Robert Ouellette, National Post
Published: Tuesday, January 10, 2006
The city’s ravines could be to Toronto what canals are to Venice: a unique and inspirational way to navigate the city.
Yet, for about a century and a half we have done our best to bury or otherwise rid the city of its ravines, with varying degrees of success. We overlaid them with sidewalks, streets, bridges, highways and rail lines. Nonetheless, they survived our city-building onslaught intact enough to provide a wilderness antidote to an otherwise predictable city grid.
In many ways, the TTC’s subway system represents the worst of our relationship with the ravines. This 20th-century engineering system moves millions of people every year. Designed to minimize topological variations, it is our efficiency-driven triumph over Toronto’s water-etched landscape.
Early Torontonians admired the ravines. For example, Dentonia Park, at the TTC’s Victoria Park subway station, is a historical treasure. Toronto’s powerful Walter Massey and his wife, Susan Denton, viewed the hills there as a perfect site for their late-19th century model farm — a place that united the latest techniques of scientific farming with idealistic social concerns.
To combat typhoid fever outbreaks in Toronto’s children, Massey’s Dentonia Farm produced the first pasteurized milk in Canada. It became the home of Toronto’s City Dairy, the model for Canada’s early-20th century milk distribution system. (Ironically, Massey died after contracting the disease; his widow bequeathed part of the property to the city.)
An example of Toronto’s engineering-driven modernity, the Victoria Park station paid little respect to Dentonia’s landscape when built in 1968. The predictable high-density tower buildings that followed further divorce the station from the pastoral vision of Massey’s farmland ravine. One of the TTC’s busiest stops, the streetscape around Victoria Park station became meagre, uninviting and more than a little threatening.
Now, the TTC is intent on improving the way its stations relate to the neighbourhoods and landscape around them. After extensive studies on both the Victoria Park and Warden stations by Planning Alliance, the TTC engaged Richard Stevens and Brown + Storey Architects to redesign the subway’s relationship to the surrounding environment.
James Brown and Kim Storey, adjunct professors at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, have long championed the importance of Toronto’s ravines to our urban experience. Their study of the forgotten Garrison Creek system began the discussion on what to do with the city’s neglected or buried ravines, rivers and streams.
The public spaces around Victoria Park station — described by Mr. Brown as ”mushroom spaces” — are dark and poorly designed. The station ”gets a lot of public use at all hours and there hasn’t been a lot of consideration given to the way it connects with the surrounding community,” he says.
”You have a ravine that runs through the area which is both historic and central to the topography of Toronto and you have the infrastructure of the subway system itself,” he comments. ”What we want is an improvement between the Victoria station, housing, the parks, the way these areas are lit, safe walkways, proper building frontages, a redesign of bus stations and a more clearly defined relationship between all of these elements.”
The architects will present their preliminary design report to the TTC on Jan. 19.
As esthetically important as these changes are, the TTC is not being entirely altruistic in making them. They want these improvements in part to increase the value of developable lands they control.
Still, we have to applaud the TTC’s initiative, because it reinforces the importance of the ravine system to life in the city. And any time the economic value of quality urban design is acknowledged, it promotes others to do the same.