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"Good Enough" is No Longer Good Enough for Toronto

Seldom do people recognize the full extent to which their environment affects them. Everyone understands the importance of clean air and water and the integral role they play in ones health, but many overlook an equally critical component that is just as omnipresent, yet never celebrated: Urban Design. While most will probably associate the term with public parks or the new OCAD building, the real importance of urban design extends beyond landmarks or tourist destinations. Last night a panel of guests from across Canada and abroad convened at the Isabel Bader Theater on Charles Street West to discuss how they can bring the issue into the public eye, and work together to create a better Toronto.

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The public forum was the second half of Toronto's two part Design Review Symposium organized by the City of Toronto in association with the Canadian Urban Institute, the Toronto Society of Architects and the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects. The panel was made up of Architects, Developers, lawyers and design review panel members from Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal and the U.K, where such systems have already been put into place. The night was hosted by City TV's Adam Vaughan and included comments by Mayor Miller, an adamant supporter of urban design.

Mayor Miller, in conjunction with the Clean and Beautiful City Initiative wants to focus more attention on making Toronto a city that is "not simply good, but great". In May, at the Urban Design Awards, Miller said "As a City we must learn to despise mediocrity. We can't accept what we've accepted in the past. 'Good enough' is no longer good enough."

But how does a city reconcile the different agendas of developers, architects, planners and citizens? Through good design believes Larry Beasley, Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver. "Good design doesn't cost more. Good design makes money". But making money is not the only issue. The critical issue, agreed upon by the majority of panelists and the public alike, is that the focus of urban design must be brought back to the individual citizens' lived experience of their environment. Joanna Avery, Director of Enabling, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), England, was a stand out panelist who made it clear that urban design must be about the every day. She described the proliferation of the "Found everywhere but built for nowhere" phenomenon, a problem that plagues many cities, including Toronto, in the form of non site specific design such as cookie cutter urban sprawl neighbourhoods that do not foster a sense of community or neighbourhood ownership.

The notion that Toronto, a city frequently touted as a world class metropolis has gone so long without the checks and balances that a review board would provide is astonishing. The lack of a concentrated effort to improve aesthetic value, pedestrian flow and livability has resulted in a number of arterial neighbourhoods that completely lack a cohesive identity while others, such as Kensington Market, have flourished as enclaves of civic pride. A dedicated review board made up of design community peers and experts could help ensure the success of future projects.

There are a number of factors that must be addressed before Toronto can begin assembling a design review panel. The main issue lies in the fact that the city currently lacks sufficient legislative power to create a body that would have any sort of real political teeth. Without any actual clout a design review board would simple add another step to the already arduous urban design process. Other issues include: should the panel meetings be private or public, what projects should come under the scrutiny of the panel and just how inclusive should the panel's mandate be? Should it include things such as sustainability and low income housing? While none of these questions come with easy answers, the assistance of existing boards from other provinces and the enthusiasm of local professionals and officials should be enough to guarantee a running start.


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