Understanding the city is a daunting undertaking, one that gets all the more complicated and intricate as Toronto grows—almost explodes—from a regional metropolis into a centre of the global economy. Full of both opportunity and risk, the city's fast-paced evolution was the locus of the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) recent 'Electric Cities' Toronto Symposium. Co-hosted with the City of Toronto, Tuesday's 'Design for Unprecedented Growth' Symposium closed out the two-day conference, examining how design plays an impactful—and under-appreciated—role in shaping the urban fabric. 

Kicked off by an introductory address from Jennifer Keesmaat, the Chief Planner diagnosed a "pivotal moment" in Toronto's history. As population growth transforms the city, Keesmaat argued that transit-oriented development and urban density must be the way forward. Across North American cities, Toronto is comparable only to Los Angeles in terms of average commute times, with vehicle congestion—and the sprawl that accompanies it—impacting quality of life, urban design, and the environment. "Adding more people means density and transit," Keesmaat stressed.

Downtown's recent, and not so recent, architecture, image by UT Flickr contributor Dale Roddick

Beyond the orthodox talking points about transit and intensification, Keesmaat also touted the efficacy and importance of Toronto's Official Plan (OP), which sets out a blueprint for the city's growth and development. Guiding high-rise growth towards Toronto's five designated 'Growth Centres' and mid-rise development along the 'Avenues,' the OP is increasingly supported by a series of fine-grained Secondary Plans, which provide an additional layer of neighbourhood-specific planning guidelines.

Keesmaat also persuasively stressed the need to develop more 'complete streets' (now also supported by planning guidelines), as well as family-oriented housing, with the mid-rise redevelopment of some of Toronto's car-dominated corridors touted as a priority for the coming decades. Meanwhile, most of the City remains designated as the so-called "yellow belt" of "stable neighbourhoods," which are not seen as appropriate for new development. (For additional context, a thorough overview of Toronto's evolving planning guidelines was recently published on UrbanToronto). 

Jennifer Keesmaat addresses ULI, image by Edward Skira

Keemsaat was followed by the City's Director of Urban Design, Lorna Day. Day provided more historical context to Toronto's current development landscape, citing the pivotal 'Two Kings' regeneration plan, which re-zoned formerly industrial areas on the "shoulders of Downtown" to redevelopment in 1996.

Spurring much of the 21st century intensification to come, the controversial—and visionary—plan required considerable foresight. "It takes time, vision, and leadership" to build a city, Day argued, emphasizing that creating a livable city requires more than regulation that merely responds to developer-driven intensification. 

Map showing the City's Land Use Designations, image via City of Toronto

Pivoting from planning policy to landscape design, Public Work co-founder Adam Nicklin opened on a philosophical note, invoking Yaval Noah Harari's analysis of culture as the sum of "stories we create and share." How we perceive place, Nicklin argued, is in large part a product of our shared cultural consciousness. Urban design, then, is as much about shaping our civic horizons as it is about the physical fabric of the city. 

For Nicklin, designing a more functional, livable city, means bridging gaps both physical and social. While 20th century zoning created "a culture of separation" by segregating uses, Nickling argued in support of the "culture of proximity" fostered by a greater mix of uses. Combining uses also combines people, enabling a richer sense of place. With land in the urban core becoming scarce, "we need unconventional solutions for open space," Nicklin stressed, noting that such projects can provide both much-needed public amenities and social links. While Downtown Toronto's park space deficit is obvious, the lack of vacant land provides unique opportunities to re-configure the urban realm into green, public spaces.

Under Gardiner emphasizes connectivity and a mix of uses, image via Public Work

Streets, Nicklin argued, can be re-designed as green spaces, acting as conduits of social interaction and de facto parks. Meanwhile, unconventional—and mixed-use—projects like Under Gardiner (now known as The Bentway) and Rail Deck Park can also create linear connections through the city, enabling a sense of urban continuity. "Can the feeling of being in a park extend further into a district?" Nicklin asked, prompting us to reconsider our understanding of green spaces as discretely bordered entities encircled by the paved city. "Our city grew into the landscape, not the other way around." 

Finally, architect Brigitte Shim provided examples of thoughtful buildings that speak to their context, and  often inspire a range of actives and social interactions. The Shim-Sutcliffe Architects co-founder, known for designing subtle Toronto landmarks like Rosedale's Integral House and and Shim's own 1994-completed Laneway Home, which is occupied by the architectural duo to this day. 

Shim underlined the value of Toronto's laneways, which—although hardly plentiful enough to satisfy the city's housing shortage—provide an opportunity to expand the city's housing stock in an intimate and contextually sensitive manner. Noting that Google Street View now uses tricycles to capture views of car-less roads, Shim advocated for a broader perspective of the city, echoing Nicklin's argument for animating "leftover" urban space.

The Shim-Sutcliffe designed Integral House in Rosedale, image via Hot Docs

In a city dominated by high-rise condo construction, Shim also stressed the value of "fabric buildings to re-inforce existing neighbourhoods," arguing for gentle density that contributes to existing character. Unfortunately, the kind of thoughtfully articulated, fine-grained projects that propelled Shim-Sutcliffe to 13 Governor General's Awards, are hardly the norm in 21st-century Toronto. Instead, as a subsequent panel discussion between the speakers illustrated, too much of Toronto's recent architecture falls well short of even striving for excellence.

In a conversation moderated by the Globe and Mail's Alex Bozikovic, the speakers were joined by Diamond Schmitt Principal and Design Review Panel (DRP) member Michael Leckman. The discussion focused on Toronto's bland, mediocre standard of high-rise architecture. While urban design guidelines and planning policies provide fairly defined criteria, the city's planning philosophy does not have a framework for evaluating architectural expression.

Massing, form, density, tower separation, and street-level programming, all play into the approvals process, and new buildings—even some of those approved at the OMB—meet most of the City's planning criteria. Many of them are also badly designed. Bozikovic prompted the panelists to consider this issue, asking Keesmaat whether design excellence should play a role in the approvals process. Keesmaat responded that architectural expression—"which is subjective"—remains beyond the purview of planning guidelines.

Toronto from Regent Park, image by UT Forum contributor Avenue

Speaking from an architectural perspective, Shim argued that a lack of sophistication among developers and buyers plays a significant part in eroding opportunities for architectural excellence. Indeed, in a city where sales are in large part driven by pre-construction investors, the architectural quality of new buildings—and the myriad benefits if offers to the city at large—seems far down the priority list for too many developers and buyers.

Leckman contributed a more positive note, however, arguing that since the DRP's inception a decade ago, the standards of design have increased. Finally, Keesmaat also argued that the City's gradual steps to take over some of the OMB's powers will contribute to a more regulated and cohesive planning process.

Looking across the audience, Bozikovic responded with a question: "How many of you are optimistic about that?" In the half-darkness, it was hard to tell.