Lofty Proposals

We recently participated in an amazing and unusual focus group as part of the Upper Toronto experimental proposal. For three consecutive weeks, we collectively bashed our heads together on Tuesday evenings to dream up plans for a world in which a new city of Toronto would be built above our current city, with the intention to eventually abandon our former homes below. Sounds scary, right?

The creative minds behind Upper Toronto acknowledge that such a project is a bad idea, but if we had to do it, what would be the best way to build a new city, and why? As our group attempted to dream up this City of the Future, the problems we had to confront are ones that are not so foreign to the challenges Toronto has faced before, but perhaps on a much more catastrophic scale: planning and executing long term visions without completely destroying the lives of the people who already live here. Be it transit, social housing or gentrification, the problems with building the City of the Future are very much rooted in the challenges of running the City of Today. Planners and politicians need to address resistance to redevelopment and relocation, incredible and often unthinkable capital expenses in building and upgrading new infrastructure, and the necessity for the political will and momentum to actually see the plan through from start to finish.

How do you plan for the City of the Future 25, 50, and 75 years down the road?
The real-life trend seems to favour ambitious plans that extend 25 years into the future. Believe it or not, there are many of these plans already being implemented that will dramatically impact, and hopefully improve, our experience of living and working in the Toronto region. Some great examples of these ambitious plans already underway are Waterfront Toronto’s redevelopment plan, Metrolinx and the Big Move, and Ontario’s Places to Grow regional plan.

Image: Exhibit Change

Waterfront Toronto is making great progress towards redeveloping an area bigger than four times the size of Monaco, close to 2000 acres. This is as close as it gets to literally building a new city, and as everyone may remember the Ferris Wheel and monorail idea, the Waterfront Toronto plan also serves as an example of how easily a long term plan, no matter how great, can be derailed by the politics of the day.

Ontario has crafted up two important plans to address regional transit and growth. The regional transit agency Metrolinx has begun implementing a 25 year initiative which includes building a much anticipated rail connection between Pearson Airport and Union Station. The Big Move initiative is aiming to create an integrated transportation system for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area to tackle congestion, increase transit use and improve satisfaction and accessibility across the region.

The provincial “Places to Grow” initiative has taken a wider view and focused on the Greater Golden Horseshoe (PDF) to begin to manage growth in the region centred around Toronto. The aim is to set development guidelines to help municipalities to revitalize downtowns in communities throughout this region while simultaneously curbing sprawl and promoting denser development to protect green spaces, the crown jewel being the vast green belt comprised of the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment.

The million dollar question: what does authentic community engagement look like? Image: Exhibit Change

To Build or To Engage?

During the Upper Toronto exercise what became clear was the need to address how to authentically engage people and communities from planning to implementing over such a long time frame. Planners and politicians are great at drafting initiatives and putting shovels in the ground. The problem is whether or not the best laid plans will meet the needs of the future community. Conflicting opinions and doubt can literally stop a project dead in it’s tracks, wasting time and money.

Once the Upper Toronto focus group sessions ended, the question that we walked away pondering over was if you were given a chance to recreate the City of Toronto, how would you improve not how it’s built, but how people become involved in shaping its future, from planning to implementing?

Sound off your ideas in the comment section below!