Oct. 17, 2015
Our discussion of “The Next Urban Crisis” at University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management was another highlight of my Greater Portland Inc. trip to Toronto Sept. 27-30, 2015. There we spoke with professor, author and CityLab co-founder Richard Florida as well as Real Estate Developer, & Architect in City blogger Brandon Donnelly. During this discussion Spacing Magazine editor Matthew Blackett also shared some of the interesting insights I reported on in my Part 1 blog.
Richard Florida expressed his frustration with the Mayor Rob Ford era which declared that the war on the car was over and that the problem was those young, pointy-headed university folks. “In Toronto, everyone still thinks they have the right to drive,” he lamented. “If there’s an urban crisis, it’s the suburbs,” he said.
Florida reminded us that: “Building urbanism is a lot more expensive than building sprawl” and “The new frontier is the old frontier in the center of the city.” He left us with three points to deal with the next urban crisis: 1) Build more housing,and make it more affordable; .2) Build more transit; 3) Provide a livable minimum wage–reduce the huge bifurcation we see now.
Brandon Donnelly discussed with us some of the crisis in keeping housing affordable during Toronto’s fast-paced growth. There’s a pressure on prices re: low rise, but high-rise has stayed stable, he said. He described an Avenues and Mid-rise Building study. “ We see it as a market to build more units for families who are priced out of single family homes,” he said.
He distinguished Towers 1.0 and Towers 2.0. Towers 1.0, many built in the suburbs, did not take as middle class housing and became largely the affordable housing of today. Towers 2.0 is basically all ownership vs. all tenants in 1.0, he said. He finds it an encouraging sign that anchor office tenants and retailers are moving into the city as well.
On our way out, we had an unexpected opportunity to hear Robert Reich, who was doing a guest lecture at the Rotman School around his book, Saving Capitalism : For the Many, Not the Few.
I was especially impressed by how many of our group stopped to listen to his talk. “My aim is to shatter the myths that keep us from taking the action we must take, and to provide a roadmap of what we must do – to rebuild our economic system and restore our democracy.” Reich was saying.
There is a “huge misunderstanding” that underlies a false political dichotomy between the so-called “free market” and government intervention. “There is no choice to be made between the free market and government. Government determines the rules of the market. The real question is what those rules are going to be and who is influencing those rules and whether the market is going to be working for the vast majority as a result, or whether it’s going to be rigged in favour of a small minority.” Reich’s book was for sale at a table outside the open-sided auditorium where he was speaking.
At Rotman we had the opportunity to hear some of the most forward-thinking leaders of the day who are dealing with questions around the environment, housing, urbanism, equity, millenials, the creative class, public involvement and the economy.
It was a great segue to our reception and “Sharing Best Practices between Portland and Toronto” session at Ryerson University Architecture School. All of the students I met at the reception were from the Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning rather than Architecture. Those students were looking for answers to rising housing costs, displacement, equity, brownfields, resiliency planning in an era of climate change, etc. I stayed after the session to talk with them. Several promised to look at my blogs on mycoremediation and suggested that one of their professors might be especially interested. So far, no one has followed up but I’m still hoping to hear from them.
Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, is a longtime Toronto resident, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (like myself), and a pedestrian advocate. She had been a principal in the Toronto planning consultancy Dialog prior to taking the job as Toronto’s top planner. She is also an inveterate user of Twitter @–discreetly putting out these tweets while she was on a panel with Portland Chief Planner, Joe Zehnder:
Portland is seeking to create *greenways* throughout neighbourhoods to address stormwater issues. Think “greened” street medians. Portland has met Kyoto carbon emission reductions, even while growing. “Your midrise is hi-rise for us.” Portland Chief Planner explains that 4 story bldings are causing consternation in his city. Wow. If only.
“I talk about Portland all of the time,” she told us. We’re growing but our air quality is getting better – as a result of our green roof policy mitigating the heat island effect. I cringed a bit to think that while Toronto passed the world’s first mandatory green roof program in 2010, Portland discontinued its Ecoroof Incentive in 2012.
