architectural resistance. I say, bring it on. After all, cities around the world are pinning their prosperity on highly efficient, lyrical ways to move through urbanity. While Ford is hypnotized by the headlights of cars, gas-guzzling vehicles are being pushed off streets from Bogota and New York to London, Copenhagen, Seoul and Singapore, to make room for the eco-light movement of pedestrians and cyclists.
11:28 a.m.: Nathan Phillips Square, under a splendid sun. A group of urban warriors (who speak gently, with intelligence) from CodeBlueTO, a non-profit organization fighting for the future integrity of the Toronto waterfront, walk across the modern, vast square to make an important delivery at city hall: 7,000 petitions from citizens who want Ford and his advisers to keep their hands and their visions of Ferris wheels off the waterfront. They’re dressed in jeans and ball caps, a mix of men and women, professionals and retired business people. If this were ancient history, the CodeBlueTO activists might be carrying the spears and shields of Spartan warriors.
Noon: Victoria Memorial Square, several blocks to the west of city hall, and just south of King Street. Cities are where consciousness, layered over hundreds of years, takes form. Victoria Square is where some of Toronto’s first colonists were buried, where collective memory has transferred through the ages. A group of architects, cultural producers, historians and councillor Adam Vaughan, who arrived on his bike, have gathered to dedicate a pair of granite chairs installed in the corner of this leafy jewel of a park.
On the back of one of the chairs is written a letter by the late legendary urban philosopher Jane Jacobs: “Victoria Memorial Square will be an urban jewel rescued from a wasteland of neglect and forgetfulness. It beautifully ties the city’s earliest roots into a living, caring, revitalized community. The whole city is made richer by this enlightened and enchanting act of stewardship.” The letter was written by Jacobs to urban designer Ken Greenberg and his wife, Eti, who worked for years with a local citizen group to spearhead and fund the revitalization of the historic park. They donated the chairs in Jacobs’s honour.
Minutes after the group disbands, a couple of glass installers working on a neighbouring condominium sit on the chairs and open their lunch buckets. Though the name Jane Jacobs is often invoked these days like a prayer, these guys say they have never heard of her. But they understand her defence of human-scaled, organically mashed-up neighbourhoods – not like Milan, says one of the construction workers, where he lived for three years and found the endless walls of buildings to be oppressive.
2 p.m.: After dim sum with friends in the raucous swirl of Chinatown, I arrive at the Fort York Foundation on St. Clair Avenue East. Like so many other citizens across the city, the members of the Fort York board are working to enhance the urban experience. At the Fort York National Historic Site, there's a powerful combination of forces at play. It's the birthplace of urban Toronto, where muscular, historic buildings command a 43-acre spread of greenery downtown. An existing parking lot will soon be dug up to expand the breadth of the landscape, and connect it to Garrison Common, according to the winning design of du Toit Allsopp Hillier Landscape Architects. And there are plans to build a glass-and-timber visitor centre, alongside the lower embankment of the historic grounds and underneath the Gardiner Expressway, as designed by acclaimed Patkau Architects of Vancouver and Kearns Mancini of Toronto. Sadly, the Ford administration abruptly chopped plans to build the Fort York pedestrian bridge, despite years of planning and design.
6 p.m.: Corus Quay building, eighth-floor theatre overlooking Redpath Sugar; a stunning way to experience the working delights of the Toronto waterfront. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi kicks off a Diamond + Schmitt Architects lecture series in a low-key, intelligent way. “Cut red tape” is one of Nenshi’s mantras; allow the drivers of the local economy, from innovators to street-food vendors, to flourish. In a concerted, public way, Nenshi asked citizens and his own administrators for ways to improve service across his city. “We owe it to our citizens to have a very open discussion,” he says this evening. Ain’t that the truth.
Just before noon, the following day: “It’s entirely strange in your city,” LSE’s Rode tells me over the phone. “It’s become a complete outlier.” While other cities are finding innovative ways to produce more public space, more room for cyclists and seamless public transit, Toronto’s new mayor is careening off in the opposite direction, toward missed opportunity.
In New York, Michael Bloomberg operates not only as head of a city state but as global steward of the environment. His PlaNYC requires a 30-per-cent reduction in total emissions by 2030. By simply closing certain thoroughfares, such as half of Broadway near Times Square, carbon-dioxide emissions from cars are being dramatically lowered – a regulatory initiative requiring little more than painted lines to demarcate new zones for pedestrians and cyclists. They cost virtually nothing.
“One is just waiting for the revolution to happen,” says Rode, summing up nicely what we already know, “because, after all, Toronto is a very progressive city.”