For all the talk that Toronto wants to be New York, the city is sitting on two proposals for public-space projects submitted by Manhattan’s most in-demand design firm: Field Operations. The company behind New York’s hugely successful and transformative High Line project created the master plan for Lake Ontario Park, part of Waterfront Toronto’s redevelopment of the Port Lands. Although it has been approved by council, the plan is currently designated as a “future project.” Company founder James Corner spoke with Siri Agrell about Doug Ford’s waterfront vision, how to create “early wins” and the intersection of politics and public space.
How has your business changed since the High Line?
For the longest time, public space has been treated very shabbily, people act like it’s just going to be used by the homeless or be subject to disrepair. Now people see that well designed public space can be a huge asset and transform the culture and the quality of life in a city.
What do you know about the status of Lake Ontario Park, an element of the Toronto Waterfront plan for which you provided the master plan?
I think it went on hold as part of budgetary issues and as you know Waterfront Toronto has bitten off a lot in terms of the myriad waterfront projects. I think they decided to put Lake Ontario Park on hold for a little bit until they make progress with some of these other projects.
Did you know that Doug Ford, the brother of our current mayor, has proposed scrapping elements of the current waterfront plan and instead building a giant mall, a Ferris wheel and a football stadium?
On one hand you can understand why; cities are looking for large tracts of land that are big enough to support things like stadiums. But on the other hand, it’s a shame because waterfront lands are so precious and special and they can bring so much to a city in terms of visibility and identity and social opportunity.
That’s one of the interesting things about the High Line, it’s had a huge economic impact without having any direct commercial purpose.
It spins off. It adds value. The whole rational for preserving the High Line in the first place was around renewed development in that part of town.
I understand you’ve also submitted a vision for the Gardiner Expressway.
Waterfront Toronto commissioned six offices to look at different alternatives for the Gardiner: What to do if you keep it, what to do if you kept only a portion of it, and what you would do if you took it down and built an at-grade street. We were part of the last team. We developed an at-grade street scenario with new public landscapes along the street, trying to tie some of the neighbourhoods back to the waterfront.
What happened to your proposal?
I think it was kept internal because they were doing it as part of an analysis to better evaluate their options. It was part of a visioning exercise.
Do you try to only take on projects that you know will get done?
Almost all of our work is in the public sector, and we often have multi-headed clients, sometimes with competing agendas. So much of what we do has to do with steering a process in order to produce something worthwhile in the end. We’re very interested in looking for ways to actually make things happen sooner rather than later. That’s what builds credibility and success.
How do you do that?
We call them early wins. On the Delaware riverfront in Philadelphia we developed a plan in 2001 for the waterfront that was eight miles long and probably billions of dollars in investment. So as a series of early win projects, we built a number of small piers. It’s about doing small projects that build the visibility of the project. In Toronto you have a similar thing with the wave decks on the central waterfront.
Is the pace of Toronto’s waterfront redevelopment standard or slow?
We’re working on Seattle’s waterfront and that’s moving ahead post-haste. They have a two-deck major highway on the waterfront. It’s a bit like the Gardiner, it just cuts the city off. They’re removing that and building a tunnel elsewhere in the city to siphon traffic off. That’s a very exciting project and it’s very relevant for Toronto.
Are you optimistic that Lake Ontario Park will actually materialize?
Yeah. It’s a great site and it just has so much potential. It would be a real enrichment for the surrounding communities. I think one of the struggles with these big public space projects is trying to tie them into some equation with economic benefit. But the entire context of your city as existing on a lake can be much more palpable and more collectively shared in these spaces.
What mistakes do cities make when planning their waterfronts?
It used to be that cities would want a copy of whatever another city had done. But you become competitive by having distinct attributes that no one else has. Cities are beginning to learn to capitalize on their assets and make the most of their unique and quirky attributes.
Does politics often derail your public space projects?
They take time, and what might have been one mayor’s initiative isn’t always what the next one wants to be remembered for. These things happen all the time. You somehow have to engage the community in such a way that their desire overcomes just politics. You need people to start looking at other cities that have had major transformations and start to ask “Why can’t we do that here?”