Thoughts About Cities
COVID-19 has resulted in an abandonment of the once bustling city centres all over the world. A lonely stroll down a deserted street in downtown Toronto allows one to focus on the surrounding architecture without the presence (or distraction) of people and automobiles. This is also an opportunity to contemplate the connection between architecture, urban design, public art and the missing ingredient…people.
For the most part, the architecture of individual buildings in downtown Toronto goes unnoticed. The urban fabric could benefit from an elevated tension between buildings that stand out and those that blend in. This is not to say that every building should be a disconnected architectural object on the landscape, but rather that a bit more architectural variety and intrigue would be welcomed.
The role of public art should also be stepped up. Having said that, there is a marvelous new piece of public art by Jaume Plensa which depicts a face that has recently been installed on Adelaide Street just north of York Street on the west side.
Politicians and city bureaucrats are responsible for making critical decisions regarding development including land-use, density, building height, open space requirements, parks, vehicular roadways, landscaping and parking. Understandably it is unlikely that every stakeholder group’s interests will be addressed on any given project, but unfortunately without a larger planning vision and a collective persistence to pursue it, these seemingly isolated decisions can lead to negative consequences over the course of a city’s development. Case in point: the senseless building of condominiums along the downtown waterfront which ostensibly took what should have been a public domain and was handed off to private developers. The result is an underutilized strip of land that is only beginning to see pockets of improvement through urban design initiatives in recent years.
The definition of a great city is constantly shifting, with considerations ranging from liveability, resiliency, adaptability, sustainability, inclusivity and affordability amongst others, depending on the perspective. From an architect’s point of view, the layers of history and culture manifested in the physical forms and voids of an urban fabric is one integral element present in all “great cities”. Many European urban centres are off to a head start with centuries-old architecture rich with historic character and beauty, lining vibrant streetscapes energized by pedestrian exchanges. The environment itself perhaps feeds into a cycle of appreciation and shaping of new built form.
The North American city on the other hand presents itself as one that favors vehicular traffic with the dominance of roadways and parking lots. The typologies of the vast suburban shopping centres and strip malls are also typically not where dynamic public spaces are found. Cities like Toronto’s downtown core have the potential of becoming a vibrant urban centre, however sometimes it is up to the people to speak up and prompt local representatives to fight for key issues that prioritize the healthy growth of their cities rather than private interests. These decisions include but are not limited to:
Planning strategies with consideration given to the building of an integrated public realm, whether it be designated spaces for public parks or regularly scheduled road closures for pedestrian use.
Heritage preservation where cultural value exists (of the limited historic properties that we have, as a relatively young culture compared to older civilizations like Europe or Asia).
Strategic planning and meaningful public engagement to advance environmental justice principles, which can contribute to healthy community building by helping end the cycles of economic and racial inequities.
What we know for certain is that we cannot leave city building to avarice developers and misinformed politicians to decide the fate of our cities. Certainly in the world we live in today, it is encouraging to know that with loud enough voices the public has a level of power to influence the way politicians act.