It's time to realign the stars. Time to steer the course away from the study of studies of the Toronto waterfront back to where it belongs -- to design.
With design, there is an image of what can be achieved. And what needs to be achieved along the Toronto waterfront are startling ways to connect people to inspired public space.
Politicians new to the problem are likely to handle the waterfront like cornball magicians, pulling bunnies and United Nations universities from a hat in the hopes of winning kudos with the public. What the waterfront lacks is not the kind of programming that ill-equipped visionaries see fit to imagine for the rest of us. At the threshold of Canada's largest metropolis are the Toronto Islands, an archipelago offering 500 acres of parkland. On Ward's and Algonquin Islands, people live in wooden cottages set behind imaginative fences. Centre Island has an amusement park for children and endless grassy fields to throw down a picnic. The place is unique in North America.
It took 20 years in the late 1800s and the mind of landscape guru Frederick Law Olmsted before the Emerald Necklace, a linear park of interconnected greenery and lagoons, was delivered to the city of Boston. And, guess what? Toronto has an emerald necklace at its front door. But we hardly know it. Except for those who pay to travel on a ferry service, the islands are uncelebrated and generally unknown.
Wanting to put design back at the top of the page and celebrate the raw pleasures that already exist along the waterfront, The Globe and Mail's Cityspace column asked Toronto architect Bob Davies to consider designing a pedestrian bridge to span the harbour's Eastern Gap. The assignment was intended to provoke a new set of design ideals for the waterfront, and Davies was enthusiastic about taking on the hypothetical project. A principal at Montgomery Sisam Architects, he was the project architect and co-designer of the Humber River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge, a beloved icon in Toronto, which received a Governor-General's Award for Architecture in 1997. Over the last five years, Davies has been working on a design for the vehicular bridge to link the mainland to the Toronto Island Airport.
That work came to a screeching stop with the election of Mayor David Miller. But here was a chance for Davies to traffic his art to an entirely different client.
A project of this kind, which could create an iconic gateway for the city, mustn't fall prey to the kind of bargain-basement budget recently provided by the Toronto Port Authority for the design of the Rochester-Toronto ferry terminal -- itself now destined to look more like a bus station than a remarkable landmark. Implicit in the bridge's design is a polemic that aims to reverse a tradition of attaching minimal budgets to minimal designs along the Toronto waterfront. Instead, such a bridge would have to be considered as a powerful addition to the skyline, a feat that would necessarily demand a reasonable budget. Of key importancewould be the movement of pedestrians rather than vehicular traffic -- the joy of walking, running, cycling or rollerblading people taking precedence over cars. Finally, the bridge would need the best of engineering to lightly touch down on the land while being capable of opening efficiently for high-speed ferries or lake freighters.
The bridge design references something more life-like than inanimate -- a cross between a bird and an insect rather than something coolly abstract. In fact, Davies drew some inspiration from the bittern, a migratory marsh bird of the heron family that previously bred in the marshlands of the Don River before being driven out. In the schematic design, two birds appear to be facing each other, as if craning their beaks toward the centre of the bridge. Thin columns reach down like upside-down antennae and attach themselves to the bridge deck. When the bascule bridge swings up, an overhead counterweight pulls on the thin columns causing the deck to fly up; a 100-metre opening is provided for freighters or the ferry from Rochester to pass through. Davies estimates about one minute to open the bridge.
The steel bridge is designed to span the 300-metre width of the Eastern Gap, extending from the edge of city-owned property at Cherry Beach westward into the parkland of Ward's Island. When Davies designed its end points, he thought of the way that water striders hover slightly above the surface: "It's meant to be delicate and elegant and unobtrusive as possible."
Once upon a time, the Toronto Islands were attached like a peninsula to the city's mainland, the result of centuries of alluvial deposits being swept west from the Scarborough Bluffs. In 1858, a hurricane washed away a connecting landmass, opening what is today referred to as the Eastern Gap.
What to do about the Eastern and Western Gap played on the minds of city planners until 1912 when the Toronto Harbour Commissioners expressed themselves in the Toronto Waterfront Development report. Part of what was urgently recommended at the time was a series of roller lift bridges -- depicted in the report as delicate, coloured sketches -- that would cross the two gaps. Small bridges were also proposed to serve as crossings of inner island lagoons. The report envisioned a "carriage boulevard" that would allow people to travel from Lakeshore Boulevard on the mainland across the islands' outer and inner recesses before returning to the city.
The 1912 boulevard and its attendant civic grandeur never saw the light of day. The development of the industrialized port lands held sway instead. But the idea of connecting part of the province through a path later met with success. Under the stewardship of David Crombie, a 325-kilometre waterfront trail from Kingston to Niagara was created by 1995. But the idea of the trail falls apart when cyclists or pedestrians arrive in Toronto. Rather than being treated to what could become the jewel of the Martin Goodman Trail if there were a bridge for bicycle and foot traffic -- a trip through the bucolic landscape of the islands -- cyclists are thrown into snarling traffic in the city's downtown core.
"It's really understanding the waterfront [as]not at the foot of Jarvis and Yonge and Sherbourne but along the south shore of the islands," says Davies. "The simple thing about this bridge is that it would give us access to a 500-acre park. We wouldn't have to build a new park -- we'd have access to an existing park."
Who would protest against such a plan? In all likelihood, the residents of the islands might imagine themselves poorly served by a pedestrian bridge -- they've enjoyed an off-limits, gated community for decades now. The Islands are the largest car-free community in North America. But residents have also known the dread of missing the last ferry or having to haul groceries on ferries during the summer crush. A pedestrian bridge opens up access, to be sure, but is there much to fear from the health-conscious types out for some serious sport or laid-back Sunday recreation? I doubt that breaking and entering is at the top of their minds.
Any waterfront city, from Vancouver to New York to San Francisco, boasts bridges big and small. Santiago Calatrava has interpreted bridges as the art of engineering in cities such as Bilbao and Barcelona. The Millennium Bridge that stretches across the Thames River in London uses graphics to help tourists understand the city's architectural icons. Toronto has water at its edge--- lots of it, by anybody's standard -- and yet we're reluctant to frame the experience in a pleasurable way, as if crossing the water fills us with an inexplicable dread.
The design for the Eastern Gap pedestrian bridge is not the result of one power group triumphing over another. It's a playful, light-on-the-earth, beguiling design that came about because somebody dared to ask and somebody dared to respond. Davies estimates it could be built for $10-million. In his waterfront report, Liberal MP Dennis Mills has promised $78-million in new dollars for waterfront revitalization in Toronto. But how many of his ideas were cooked up overnight -- and how many began as a dream that still resonates 100 years later?