Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

(This article was originally published June 7, 2011 on Torontoist)

"This is why we can’t have nice things." That was a comment left on an article Torontoist published on the spectacular and sudden demise of the Fort York Bridge: a bridge that several weeks ago many Torontonians didn’t even know about but, when it was up for debate, suddenly couldn’t live without. Of course, the bridge, as many pointed out, was not the heart of the issue being debated. What was being debated was the sentiment expressed by the commenter on the article: that we can’t have nice things.

Why can’t we? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some believe we have long been spending money we didn't earn—which is to say, we probably could never have afforded the nice things we already have—and someone is finally telling us the truth about that. Others think it's because so many of our elected officials are short-sighted missiles ideologically programmed to seek out anything that gives off the heat of aspiration.

An architecturally beautiful bridge to a neglected historical site that may prove popular to tourism and residents of the city? Don’t need it. Reconnecting the city to the waterfront with well-designed public spaces? How about a monorail instead? Getting rid of the five-cent bag tax? Now there’s a project that can really do something.

City-building is more than physical construction—it encompasses a style of governing. As former director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto, Ken Greenberg writes in his freshly published book,Walking Home: "In undertaking transformative projects, staff need encouragement and permission from their elected bosses to be proactive in making change, to become creative problem solvers, and not just prudent regulators, and to accomplish new things, not just ensure that no harm is done."

Think here of Metrolinx’s Big Move, or Waterfront Toronto’s ambitious plans for a revitalized waterfront, or the Tower Renewal program we don't hear about any more, or the largely defunct Transit City.

These are the types of creative solutions and proactive projects that John van Nostrand of the planningAlliance spoke about at the Centre for City Ecology last week, in a talk on the importance of planning—and unplanning—Toronto. What he meant was that, instead of overarching Official Plans that work to crystallize development, we need to embrace a network of innovative projects that move us forward as a city.

Toronto is a living, breathing organism, and like an organism it will grow and evolve over time. It can be easy to mistake a city for something mostly static: after all, change seems to happen so slowly that, like watching the hour hand of a clock, it becomes difficult to perceive it as change at all. But then one day we look up and realize a new building has gone up just down the road and that everything looks different in light of it.

Rob Ford and many on city council do not yet seem to have a grasp on this concept of the living city. It was Ford, after all, who proposed during his mayoral campaign that we discourage immigration of new people into Toronto until we figured out how to deal with the population we have. Despite what Mayor Ford may believe, however, we cannot just hit the pause button while we figure things out. Any attempt at planning or governing a city through the pause button is like building a box around a growing plant: the plant will still grow, but it will become distorted—and eventually it will burst through, whether you want it to or not.

In cancelling, modifying, or delaying projects—some already funded and ready to go—Ford has begun to pick at this city, pulling the ends of what he deems to be small, useless threads. The thing about the city, though, is that what may seem like small, expendable threads turn out to be woven and connected to so many other things, that when you tug on them hard enough something you didn’t expect begins to unravel too.

The greatest mistake of this administration, and the one that will leave the most lasting legacy of harm, is the simplistic view of the city as something to be managed and not something to be built, or fed, or nurtured. The view that aspirational projects are elitist and thus not worthy of consideration. The view that public spaces suck money and offer nothing back. The view that if we just squeeze our public services tight enough a few pennies will pop out.

We already have a city manager—his name is Joseph Pennachetti. What we need is a leader.

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