urbanism – landscape – ideas – theory – whimsy

Planning in Ontario – Part I: The OMB

With all the bad blood that the Queen West Triangle planning and OMB extravaganza has created in Toronto (see Active 18, spacingwire posts here, Reading Toronto here), it’s worth reflecting on the true nature of planning in Ontario.

Anyone familiar with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) process will know that the “Board” is in fact essentially a kind of court (dare we say kangaroo court?), where land use planning disputes are frequently heard when someone doesn’t like the decision made by the municipal planners or politicians. The process really boils down to lawyers arguing before a judge, using “experts” from the professions as both hired witnesses and fabricators of “evidence”. Anyone who thinks that that sounds a little strange must be new to the bizarre world of planning in Ontario.

In the spirit of openness that our planning system should be engendering, let’s get some help from Ambrose Bierce’s wonderful century-old Devil’s Dictionary for some enlightenment on the process (an online version of the dictionary is wideley available as copyright has expired, try here).

Bierce defined a lawyer as:

LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.

Who better to be in control of key planning decisions in Ontario?

But wait, there’s more!

The profession of planning in Ontario seems to be held in such poor esteem by the populace that despite widespread disgust with the OMB and its (perceived) pro-development decisions, there seems to be minimal support for planners having any more control over planning either! Who needs those silly professions after all?

Luckily, Bierce can help us out again to clarify what planners are trying to do in the first place.

Bierce defined to plan as:

PLAN, v.t. To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result.

Sound familiar?

We might go so far as to say that such a definition of plan largely applies to public planning in this province. Private (consulting) planning might be better represented by an amalgam of the two thusly:

PLANNER (PRIVATE), n. One skilled in circumvention of the plan.

Enough said! Lesson 1 of a 106 part series, “Planning in Ontario”!

“Paving” the way for a new Four Seasons


A rough timelapse sequence of the demolition of the old Ford dealership on Yorkville Avenue as part of site preparations for the new Four Seasons hotel/condominium proposal which will stretch from the historic fire station (with the tower visible in the photos) west between Yorkville Avenue and Scollard Avenue to Bay Street. The yellow box in the left of the photos is the sales centre (under construction).

The proposal is for two towers, one 46 storeys at the corner of Bay and Yorkville and the other of 30 storeys on Scollard adjacent to the existing recently completed mid-rise residential building. The proposal also includes a new urban square/park to complement the one built to the east of the fire hall and Yorkville library as part of the 18 Yorkville development, along with an integrated linear connection joining the two parks behind the library and fire hall. While these drawings certainly don’t show that the new park at this point will have the panache of the one designed by JRALA, the proposal has been given City approval, but I believe it has been challenged at the OMB by community and residents groups, with a decision still to come. More info (from the City) can be found here, OMB case details here and here.

Despite the enormous amounts of money involved in such large scale developments, it’s a sobering thought that surface parking is so profitable that it’s the first thing you do while waiting for your official go-ahead.




Gardiner’s No Innocent


The demolition of South Parkdale circa 1956 to make way for the Gardiner Expressway, from Mike Filey’s “A Toronto Album 2: More Glimpses of the City That Was.” In Filey’s sanguine words:

“One minor problem associated with building the new highway was the need to demolish approximately 150 houses in the south Parkdale part of town – oh well.”

Oh well? For comparison, there are 262 homes currently on the Toronto Islands. The most striking thing you might notice about this stunning photograph is how the neighbourhood of south parkdale directly faced and related to the western waterfront across Lakeshore Boulevard – something almost unrecognizable along the western waterfront today since the area was excavated to build this section of the Gardiner. Note too the frequency and intimacy of the bridges crossing the railway corridor – a level of waterfront connectivity totally lost upon redevelopment and demolition (edit: a commenter pointed out that all 3 bridges in the photo still exist, it just seems like they knit the two sides together better because in the photo they do not end up at on ramps, highways and empty leftover green space as they do today).

