urbanism – landscape – ideas – theory – whimsy

Development in Toronto Part VI – Gateism


I’ve been noticing an increase in “gateism” along the residential streets of Toronto. While they say that “good fences make good neighbours”, there’s something about fences that are higher and more robust than seems necessary that leads to a few worries. Fences alone are one thing – they do a great job of defining space and ownership and are an easy way to quickly read the definition between public and private urban space – while without gates they can also be penetrated with ease. Gates on the other hand, are more worrying. The gate doesn’t rely on subtle hints to define public and private, but demands compliance through a physical barrier. Usually, one would assume a gate is either intended to keep something in or keep something out. If these gates and fences are being erected to keep dogs in I would be very surprised. If they are in response to some perception of a threat from the general public, it suggests a worrying trend for this city’s public space.

In countries such as England, gateism as a response to perceived security threats from public space have led to broken glass and barbed wire on the tops of walls, and no side passage left ungated. Increasing numbers of houses in Toronto seem to be gating their side alleys in a city where there used to be a relative permeability between front yard and back. On the other hand, increasing densities and busier street and foot traffic demand responses to maintain the privacy, security and serenity of the urban home. This current form of gateism does not seem to be desirable, but it’s obvious that people are expressing a desire for more privacy than the typical form of the city and its open front yards is supplying. The city should be encouraging more creative and beautiful solutions that rely less on the aesthetic of the security perimeter and more on an integrated landscape strategy. In the meantime, we will probably have to get used to a streetscape defined less by semi-private overlooking porches, and more by visually impermeable fences, hedges and gates.


Is the Wind Economy Here?


Toronto’s Windshare wind turbine may have gotten people excited, but its small output and difficulties in negotiating further urban turbines in Toronto make the project little more than a (much-needed) publicity excercise for clean power. The Windshare turbine is 0.75MW, capable of supplying the power needs of about 250 average homes. The real action is in wind farms in areas with steady wind characteristics, one of the most promising of which (in Ontario) is the eastern shore of Lake Huron.

The above photo is of the Kingsbridge I wind farm north of Goderich near the shore of Lake Huron. The project consists of 22 wind turbines and is rated at 40MW, capable of generating enough energy for 12,000 homes. Phase 2 (Kingsbridge II) will have 70 windturbines for 160 MW, giving a total of 200 MW for phases 1 and 2. The province of Ontario is helping fund renewable energy projects through a procurement process with the goal of having 10% of Ontario’s power generated from renewable sources by 2010. Allowing wind farms to be built on Crown land is one of their key initiatives. See the Ministry of Energy’s site for a map and list of new projects. The government of Canada meanwhile has had a Wind Power Production Initiative since 2001 using incentives to cover the costs of half of the premium for wind power for the first 10 years of a given project (see WPPI info here).

Ontario also has a commitment to eliminate all coal-fired energy generation by 2009, but in June Premier McGuinty backtracked on this promise specifically with regard to the Nanticoke plant on Lake Erie which is “the largest coal-fired power plant in North America and Canada’s #1 air polluter.” In 2005 Nanticoke produced as much air pollution as 3.3 million cars according to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance. The OCAA is advocating converting the plants boilers to natural gas for the rest of its operation, a conversion that would not be particularly costly.

The relevance of all this to urbanism in general may be self-evident but I feel like I should spell it out. The removal of key renewable energy production to less visible locations outside of the city may have less of of a direct impact on public perception of progress in renewable energy sources, but we can’t ignore the effectiveness of locating wind farms in places where there is the best wind and where a large number of turbines can be concentrated. Despite this, as primary energy users, urban dwellers musn’t allow themselves to lose sight of the importance of the origins of our electricity.  While most of the cities in Canada no longer have influence on the federal government’s energy policy, it is our duty to continue promoting energy conservation and increased renewable energy sourcing to help meet the Kyoto commitments we made as a nation, with much of the nation’s willing support.  It is also our duty to ensure that energy policy remains a key election issue at the provincial and federal levels.  We must do this not only out of self-interest (our urban air will be cleaner as a result), but to do our part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions for which we are all responsible.  Although Canada may stand to get off fairly easy with the predicted patterns for global warming, it would be historically criminal of us to ignore our own emissions to the greater peril of the rest of humanity and the world’s natural systems under the misapprehension that some warmer weather wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Wonders of Music in the Music Garden


These panoramas were from a baroque music performance in the Music Garden a few weeks ago which finally (and belatedly) convinced me of the greatness of the design of the Music Garden. Apart from the glory of hearing a performance in such a wonderful space, overlooked by waterfront condos on one side and the heavy foot traffic of the waterfront promenade on the other, the wealth that such a diverse and enigmatic profusion of plants, flowers and trees brings to such a waterfront location is unimaginable. The waterfront doesn’t all have to be about loud music, plazas and intense activity – a quiet moment in a beautiful park can be part of the mix too.


Quay to the City Timelapse


DuToit Allsopp Hiller (DTAH) have uploaded a series of cool timelapse sequences of the Quay to the City installation along Queen’s Quay that was in place from August 10th to 20th. These are some stills, but check out the original at their site here (props to Tonto for the link).






