Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

The big urban squeeze is on


Editorial “Comment” from the January-February 2016 print edition, page 4.

Hundreds of people came out on a cold night in January to hear plans for changing the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto (see p. 8). It was mostly the grey-hair crowd, which is strange since it is young people who predominate in the host of new condo towers near the roadway in question. Certainly there were plenty of young 20-somethings packed on the subway coming downtown that night. Perhaps they were all travelling from one place of precarious part-time employment to another, or they just wanted to get home to their tiny units, some as small as 500 square feet.
Squashing and squeezing into tight spaces is a trend these days, not just for people (you should see how small my new office cubicle is), but also for buildings and infrastructure. In this issue both the Fort York Visitor Centre (p. 14) and the Copeland Transformer Station (p. 19) sit edge-by-edge to the Gardiner. They are wedged in beside the great monolith that carries 120,000 to 200,000 vehicles across the city every day.
The meeting in January was just one of scores that the city has held over the last nine years about what to do with the decaying Gardiner. The debate is broadly characterized as downtowners who see the expressway as an eyesore vs. commuters who want a fast expressway downtown.
What was gratifying about the meeting to present the new “hybrid option” was that a consulting engineer led most of the presentation.
It’s unusual for an engineer to be front and centre in large public meetings, but Don McKinnon of Dillon Consulting did a fine job of explaining the different options in terms that everyone could understand. Then, during the question and answer period he showed to what lengths engineers go to work out every technical detail. The other panelists listened in awe, for example, when he readily responded to a question from the audience about traffic flows. Without losing a beat he gave a detailed explanation of how the different road curvatures, ramp locations, etc. of  three different scenarios  would affect traffic weaving and safety.
The Gardiner, like the Ville-Marie Expressway in Montreal, is one of the audacious urban arteries that were built in the 1960s when the car ruled supreme and when confidence in engineers was high. This period after World War II has been referred to as the “Golden Age” of engineering in Canada.
Those days are gone. No more can we build as if everything were a blank slate. Buildings and infrastructure today have to fit into their context and do the least environmental damage. The “reduce” and “reuse” mantras of sustainability dictate that developments be condensed, buried, layered and squeezed in.
Packing buildings into dense urban sites is exceedingly complex. From engineers it requires hard skills of calculation and analysis. It also requires skills of communication, persuasiveness and respectfulness for dealing with the public’s concerns. The engineers of today who excel at these skills are just as impressive as those who built during the era of grand projects 60 years ago.