Walk with Joy
One of the first things I did as Executive Director of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Toronto was to ask Paul Bedford to join me for a summer beer so I could pick his brain about the emerging development of this city. I was particularly curious to get the former Chief Planner for the City of Toronto’s perspective on the new residential construction frontier of the city’s downtown precinct.
When I suggested an urban walk before our drink, he asked me to select a neighbourhood. I chose CityPlace, Toronto’s dense condo-land between University and Spadina Avenues along the north side of the Gardiner Expressway. I recalled his vision 20 years ago (pre-dating the current Official Plan) of a Vancouver-style high density but liveable waterfront neighbourhood and wanted to understand what went wrong. How was it that Vancouver could build world renowned high density but liveable communities that put people and families first, while Toronto could only build soulless concrete jungles that pushed its residents out as soon as they graduated to small families? Our walk surprised me.
Paul’s vision for Toronto’s downtown waterfront was to replicate as much as possible the delicate urban fabric of Vancouver’s redevelopment of its old Expo lands, but clearly this city came nowhere close to achieving that. However what I experienced on our walk was a remarkably intimate and vibrant new mixed-use community. Large-footprint buildings that I felt overwhelmed, when seen passing on the Gardiner, seemed quite human scale at ground level. The public realm feels open, green and inviting, pedestrian connectivity to neighbouring communities felt natural (though the Gardiner is still very much a barrier), neighbourhood-oriented retail plentiful and parkland both abundant and well-utilized.
A new public school under development also surprised me. Weren’t families moving away from such communities? Obviously the Toronto District School Board understands that the stroller boom in condo-land is a harbinger of young families choosing to stay downtown, not the last stand of hip urban Millennial couples before a move to more conventional residential pastures. Yet while seeing is believing, the true liveability test is, obviously, living it.
The seemingly abundant and well-utilized parkland is in reality highly over-subscribed according to Dave Harvey, executive director of Park People, the city’s leading park advocate. Evidently we have not built enough basic playing field space, notwithstanding the considerable parkland contributions associated with the condo construction. Another liveability indicator that jumped at me on my walk with Paul was how the new 1,500-sq.-ft. Fort York library branch was jammed to near capacity – and this was an August mid-afternoon! No doubt many would-be-users are being turned away now that school is back.
Public transit is yet another challenge. While the proximity to the central commercial district in downtown allows over 40 per cent of its residents to walk or cycle, nearly a third rely on public transit. Pressure to provide higher order transit access to the GO transit corridor for these new waterfront communities will increase annually.
Hopefully the planned school will be large enough to accommodate student demand that may well have been underestimated. Hopefully also the new school will lend itself to a multitude of community uses to accommodate ever increasing demands for public amenity space during evenings, weekends, and summertime. Time will tell. As my walk with Paul ended with a well-deserved pint and a look at the city at large, he noted that the success of smaller high-rise homes in dense centrally located neighbourhoods works for some, but a broader demand for affordable, larger floor area, transit-supportive homes must still be met. Ultimately, the challenge for the city and development industry will be to define this next frontier, as clearly the work of reshaping our city and region has just begun.
Richard Joy is Executive Director of ULI Toronto. Previously, he served as Vice President, Policy and Government Relations at the Toronto Board of Trade, and was the Director of Municipal Affairs and Ontario (Provincial Affairs) at Global Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJoyTO or email at Richard.Joy@uli.org