Thursday, September 23, 2004

Places to Grow wraps up

Friday was the deadline for comments on the province's Places to Grow discussion paper intended to limit sprawl across the GTA. And true to form, I got mine in just under the wire!

On Saturday, the Star published an article outlining the response from the Neptis Foundation, and their response is actually somewhat similar to mine. The points I raised in my letter response:

  • Urban thinkers, politicians, and the public have all been saying for years that the GTA is sprawling out of control and something needs to be done. There have been plenty of well-intentioned reports issued over that time, all promising to end sprawl and better manage the GTA's growth, yet virtually everything being built in 905 today still requires a car. The government needs to show how this time, the plan will actually be implemented.

  • The number of identified centres needs to be increased; there need to be different categories of "centre" (as I mentioned here, the report essentially considers downtown Oakville at the same level as downtown Toronto); and the report should also consider including major corridors (e.g., Hurontario Street, one of the few Mississauga Transit routes that is actually reasonably profitable).

  • The biggest complaint seems to be that "not everyone wants to live in a high-rise" (which I interpret as, "I don't want to live next to a high-rise"). Yet the old part of the city of Toronto illustrates that increased density doesn't mean a ghetto of high-rises: it means a mix of smaller lots, townhomes, and duplexes; three- and four-storey walk-up apartment and condo buildings (which, as Oakville's Oak Park illustrates, can even blend in well in a suburban neighbourhood); and, most of all, a major overhaul of how commercial properties develop.

This last point is the most important. Suburban planners go to great pains to make their neighbourhoods "walkable" by concentrating on street layout (at least a modified grid pattern), providing sidewalks, and installing traffic calming measures. Yet they entirely ignore the biggest issue: people won't walk if there's nothing to walk to. I cited Cornell in my letter as a rare 905 neighbourhood that actually includes a small-scale commercial component within it, but even that appears to do little: the commercial facilities don't have enough everyday facilities (grocery stores, drug stores, etc.) and residents instead still have to rely on their cars to get to the superstores. I find it interesting (and aggravating) that the province can publish transit-friendly residential development guidelines (which have managed to increase greenfield residential densities somewhat, and re-introduced the long-lost local street grid pattern), yet non-residential development is basically "untouchable."

(Today there is word that Markham is now having second thoughts about an area zoned for big box retail just north of their old main street business district. My impression: for a municipality that seemed so progressive with encouraging communities like Cornell, I'm surprised and somewhat disappointed that they ever had first thoughts. Amongst the residents that showed up to a planning meeting to roundly denounce the increasing glut of "power shopping" was GO Transit managing director Gary McNeil, who was quoted as saying, "Before me now is a reflection of a 1970s and 1980s mentality, an automobile-oriented mentality. [...] As a resident, I hate what's happening to Markham. It's like a bloody commercial wasteland.")

My previous post was all about optimism for reform in how suburban commercial sites are designed and developed. Today, I present the diametric opposite, the Vaughan Mills megaplex about to open at the 400 and Rutherford Road. Here's an article from the Star; here's the developer's website, complete with plans and diagrams. Feast your eyes on all that parking! I estimate somewhere in the order of 6000 to 7000 spaces. (That ignores all the vacant parcels surrounding it, just waiting to be filled with "pad" buildings with their own supply of parking.) This development almost makes Brampton's Trinity Common look good (no easy feat!). Give them credit: Vaughan Mills (and Trinity Common, for that matter) do actually have mini transit terminals, which is a feature rarely seen in large-scale commercial development these days. But as far as I am concerned, you can throw all the transit service you want down in 905: it will mean little unless there is some reform in commercial development styles.

Monday, September 20, 2004

The rebirth of Don Mills

On a recent trip to Don Mills, I passed an intriguing sign at the Don Mills Centre, saying, "What if Don Mills Centre became more than a mall?" It then provided a web address, one that I am finding quite intriguing.

Don Mills represented a turning point in Toronto development styles back in the 1950's. One of its distinguishing features was the ring road around the Don Mills / Lawrence intersection (the Donway), within which the main community facilities were sited, separated from the single-family homes outside the ring road and the industrial lots to the south. Separation of uses was a key principle.

Some fifty years later, the owners of Don Mills Centre (the shopping plaza in the southwest quadrant of the Donway) are proposing what would have been unthinkable back then: introducing not only office uses, but also residential uses on the Don Mills Centre site. It's a clear attempt to transform the suburban into the urban. Even more promising, it's recognition on the part of a major developer that there's more to commercial development than a Wal-Mart in the middle of a 2000-space parking lot — even better, that that's a poor way to build a city. That introducing residents to the site is actually good for business, for the developers and for the tenants.

