On Saturday in the Toronto Star’s Ideas section I wrote an article proposing an “Urban Centre” be established here in Toronto. “Does Toronto need an Urban Centre?” is the theme of tomorrow night’s Toronto the Good party in the Distillery District. ERA Architects, our co-hosts of the party, are the prime movers behind this idea, and we hope the party will generate excitement around this idea and begin to form a constituency for an Urban Centre in our city. Below is an expanded version of the article, with more examples of Urban Centres in other cities.
Two months ago Ballenford Books closed after 29 years in business as Toronto’s only architectural bookstore. While it is always sad to lose an independent bookstore, Toronto was doubly hit because Ballenford dedicated a portion of its small Mirvish Village retail space to regular, Toronto-focused architectural and photographic exhibitions. Even when not shopping for a particular book, you knew you could pop into the store and see something exciting up on the walls — something that might generate thoughts about city life and city building in Toronto.
With Ballenford gone, the city has lost a small version of an important civic institution that other cities enjoy: an “urban centre.” An urban centre is a place where the city itself is the focus: One day you might see something that makes you angry, the next you might fall a little more in love with the metropolis. It’s a place where you can go to see what’s happening in the city, where you can take the pulse of current developments and participate in public conversations. A resource centre for the general public to get information and find its place in city development, it’s also a place for policy wonks, architects, planners and students who want and need to have deeper discussions about city development.
Apart from the small but dedicated role Ballenford played in Toronto, other institutions serve as small urban centres at times. The Toronto Archives on Spadina Rd. has a large exhibition hall that runs excellent year-long exhibitions where its deep collection is mined, curated, and made public. On the west side, recently moving into their new Bloor and Lansdowne location, the Toronto Free Gallery routinely shows critical, Toronto-based artwork that looks at urban issues. Though devoted to all design fields, the Design Exchange holds urban-themed charettes and events periodically. Even the giant panorama model of central Toronto in the lobby of City Hall is a popular example of how much latent need there is for an urban centre in Toronto. Linger there for a while and you’ll see a steady stream of people looking and pointing at it: It’s one of the few places in Toronto where strangers regularly speak to each other, so powerful is this simple exhibit. Even without any interpretation, the city itself can hold people’s attention.
Some of the world’s great cities have urban centres that have become as important civic and cultural attractions as their traditional museums and landmarks are. The Chicago Architecture Foundation runs more than 7,800 tours of that city each year, including the exceptional riverboat tours of its famous buildings and development history. The foundation grew out of a fear in the 1950s and 1960s that Chicago was losing some of it’s great architectural legacy to the wrecking ball, a sentiment Torontonians are familiar with.
Over 125,000 people a year either take a tour or pass through their exhibition space on Michigan Avenue, and the foundation tours stand out from standard tourist fare because they don’t gloss over the city — you see the bad and the beautiful together. It is, if such a thing exists, intelligent tourism. Similarly, in Washington, D.C. the National Building Museum welcomes over 400,000 visitors a year for exhibitions like “Me, Myself and Infrastructure.” Over in Turin, Italy, the Officina Citta’ Torino will be housed in a renovated historic train station.
Since 1988, visitors and residents of Paris have been able to visit the Pavillon de L’Arsenal, a “centre for information, documentation and exhibition for urban planning.” Founded by the French national government, it provides a space where Parisian architecture and urban planning can be celebrated and critiqued, documentation distributed and where current projects that will affect the day to day life of residents can be looked at and discussed in person. More than 200,000 people visit it each year.
In San Francisco, an ambitious $14 million Urban Centre is under construction, a project of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). SPUR was founded in 1959 to fight for the revitalization of San Francisco and has become an independent urban think tank with over 3000 members. Once open, SPUR’s four storey Urban Centre will be the place to go to in San Francisco for urban resources and will include an urban affairs library and two floors of gallery and reception space.
Gabriel Metcalf, SPUR’s Executive Director, has said the Urban Centre will be “a new tool to really involve the public in understanding and participating in the future of the city through the shared experience that only occurs with the public working side-by-side in a non-adversarial setting.”
For many people, the planning process is an intimidating labyrinth of building codes, meetings and stakeholders. Neighbourhood residents often express dismay at (bad) new buildings and wonder “how did that get here?” Cynicism, and the clichéd sentiment that “you can’t fight city hall” keep many from even thinking about getting involved. As Metcalf points out, an Urban Centre can be a bridge between professionals, the general public and city hall.
Toronto is particularly well suited for an urban centre. Despite the abundance of cynicism here, this city has a long and robust history of civic activism and engagement. A large part of our civic mythology revolves around Jane Jacobs’ move here from New York City in the 1960s and the related halt of the Spadina Expressway project. Victories like this gave resident associations and ad hoc groups the confidence needed to mount similar battles over the past 40 years.
Yet so many of these struggles become amplified, polarized and shrill because debate only occurs in later stages of development, at contentious meetings or at the dreaded Ontario Municipal Board. What if there was a place for all parties to meet in advance to talk about what’s coming and debate what is best for the city before all sides are too entrenched. Toronto could be a YIMBY city (“Yes in my backyard” — to borrow the Active 18 neighbourhood group’s “intelligent development” term) instead of a NIMBY one.
City-building debates are happening all over Toronto, in newspapers, on blogs, in community meetings and on sidewalks. It’s healthy, but it’s decentralized, and the institutions listed above that are doing good urban work also have other mandates to serve. An urban centre could focus all this thought and energy in one place.
For instance, there is currently a lot of excitement about waterfront development that will finally start happening this year after years of hearsay and rumour. And though we’ve perhaps seen an architectural rendering on a website or watched footages of a press conference, it’s hard to get handle on how this development will change a massive part of the city.
High up in their 13th floor offices on Queens Quay, Waterfront Toronto has two wonderful waterfront models — almost as impressive as the City Hall panorama — that instantly let people visualize what the mysterious “West Donlands” and “East Bayfront” developments will look like. Yet unless one has reason to go there or a fetish for touring somewhat sterile corporate settings, very few people will ever see them. Toronto’s Urban Centre could play host to a two or three-week run of these models, complete with public discussions and other events.
An Urban Centre wouldn’t just be for Torontonians. Cities have become tourist attractions themselves. Some people go to London or New York to see a show, but a whole lot of other folks go just to see the city, to suck it all in and experience what that city means: to simply be there. Toronto is almost on that list of cities that can be visited for their own sake, but has had a perpetual problem of being difficult to market — in fact, Toronto tourism officials fired yet another volley last week to garner some international excitement.
Toronto is not easily summed up in sound bites and sexy photographs — it’s a new city and it’s constantly changing and figuring itself out — but visitors routinely rave about our street life, the kind of audacious buildings going up here and a range of other subtle things that Toronto has that are hard to articulate in just a few words. An Urban Centre could become the first stop on a curious visitor’s Toronto itinerary, where they can grasp Toronto’s phenomenal urban growth and figure out what to go out and see. There is much work to be done in Toronto, but our particularly Canadian way of city building and living might be our greatest hidden asset: certainly worth studying, maybe even exporting.
When these ideas, events, resources and discussions are collected in one place, Torontonians may begin to see how exciting this city is and stop comparing ourselves, disparagingly, to other cities. It won’t always be beautiful or harmonious, but democracy never is, and with it’s own Urban Centre Toronto could have another reason to be proud of itself.
New London Architecture
Pavillon de L’Arsenal, Paris
Photo by Sam Javanrouh.