Toronto needs more beauty in its waterfront designs

Written by Deborah de Lange, Ryerson University. Photo credit Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

Density is an idea sold to us by corporate developers who want to build on every last bit of green space. To fully enjoy our city now and for the future, we need more public green space.

A healthy and happy city includes creating social capital — those benefits that come with social networks, public spaces and community, much as the Danes have in their famous city of Copenhagen. Toronto’s focus, too, should be on “place-making” rather than city building. How can our waterfront contribute towards Toronto becoming a happy city?

The proposed project by Sidewalk Toronto, “high-tech” Quayside, is the most recent excuse to develop our waterfront with condos. It is ultimately just a dressed-up “real-estate play.”

We do not need to install an entirely new and experimental “smart city” on 12 acres of prime Toronto waterfront. We should not then also give away another 800 acres in the Port Lands to developers, a space almost as large as Manhattan’s Central Park.

The need for public waterfront space

Toronto’s waterfront is a magnet for nearby city dwellers, not only local residents. We seek out the waterfront on our long weekends. Families have barbecues and reunions in lakeside parks; volleyball players need a beach.

Congestion occurs because so many people want to escape to be near the water.

Where will millions more in the future go given the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is projected to have a population of about 13 million by 2066? We should not repeat the same mistakes made by the government-appointed Waterfront Toronto, “the public steward of waterfront revitalization,” of not planning for sufficient public green space.

Toronto’s urban dwellers are attracted to the downtown core. Photo credit Eugene Aikimov/Unsplash.

“Density” is promoted for the benefit of corporate developers. But if more and more people are to be without the privacy and pleasure of a backyard for the sake of increasing density, then we need public parks to compensate for this. The cooler waterfront is the best location for more parkland, especially as we face blazing hot summers related to climate change.

The existing built environment at Toronto’s lakefront has so far been unsuccessful in “place-making” — turning spaces into communities. The west side of the lakefront (Bathurst to Yonge Streets) does not have enough parkland. The Toronto Waterfront Revitalization project added more concrete and traffic confusion to the already built environment of condominiums. The eastern side is also filling up with condos up to the water’s edge. Someone needs to stand up and protect what is left of Toronto’s lakefront for social capital building and climate adaptation.

Place-making can work

Some great North American cities are known for heroic efforts in place-making. In Chicago, entrepreneur-turned-magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward fought a 20-year battle to save Grant Park from greedy builders. Today, Montgomery Ward’s celebrated legacy is Chicago’s waterfront park: It is what makes Chicago a great city.

New York City has its Central Park. Central Park is one of the outstanding design features that makes New York forever attractive.

New York’s Central Park was created to improve public health. Photo credit Shutterstock.

The New York State legislature stepped up to purchase more than 750 acres, 843 acres today, of parkland because, even in 1853, politicians understood that “a great public park would improve public health and contribute greatly to the formation of a civil society.” Manhattan, well-known for its limited and expensive real estate, is 13 miles long and 2.3 miles wide; Central Park is 2.5 miles long and a half mile wide.

Also, Boston’s parks, including Boston Common and the Public Garden, have been preserved. The Public Garden is the first botanical garden in the United States, established in 1837, and is considered one of Boston’s greatest attractions.

Toronto still has a chance with the waterfront space that remains.

Why is Waterfront Toronto contemplating building more condominiums? It seems the organization is attempting to pack too much into the precious waterfront space. Does a park seem too simple? Well, simplicity is majesty, as the great parks central to other world-class cities suggest. Toronto should be preserving waterfront space and making it our “Central Park.”

Toronto’s last decade has seen a rise in residential buildings, many on the waterfront, possibly related to the influence of a now-defunct Ontario Municipal Board, which gave developers too much power.

Those days are gone as of this year, so Toronto can revise its approach to be more like that of Vancouver, where the new chief planner is talking about a “vision for the future.”

Density is not the solution

The cost of living, a lack of space, transport issues, pollution and noise are problems in dense environments.

But density is not equivalent to affordable housing, especially in a downtown core. It’s a myth that developers espouse because they make more money selling more units on a smaller parcel of land.

Increased density by way of taller buildings is also not safe for people, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In a 2016 CMAJ study, people living above the third floor had lower survival rates after cardiac arrest. That was due to the time it took to reach them and, in some cases, because elevators were too small for stretchers. Above the 25th floor, no one survived.

Research offers this warning: “If development is not in the right place, at the right time, and in the right form, even compact urban
forms can disrupt ecological and social systems

Tech hubs should be built elsewhere

We have lots of space around the GTA for experimenting with smart-city technologies. Transit hubs — communities built around major transit stops — begin as smaller spaces, not located on precious lakefront property. They can become additional vibrant central business districts where new smart-city technologies may be tried out as smaller individual pilot tests.

Toronto can add compact communities, with architecturally interesting low-rise buildings like Boston’s brownstones but without the hefty price tags, because they are not downtown. These communities can also include workplaces near to homes. With many of these mixed-use hubs, commuting is reduced, local housing is more affordable and small business rents are decreased. Downtown locations, while still desirable, are no longer required.

There is still time to save Toronto’s waterfront. Here are the Toronto Islands (formerly Hiawatha or Menecing). Photo credit Shutterstock.

Integrated into a park-focused, climate-adaptive waterfront vision should be inspiration, beautification and monumental design that creates social capital as a primary goal, and ultimately, a happy world-class city.

Toronto needs to step back and reconsider its development assumptions and approach, including citizen participation in design, not just consultation or communications. The city should find inspiration in international examples of place-making like Boston, Chicago, Copenhagen, as well as Vancouver, as it reconsiders its direction.

Toronto could still take back control of at least part of its rare and precious lakefront. The city could create an extraordinary public experience, possibly with world-class monumental architecture placed within a larger green space to satisfy and inspire future generations of happy city dwellers.

Who will create a green vision for our waterfront, as Montgomery Ward did for Chicago?