As an undergraduate I took a course in the history of western architecture which included studying how cities were formed. We reviewed the superbly rational, orthogonal plans of Ancient Greek and Roman cities and compared them with the higgledy-piggledy way that towns evolved in medieval Europe. A city like Athens or Miletus had a beautiful order; it was drawn up according to a plan. A city like York or Bruges grew organically. So the streets might radiate out from a cathedral and market square, then wind around in squiggly ways, following paths that met the immediate needs of the people who lived and worked in those harsh, threadbare times.
Today, listening to planners struggling to sort out the transportation and development needs of the Greater Toronto Area, I recall those contrasting city types. North American cities were drawn up largely in the rational, orthogonal model that is so congenial to the organizing mind of engineers.
But life today is messy. First, engineers working in urban cores have to weave their structures into a dense fabric of existing infrastructure. See, for example, the extraordinary work being done below Union Station by NORR in Toronto’s downtown core (page 16).
Second, in the big planning picture we see that North American cities that were planned on a Modernist, rational plan are now evolving organically and sporadically. Satellite nodes have sprouted up in outlying and suburban areas, mostly following expressways. These nodes are growing fast, which means finding ways to connect them with public transit that actually works — that is located where people need it and will use it — is imperative.
But it’s complicated. A planner responsible for one of the myriad transit proposals in Toronto spoke in February to the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Iain Dobson is studying where the vast office developments expected in the GTA over the next 30 years should occur in order to sustain new transit routes. He argues that urban planning and economic policies need to be put in place to encourage development along transit lines. But even he admits this isn’t a foolproof remedy. Sometimes, for example, when a transit line is announced, property values along it start rising to the point where it’s not feasible for developers to actually build. A suggestion that you give tax relief for properties along the transit lines may not work, as private land owners are often happy to simply raise their rates to match those of the surrounding properties. They can reap the difference as profit and don’t bother to develop more space.
Studies Dobson has done of new transit built in 18 cities outside North America found that the only lines paying their way are those that connect areas that are already developed – they already have the population density to provide enough riders. That’s no solace for nascent cities in Canada where the vast landscape encourages loose and organic development.
But the good news here is that citizens across Canada are engaged like never before in transportation issues. Everyone has a stake, everyone wants new transit built, and consulting engineers are hard at work in this sector. So maybe the answer is just to get on and build, trusting that over time development will accrete around around transit lines, the same as it has been congealing around expressways for the past half-century. Bronwen Parsons
This editorial comment is from the March-April 2015 print issue, page 4.