Jeremy Keehn


2005 05 01


Decentral Planning



imageJohn Lorinc has a provocative article in the May 2005 Toronto Life, in which he raises some important questions about what the provincial government's proposed "Places to Grow" legislation might mean for Toronto. A quote from the article: "The new rules... allow cabinet to trump local councils, including Toronto's, on fine-grain planning decisions—from waste management to community design.

"Leaner Pastures" (pp. 37-42) traces the recent history of provincial efforts to work on urban sprawl in Toronto, then compares this approach to the way that Vancouver's Greater Vancouver Regional District operates. (The comparison is somewhat misguided—anyone who has lived in Vancouver will tell you that the region's transit system and sprawl-control measures are nowhere near as good as the author suggests.)

The key question for those interested in community planning comes near the end, when he asks whether the province should have the power to ram though development that local communities aren't interested in seeing—one of the key measures of the proposed legislation gives the government power of veto over community development plans. Though the measure makes sense in that it could, properly wielded, compel municipalities to think greener, Lorinc seems to think the reverse is more likely. He leaves off by looking ahead to possible provincial interference in Toronto's official plan, characterized here as a progressive strategy "designed to promote mid-rise development on suburban avenues, protect neighbourhoods and reduce car use in favour of transit."

The broad question the article asks is what role the province should have in regional development. Lorinc writes in favour of local control, but it's hard not to agree with the assumption this legislation represents: that, left unchecked, suburban municipalities don't develop intelligently. I tend to agree with Lorinc, though, even if I don't share some of his specific concerns. Perhaps I've read too much Orwell and Philip K. Dick, but the farther out of local communities' hands planning goes, the more I start envisioning a future in which some provincial variant of the Comintern can decide that a few more raised expressways are just what Toronto needs to solve its many urban ills (with new signage allocations for our existing albatross: "The Gardiner Expressway and Homeless Shelter"). More seriously, I wonder if province-directed regional plans will discourage innovation at the local level, and what will happen if the legislation passes and a less environmentally conscious government than Dalton McGuinty's wins an election and takes up these new powers.

2005 05 02


Microserfs and Macroturfs



image A few weeks ago, I attended a concert put on by the Toronto Public Space Committee, a small political action committee headed by Dave Meslin. (I believe they're related somehow to Spacing magazine, best known in the city for selling those cool subway-stop lapel buttons.) The purpose of the concert was to raise money for, and draw attention to, a number of campaigns they're putting on, most of which focus on reducing the amount of public space devoted to advertising.

Whether you agree with their politics or not, I found it interesting that there are people out there who are concerned about even some of the smallest points of how the city is designed. Among their many campaigns (ten listed on the site) is one to stop city council from putting in new recycling bins with visual ad boards, another to remove unsightly and unfriendly chain-link fences from people's front yards, and another to perform "guerilla gardening" around the city (recon: my back yard could really use some grass seed).

I also found the group's central critique entirely valid, even though I'm more of a realist about these things. Commercial advertising is one of the least-planned design features in any city, and where it's unregulated, it will pop up just about anywhere. A few weeks ago, I met a girl who had helped develop the Virgin Mobile "The Catch" campaign that saw red faux-police-tape put up all over downtown, and huge red-and-white text signs on subway platform floors and pillars. It was a fairly brilliant low-budget campaign, and one she told me they had no problems executing. But can you imagine if five other companies did the same thing? Wall-to-wall-to-wall-to-wall...

Having said that commercial design is generally unplanned, I have to tip my hat to Brown and Storey, which designed the Dundas Square space. I'm fairly new to Toronto, but the first time I saw it, it evoked a Times Square or a downtown Tokyo for me. That said, part of the reason was the overwhelming amount of signage, video billboards, etc. that it contained. To be fair, the Square is outside a mall, and its other charms are certainly considerable. But I would be very curious to know how much the Dundas design was integrated with its surrounding ads.

2005 05 03


Written Toronto, pt. 1



Over the next few days, I'll be posting excerpts from works containing seminal (or just plain interesting) descriptions of design features in the city. Michael Ondaatje's sombre meditation on the construction of the Viaduct (and its aftermath) is certainly one of the most well-known. I knew this particular passage by reputation even as a university student in Alberta.


(Note on copyright: These excerpts are designed to fit the category of "fair dealing" under Canadian copyright law, as they are part of a running commentary on how Toronto's design has been represented in the city. I realize, however, that copyright law is vague on this matter. If any authors, or owners of these authors' copyright, object to having their work included here, please contact Robert Ouellette to have it removed.)


Bloor Street Viaduct, 1915
(National Archives of Canada, PA-070098, photo by John Boyd)
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From Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion (McClelland and Stewart, 1987):

The bridge goes up in a dream. It will link the east end with the centre of the city. It will carry traffic, water, and electricity across the Don Valley. It will carry trains that have not even been invented yet.

Night and day. Fall light. Snow light. They are always working—horses and wagons and men arriving for work on the Danforth side at the far end of the valley.

There are over 4,000 photographs from various angles of the bridge in its time-lapse evolution. The piers sink into bedrock fifty feet below the surface through clay and shale and quicksand—45,000 cubic yards are excavated. The network of scaffolding stretches up.

Men in a maze of wooden planks climb deep into the shattered light of blond wood. A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame. Drill smoke in his hair. A cap falls into the valley, gloves are buried in stone dust.

