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 @jen_keesmaat–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!