A walk in central Toronto that doesn’t include a crane, a half- finished highrise or, worse, a massive pit where another stretch of century-old buildings existed only the month before, is rare indeed. With housing in short supply, property taxes constantly rising and zoning restrictions rightfully restricting sprawl on city edges, building up makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is allowing private developers to demolish the historic fabric and social history of Canada’s largest urban centre with only the briefest nod to what will replace it. Block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the most graceful and vibrant sections of the old city are being replaced with banal glass towers and storefronts that sit empty, unleaseable, for months and years until the next chain drugstore or fitness centre moves in. The city’s planning department is led by the respected Jennifer Keesmaat, an avowed proponent of density who has also moved aggressively at times to protect neighbourhoods and contain the negative impacts of runaway development. Still, the omniscient Ontario Municipal Board continues to routinely overrule city decisions.
It’s not that growth is a bad thing or that all tall buildings are bad. What’s critically important is that tall buildings are built where they make sense, not simply where they maximize profits for the builder. And midrise development in low-density areas near transit (many, many remain) needs to be fully explored. Otherwise, too many of the irreplaceable neighbourhoods that make up the city’s DNA will be sacrificed to the pressures of the bottom line. After all, every storey represents more cash.
Cities that are lively and safe require considered change, with a genuine mix of old and new, as well as innovative design. That doesn’t include height for its own sake, inserted clumsily into low- to midrise neighbourhoods.
One of the biggest losses in all this carnage is the sacrifice of land that might otherwise be considered for parks. Even the largest developments seem to include little more than slivers of open space, generically designed and sparsely used. In contrast, several of the standout parks in the core, of which there are far too few, are the direct result of intervention by individuals who were able to seize windows of opportunity when developments were under consideration in more thoughtful times.
These restorative places aren’t huge: the miraculous Yo-Yo Ma Music Garden on Queen’s Quay West, made possible in 1999 by the Fleck family, among others; Berczy Park on Front Street, narrowly saved from becoming a parking garage by preservationists in 1980; and the striking Village of Yorkville Park, which exists only because of the heroic efforts of local retailer and activist Budd Sugarman in 1997.
In a testimony to their unique appeal, these older parks remain massively popular. Where are their newer versions? There’s no doubt they will be desperately needed, as Toronto too often turns away from the history and human scale that marks the great cities of the world, no matter their density or housing pressures – or need for revenue from property taxes.
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