Visionary and incendiary

Visionary and incendiary

Those of you who read my column in the June issue of Toronto Life already know just how disorganized the city’s planning bureaucracy is, but it appears the politicians in charge of the department are no better: only three members of council’s Planning and Growth Management Committee showed up for Thursday morning’s meeting, leaving it short of quorum. As a result, guest speaker Greg Clark, a British consultant and one of the world’s foremost experts on urban economic growth, said a lot of fascinating, visionary, and incendiary things to a bunch of empty chairs. Here are the highlights:

The federal and provincial governments’ regional development policies are sooooo 20th century. Old thinking: you throw money at rural regions and under-performing cities and leave the well-performing places to look after themselves. New thinking: invest in the well-performing places (ie. your big-city metropolises) and link them to their surrounding regions more strongly. Most other countries in the world have figured this out. If Canada fails to catch on, its major cities will fall behind.

Smart cities are rediscovering their waterways as transit thoroughfares. Rivers and canals are like rail lines that don’t need to be built. Paris has boats moving people along the Seine and its canals. Clark didn’t say this would makes sense for Toronto, but what a dream: build a few locks along the Don and the Humber, flood them, and have the TTC operate some Floating Rockets.

Congestion charges don’t work without a clear economic imperative. London implemented congestion charges because it had become truly impossible to move people into and out of the central business district (CBD). They studied how bad their congestion was compared to other cities, and fared so poorly that they knew they had to act. London’s congestion pricing has also lowered emissions and improved air-quality—but these are merely side-effects. The primary objective was to improve London’s business climate.

Waterfront redevelopments have a habit of sucking the life out of downtowns. This, Clark says, has happened in many cities, including London, where the Docklands redevelopment was for a time having a detrimental effect on London’s CBD. The trick is to make sure the two are well-connected by both roads and transit lines. He seemed to hold up this warning in particular for Toronto, using the term “isolated” a number of times during the discussion about waterfront schemes.

The redevelopment of city centre airports have, in many cases, been a huge boon for cities. This is particularly true in Europe. London’s Docklands project included the redevelopment of a tiny runway there. Though only propeller aircraft can land there, it is still accessible to about 30 major urban centres throughout Europe, and business travelers love it. Meanwhile, emerging cities such as Riga, Latvia and Reykjavik, Iceland have made themselves attractive as business destinations thanks to the redevelopment of their centrally-located airports. No doubt Porter Airlines, which recently received clearance to begin landing at Newark Airport, is aware of successes across the pond.

Image: Greg Clark, courtesy of