It's a stretch to say that this will become the norm for greenfields development in 905-land (although it would be nice, and a welcome change). However, at least reinventing our inner suburbs is a good start, and a good fit with Toronto's new Official Plan.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Toronto street sign, Part II (More Blood)

I originally didn't think it would get much attention other than from sign designers or enthusiasts, but the redesign of the Toronto street sign has been getting plenty of attention lately in the Toronto blogosphere. Let's recap:

  • Original article in the Star ("The signs are a-changin'"), July 11
  • Andrew Spicer notes the transition and above article, August 5
  • My first post on the issue, also August 5
  • Andrew revisits the issue August 16, with a photo that's better than the example in the Star article
  • A Ms. Johnson cartoon by Brett Lamb appears in his new Toronto weblog, Better Living Centre, September 13 (incidentally, I'm glad to see that his blog has recovered from its bout of Phil Collins — my God, that man is a genius [Mr. Lamb, that is, in case there was any confusion!])
  • Finally, Andrew posts another picture today — like a bad case of Phil Collins, the new sign has spread to East York.

(Actually, I suppose you could compare Phil Collins' version of "You Can't Hurry Love" to the new sign design — a poor substitute for the original — although I suppose it's a matter of taste...)

That white-on-blue East York version is interesting not only in itself, but because it provides a hint of what may be to come when the signs make their way to Forest Hill, which has historically had their own white-on-green version of the standard Toronto design. I bet the new ones don't last long up there...

If you're interested in more about Clearview (the font being used on the new signs), here's a couple other links:

  • Here's the website of the developer and distributor of Clearview, Terminal Design. (Note that the website is inaccurate: Clearview is not being used province-wide in Ontario, although there are some jurisdictions other than Toronto that are starting to use it more often.)
  • Here's a study done by a local ergonomics and traffic safety firm, Human Factors North, into font sizes required for street signs — not the regular ones that are the subject of this post, but the white-on-blue oversized ones that are starting to pop up on traffic signal mast arms in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario. That one recommended 8-inch (20-cm) high letters, based somewhat conservatively on older (50-plus) drivers that were specifically instructed to approach the intersection in the wrong lane (i.e., if they had to make a right turn, they were instructed to stay in the lane to the left of the curb lane).

I went out tonight armed with a flashlight and a scale ruler, aiming to measure typical letter heights on both the old and new style signs. The old ones I estimate at 8 cm, or roughly 3 inches. I couldn't find an example of the new ones that was low enough to reach; however, you can get an idea of the height by scaling off Andrew Spicer's picture. (I hope he doesn't mind if I borrow it.)

The stop sign is 60 cm in height, so I'd put the letter height of the "C" and "A" at 12.5 to 13 cm (5 inches, compared to the old signs at 3 inches).

I've done some letter height calculations based on the Ontario Traffic Manual (a set of books outlining sign design principles, amongst other things). Basically you calculate the amount of time required to read the sign, the amount of time required to perceive the message and react to it, and the time required to complete a manoeuvre (change lanes if necessary [not an issue in neighbourhoods], and slow down). Then you calculate how far you will travel in that time. Then you apply a height-to-distance ratio to calculate the minimum letter height (basically how big the letters should be in order to be legible at the required distance). Still with me?

Based on the OTM calculations, I've estimated that if you start out at 40 km/h, you're at the 3-inch height of the old signs. At 50 km/h, you get to the 5-inch height of the new signs. However, even that overestimates the height, because the distance calculations are based on a uniform speed, not a constantly reducing speed.

Anyway, sorry to get so technical and what not, but the bottom line is that I'd say the new larger signs are designed to be read at about 57-58 km/h, whereas the old ones were designed for about 42-43 km/h. So, if that new street sign on your local street seems strangely out of scale for your neighbourhood, that's probably because it is.

(Interestingly, that 57-58 km/h matches almost exactly the estimate I made about a month ago: "I first noticed them along Lake Shore Boulevard between Coxwell and the Don Valley, and assumed that they were to be introduced on higher-speed roadways in order to increase legibility at higher speeds;" "These are signs designed to be read by drivers traveling at 60 km/h or more;" etc.)


Wednesday, September 08, 2004

School overcrowding in 905-land

What with being the first week back to school and all, there's been no shortage of news coverage lately on issues for teachers, students, parents, and Ontario's education system in general. What I find most interesting is the coverage of not skyrocketing classroom sizes, but skyrocketing school sizes. Probably the best place to start is in an editorial published in the Star today that provides a number of example of schools in 905 that are overcrowded just a few years (or even months) after opening, and outlines a number of reasons why.

