Toronto is getting serious about design. That’s the message the city’s mayor delivered on Tuesday, along with a group of announcements that could create better public places in the city and bring change to its neighbourhoods.
If the city gets the details right, this could be a crucial effort to elevate architecture and its sister professions – which have a huge impact on the city, but don’t get the attention they deserve.
At the Toronto Urban Design Awards on Tuesday, Mayor John Tory announced his support for three initiatives. One, an ideas competition to address "missing middle” housing in the city’s house neighbourhoods. Two, major civic projects will now be awarded through design competitions. And three, a "mayor’s civic design initiative” to improve the design of small projects.
The highest profile of these has to do with the “missing middle.” This includes small apartment buildings, row houses and townhouses, which the city is starting to encourage. “Good design, innovative design that can allow gentle density that … some people might not even notice,” Mr. Tory said on Tuesday. “We want the architecture and design community to come up with the most beautiful and interesting ways to accomplish that.”
Adding more people to the city’s existing neighbourhoods is an issue of enormous importance. And while architecture is not going to solve the thorny politics of changing neighbourhoods, it can help.
The danger is that the city’s design competition will generate one single solution, rather than what’s needed, which is a loosening of regulations that allow many flowers to bloom.
The second two policies have to do with procurement – how designers are hired and paid for taking on public projects. This sounds deadly boring but in fact matters a lot.
“If we show some leadership on own end, with our own buildings and how we do things,” Mr. Tory said, “we’ll send a signal that we care about this.”
All major city-building projects, Mr. Tory said, will now go to international open competitions led by the agency CreateTO. This is an ideal way to start public projects: To invite designers to present ideas, and win a job on the strength of the idea.
“We need to lead on that front,” said Councillor Brad Bradford, who will be Mr. Tory’s point person on the issue. “And by putting design first, we can get better results.”
Finally, a “civic design intitiative.” As Mr. Tory explained it, this will involve 10-12 small city projects, to be awarded to emerging design firms or even students. This is an especially brilliant move. A small city project is exactly the kind of thing that a small design firm will pour its heart (and labour) into, while a big design firm will toss it off as quickly as possible. That has a big impact on the result.
These new initiatives were all inspired, Mr. Tory said, by a meeting of design and development professionals, that I attended, that his office convened to provide suggestions on improving design in the city.
None of these initiatives have been detailed yet. To my mind, they each need more work. For one thing, landscape architecture needs to be a part of them. Parks matter deeply and design in that field is of critical importance.
And above all, design competitions should be open and anonymous, so that the usual suspects don’t win out. It’s crucial that public projects are driven by quality and not bureaucracy. City staff have to get on board with that objective and follow through.
That’s what happens with the best of public projects, like the recent reconstruction of Berczy Park by landscape architect Claude Cormier – which won an Urban Design Award on Tuesday. It’s technically competent, creative, beautiful and very well used. That’s what good design can do. And here’s hoping Toronto gets more of it.