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An enlightened glimpse at 21st century Toronto

By Christopher Hume
Toronto Star Architecture Critic

Once again, Toronto finds itself at the crossroads. As usual, ruin lies in one direction, greatness in the other.

The latest call to arms is a fully illustrated 150-page document from the city urban planning department. Its publication this week marks the start of a process that will culminate next spring in the adoption of a new Official Plan.

Though the report isn’t legally binding, it deserves serious consideration. Despite the familiarity of its contents, it offers an enlightened vision of Toronto in the early 21st century. It is a vision of stable neighbourhoods, enhanced public transit, increased densities, mixed-use architecture as well as hectares and hectares of new green space.

Who could resist?

And who could disagree with the starting point, namely that the status quo is not an option? As city planning commissioner Paul Bedford points out, “we’re clearly in dire straits.”

What he’s referring to is an approach to growth that leads to sprawl, sprawl and more sprawl. But now there are signs that even local politicians are beginning to realize this can’t continue.

But how will they react to the report’s recommendation of greater density along major roads such as Eglinton Ave., Danforth Ave. and Yonge St. Given extensive - and badly underused - infrastructure existing along such routes, the suggestion makes eminent sense.

Of course, it made just as much sense a decade ago when the city launched its Main Streets initiative.

That plan went nowhere, though it outlined an identical concept of urban intensification.

It would also have seen major arteries lined with four- and five-storey buildings designed for living and working.

As the authors note, however, the population of Toronto is expected to grow by 2.4 million during the next three decades. That would double the number of people who live here now.

The trick will be to ensure that growth, both residential and commercial, is spread throughout the city, not simply relegated to the suburbs. But if the mad rush to condo-ize the downtown is any indication, that growth is well under way.

Indeed, critics would argue a major obstacle to urban development is the knot of red tape controlling buildings, especially parking requirements and use restrictions.

The huge success of the Two Kings, the largely unrestricted development zones created five years ago at King and Parliament Sts. and King St. and Spadina Ave., seems to have given credibility to regulatory flexibility.

Fully 90 per cent of construction in those two locations was well within the guidelines and received speedy approval.

Interestingly, the report breaks down the steps to our brave new city into a number of “campaigns.” The word, Bedford notes, was very carefully chosen.

The politicians, who ultimately decided, must be convinced

His point is that nothing can be taken for granted. Toronto’s future can go the way of subdivisions and highways or density and mass transit. The politicians, who ultimately decide, must be convinced. And no one should underestimate the power of car culture, alive and well in North America.

But in the meantime, the report’s secret weapon may be the notion that the city engage in a series of small projects intended to beautify Toronto, even to make it a “place of astonishment.” This could mean anything from sidewalk paving to redesigning traffic islands.

“Every piece of public infrastructure can improve the look and feel of Toronto,” the document rightly notes. “A stretch of sidewalk can be transformed into a ‘green’ connector between two ravines or parks. A storm-settling pond can be designed to become a precious wildlife habitat. The gradual process of infrastructure rebuilding gives us a wonderful opportunity to reinvest and improve the neglected open spaces and streetscapes, save our remaining built heritage and encourage a higher quality design for new buildings and structures.”

In a city that has such difficulty making the big decisions, making small ones should be easy. But here, as in few other cities of the world, less may really turn out to be more.