Transformative Urbanism and the Never-Finished City...
In Contemporary Urban Design, the disciplinary boundaries of planners, architects and landscape architects have effectively been subsumed within a much larger urban design dynamic with fluid boundaries and shared leadership.
The Port Lands Estuary proposal, created in 2007 by our two firms, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), based in Brooklyn, and Greenberg Consultants, Inc., based in Toronto, and an international team of engineers, ecologists, architects and economic advisors, is one example of this trend. In our experience, this broad fusion of different kinds of expertise and knowledge, based on an expanded perception of urban context as an interrelated ecology, is not compromising but enabling.
Repositioning of Natural Systems
The Lower Don Lands Project, which evolved from the Port Lands Estuary project, lays out a plan for Toronto to "colonize" 114 hectares of its formerly industrial Port Lands as a model of sustainable urbanism. The proposal stands out among similar post-industrial renewal projects by virtue of its size, scope, complexity and the degree to which it proposes a comprehensive, contextually dynamic transformation of the site. Recognizing that all of the site's challenges and opportunities were deeply interrelated, the team proposed a radical repositioning of natural systems and attendant landscapes, transportation networks and urban environments, with the reconfigured river and the need for flood protection as the engine of transformative urbanism.
The project is located on the former site of the Ashbridges Marsh, once the largest wetland on the Great Lakes, created by the Lower Don River as it emptied into Lake Ontario. Existing conditions include a high percentage of impermeable surface, a flood-prone river diverted into a limestone canal, and transportation networks that create a barrier between the Port Lands and the remainder of the city. Devoid of natural features, public infrastructure and neighbourhood amenities, transformative improvements are unlikely to occur through piecemeal urban growth.
With encouragement from decades of public advocacy on behalf of the ecological health of the river, and a city-council appointed Task Force to Bring Back the Don, Waterfront Toronto sought to dramatically reconfigure the Port Lands. In 2007, they held a six-week competition, which was won by our team. As a public redevelopment agency formed by the federal, provincial and municipal governments, Waterfront Toronto laid the groundwork for this project to be more than a single-purpose infrastructural solution to flooding. If flood protection for the city of Toronto were the only priority for the project, a solution could be reached simply by depopulating the affected area or by creating another hard-lined channel.
Instead, Waterfront Toronto asked for proposals that envisioned a new celebrated presence for the mouth of the Don River, and a coordinated interaction between river and city that could be experiential as well as functional. The Lower Don Lands would be used not only to protect Toronto's citizens from flooding, but also to form connections between new and existing neighbourhoods and parks, to strike a more environmentally beneficial balance between natural conditions and human settlement, and to create a destination that would be both an urban and natural amenity for the city.
The Synthesizing Element
The big-picture thinking provided by the client and the integrated multidisciplinary design team that we assembled in response, enabled this project to address urbanization and naturalization with equal degrees of intensity. The heart of the design makes the mouth of the Don River the centrepiece of the Lower Don Lands neighbourhood, releasing the river "where it wants to be," at the shore of Lake Ontario. This approach to city building engages the many systems of the city (from ecology, to infrastructure, to social networks and how we live) in a holistic and interactive manner, with the landscape as a synthesizing element.
Our team had an underlying philosophy that saw the landscape's potential strength as the engine for urban transformation, but this was only possible when landscape excellence was supported by creativity and rigor in all aspects of the plan. Our team's methodologies and working style was non-hierarchical, iterative rather than linear, and supported by an embrace of communications technology, which permitted rapid information sharing. Many complex variables were addressed by related initiatives layered into the work of different team members.
Our plan takes as its starting point a branching off of the main flow of the river away from the Keating Channel into a naturalized mouth. This provides the flood protection needed for development, and allows infrastructure to emerge as a catalyst for further urban growth. As the primary outlet, the naturalized river mouth creates a generous recreational landscape, and dramatically increases the area available for parkfront and waterfront development. On top of the river system and urban zones are layered major and minor road networks sized in relation to the population and employment targets for the specific neighbourhoods. The neighbourhoods and circulation are coordinated to allow for high population density even with limited road networks by integrating a comprehensive bicycle lane system as well as transit lines with stops of no more than a five-minute walk from anywhere in the project boundary.
