Every time I return to Toronto I’m struck by its wasted potential: streets are too-wide, especially north of Bloor, urban ‘planning’ has encouraged nodal development, fine-grained, variegated retail is replaced by monotonous facades, and restrictive land-use policies and regulations limit the placement and variety of residential and retail. This saddens me, because Toronto has the potential to be so much better than it currently is.
The city is car-oriented, and it shows. Roads are double or triple-laned each way with wide radii turns, trees are placed well back to improve driver sightlines, and intersections are far apart; as a result, speeding is endemic. Roads designed like this aren’t pleasant to walk along: as a pedestrian you’re either next to speeding two-ton vehicles or exhaust from rush hour traffic. Besides – where would you walk to? It’s assumed you’ll drive, and businesses are prohibited within residential neighbourhoods. Both these factors encourage parking-oriented nodal development and limit the viability of small-scale street retail. They also propagate a vicious cycle, further reducing the number of pedestrians: no one wants to walk along 20 minutes of blank residential facades to make it to the single strip mall in your ‘neighbourhood’ for daily conveniences.
Toronto’s urban planning and residential regulations make things worse. Parking minimums, required amenities, and the zoning variances required to build duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes or stacked townhomes often make only two forms of development commercially viable: large condo superblocks or overbuilt McMansions. The first reinforces nodal development: we see self-contained tower islands where people exit their home only to commute to/from work and expect all other needs to be served within the building. The latter reduces density and propagates a car-oriented culture. But both undercut the development of outward-facing, street-level retail. Add to this, the architecture that results from these urban planning guidelines fail at city-building. Condo podium facades – especially those built in the 80s and 90s – work against retail and pedestrians: the shops are often inset, almost hidden, and the uniformity of their facades make them unappealing to walkers. Moreover, huge portions of the ground-level structure are dedicated to parking support – ventilation, columns, driveways – again reducing their appeal. It’s hard not to look at large portions of the city and think: urban planners and transportation engineers have do more to destroy the walkable nature of Toronto in the last 60 years than all the unconstrained development before it.
Politicians and neighbourhood groups have compounded these problems. Councilors in Toronto do not dream or lead; their highest aspirations are to keep their seat and hold property taxes to the rate of inflation. City-building is accidental. Their attitudes amplify the voice and political heft of neighbourhood groups – often change-averse and car-centric – whose own highest aspirations are to keep things the way they are. Together they’ve blocked change after change: from reducing speed limits and road widths, to increasing density in the yellowbelt, to adding bike lines to… If there’s one constant from both these groups it’s the statements: “No” and “We can’t.”
When I look at these factors I wonder to myself: Can Toronto be improved? Will it ever become walkable? The number of things to change, from attitudes to regulations to tax policies make the problem seem insurmountable.