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2006 06 20
Lament for the Urban Planner
The Urbane Prospector

The grand gyre of life to which we are bound
Spins human design, myth and culture around.
An eternal record of life, brief and stark;
On the tumblers of time where we must make our mark.
From earliest days did the Minoans build
Great cities planned by a designer's guild.
Sad fell the Romans, deceived by a Hun
And the call of urban evolution.
Long centuries followed; decadence and rot
Decayed their great cities with plans misbegot.
Till dawned the new era of Olmstead and Vaux:
A fresh garden city; des arts pleins et beaux.
Mumford and Howard's erogenous zone,
A Fabian orgy, pedantic in tone.
Broadacre City, the sovereigntist's dream,
A competing vision; an alternative scheme.
Rivalled only Corbusier's modernist lair --
A Bauhausian nightmare of streets in the air.
We brought urban renewal to the table to sup
Then took Pruitt and Igoe and blew it all up.
Suburban mystique and its own tortured music
Ere Jacobs appeared and made Radburn a eunuch.
Now Jacques Derrida and his discursive heathen:
Postmodernists leaping like lepers from heaven.
We question the cities we promised to save,
And with Castells ride the Kondratieff wave.
As to each new master's altar we kneel,
Planners only in name, reinventing the wheel.

(Copyright, Amy Lavender Harris, 1996. Originally published in Plan Canada, 36(2))
It is possible to view the City of Toronto's Official Plan online. Adopted by City Council in 2002 (following three years of consultation) and approved by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in 2003, the Official Plan has not yet come into force because it remains subject to numerous appeals. The process moves forward this month with further consultations and anticipated approvals.

Toronto's Official Plan envisions a thirty-year planning horizon, and accordingly seeks to anticipate and coordinate the city's growth and development across generations. Yet, eight years after the much-questioned amalgamation of seven Metropolitan municipalities into the current City of Toronto, effectively the City retains the patchwork of old and occasionally competing plans of the city-states it swallowed up. It may be years before the remaining appeals are resolved and the new Official Plan comes into force. In this context, one is tempted to ask whether Official Plans can mean very much.

My first planning job (I was hired as a summer student) involved incorporating the Minister's modifications into the new Official Plan taking effect in the small municipality where I worked. For a week I cut and pasted snippets of paper and altered text with a red pen so that the Minister's 46 modifications would be comprehensible and visible to the Plan's readers. In nine years of employment with the Town, I doubt I encountered more than twenty people who read, or even cared, about the Official Plan. Far from guiding the Town's growth and development into the future, the plan seemed stale even at the time of its printing, and served in practice more to constrain planning than to enable it. Always, it was the Zoning By-Law where the action could be found. The Zoning By-Law guided daily planning practice, and was read and fought over by almost every property owner seeking to build a shed or convert a restaurant. You would almost think it could be possible to forget about the Official Plan. Except for one thing: municipal zoning by-laws are subject to the Official Plan and must conform with it. To make a hockey analogy, you can tussle at centre ice all you like, but the real pain comes when you hit the boards. In planning the boards are the Official Plan. And the Official Plan can knock the wind right out of you.

The City of Toronto has the Herculanean task of integrating an astonishing forty-one zoning by-laws into a single document. This process is in its early stages and, like the Official Plan process, will take years to complete. At the same time, though, zoning by-laws are revolving documents, constantly subject to amendment and revision as the city changes, meaning that crafting a single zoning by-law for the City of Toronto is like carrying water in a sieve.

What do the City's Official Plan and Zoning By-Law(s) do for the city? In the broadest possible sense, the Official Plan lays out a template for development which the zoning by-law(s) then implement in practical terms. At its best, a good official plan can help head off the kinds of hubris that have often accompanied the architectural and design movements mentioned in the poem quoted above, the kinds of radical shifts favoured by urban revisionists, that see whole neighbourhoods razed and rebuilt, and that reduce the city to a pastiche. At their worst, badly crafted and poorly implemented official plans choke cities with red tape and graft, and turn planners into paper-pushers and petty tyrants.

I left the planning profession because my work required too much haggling over paperwork and too little time in the field. Even in the small town where I worked, it became difficult to see the built-up and natural landscape through the haze of a dozen policy documents and the deadening malaise of procedural meetings. I wonder what it is like for planners with the City of Toronto, most of whom work in compartmentalized departments and who toil behind glass and concrete. And yet, last year one of my undergraduate students, doing a field research project on Kensington Market, was enthusiastically taken on by a City planner who gave her copies of the relevant zoning documents and explained how it was possible to plan even that chaotic neighbourhood by marking out cadences and listening for their return, calling and answering the shifts in the urban rhythm.

[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 06/20 at 10:10 AM

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