When you mention Europe to someone from Toronto, Düsseldorf is not a city that most people would recognize – a place in a Harry Potter book perhaps? Düsseldorf is on the west side of Germany at about the midpoint of the country; it is very close to Belgium and Holland. Düsseldorf shares many urban design characteristics that are present in other European cities, but dramatically differ compared to most North American cities. In Düsseldorf, pedestrian streets as opposed to vehicular streets dominate the core of the City. This is a standard in most German cities and in other European cities such as Amsterdam, Prague, Zurich and Barcelona. The experience of being able to walk in a city without being inundated with motor vehicle traffic, congestion and pollution is welcomed when compared to the North American experience. The density of European cities also differs significantly from North America. For the most part there is an absence of high-rise buildings and few single family homes in the inner city. Most buildings are 3 to 4 storeys in height and serve as residences. High-rise condominiums that block sunlight to the street and put significant stress on infrastructure are relatively absent. There are also key differences in how retail works given the few massive enclosed shopping malls, underground pedestrian/retail networks and large supermarkets. Instead, a multitude of small shops and food markets at grade along the pedestrian walkways are present. The result is that the pedestrian streets most often are filled with human activity and social interaction. Düsseldorf also demonstrates how to effectively treat a major water amenity. The Rhine River runs through the City. On one side is a wide two level pedestrian walkway system that is constantly busy with people enjoying the outdoors. On the other side is an expansive grassed park space. On both sides of the river the real estate has been turned over to the public. This is in distinct contrast to a city such as Toronto where the downtown waterfront has been sold off to private interests, certainly one of the worst urban design decisions in a prominent North American city. Düsseldorf is also home to a fabulous inner city outdoor marketplace that contains bakeries, butcher shops, cheese shops, fresh local vegetables and a vast array of eating spots. It is also interesting that the shops are closed on Sundays, but if it is a nice day the streets will be vibrant with pedestrian traffic. One month out of the year is also devoted to the Christmas markets, which are hugely popular and bring people of all ages together in a social setting.
Reflecting on Toronto and other Canadian and US cities, it is somewhat mind boggling how motor vehicles have ended up dominating the inner cities. For example, in Toronto, why would Yorkville streets not be closed to vehicular traffic along with Kensington Market and parts of Queen Street and Yonge Street? It has been demonstrated with the closure of King Street from Bathurst to Yonge to other than public transit that Toronto has not come to a standstill. There are those who say that the harsh winters in Canada make pedestrian streets ineffective. I don’t buy that argument. I do agree that you cannot just have one closed off street as is the case with the Spark’s Street Mall in Ottawa and the Stephen Avenue Mall in Calgary; you need a cluster of interconnected pedestrian streets.
There are of course metrics available for measuring the success of a city. Certainly economic well-being would be high on the list. What is the state of available affordable housing and public transit? What is the condition of the infrastructure, clean water, sewage treatment, cleanliness and garbage disposal, roads, bridges and buildings? What are the architectural and urban design characteristics, presence of parks and open spaces, sunlight to the street? What about crime? Is the city safe? What are the entertainment and cultural features, public education, libraries, community centres and healthcare? By most standards, Toronto probably fairs well in world rankings. But we could do more, much more. The idea of having a large urban park covering the railway tracks by Spadina and Front Street is a must. One only has to look at downtown Paris or even New York with Central Park to see the benefits of large open spaces in the cores of major cities. Lots of work has to be done to intensify inner city housing and high-rise condominiums are not necessarily the answer. There is a strong argument to support low-rise residential developments in place of single family homes. It is recognized that there will be a need to upgrade infrastructure, but there is no question that this type of intensification is far superior to high-rise condominium projects.
There are features of European cities that are universally attractive and despite having it’s own history and character, Toronto could benefit from injecting a few of these traits into the City. Toronto is a terrific city, but work must be done to make it a great city.