Then the new men arrive, the 'electricals.' laying grids of wire across the five arches, carrying the exotic three-bowl lights, and on October 18, 1918 it is completed. Lounging in mid-air.

The bridge. The bridge. Christened "Prince Edward." The Bloor Street Viaduct.

2005 05 04


Written Toronto, pt. 2



One of a series of excerpts from works containing seminal (or just plain interesting) descriptions of design features in the city. Timothy Findley, in the first few paragraphs of the short story "Dinner Along the Amazon," offers a note-perfect satire of Toronto's tony Rosedale neighbourhood, centered on a few too, too human flaws in its design.

(Note on copyright: These excerpts are designed to fit the category of "fair dealing" under Canadian copyright law, as they are part of a running commentary on how Toronto's design has been represented in the city. I realize, however, that copyright law is vague on this matter. If any authors, or owners of these authors' copyright, object to having their work included here, please contact Robert Ouellette to have it removed.)


Rosedale Home
(From web reproduction of Your Guide to Toronto Neighbourhoods)

From Timothy Findley's "Dinner Along the Amazon":

Perhaps the house was to blame. Once, it had been Olivia's pride; her safe, good place. Everyone else—including Michael—found it charming. Prestigious. Practical. North Seton Drive was a great location. Running out of Rosedale down towards the ravine, all its back yards were set with trees and rolling lawns. Autumn and spring, Olivia could happily walk or ride her bicycle to Branksome Hall, where she had been teaching now for six years. She really had no right to complain. Number 38 was handsome enough—its glass all shining; its paint unchipped.

Recently, however, Olivia had begun to balk at the physical act of arriving there; of being on the sidewalk and turning in towards the house, admitting that she belonged on that cement and was meant to walk through that front door. There was always something lying on the grass she would not allow was hers: a torn, wet
Star or a bit of orange peel—(I didn't put that there!)—something left by a neighbour's child or someone else's dog. And even, once, a sinister pair of men's blue undershorts.

2005 05 05


Walrussian Translations



To an Inuk, Toronto sounds and smells "something like a walrus colony."—Abraham Okpik, 1977
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(Photograph by, and courtesy of, Genny Anderson. Thanks Genny, from Jeremy Keehn and Reading Toronto.)

With that, I present the current readings of some of The Walrus's staff.

Terry Corrigan, Art Intern

Epileptic, by David B.
Pricksongs & Descants, by Robert Coover

Rolf Dinsdale, Associate Publisher (Advertising)

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollen
The Razor's Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham

Chris Ellis, Circulation

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, by Simon Schama
Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, by Daniel Ellsberg
The Iliad

Tom "Conan O'" Fennell, Deputy Editor

The Harry Potter books, in the original Greek

Chris Flavelle, Assistant Editor

Isaiah Berlin: A Life, by Michael Ignatieff
The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay

Jeremy Keehn, Assistant Editor

Due Preparations for the Plague, by Janette Turner Hospital
Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Joshua Knelman, Associate Editor

The Disappointment Artist, by Jonathan Lethem
The Bible

Arno Kopecky, Editorial Intern

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, by Jared Diamond

Natalie Matutschovsky, Art Coordinator

Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists, by Robert Hughes
Catherine De Medici: A Biography, by Leonie Frieda

Brian Morgan, Senior Designer

Sterling: The History of a Currency, by Nicholas Mayhew
Crime and Ornament: The Arts and Popular Culture in the Shadow of Adolf Loos, Bernie Miller and Melony Ward, eds.
Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, by David Persuitte
The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition, Grant Hardy, ed.

Rachel Yeager, Account Manager

The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger
Saturday, by Ian McEwan
Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
Encounters in Race, Ethnicity, and Language, Carl E. James and Adrienne Shadd, eds.

2005 05 06


Written Toronto, pt. 3



One of a series of excerpts from works containing seminal (or just plain interesting) descriptions of design features in the city.

Margaret Atwood, in The Blind Assassin, includes a nifty comment on Toronto's streetcar tracks that anyone who's ever ridden a bike or rollerbladed to work here will appreciate (though my favourite part of this excerpt is her deft, historically accurate use of the term "ratepayers" instead of "taxpayers"). And do read Robert Fulford's excellent August 2000 National Post column for more on the relationship between Atwood's writing and the city.

(Note on copyright: These excerpts are designed to fit the category of "fair dealing" under Canadian copyright law, as they are part of a running commentary on representations of design in Toronto. I realize, however, that copyright law is vague on this matter. If any authors, or owners of these authors' copyright, object to having their work included here, please contact Robert Ouellette to have it removed.)


Construction of streetcar tracks at Yonge and St. Clair
(Toronto Archives, 71-3572)
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Fictional Toronto Star report, from Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (Random House, 2000):

[Referring to an accident in which a young women has died after driving off the St. Clair Avenue bridge]

It was the police view that a tire caught in an exposed streetcar track was a contributing factor. Questions were raised as to the adequacy of safety precautions taken by the City, but after expert testimony by City engineer Gorden Perkins these were dismissed.

The accident has occasioned renewed protests over the state of the streetcar tracks on this stretch of roadway. Mr. Herb T. Joliffe, representing local ratepayers, told Star reporters that this was not the first mishap caused by neglected tracks. City Council should take note.

2005 05 08


Gentrify Me



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Toronto's design-conscious graffiti artists, at work in a neighbourhood near you.