Sensitivity faces off against greed
Saturday, February 20, 1999
Saskia Sassen, the noted Columbia University urban planner, glumly argues that the elites of the world's so-called global cities -- Toronto is one; Vancouver isn't -- have lost interest in civic quality of life beyond the narrow sphere of their own concerns.
Thus, urban public transit has no place on their agenda. The public school system doesn't matter to them. Neither does traffic congestion, social services or, for the most part, urban planning. But airport efficiency does, along with the convenience of good restaurants and good shops.
That may be overstating her thesis, but not by much. In her writing, she illustrates how employees of multinational firms who move into major cities can virtually colonize them, drive even greater wedges between rich and poor, create "compulsive spending classes" and low-paid part-time labour pools attendant to their whims.
If you're bullish on cities, you're going to welcome -- as an antidote to Prof. Sassen's gloom -- the exuberance of Paul Bedford, Toronto's chief planner. Mr. Bedford, firmly placing behind him the divisions of the amalgamation battle, sees the opportunity to create a new vision of a new city with a new Official Plan.
He says Toronto is at a crossroads. It's been a North American success story up until now, reaping the benefits of metropolitanism as the financial and manufacturing capital of the Canadian economy. But in today's global economic environment, it either reinvents and reinvests in its quality of life or becomes Podunksville on a downward slope. Deterioration, he says, has already set in.
Directed by the amalgamated city council to "harmonize" 2,000 pages of zoning controls and planning ideologies of the former seven municipalities, Mr. Bedford has responded by saying harmonization is nuts and what is needed is a fresh start.
He begins with five precepts:
The population of the Greater Toronto Area is expected to increase by between 2 million and 2.5 million people over the next 20 years. The more people lured into settling in the GTA outside the city, the more the city will become choked on pass-through commuter traffic with all the attendant ecological and built-environment decay. (Toronto, says Mr. Bedford in disgust, has got to be the world's only major city that funds public transit out of the property tax.)
Cities are congested places, their streets crowded with life. This congestion is what makes cities vibrant and exciting, crossroads of ideas and the human journey. The more compactly a city is built, the better it works. The trick is to ensure happy congestion that doesn't detract from quality of life.
A good city is a place where people make it through their entire life cycle without leaving the community they know. Thus, there should be uniform quality -- and appropriate cultural sensitivity -- to schools, residential and commercial areas, and, at the end, retirement and health care.
A good city is a place where people live their life cycles without ever owning a car and do not feel deprived.
With a sound civic vision in place, the plethora of zoning controls and bylaws that have marked past urban-planning efforts aren't needed. Indeed, they get in the way.
Mr. Bedford says most of the city -- the residential neighbourhoods, parks and employment districts -- should be left alone and protected from change. He says Torontonians' expectations of these "stable areas" are remarkably uniform.
The built-environment on main streets and arterial corridor areas he calls areas of incremental change where development should be encouraged, but designed to fit the existing urban fabric. In concrete terms, this can mean allowing in-fill and reuse of existing buildings, but, beyond that, an Official Plan should not attempt to define or prescribe use. Cities are a natural jumble of activity.
Finally, there are the areas of significant transformation: the Downsview federal lands, the railway lands, the old industrial areas. The Official Plan would guide development here with appropriate infrastructure.
It sounds simple. The alternative is Prof. Sassen's portrait.