In Search of the Perfect City

07Oct09

Ten days in Paris were something of an awakening, recently. I wanted to take a photo every minute until I was more used to the atmosphere of the city, and I finally recognized why — Paris is a city that feels like it’s there for people, not the other way around. You can stand almost anywhere and look around to spot something that indicates this: a fountain, a work of art, a bench, a public square.Paris

It’s the difference between a livable city, and having to step outside your door every day to brace yourself and get where you need to go, something I feel people are doing in greater and greater numbers in Toronto. At Yonge and Bloor, a planned 80-storey building will doubtless improve one corner of the city at the street level, but will also add even more strain to an increasingly unpleasant subway system built in the fifties and rarely improved or modified since. Underneath a sketch posted online, one resigned, anonymous poster says “It looks like a giant windshield scraper.” At the same time, I can’t think of anyone that loves Yonge / Dundas square. At most, they’ll admit it’s an improvement on the jeans stores that occupied that corner. More often, I hear it compared to a parking lot — there’s no art, and no notable green in it.

Paris isn’t perfect. Over lunch with a local, I was told the troubles connected to having 6 and 7 storey buildings include a high cost to downtown living, as well as massive urban sprawl around the city. It’s very difficult to get anything new and tall built in Paris, with good reason. But Toronto has the opposite problem. I live in an area of 2-storey buildings where a completely incongrous giant condo is going up, because we’re on a major intersection and near the subway. Surely Toronto can manage more consideration before stamping neighbourhoods with skyscraper condos that rewrite the identity of a particular part of town. The alternative is to build relentlessly and finally stop to recognize it really isn’t a city for people, or that we’re some kind of second-rate New York. Worse, Toronto could model itself after New York just in time to recognize these kinds of buildings simply aren’t sustainable any longer. These are changing times, after all, and as Chris Wood writes for The Walrus, “We have almost reached the hard bottom of our treasure chest of resources.”

Toronto can have an 80-storey condo at Yonge and Bloor, and it can have the 70-storey Trump International Hotel and Tower, under the assumption everyone will want to see our giant windshield scraper. And it can have whatever else is in the works right now. I’m not operating under the illusion I’ll stop any of these things. But let’s not forget that the pockets of the city people love — like Kensington Market or the Annex — aren’t loved because of any kind of glass edifice. Quite the opposite — they’re pockets of the city that resonate with something smaller and more manageable, something human and warmer, something the eye can manage to take in. And they play an important role in the identity of the city, and tourism. And in every part of the city, developers need to remember to throw a few crumbs in the direction of breathable spaces, even if brief ones, because having a whole network of them is what makes people flock to a city like Paris.

I’ve lived in Toronto most of my life. It has great potential, and certainly more diversity than any city I’ve ever visited. In a generation or two, I honestly think it could be among the most remarkable cities in the world. But it will require more careful scrutiny in building an identity, instead of rushing headlong into a manufactured one, imposed from above.

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One Response to “In Search of the Perfect City”

  1. 1 Matthias

    I love it Alex – you start writing about Paris, but end up writing mostly about the potential of Toronto, a city you obviously care very much about. Thanks.


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