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Bridge Beat

Nov 13, 2013

Make No Small Plans – Big GTA Planning Moves

Last Friday, in honour of World Town Planning Day, the Canadian Urban Institute hosted a session on Big Planning Moves. The timing could not be better. We all need a reminder these days that there is a lot to be proud of in Toronto. I had the honour of moderating four deeply knowledgeable panelists, who discussed one big move each. Here they are:

  • The Toronto Regional Conservation Authority and Hurricane Hazel – Brian Denney of the TRCA spoke about the origins of regional watershed planning and the broad mandate for TRCA it has led to;
  • Toronto’s 45 foot height by- law – Robert Glover of Bousfields spoke about the impact of the 45 foot by law and how it has, in effect adapted to the pressures of high rise destiny,  – the tower on a midrise podium.
  •  The St Lawrence Neighbourhood – My friend Mark Guslits – with whom I worked at Toronto Community Housing – discussed the political and social forces that need to come together to create new forms of housing. He pointed to thrust and parry of political discourse among the likes of David Crombie, John Sewell and Jane Jacobs.
  •  The City of Mississauga – John Farrow, the animated planner and architect of that City’s official plan discussed the origins to the City of Mississauga.

I was struck by the important policy underpinnings of all four of these successful long term actions. Behind each of these are careful studies and someone or a group of people with the courage, conviction and time to make them a reality.

What’s The Next Big Move ?

When the panelists were done, the questions rolled in. There are two I wanted to highlight. First, what’s the next big move? Here’s a summary of the responses:

  • Brian pointed to the conversion of waste to energy as a bold move worth exploring.
  • Mark pointed out that most of the big moves originate in the public sector  – so he suggested we find ways to encourage public sector planners to be let their bold ideas come out. (Mark and I both know there are some brilliant planners at the City, but it’s not easy even for them to move the bold ideas forward).
  • Robert pointed to the need to have an inclusive vision for the public realm as a necessary ingredient to adapt mid-rise urbanism while accommodating the demand for tall buildings.
  • Finally, John Farrow (who had the longest time to think about it) had three suggestions: We should be more aspirational; we need to attract world level institutions and we need a new government structure – even referring to Toronto as a potential City-state (!)

When a subsequent questioner asked how to make these happen, the panel quipped – don’t call them “Big Moves”. Its advice to be heeded. 

The OMB – B for Bold or Boring?

Second, the panel was asked about the role of the OMB. Does it help or hinder boldness in City building? Does it marginalize the very local engagement that has previously worked for Toronto? Should we keep it? The panel was in surprising agreement given that there is an active OMB should-it-stay-or-should-it go debate raging: We need it. The main point was that the board allows planning evidence and considerations to be the final arbiter, thus empowering planners over politicians. While admittedly undemocratic, the OMB, the panel says, usually gets it right. The debate is lively in public and will continue to be.

The Long Term Matters

We are presently obsessed with the short term. Right now, the City waits for the next revelation from City Hall. The session reminds us all that the long term matters. It’s important to look forward 20, 30, 40 years and plan for what is coming. These bold moves are proud moments for Toronto. Even if you don’t like them (and not everyone in our world loves the TRCA every day!), they represent collective choices that have contributed to the City we have today.

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