Most interesting of all though, is how a whole neighbourhood like this can disappear without a trace. Were it not for Mr. Filey’s book, I would never have known, not being old enough to remember a different Toronto waterfront. In all the hubbub about the work of the TWRC and the revitalization of the Toronto waterfront, it’s worth remembering that we had a great waterfront once upon a time, and systematically, with cruel logic, we threw it all away. May we remember our lesson, and not let it happen again.

Pedestrian Traffic Signals Start Counting Down


A long-awaited feature in traffic management is finally being implemented in Toronto with the introduction of a visual countdown (in seconds) for the pedestrian light at traffic signals. The countdown begins at the point when the pedestrian light starts flashing the orange hand (the hand is mid-flash in this photo). So far it’s a great success and makes things very convenient for pedestrians, letting them know whether or not they really have time to scoot across the road – especially on those annoying streets when the orange hand seems to flash forever and start mere seconds after the light turns green…. a great feature.

Mapping Our Urbanism Part II – Extents


The Ontario Government’s revolution of planning in this province continues to move forward. The Places to Grow initiative (Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, see here) has been given a benchmark by a Technical Paper on a Proposed Methodology for Developing a Built Boundary for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, “an important component for monitoring the implementation of the Growth Plan” (see here). Essentially, what has been created is the most uptodate database of the current extents of development in the GGH (and by extension, the GTA). Knowing the current extents of development is crucial to being able to evaluate progress on the stringent intensification requirements demanded by Places to Grow and the implementation of the greenbelt.

What’s great for the purposes of mapping our urbanism is that these maps (excerpted from the new Technical Paper) give us an accurate and uptodate view of the extents of the city and greater region as it is essentially right now, and also how the extents of current development fit into the protected land of the greenbelt. This is quite a unique view of things, and one that is much clearer to read than a satellite photo.


Mapping Our Urbanism Part I – Snow Ploughing



It might seem bizarre, but this map of sidewalk snow plowing service (which I found inside a publication called City Routes put out by Toronto’s Transportation Services available online here) speaks volumes about the different urban forms across the City of Toronto. The zone defined by the inner red line contains “areas where vast majority of sidewalks cannot be ploughed”. The reasons given are that “sidewalk snowploughs are not able to operate effectively due to sidewalk width and a lack of boulevard space for snow storage”. No doubt on-street parking also plays a role, but the policy is also a legacy from the pre-amalgamation City of Toronto which to a large degree fell within the two reddish lines on the map, and which relied on residents and businesses to clear the sidewalk in front of their own premises.

However, using the old boundary of the pre-amalgamation City of Toronto as a means of defining the limits of a particular “urbanism” (shall we call that an amalgam of urban form and urban culture?) is not necessarily accurate, as some of the outlying areas began to be built at lower densities even while sticking to the grid system common throughout the older city (the same can be said of Vancouver, where looking at a map shows the City proper almost entirely gridded, a fact that hides the reality that much of the southern and eastern portions are essentially gridded lower-density suburbs).

So, I propose that this map of sidewalk snow ploughing service is actually a good measure of defining the older, traditional residential core of Toronto, an issue that can raise hackles of nostalgia when defined by other measures. The smaller sidewalks and lack of boulevards is highly suggestive of the more urban character of the residential streets in this zone, in particular, sidewalks being directly adjacent to the roadways and in most cases, on-street parking. This zone is also the one with the best pedestrian and transit connectivity. I haven’t checked, but I think you will also find that almost the entirety of the defined area was developed before about 1930 and much of it before the First World War, primarily as streetcar suburbs.

The street names are hard to read so I’ll describe the boundaries – the west boundary is Jane Street – Bloor West Village is one of the last neighbourhoods to stick to the older street tradition. To the north (west of Yonge) the boundary floats north of St. Clair, including many of the neighbourhoods a walking distance from St. Clair. To the east of Yonge, the north boundary swings down close to the Danforth, then runs east to about Victoria Park to include the eastern neighbourhoods of the old City. Of course, this line closely follows the pre-amalgamation boundary of the City of Toronto in many ways, with the northern “stub” removed, but in some ways this map bypasses the hard feelings associated with the whole amalgamation extravaganza to get right down to a question of urban form and lifestyle.

