If cities are an expression of civic consciousness, our politicians and urban designers must think we're pretty dumb. Take a look at streets and sidewalks in Canada and tell me I'm wrong. What should be a celebration of public life and camaraderie looks as dour as a Dickensian bowl of gruel. Overcrowded with overscaled cars, our streets have become death traps for cyclists. Our sidewalks are paved-over cow paths, designed as if to punish those who have exited the cocoon of their automobiles.
The latest assault on civic life comes with the rollout in Toronto of a monumental street-furniture program. The aim is to de-clutter the city's public realm by allowing a private company, Astral Media, access to nearly 200,000 square feet of advertising on its newly built transit shelters and aluminum information columns in return for supplying the furniture and handing the city a bunch of money.
As if our narrow sidewalks of concrete and patches of asphalt were not already difficult to negotiate, residents will now be asked to share their turf with 25,000 additional pieces of street furniture, including uncommonly ugly garbage cans - known, in the city-corporate parlance of the day as litter and recycling receptacles.
I prefer to call them dweebs.
Toronto's dweebs are nerdish, squat, and, sadly, clad in plastic. No, they're not wearing flood pants, but they're topped with a tilted, curved roof that attempts the most arbitrary reference to a seashell. The designer of the dweebs and the rest of Toronto's street furniture, Jeremy Kramer, says that these resin-based plastic receptacles can take a beating from vandals and the weather. With this, I have no quarrel. Their inner guts, made of cast aluminum and steel, are high-tech and tough.
But their outer shell - what will assault our eyes for the next 20 years - is clunky and dreary. If somebody kicks one in, its sickly grey carcass can be easily replaced. Pop it off and replace it, says Kramer, "without feeling sad." So, now we know. What we see on the outside is what's contained on the inside: disposable.
I could care less that the dweeb's plastic skin can be recycled. The recycling mantra is the latest strategy of certain designers and manufacturers in search of a blessing from eco-chic clients for the use of nasty materials that will never fully dissolve in a landfill.
What's to be feared over the next two decades? Not the new suite of benches, nicely done by Kramer Design Associates, with long seats of hearty, dark ipe wood; or the sleek newspaper stands officially called multipublication stands. Besides those garbage bins, what I cannot tolerate is newly concocted street merchandise that we neither desire nor need: self-aggrandized information kiosks that trumpet the fact that you can get your city map here; and public-posting columns, tall and technocratic, which will be roundly ignored by the swashbuckling brigades of pamphleteers who stick, staple and slap their posters all over the city's accommodating hydro poles. Erecting the posting columns on our sidewalks is akin to inviting artists back into their neighbourhood once it's been cleaned up, sterilized and gentrified - the old way of postering will continue to function because it's real and raw.
What appalls me the most, though, is the march of those 12,500 dweebs. Think of it as the glorification of garbage through the creation of mini plastic shrines. How cute! They come with a foot pump that opens their devouring garbage and recycling mouths! Because there is so much that is enlightened about the state of architecture in this city, I'd like to make a suggestion: Take the offensive receptacles off the streets immediately and save the city's integrity. Naturally, they should be recycled into something requiring serious leak-proof technology. Baby diapers, is what I'm thinking.
it's not just the furniture
We now know the fundamentals of what it takes to make lousy or great cities. Build more highways and see how quickly the roads fill up with cars and increasing commute times. But build wider sidewalks, and create pedestrian-only streets, as is the case in Madrid, Copenhagen, and the area around New York's Time Square, and watch them fill with people. Watch the air get cleaner, too. Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to reduce New York's carbon footprint 30 per cent by the year 2030. Creating a delightful public realm on our streets and sidewalks is not only visually enticing, it's the ethical thing to do.
On this front, Toronto lags dangerously behind. Even the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, in Toronto recently to deliver a speech at IIDEX/NeoCon furniture fair, observed that the sidewalks here were too small, too mean. Part of turning around Bogota from a place of violence and insecurity to one in which people reclaimed their city has had a lot to do with Penalosa's belief that sidewalks should be conceived as parks, not merely as something running adjacent to streets. In Bogota, about 25 kilometres of major streets are closed to cars every Sunday. Imagine the flood of humanity that could be showcased in Toronto and across Canada with a similar gesture.
At a metre or two wide, often covered by ice and snow, the Canadian sidewalk deserves an inspired overhaul. To start, it should not be overrun by media companies parading as saviours of the public realm. What initiatives can be trusted? Cyclists can now bike safely along dedicated lanes on the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver. I applaud the work in the Ottawa neighbourhood of the Glebe, where slightly curved sidewalks are being test-designed to slough off the elements.
In Montreal, at the urging of Mayor Gérald Tremblay, the city announced this week an impressive short list of designers competing to create new bus shelters. The winner will work in collaboration with a manufacturer to produce 400 shelters paid for by the Société de transport de Montreal (STM).
Toronto might say it's too poor to afford to widen its sidewalks or build its own street furniture. Certainly the Astral deal - worth $428-million to the city over the next 20 years - will help to buttress the cost of streetscape improvements. But it's a pittance compared to the amount dedicated to creating Pleasantville for cars. Toronto dumps more than $300-million every year into fixing and building roadways.
In many European downtowns, the tyranny of the car is essentially over. Public transit is not only extensive, it's designed to entice the haughtiest women in Chanel suits into the elegant metro. Roads have been narrowed to allow sidewalks wide enough for a gaggle of schoolgirls walking side by side in Paris. Trees are planted, often in double allées , far from the deadly splash of salt-slicked vehicular roads in Hamburg. Dedicated bicycle paths, in lanes buffered safely by parked cars, are being cut through Copenhagen - and New York as well.
Toronto is not without its own triumphs. A reverence for the public realm, and how to design and built it so that people will flock there, is understood along its unfolding waterfront. The Spadina WaveDeck has its own crazy personality. That's a beginning. And, it must be said, bike paths in Vancouver and Victoria continue to grow by the kilometre.
To what do we owe our fear of great city streets? It can't be blamed on the Victorian City Beautiful planners, who conceived of grand civic boulevards for many Canadian cities. Perhaps, in our haste to please America postwar, we embraced the ethos of cities that, first and foremost, loved their cars.
Imagine the reverberations around the world had we developed our own great Ramblas or Champs-Élysées. What if - even now - a rethinking of our streets and sidewalks became a priority of every Canadian politician? Perhaps the accomplishment is too much for the Canadian sensibility. Surely, it's worth a try. If not, prepare to surrender, fellow pedestrians, to a street army of unlovable dweebs.