Project clean sweep

By Stig Harvor –

Mayor David Miller’s famous election campaign symbol of a broom has become a focus of his priorities in his first 3-year term in office. The broom symbolized a clean out of dubious backdoor practices and deals at city hall. The broom also signified a cleanup of the city’s public realm, like streets and parks. This notion of rejuvenation and renewal has now flowered into an ongoing initiative for a “Clean and Beautiful City.”

Miller’s initiative will deal with numerous issues excluding the large-scale creation of new communities, as along our waterfront. The idea is to tackle a host of issues that in small and large ways have an impact on our enjoyment of our urban environment. The help and cooperation of citizens and the private sector in this work are essential.

The “beautiful” part of Miller’s plan has led to the recent formation of what is called a “Roundtable on the Beautiful City.” The roundtable is to advise city council through its standing committees on matters that deserve attention and action to achieve improvements to our daily lives as citizens. It is a vast subject.

The roundtable, chaired by Councilor Sandra Bussin, comprises four councilors and 20 accomplished citizens of diverse backgrounds and skills. At the inaugural public meeting on Nov. 29 at city hall, member were asked for their particular concerns. Theatre impresario David Mirvish interestingly received the most applause when he emphasized we cannot have a clean and beautiful city until we provide supportive and affordable housing for our homeless.

City staff has already proposed an ambitious 3-year program of five parts: SWEEP IT – DESIGN IT – GROW IT – BUILD IT – CELEBRATE IT. The “sweep it” refers to the clean city. The “design, grow, build, celebrate it” refers to the beautiful city.

The plan covers roughly 48 initiatives, 13 of which are new. A 3-year operating budget of $13.8 million and a capital budget of $8.6 million have yet to be approved as part of the 2005 city budget. This is in addition to regular budgets of city departments.

The additional money is small potatoes in a city of 2.5 million people. It is only a start in the right direction for a city still in the throes of the crippling effects of bad policies forcibly imposed by the previous provincial government.

A fleeting-but-visible success has already been achieved for the “clean city.” Last April over 44,000 persons, school children among them, participated energetically in “The 20-minute Makeover,” a cleanup of public places. Despite its short duration, it drew attention to what we as individuals can contribute in our daily lives.

The city’s litter audit this July found a 16% reduction on city streets over the past two years. It shows slow progress toward the goal of a 50% reduction over five years. The planned repeat of “The 20-minute Makeover” next April will be helpful.

What the “sweep it” campaign still ignores, however, is the scourge of small, round, dark spots on heavily travelled sidewalks. They are discarded chewing gum. The only time we pay attention to them is when they annoyingly stick to the soles of our shoes.

Spitting in public is properly frowned upon. So are dog poops. Both are public health hazards. Yet discarded chewing gum is close to the equivalent of spitting. Is there no efficient way to remove chewing gum?

Issues abound for the “beautiful city” part. The Toronto Society of Architects just held a well-attended meeting inviting anyone to deliver a rant on any subject troubling him or her about our present city.

One ranter deplored the lack of coordination among the seemingly endless multitude of city departments, agencies, boards, commissions, utilities and others involved in street design. To help remedy the clutter of street furniture and advertising, a program similar to Vancouver, Chicago and Paris will now be instituted through a request for proposals. It is a beginning.

Our city has an urban design section in the planning department. It tries to see streets as a visual and efficient whole, not just a hodgepodge assemblage of unrelated, individual parts. It issues design guidelines for elements that make up a street. But it lacks any power of enforcement. Nor does it have sufficient operating money.

In pre-amalgamation Toronto, the urban design section had a budget of $3.7 million. Today in the much larger megacity, its budget has been reduced by 66% to $1.2 million.

Another victim has been the Civic Improvement Program which upgrades streets to make them more pedestrian friendly, as with crosswalks, decorative pavers, trees and lights. The program’s current budget of $1.5 million compares with the $6 million in the former City of Toronto. (Chicago spends $20 million.)

So much for the benefits our city was promised by amalgamation seven years ago!

City staff have proposed a number of major and long-lasting architectural initiatives. For next year, a competition will be held for the improvement of Nathan Phillips Square in front of our city hall. It has become cluttered over the years and is ill suited for some of the activities that take place there. A fresh look may help.

To raise public awareness, understanding and enjoyment of our built environment, a concentration of activities next May are planned. A Festival of Architecture and Design can combine the very successful Doors Open program with a gala event to celebrate the award of the city’s architecture and urban design prizes.

A significant recommendation is to establish design review panels. This could raise the quality of design of the many physical elements that form our urban environment. The panels would become part of the city’s approval process and provide advice to the mayor and council on specific development projects. The appointed members of the panels would be design professionals of various disciplines.

Such panels exist in Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa. Toronto has been held back by the Ontario Planning Act, which specifically forbids judgement on architectural features of buildings. Yet Ottawa was granted this right as early as 1952 in the City of Ottawa Act. Toronto could request the same privilege in its current negotiations with the provincial government for a new Toronto Act.

In order to demand high quality in private developments, our city must lead in its own building and urban projects. In the past, the city has already produced first-rate projects. These include the very urban park along Cumberland St in Yorkville, the elegant Humber River pedestrian-bicycle bridge and, of course, both our old and new city halls.

Citizens will also be able to participate in the new initiatives. Design charrettes for specific areas will be promoted. Charrettes bring together stakeholders, such as owners with their consultants, city staff, business and community representatives and interested citizens. Charrettes are increasingly becoming a useful tool for discussing and hopefully solving the many, various and complicated issues raised by new developments.

Another means of public input is participating in the elaboration of urban design guidelines for specific districts in the city. The guidelines are prepared by the city planning department and act as a framework for controlling new developments.

Finally, it is worth mentioning among the initiatives an emphasis on the retention, maintenance and extension of the wonderful canopy of trees which is such a glory of Toronto neighbourhoods. Special care is increasingly taken today in the design for trees that have to fight adverse conditions, particularly in exposed locations along streets in high-density areas.

Mayor Miller’s bold Clean and Beautiful City initiative requires a shift in thinking of the numerous players involved in creating our city and its urban environment. They must all examine how their everyday decisions can contribute to the creation of a beautiful city.

It is a new, painstaking and difficult task. It requires sustained effort. Will it be successful? If it is, the result can be a rewarding one. Toronto may yet again, as it was some 15-20 years ago, be judged the best, large North American city in which to live.

Update on the 40 The Esplanade Project

Approval of this controversial high-rise project was deferred at the Dec. 2 city council meeting to council’s next meeting Feb. 1, 2005, on the recommendation of Coun. Pam McConnell.

Meanwhile, city staff will meet with the developer to examine the feasibility of eliminating above-ground parking and of changes to the 5-storey podium to provide appropriate facing conditions for neighbouring buildings.