Beautiful Urban Moments – Part VI


The view west across Fort York’s grounds has always fascinated me – from the vantage point of the Strachan bridge over the railway lines, you have the impression of an island of green and this stunning view corridor focussed on the CN Tower. Your first clue to something being here is a strange staircase that appears to descend from halfway across the bridge – from the top of the staircase, this view presents itself. Fort York itself is not visible here, but the remnant and memorial of the military burial ground is in the middle-distance at the base of the flag. The grounds are relatively quiet, and usually deserted apart from the ocasional dog-walker, though the drone of traffic along the elevated Gardiner Expressway will inevitably be the soundtrack of your visit.

Self-seeded City

ailanthus - dundas st w

This is an Ailanthus (Heaven Tree, Tree-of-Heaven, Ailanthus altissima) seedling that has grown up in an unused tree pit along Dundas Street West in the Junction. In a city that has trouble getting healthy, nursery-grown trees to survive in the harsh conditions of the tree pit, there’s some irony to a tree naturally growing up in one from seed, and looking so happy to boot.

Unfortunately, there are few, if any, native species in Toronto, that can grow so happily in such conditions. The Ailanthus is, of course, not one of them, being native to China. It is also notoriously fast-growing, is naturalized in Toronto and much of the United States, is a prodigious seed-producer, and is very difficult to kill. In many places, it is also a voracious competitor against native species for light and resources, and due to its rate of growth and seed production, it usually wins. Combined with its production of a toxin that inhibits the development of other species, it is considered to be invasive and an ecological threat.

You will find the Ailanthus in laneways, abandoned and vacant sites, and along fencelines. There are few deliberately-planted examples in Toronto, one beautiful specimen on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus at Hart House Circle comes to mind. The tree in the 1943 novel (and film) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is an Ailanthus, allegorically referencing the species’ unstoppable ability to strive and survive even in the worst conditions. I once saw one growing out from behind a 2.5m wall that was only about 30cm from the building behind it.

I once harboured an idea that we could significantly green-up a city like Toronto (with difficult tree-growing conditions and little will to seriously tackle the street tree problem) by attempting to take advantage of some of the “weed” tree species by helping them to locate where we want them – imagine a beautiful, tree-lined laneway! Normally, we consider that there’s simply not enough room to grow trees there, but there are many examples of large Ailanthus, Elm (usually Ulmus glabra, or U. pumila), and Manitoba Maple (Acer negundo), vigorously growing along laneways.

The problem with this plan of course, is that all of these species are non-native, naturalized and invasive, and thus pose a particular threat to local natural vegetative communities in places like ravines and woodlots through their seed production. Whether it’s worth pursuing sterile cultivars or clones for the purposes of greening up the city is a bit questionable, and it would be almost delicious irony if the naturalized species itself seeded into the planting locations and out-competed our carefully selected non-seed producing (and genetically stagnant) tree.

However, since it doesn’t seem all that likely that we’ll ever get rid of these “unwanted” opportunists, maybe just leaving a cutout every 10 metres or so in the concrete of laneways would be enough of an invitation? After all, if you can’t beat ’em, use ’em.

Paradise By Any Other Name…

Paradise By Any Other Name...

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
(Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)

Every once in a while I come across a litte garden in the city that, perhaps unconsciously and for the briefest of moments, becomes worthy of an urban idyll, a little piece of paradise that reinvigorates my faith in the city.

Perhaps it’s the single sheet hung out to dry, or the ramshackle shed and overgrown fence, or the little patch of grass tracing the outlines of a path, or the unkempt and slightly wild “cottage garden” mystique.

Whatever it may be, it reminds me of the importance that private outdoor space plays in the city, even to those who can’t use it. Call it a vestige of the picturesque, but I feel that there remains a great value to the view into space (especially if it be green) even when we can’t access it ourselves – indeed I have noticed that the experience of being in a space that has looked so inviting and refreshing from afar frequently disappoints.

Anyone who has been to Venice will know of the intrigue and lusciousness that gardens hidden behind walls and glimpsed through gates and arches can bring to a city – so the next time you’re walking around your neighbourhood, stop and appreciate a moment of paradise, however brief, and then move on, and never regret that you have lost something by leaving, but rather stay vigilant, and await with utmost anticipation your next spatially-vicarious paradisical revelation.

Toronto’s Future Waterfront a la West 8 / DTAH

Some evocative renderings by Toronto Landscape Architecture and Urban Design firm du Toit Allsopp Hillier from the winning proposal in Toronto’s Waterfront Innovative Design Competition. Congratulations to the West 8 / DTAH team.

I reported on the result (with more images from the scheme) and set myself a-musing on its possibilities in a post yesterday. Click images to enlarge! Enjoy.

Waterfront Promenade - The Green Foot

Queen's Quay - Day View

Queen's Quay - Night View

West 8 / DTAH win Waterfront Design Competition


TWRC and the City today announced that the West 8 / Du Toit Allsopp Hillier team were the winners of the waterfront design competition. See TWRC and DTAH websites for details and many more images.

