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2005 11 26
Only Visionaries Need Apply: This City Needs a Planner
Radio City development, image courtesy of Context Developments

It is apparent that Toronto’s public realm lacks the design vision found in cities like New York, Chicago, London, and Vancouver. So, when Toronto’s leading designers assembled at the Ontario Association of Architects Forum on Planning Reform Monday night, the City’s latest planning decisions were the subject of intense discussion.

Many agreed that the city’s poor planning guidelines caused the recent East Bayfront, ROM Condo, and Sapphire Tower controversies.

Howard Cohen, developer of some of the city’s most respected new buildings and a forum panelist, was particularly blunt. “The biggest problem [with design in the city] is a dysfunctional bureaucracy,” according to Cohen.

Robert Freedman, the city's director of urban design, coudn't help but note Cohen once worked in Toronto's planning department. "He was city bureaucracy," He said.

“Howard knows that city building is complex and can be unwieldy. Planning in Toronto functions well but could it be better - yes,” says Freedman. “We have a very good, new official plan but it has not yet come into effect.”

Doubters know that a new city plan will not solve all of Toronto’s planning woes. “In Vancouver, councilors are not elected to represent Wards. In Toronto, they are,” said Freedman. Why is that an important part of Toronto’s urban planning dilemma?

Our system puts too many design decisions in the hands of individual councilors. The process encourages councilors not to risk thinking beyond their own ward boundaries.

Joe Berridge, principal the Urban Strategies planning firm says “Toronto is in a state of unregulated chaos.” He argues that without a structured planning system there are too many competing visions claiming a place in Toronto’s design approval process.

“A good urban design department plays that role,” says Berridge, adding, “That is not a criticism of our city’s urban design department, but the design process is becoming so political in Toronto.”

New York, Chicago and London, in contrast, have design champions who focus their city’s planning activities and cut through bureaucratic red tape.

New York has urban planner Amanda Burden while Chicago and London have their mayors, Richard M. Daley and Ken Livingstone. Many believe Toronto needs someone with the skills and vision to bring Toronto’s urban design up to the standards of other great world cities.

Who would fill that role? While many voters hoped Mayor David Miller would be able to do something about the city’s planning chaos, fixing years of neglect may be too much to expect from a first-term mayor.

The city recently appointed Bruce Kuwabara, a principal in architecture firm KPMB, to chair the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation’s design advisory panel. A respected Toronto designer and architect, Kuwabara thinks we might need someone like former Dean of Architecture at the University of Toronto, Larry Richards, to take on the role of the city’s design champion.

Richards was influential in the university’s planning and design process over the last decade and has earned the design community’s respect.

As a step to improve design approval issues in Toronto and across Ontario, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing wants to reform the province’s Planning Act. Those reforms would allow municipalities to directly influence the exterior appearance and detail design of buildings – something that cannot be done today.

The reform would also allow for Vancouver-like design review panels to provide independent analysis of design related issues.

Presenting to peer based review panels would, according to George Baird, present Dean of the U of T’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, make architects and urban designers more responsive to design. It would also give designers influence over developers who often don’t see the value-added benefit of good design.

But Cohen, President of Context Development thinks it’s a bad idea. He said he is, “terrified about adding another level of bureaucracy to the system.”

21st century cities have to compete for the brightest minds and the best companies in an increasingly nomadic world. Doing this requires a city that is as beautiful as it is functional.

Changes in the Planning Act will help but it is Toronto’s local government that has to decide what kind of city we will build around us.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 11/26 at 08:56 AM

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