In response to moderator Ann Marie’s question about green infrastructure and resiliency in the face of climate change, Keesmaat lamented that she has only three people working on green streets, a superstar team, but only three.
She did add that Toronto is a city of ravines and that there is an ongoing Ravine Strategy currently being developed. She will be holding her final Chief Planner Roundtable of 2015 (Dec. 15) on the topic of Toronto’s ravine network. I did not get the chance to ask her about the re-naturalization of the Don River, but I plan to do that at the next opportunity–maybe via Twitter!
October 15, 2015
The Toronto Best Management Practices (BMP) visit sponsored by Greater Portland, Inc.(GPI) from Sept. 27-30, 2015 was a chance to visit with some of the players who are making Canada’s largest city #2 in Fast Company’s global ranking of smart cities, and #1 in North America and “the most civil and civilized city in the world” according to National Geographic.
I had a little different trip than my 51 other colleagues because I came a little earlier and left a little later than most of them did. I also stayed in a different venue, so I had different views out my back window and front door.
Our first stop on the BMP trip was at Evergreen Brick Works, a “community environmental centre that inspires and equips visitors to live, work and play more sustainably.” It is also home to Evergreen, a national organization whose mission is “inspiring action to green cities.” Approximately 180 employees help Evergreen to promote that mission in four areas of focus: greenspace, children, food and CityWorks (urban planning). If you took Dharma Rain Zen Center ( a group redeveloping a brownfield in far northeast Portland) and combined it with Groundwork Portland, Willamette Riverkeeper, Audubon Society of Portland and Zenger Farm, then topped it off with a national organization like the Sierra Club, you might have something close in Portland.
Although very close to Toronto’s core, you feel as if you are a world away there. Evergreen staff have organized the planting of tens of thousands of native trees and plants by community volunteers. They have also worked with partners to restore a large wetland on their site and a trail through the Don Valley watershed and its ravines.
Evergreen CEO Geoff Cape, along with Planning Director Jennifer Keesmaat and several other speakers stressed that ravines help to define Toronto. “The ravines are to Toronto what canals are to Venice and hills are to San Francisco. They are the heart of the city’s emotional geography, and understanding Toronto requires an understanding of the ravines.” – Robert Fulford, Accidental City
On June 7, 2013, more than 60 mm of rain fell across the Toronto region, resulting in widespread water damage, flooding and road closures. According to an EBW blog post:
“The most significant flooding took place in the Don Valley, right where Evergreen calls home—shutting down the Don Valley Parkway and putting parts of the Brick Works under more than two feet of water! This is not the first time we’ve had to close the site due to excessive amounts of rain but it is certainly the largest flood we have had since moving into the Brick Works in September 2010.”
I found only one reference on the Evergreen site about the re-naturalization of the mouth of the Don River. It is described as a project of Waterfront Toronto in the History of the Lower Don Project. I am watching the CityWorks portion of Evergreen’s site for the day when they advocate taking out the Don River Parkway that so greatly confines the river (except when it doesn’t) and getting the Don River out of its concrete channel altogether.
Our next stop was to the Spacing Magazine retail store where publisher Matthew Blackett told us that he is working with Evergreen and the City of Toronto to create city planning podcasts aimed at a millennial audience. “Growing Conversations is our strategy to reach youth, newcomers, renters and those we’re not presently engaging in the official “consultations” the city planning department holds,” he said. His store sells many books about urbanism as well as locally designed products relating to urbanism –and, of course, the magazine.
Blackett, also on our agenda in the afternoon, claims that ‘most of Toronto’s growth is happening downtown–the fastest growing in NA- and that youth18-34 are a driving force behind the downtown condo boom. He said the government will give you 10% down payment interest free and forgiveable as long as you stay in the condo. The top three Issues he sees for this age group: affordable housing; equity; and the environment.
My hope is that this new generation will insist on speedier implementation of environmental restoration plans–e.g., for the mouth of the Don River–and greater awareness with regard to how all aspects of the City’s future are tied to working with nature in an era of climate change.