I think we all know the best proposal won. Let’s hope that the scheme goes through with the same principles (maybe sans giant floating maple leaf).



The winning scheme proposes the demolition of the Gardiner Expressway, to be replaced with a Champs Élysées-style boulevard, but it’s attitude towards the railway corridor (the real barrier to the waterfront) is more ambiguous. Knowing Toronto’s politics and methodology, the danger of insisting upon pinning the scheme to the demolition of the Gardiner is delaying design development or construction until agreement can be reached on the Gardiner (and that might be akin to waiting for Hell to freeze over).

Alternatively, going ahead with the Queen’s Quay, slip, and waterfront promenade work without a commitment to demolishing the Gardiner would fulfill the mandate of the competition’s terms of reference, while giving little leverage to force action on the Gardiner question. This whole issue is aggravated by the fact that the existing development along the north side of Queen’s Quay deliberately turns its back on the Gardiner (for obvious reasons), and consequently Queen’s Quay operates quite independent of the Gardiner/Lakeshore Boulevard co-dependency. It is therefore hard to practically argue that a Gardiner demolition is essential to the work on Queen’s Quay.

We’ve seen this play before – some of us might remember the euphoria that accompanied the Fung report and the release of the Making Waves Part II Plan for the Waterfront, both of which gave the impression that the Gardiner would soon be a piece of history, until the Front Street extension became TWRC’s first priority – a project that now seems to be on hold, but which is a constant threat hanging over the Gardiner’s future.

Adrian Geuze of West 8 might be blissfully unaware of the machinations of the Toronto undercurrents, but that doesn’t mean that the proposal to demolish the Gardiner is wrong. The idea of a Champs Élysées-style boulevard is in fact a huge leap forward since most other schemes have proposed a tunnel (akin to Boston’s hugely expensive Big Dig) which is tantamount to accepting the failure of the whole idea in advance.

I think the issue of the Gardiner is so divisive that I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a mayoral election issue in much the way the fixed-link to the Toronto Island Airport became the issue that galvanised David Miller’s win in the last race. There are enough drivers who adore the views and experience of driving the Gardiner (regardless of the cost to the city and the waterfront) and functional transportation thinkers who have a hard time imagining how the boulevard could make up the capacity of the Gardiner, that I would be worried to rely on a plebiscite to settle the issue.

There is the additional oddity that along the western waterfront there are three directly parallel and adjacent large roadways all making their way towards downtown – Lakeshore Boulevard (6 lanes?), the Gardiner (not raised, 6 lanes?), and the Queensway (6 lanes?). My question is, if the raised downtown section of the Gardiner was demolished and replaced with a boulevard (presumably eliminating Lakeshore Boulevard which practically runs beneath it), would that then enable removal of one or two of these western arteries which pose such an enormous barrier between the western waterfront and the city?

If the Gardiner did ever come down, I can’t think of a better reason to dramatically improve the GO train service along the waterfront corridor. Improved service and frequency in both directions throughout the day could go a long way to relieving possible congestion or increased travel times resulting from a demolition of the Gardiner. A perusal of current schedules shows that frequencies aren’t too bad – except who wants to wait an hour for a train? Running a better service might require electrification of the lines (which allows quicker stopping and acceleration after a stop and therefore increased number of stops) possibly allowing for the running of local and express lines with better travel times than the Long Branch streetcar line. An integrated GO transit – TTC fare structure / transfer privileges wouldn’t hurt either. Hey, if we can dream about demolishing the Gardiner, surely we can dream about improved transit?




Beautiful Urban Moments – Part V

Dovercourt Park - Spring

One of my favourite Toronto park moments is the allée of silver maples that cuts north-south through Dovercourt Park in the west end. The park is half-way between Dufferin Street and Dovercourt Road, and half-way beween Bloor Street West and Dupont Street. If coming along Shanly Street one block south, you look north up Salem Avenue and are treated to the allée continuing the line of the street through the park.

Apart from the lack of strong formal elements in most Toronto Parks (especially allées), this park is additionally special in that it is a park along the lines of the real English “square”. It is surrounded by small residential streets on all sides, and it is larger than most of the other Toronto “squares”. It successfully works as a whole where so many others dissolve into a collection of uncomfortable uses. The allée also brilliantly divides the park into an open field on the west side (laid out for baseball – I think unfortunately), and a series of more discreet uses on the east side, including a kids playground, a community centre, and tennis courts. If there was a wrought-iron fence around it and the baseball field was just an open field, it could almost be an English “square”.

Unfortunately, the silver maples are (as are so many of Toronto’s majestic Acer saccharinum) reaching the end of their life span. There are gaps in the allée already, and the City has started replanting the missing trees (though bizarrely, by my eye, they are not placing them along the line of the centres of the existing trees, but along their forward edge – very disappointing).

Sometimes simple spaces work best. Many of our new parks, such as the Central Park in the West Railway Lands (Concord Adex Park), or Wychwood Carbarns Park, will be so crammed full of programme, there’s no room for simple space and a grand idea. I can’t help think that we’ve lost something along the way with our busy-body urbanism.

Dovercourt Park - Winter