I can certainly attest to the crowding, as both my mother and fiancee are elementary teachers in Peel. For example, my mom teaches in the Mavis Road area of northern Mississauga. Recently a new school opened not far from hers and already its property is covered in portables. I'm almost certain I heard her say that one school had 300 kindergarten students (the number is so large that I'm doing a double-take on it today, but I'm pretty sure that's it) — she said it had more students in kindergarten alone than attended the entire K-6 school where I went to kindergarten.

What hasn't had as much attention in the news, is school sizes, and in particular the new principle of building fewer, larger facilities in the quest to attain supposed efficiencies. That school near Mavis Road probably isn't much smaller population-wise than the high school I attended, for example. The result is a much larger service area, a low proportion of students within walking distance (almost NIL at my mother's school), and thus huge costs to bus most of the students in (and/or choking traffic congestion from parents dropping their kids off). Oh, not to mention kids that spend half their day on a school bus.

You can see the same principle easily in libraries, for example: look at the Mississauga Public Library branch location map (PDF file). Of their 16 local branches (excluding the Central Library), only four have been built since I became a patron some twenty years ago (a few have moved locations somewhat or have been renovated, but their general service area has remained the same). For a more striking example, look at the Toronto Public Library branch location map, and compare the number and distribution of branches in older parts of the city (the old Toronto, southern Etobicoke, East York) with those in the suburbs. Note also how many smaller "neighbourhood libraries" there are in each area.

"If building is butt-ugly, tear it down"

An interesting article from the New York Times, reprinted in the Star (at least the online version, anyway). Turns out Britain has three levels of heritage structures for preservation, and is looking to add a fourth category, Grade X, to "be attributed to buildings that deserve to be torn down."

Many of the Grade X designations were expected to go towards hastily-designed and -constructed buildings from the war reconstruction period, buildings that were designed in a different aesthetic and that now are pretty much considered, well, "butt-ugly".

Two thoughts come to my mind:

1) I'll bet a lot of North American (and GTA) construction would merit a Grade X...

2) Although it's an appealing idea at first read, the troubling aspect is that Grade X seems to be defined primarily aesthetically — based on a subjective view. While I think it is fairly safe to agree that "in every town there are three or four buildings that are universally disliked," the fact that the buildings even exist is some sort of indication that aesthetic taste in architecture goes through cycles. For example, many American cities have recently demolished stadiums built just 20 to 40 years ago in the era of utilitarian, cookie-cutter stadium design — yet when they were constructed, those stadiums must have been considered examples of attractive design or at least must have been felt to have some aesthetic merit.

Closer to home, let's consider our very own SkyDome, built in the late 80's. When it opened in 1989, it was totally cool, modern, attractive, a striking addition to Toronto's skyline — and now it's considered a bit of a white elephant, a substandard venue for most sports and entertainment productions (aside from perhaps the climate control for winter events), and I dare say many would consider it to be ugly. Likely these will worsen over the years as the facility ages. Assuming Toronto had the "Grade X" system, would the SkyDome fall under that category? Or would design features such as the domed roof, and historical significance (e.g. the Blue Jays' second World Series win) render it a structure worth saving?

John Sewell's 1994 book, The Shape of the City, offers the opposite perspective: what was generally considered not worth saving (in Toronto and in North America in general) back in the 1960's and 1970's — streetcars, old downtown neighbourhoods like Cabbagetown, major downtown landmarks like Old City Hall and Union Station — have come full circle and today are a major part of what makes Toronto great. Will the 1960's-70's urban and architectural aesthetic similarly come around in another 50 years or so, only for its major examples to have been obliterated as "Grade X" structures?

I guess I'm taking this a bit too far — for example, I'm sure it would be safe to say that the Regent Park redevelopment would be considered a good example of replacing a Grade X development, even on architectural and urban design merits alone and ignoring social issues. However, no matter which way you look at it, it does offer some interesting food for thought. One final quote from the article that struck me in particular (and substitute "Toronto" for "Asia"):

"Ferguson's proposal also offers food for thought to cities, above all in Asia, that are engaged in wild construction booms. The skyline of the future is being drawn now. So will skyscrapers heralded today deserve an X rating tomorrow? Will today's daring designs look dated tomorrow?"

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Hamilton City Hall (Part II)

A couple of posts back, I mentioned Hamilton's fiscal problems as relating to the Red Hill Creek Expressway and as evidenced by their falling-apart city hall.

A timely article from the subscription-only Hamilton Spectator has been reproduced in the online Star. The "leasing space" the article mentions, refers to the third floor of the otherwise mostly vacant former Eaton Centre downtown shopping mall.