Here’s the full map to show the zone in context:


Windows Live Local Preview ups the ante on VirtualCity


The Windows Live Local Preview ups the ante on the previously reported VirtualCity.ca (see post on Virtual City here). The Live Local Preview is only available for Seattle and San Francisco thus far, but the service (perhaps less practical than VirtualCity’s) has distinct experiential advantages. Instead of the side-on streetscape views focussed on the built form and shops, the Live Local Preview gives an experiential view down the street, with smaller views to left and right – and you can also essentially walk your way around with the detailed airphoto serving as a map. As you move location, the view changes relatively smoothly, essentially resembling video footage or a photo sequence of your walk. If you don’t choose “Walk” from the drop down window, you end up confined behind a car’s steering wheel looking through the windshield (boring!). Switch to “Street” view on the airphoto and you’re given the streetscape on either side as a continuous photomontage (if you’re zoomed in close enough), but it’s a bit small and couldn’t get it zoomed in any further. Using the mouse wheel lets you zoom in and out. On my Mac the interface was still a little clunky and unresponsive, but being a Windows release no doubt it’s optimized for Internet Explorer.


This is yet another step towards the seamless exploration of a city from a computer. Combine features of VirtualCity.ca and the Live Local Preview and you’re really getting somewhere. Some might tend to think that this suggests that at some point in the future no one will bother to explore their own city, and that all of the secret hidden locales of a city will be bared and exposed to the world, and that perhaps this will somehow ruin them. There’s an argument for saying that, but I’m not buying it. The amazing record that these sites are creating of certain cities at certain times is nothing short of amazing. The spatial and social experience of the city will always endure over virtual copies, especially so since the virtual copies are not even meant to replace the physical in the first place, they are tools enabling understanding, comprehension and evaluation of the city, while at the same time being a documentation of the unique physical reality of each city (at the human level) of extreme value.

Props to Tone for the heads up!

VirtualCity.ca delivers the real thing


Readers of the Globe & Mail might have come across a reference to this amazing new site in last Friday’s Globe Review supplement – in case you missed it, I’m pleased to clue you in to something that will soon become indispensible and boundlessly useful for any city. The article by Ivor Tossell called “VirtualCity delivers the real thing” can be accessed (for now) here.


In short, virtualcity.ca has matched continuous photography of the entire streetscapes (primarily storefronts) of most of Toronto’s main streets to a google maps mapping system. All of a sudden, instead of the anonymous satellite photography of google maps, you can find exact views of the street corner you want to meet someone on, the restaurant you want to dine at, the apartment you’re on your way to see, etc. It’s amazing and near unbelievable. In fact, you can type in an address and find streetscape photography of it immediately. The site creators are working on adding residential streets to the system as well and a site for Montreal is in the works! Thank God for the internet! In Mr. Tossell’s nice words:

VirtualCity’s photos are more like day-in-the-life snapshots. Pedestrians walk the sidewalks. Streetcars and fire trucks obscure edges of the frame. You can see the detritus on front porches, recycling in the alleys, cars parked on the margins and the tail ends of streetcars retreating out of view. It’s a celebration of the urban mundane…

In trying to render a business service, VirtualCity has made a documentary of our streets that’s dispassionate, yet totally intimate. Indeed, the site is misnamed: It promises a virtual city, yet delivers the real thing, unadorned, grimy, on a lousy day, with fire trucks getting in the way of the camera.

And best of all by clicking on the top-right larger version of the active image you can view or download very high resolution images so that you can read store signage, check out street numbers or any number of things. I’m sold.

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.


San Zhi Abandoned City


A friend sent me a link to a post about this amazing abandoned resort scheme in Taiwan outside Taipei, called San Zhi. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more curious and misguided scheme – but you can’t deny that the photographs are both amazing and surreal. The reasons for abandonment supposedly revolve around local stories that the site is haunted. Visit the original site for more photos and background.


Addendum (May 2010): a commenter indicates that the buildings have now been demolished to build another attempt at a resort development