Posted by: energyblogwalter | November 21, 2009

Designing Transit Cities Symposium Reaction

I attended the Designing Transit Cities Symposium presented by the City of Toronto and the Canadian Urban Institute over the last two days, Thur Nov 19 and Fri the 20th.  I’ll probably talk a lot about this over a while, but I’ll share some examples for now.

The first day was quite well done, the opening panel with Mayer Miller providing opening remarks, with Transit his obvious love.  His call for keeping your elected officials accountable seemed odd though, since he can’t fight for the city anymore and I suppose was a shot at any mayoral candidate to continue his interests.

His presentation of the Transit City was quite excellent and I wish it was on Youtube to share.  The 122km of new LRTs (light rain transit) and why streetcars are better than subways.  Really, it comes down to money.  1/3 to 1/5 of the cost of a subway means many more streetcar lines.  With meager government funding committments this is the best bang for our buck.  Quite a compelling vision as well since it bridges the 13 impoverished communities also into the loop of the city and could mean a revolution in liveability for the city.

The followup panel was quite engaging and the two USA presentors showed what urban hell looks like and why transit and how transit can improve.  Both were quick to point out that Toronto has much to be thankful for and that we are still ahead of many cities in the USA.  As well, a description of San Fransciso’s as comparable to Toronto in terms of size but with multiple owned transit systems showed a strenght in our system not well known.   I’ll write up my notes about this later.  The first day, indeed quite good.

Second day was a 3 hours session in one of three topic areas.  I attended a Make It Happen event, what was supposed to be the business planning process for developments.  While this was largely correct, it had for me an oddly unsettling effect and overall pointlessness.

Planners and Developers are smart people, but they don’t seem to know that they are servicing people.  One out of four developers on the panel discussion was quite arrogant and disparaged on rate payer associations that fight developments.  He showed a dreary glass company building on one side and zero buildings on the other.  I guess the possibility that maybe the people didn’t want more faceless tripe was totally  lost on him.   He blamed the difference in city councillors holding back development, but if that’s what happened, then that councillor should have got an award.  Overall though this presentation was well done.  And I didn’t think about it more.

Except that the next day while talking to a friend about it, it turns out that it’s a complete social disaster.  The mall and building may be fine, but its connection to the community totally failed.

Don Mills Centre (6 months old):

1) The mall turns out to be plopped down as if from a different universe and has no connection to the community.  In a mixed racial neighbourhood of middle and low rise buildings with lower income people, is now a mall attracting high-scale shoppers with their BMW’s and Mercedes parking.  Thus nobody who lives there goes to the mall, and nobody who goes to the mall lives there.  To expensive and out of place.  A study in racial contrast.

2) All kinds of cycling rings but never a cycle locked up.  No connection to the community modality types.

3) High-school kids who would hang out, now have no where to go and no protection from the elements with the new store-to-store design.  With now zero local amenities some small percentage may consider gangs? They are certainly not to be thankful facing inequity everyday.

Surprisingly the day before where this project is given a goldstar from planners turns out to be a total lie and evidence of the total disconnect of what planners do, and what they influence into a community.

This was a lost opportunity.

a) Connect the community together with mixed mall tenants of varying price like a co-op housing, or to add grocery etc not just Shi-Shi tenants.  Reduce parking and build the mall close to the street, thus connecting the street to the mall.

b) Allow kids to hang out and/or provide some type of local amenity to the families there.  Make it a destination worth caring about that is not fearful from residents or tenants.

c) Build geothermal into the building so that in 7 years the building has reduced need for external energy and thus keeping rents affordable. (Every developer mentioned “sustainability” in their presentations but had zero examples or showed no knowledge of it)

Overall I felt the event was quite good, but after an external analysis  I see now that planners are not implementers, and know nothing of the impacts they create in our communities.  Worse, as a result some communities like around Don Mills Centre will now suffer for it.

We need a new vision.

Many planners are not like this developer, and do not share his vision as I found out after the talk.  There are many good projects out there, but to give praise where praise is not due, does not give oneself confidence and only undermines it further.

This makes my need to be useful and going back to school more stark than it needs to be.  I was sad to experience that change cannot happen and that so many otherwise talented people are basically wasting our time and money.

I’ll followup with some positive ideas later.  I just wanted to separate this from my mind before going into the new ideas I have from this symposium.  Seeing so many people proud of transit and their cities was quite fun and I’ll look for this again in the future.


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