Stuck at the corner of Blah and Graceless in Toronto


LISA ROCHON, Ottawa April 29, 2011

When you dial the Access Toronto number, 311, to inquire about the badly deteriorated state of the city’s sidewalks and streets, expect to refresh your relationship with Beethoven. Asking pointed questions means being put on hold. Just you and Symphony No. 6. Be warned: After enough repeats of the first movement, your relationship with 311 goes from optimistic allegro to fortissimo sour.

On civic beauty, Toronto has failed us. You’d like to ask directly about the reverse skunking of roads across the city, with long swaths of asphalt poured haphazardly down their centres. You’d like to ask why Toronto is a bottom-feeder when it comes to civic space, producing Third World strips of concrete for pedestrians to trudge along rather than First World ramblas of surprise and encounter.

My list of questions, asked by e-mail, during telephone interviews and, yes, as an ordinary citizen calling 311, continues to grow. How is it that the city regularly misses deadlines for the revitalization of public space not merely by months but years? HTO Park on Lake Ontario; Ashbridge’s Bay Skate Park farther east along Lakeshore; Roncesvalles Avenue, a straightforward streetscaping that has become an epic tale of collapsed businesses, traffic snarls and citizen disbelief.

Why is it that even simple gestures of civic grace, such as a seawall, or a short flight of stairs leading down to the beach from the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, an art-deco masterpiece in Toronto’s east end, are still incomplete and chain-linked off more than a year after construction started? If it pleases the seasonal schedule of the contractors, we might be able to enjoy an elegant new connection between the beach and the neighbourhood by summer’s end.

Look around. Toronto boasts plenty of sophisticated Class A office towers and swanky five-star hotels. Our cultural institutions have enjoyed generous, cultivated patronage and architectural rebranding. But our streets – the human-scale zone that we experience daily – seem stuck in a seedy movie set on the wrong side of New York during the 1980s.

Cast your gaze to University Avenue – our parochial version of the Champs Élysées or Park Avenue or Sao Paolo’s Avenida Paulista. Compare the glories of those legendary civic boulevards to the jarring black asphalt stripes on University’s sidewalks; the tiny, unprotected tulips; the thirsty-looking fountains; the useless median that lacks any visual drama.

I no longer want to apologize for the tawdry streets of Toronto. What I crave is the energy that’s fuelling the beautifully landscaped streets of Zurich, where trees are planted to endure; the innovative sustainability – involving car tolls and pedestrian-first street zones – being imposed, to remarkable effect, in Singapore.

Who is to blame for Toronto’s lack of civic vision? Nobody wants to answer that at city hall. But, Toronto’s transportation department has consistently delivered mediocre interventions. Among the most criminal are the rotund, plastic garbage containers (I call them “dweebs”) now dumbly posed on sidewalks, unprotected bike lanes, and stunted trees in concrete boxes. What also hurts is the recent failure of a reconstructed St. Clair Avenue to gracefully integrate trees, sidewalks and public transit.

Privatization of garbage services is new Mayor Rob Ford’s pet project. I’d like to call for the privatization of the design and construction of all street and sidewalk enhancements. The city’s bureaucracy and the mentality of engineers have messed up our streets. I’d like to take them out of the equation.

“It’s jurisdictional gridlock,” says Harold Madi of The Planning Partnership, whose firm is master-planning John Street in Toronto entertainment district. “There isn’t a co-ordinated body that gets it. They all seem to be set up in an adversarial position.” The city will never blossom without enabling the kind of urban-design brains so smart and savvy that their talents can be outsourced to other cities.

At the same time, I’d like a touch of tyranny to replace the mewling excuses delivered to me this week for why civic work was late or sidewalks were regularly ripped apart, and why developers’ fees amounting to half a million dollars were never spent on the Jarvis Street revitalization. (The absurd excuse is that painted bike lanes gobbled up space previously imagined for wider sidewalks, and so the opportunity for an inspired streetscape evaporated.)

After about 10 minutes, the 311 woman comes back on the line. She sounds a bit overwhelmed – though sweetly Canadian – about my request to investigate the state of sidewalks and streets throughout the city. She needs a specific address, and in my neighbourhood – or no dice. I had seen countless examples that very day. What about the length of Queen Street East from Victoria Park to Woodbine Avenue? She puts me on hold again.

Major streets in Toronto suffer from regular upheaval to upgrade water pipes or insert cable or power lines. Last year alone, the city issued 38,000 permits to a variety of utility companies that do serious damage to roads and sidewalks, something that has provoked city council into charging higher fees intended to activate faster repairs when the cutting is done.

To repair the asphalt is, in city parlance, a “restoration.” Restoration might conjure the granite cobbles of London and Paris. In Toronto, it’s a euphemism used by city employees for the replacement of black patches with ordinary concrete. Nazzareno Capano, the city’s manager of operational planning and policy for transportation services explains by e-mail: “Unfortunately, we live in a city with an underground network of utilities that are very complex which require constant attention. The number of cuts made by the utilities in sidewalks, boulevards and pavements are happening at an alarming rate and can occur any time of the year. Despite this, we continue to make great strides in ensuring that repairs are done properly and promptly.”

So, that's reassuring.

You might have assumed by now that my distress over the state of Toronto’s streets, and their lack of civic grace, has been percolating for a long time. It’s become bittersweet to behold great civic spaces in other cities. Three weeks ago, I had to stop and stare at the work of a stonemason repairing one of the wave-like patterns of black basalt and white limestone next to Copacabana Beach.
Deliberately, carefully, the calceteiro pounded one stone at a time into the sidewalk clearing of fine gravel. It was time-consuming, of course. Hardly practical infrastructure in a city of 12 million. But besides laying down a stunning pattern that elevates not only the image of the city but the joy of walking, the repair merged seamlessly with the rest of the stone sidewalk. What it offers is what Toronto abandoned long ago: civic grace.