Jane Jacobs for Toronto Mayor!

As I ease back into the old blog after too long away, permit me a bit of a rant about the state of the city I call home. Seems appropriate, in this municipal election season, to think about what is to become of Toronto in the years ahead.

See: I’m worried. More than worried – I’m bitterly upset and depressed to watch this once bright and hopeful city slowly consumed by untrammeled construction and the want of any coherent plan.

It’s a conversation I’ve had with countless friends, cab drivers and complete strangers time and again in the past couple of years; the consensus always being that we’ve squandered the splendour of our city and we don’t know how to fix it.

When we first lived here, I used to love picking up visiting family and friends from the airport and driving them back to our home in the Beach along the long arc of the Gardiner Expressway. As we swept past Exhibition Place – rising up onto the elevated section of the Gardiner, over Bathurst, curving in towards the heart of the city – that iconic Toronto skyline would start to open up before us.

It was like a curtain going up; Toronto announcing itself to our visitors: “just look at the magnificent city your friend calls home.”

There’s the Skydome, backed up by the CN Tower, opening the door to the grand rise of the Royal York away back behind the rail tracks, leading the eye on up across the serried towers of the downtown core – the still-impressive gold-plate windows on Royal Bank Plaza, Mies van der Rohe’s TD Centre towers; and to the right, the sparkling expanse of Lake Ontario, stretching so wondrously far I think my Mum’s still secretly convinced it’s the ocean.

It was stunning. But now…?

Now the relentless wall of bland, pre-fab condos has robbed our city of any grandeur it ever aspired to. We’ve already walled in the lake with an ugly march of concrete boxes. Now we’re busy shutting off every other once-inspiring vista the city ever offered.

Poor old Ted Rogers must be gnashing teeth in his grave – $25 million he paid to get his name up on the side of the Skydome. You can’t hardly even see it for condos now.

Even newer, but still quirkily-lovable buildings like the Air Canada Centre “Hanger” have fallen victim, with yet another faceless glass-box and two overhigh towers completely unbalancing a space that held such potential. John McEwen’s magnificent sculpture, that proudly dominated the Hanger’s main entrance, cowers now under the shiny, looming new palace of Mammon they call “Maple Leaf Square”. (I hear they’re going to move the sculpture off to the side into it’s own little green space as part of the new development plan. Just like Toronto to relegate something impressive and dramatic to the status of a parkette.)

And this is just the experience of driving through one stretch of the city. Don’t even get me started on the slow-motion disaster of our transit system, the lip service paid to cyclists, or the weary, nerve-wracking misery of being a pedestrian in our downtown area.

Ack.

So here’s my wish for Toronto’s new mayor: be a designer.

Be an architect, an urban planner. Be a builder and a breaker. Be someone with the courage and the sheer force of will to slam the brakes on, pause, re-think, and build a plan to renew this city before the mess spreads too far.

It can be done.

Look to Birmingham. The city I lived just outside of for 20-odd years had become, by the mid-70s, a misplanned muddle of 50s and 60s concrete monoliths; hostile to pedestrians, toxic to business, and just no bloody good to anyone.

Now, though, it’s a city transformed and well on the way to becoming one of the most liveable megacities on the planet, thanks, in large part, to the bold vision put in place by the city council of the 1980s and the new “Big City Plan.”

That’s what I want for my Toronto. A Big City Plan for this great big city.

I know dear Jane Jacobs isn’t with us any more, and I doubt she’d run for mayor even if she was. But is it too much to ask for at least one of the current mayoral candidates to have read The Death and Life of Great American Cities? Maybe they have. Maybe one of them will surprise us yet.

[UPDATE: it has been suggested by three friends whose opinions I respect, that I may be inadvertently misrepresenting Jane Jacobs' views here. This is certainly not my intent and is, if anything, a casual accident of poor word choice on my part. It's challenging to discuss Jane's complex thinking and her remarkable legacy without using such obvious phrases as "urban renewal" and words like "planning" and yet I should acknowledge that much of what passed for "urban planning" from the middle of the 20th century onwards was precisely what Jane took issue with in her first book. I do think she made a distinction between good urban design and bad urban planning driven by misguided zoning laws. So in calling for a mayor who will be the kind of urban planner Jane might have liked, I guess I'm really looking for someone who represents my own inevitably skewed and very personal view of what a plan should be and how my city should look. Better?]