Integration And Layering
The urban design is further shaped to accommodate the reuse of existing heritage structures, such as the Keating Channel, as neighbourhood centres, and to coordinate the location and type of community facilities with open space programming of the adjacent river and channel parks. Stormwater management also becomes an integrated element in which the clean water from neighbourhood green roofs is used to flush street trees of salts and to provide a clean water source for wetland creation.
The DNA of a Vibrant City
Within this unique setting, our tearn proposed the sequential development of distinct neighbourhoods, each with the complete DNA of a vibrant city: a mix of the life-cycle housing, commercial, cultural and work spaces, schools, daycare, community centres, public realms, parkland, and access to water. The urban design is part of an overall vision which places priority on public spaces. With this in mind, program and massing were studied so that sunlight is assured on major public spaces and floor plates are considered to maximize the ability of the buildings to depend on natural light and heat gain, allowing for a district energy system that will minimize energy consumption over time. Within each neighbourhood, different scales of landscape provide for social interaction on broad tree lined sidewalks, in cafes, in the squares, and on play fields tucked in throughout the riverfront parks.
A successful city is an amalgamation of inputs from many individuals and cannot necessarily be designed in advance. Nonetheless, detailed design integration and big-picture thinking is initially necessary in order to craft planning legislation with enough flexibility to implement comprehensive improvements. Therefore, the Lower Don Lands plan is broad in its vision as a framework with the capacity to evolve, but also very specific in its attention to the quality of the public realm. For instance, by mandating built-form that meets stringent environmental standards, the plan will ensure a green civic-minded architecture in keeping with the broad environmental and sustainability goals adopted by Waterfront Toronto and the City.
Cities in Transition
Major world cities such as Toronto are in transition. Perhaps more rapidly than we realize, we are witnessing the force majeure dissolution of the false dichotomy,
both professional and conceptual, that divided the city from the natural world. Like many powerful and timely impulses, this reconciliation has had many sources: scientific, cultural and aesthetic. It is a simultaneous realization motivated by a sense of crisis as the scientific community calls attention to the appalling degradation, dangerous consequences and undeniable fragility of human life on the planet.
Once we accept cities as complex, multi generational and inherently unfinished artifacts of human creation, we are forced to confront our limitations as designers operating at one point in time. Overly prescriptive templates do not hold up well given the reality that market forces, changing programs and new needs come into play. What are needed instead are flexible frameworks that guide innovation, hybridization, organic growth, change and surprise. While this shift is challenging to the kind of risk-averse planning which aspires to an illusionary level of end state predictability, its inherent pragmatism has the potential to liberate design and harness many levels of creativity and initiative.
The Port Lands Estuary proposal heralds a new approach to orchestrating the relationship between the urban and the natural. The plan is now the official framework for introducing urban development, native ecologies, and public infrastructure to the Port Lands, a process that will unfold over the course of many years.
Toronto's City Council approved the plan's several closely related initiatives, including a zoning bylaw, in 2010, laying the groundwork for further design and implementation. After municipal elections, an attempt was made to radically reshape the direction of the project with a scheme that would have called for a mega-mall, an upscale marina, a Ferris wheel theme park and a greatly diminished area of parkland. The public pushed back in a widespread defense of the integrity of the plan and, with some technical adjustments, the plan remains intact.
Between the gra55-roots involvement of the public, the support of Waterfront Toronto, and the highly integrated professional collaboration of MVVA, Greenberg Consultants Inc., and our team, the Port Lands Estuary/ Lower Don Lands proposal is a challenge to the idea that positive urban transformation is contained within the vision of one discipline or the legacy of one single administration. The success of our project will rest on its execution and on the degree to which creativity, professional rigor, governmental support and interdisciplinary collaboration continue to be the hallmarks of its process through implementation. Already, this project opens the door for a new type of neighbourhood for Toronto, one that is designed to interact with the river and the lake in a dynamic and balanced relationship - an urban estuary.