Thursday, August 31, 2006

Morning has Broken...

With cup of coffee in hand, I found myself climbing a loaded hay wagon this cool morning to enjoy something I haven't seen in a while:

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Intent and Purpose: Planning and the Fate of the Neighbourhoods of Toronto

In the pseudo-intellectual world of land-use planning, the most undesirable job is working the neighbourhoods. Those low-density places that visionaries, professionals and the public proclaim as the backbone of a city, yet secretly malign as dull, conservative and uninteresting.

In policy, the Neighbourhood designation in Toronto is distinctive as it ensures that new development will respect and reinforce the existing physical character in the name of stability. In every other developable part of the city, planners are explicitly directed to ‘anticipate change’ where the much lauded intensification goals of current initiatives are directed – the Apartment Neighbourhoods, Mixed Use Areas and Regeneration Areas – places where utopian visions are to abound. As such, Neighbourhood planners are treated as professionally subservient: a grassroots place to learn the trade, bide ones time – or more correctly as a place to just fade away.

You see, neighbourhoods just aren’t sexy. Planners are programmed to be more interested in the bigger things; they're trained as egomaniacs after all. One can crank out a tall building or help roll out an Official Plan, but whoa be the lowly three storey dwelling infill in a low density neighbourhood. It lacks sex appeal – as it should. Newspapers seldom notice things as trivial as land severances, but have full time columnists devoted to high rise issues. While the average reader is apparently interested in condo development battles, land severances are local and are subsequently viewed as minor – except to the affected neighbourhood, of course – and are handled by the local Committee of Adjustment1. Ironically, it is often the case that in terms of numbers, there is often more opposition to the severance.

Given the institutional and professional unofficial doctrine that size really does matter in land use planning (cloaked as ‘city building’ in the industry lingo), most in the business sneer at and by-pass the vital lowly stage of Committee planner. Content to head right for the big plums, these sort are a true detriment to both the city and the profession. While developing sweeping policy and large developments may satisfy fragile egos determined on name recognition and respect, the most important fundamentals needed in being effective at these very projects have been missed.

Subsequently, when discussion infrequently turns to the fate of the neighbourhoods, the general professional mindset of blanket intensification is thrown about as gospel by the holies – much to my chagrin. Safe in their static suburban enclaves, most have never even walked the places they’re bull-shitting about. Certainly intensification is a lofty goal – and many inner neighbourhoods have been subject to up to five distinct waves of urbanization – yet the question arises as to how to accomodate change without disrupting the balance that continues to make these places desirable and stable for reinvestment and revitalization.

The problem being that a planner can never truly comprehend an urban area if the neighbourhoods aren’t thoroughly understood. Inner neighbourhoods are special because they are so intricately nuanced, storied and layered. To be capable, planners today must be well versed in the art of nuance. Planning as a profession is no longer a detached rational-comprehensive exercise, but rather a generalist exercise in a myriad of realms. Neighbourhoods and their perfect mix of development pressures, citizen resistance and political intervention, teach professionals to learn the realities of the trade and cut through the bullshit. The sheer volume of development forces practitioners to fortify principles and be consistent in opinion; it is a good place to learn and practice prerequisite evaluation and research skills needed on future larger and more complex projects. Traits which are essential in a business focused around integrity, experience and expert opinion.

Sometimes it’s the massing, height or setbacks of dwellings that define the physical elements of a neighbourhood; sometimes it’s a characteristic like laneways. Economic development, historic development, transportation, social planning and environmental planning are often at play. Accommodating infill growth without undermining the scale and character of a stable, citizen involved neighbourhood is among the most difficult jobs in the profession; a balancing act encompassing innumerable spirited special interest groups and career developers seeking to build as big as the market will bear and move onto the next deal.

In any urban area, low-rise neighbourhoods are viewed as the foundation; the 'canary in the coalmine' indicator of the overall health of an urban area. In this context, the role of a planner is to foster the continued vitality and viability of neighbourhoods – in essence ensuring the clichéd balance between private development and public interest. To be effective in this regard, one must be entrenched in policy… and as such be entrenched in history. What are intent and purpose of the guiding policies? How has the neighbourhood evolved? How should it evolve? These questions provide the decision-making framework, of which expert opinions can be achieved only through solid theory, public consultation, market demand and thorough experience.

Given the market conditions, single and semi-detached development in the Toronto context is nearly always the most lucrative and low-density neighbourhoods are certainly under the greatest amount of development pressure quantitatively. The entire city is built up and with the resultant scarcities of land, the vast majority of planning applications are infill in nature. A decade-long building boom has left most streets under perennial reconstruction.

Standards such as Official Plan policies and Zoning By-laws guide growth2. Not as a punitive measure, but rather to facilitate development which has regard – not conformity – to the existing characteristics of a street and neighbourhood. It also sets a consistent standard which those interested in development can rely upon when purchasing property.

However, if a proposal exceeds the provisions of the zoning by-law (and most do), the public notifications are unleashed and the established community gets their say. It generally pans out as follows: On one side, extensive neighbourhood wealth fostered through continuous gentrification and a tradition of activism arguing for compatible – if not static – development. On the other, individual and career developers consistently pushing standards of compatibility - just taking advantage of market conditions. It’s the classic individual desire to maximize profits versus the collective appeal to mitigate adverse impacts on adjacent properties and the streetscape.

One of the keystone functions of land-use planning.

The pursuant political pressures are immense: low-rise neighbourhoods are where the votes are. Applications for a mid-block single detached development are often as controversial as a high rise on a major road. While NIMBY is a reality – innocuous terms like ‘stability’ and ‘fit’ often construed as ‘static’ – real and warranted concerns frequently arise. Massive homes often triple or quadruple the size of their neighbours are lucrative in this boom market and can have the unsettling ability to loom over a streetscape. Citizens do care about impacts on adjacent properties and the physical character of their neighbourhood and often resort to involving politicians and hiring a vast array of professionals of all stripes. The ensuing battles are often epic in nature and the subject of an occasional tall tale at the bar.

Infill applications drag out all sorts… neighbourhood crusaders, seniors, timid housewives… occasionally libertarians. Unfamiliar with the process, developers by nature have a leg up on the proceedings and often use it. Sometimes issues get sorted, more often they just get heated, trust is lost and parties become entrenched. Many proposals wind their way to ‘Old Faceless on Bay’ – the Ontario Municipal Board. The final arbiter of all planning matters in the Province of Ontario. Committee of Adjustment applications from the City of Toronto make upwards of 25% of the Board’s caseload alone – province wide.

Planners as a rule are stuck in the middle. Serving a dual role as the public face (information officer/administrator) while required to provide professional opinion on the application, public planners often walk a fine tightrope. Balancing physical character with the legitimate nature of redevelopment becomes difficult as politicians, residents and developers exert increasing pressure on the process and on staff. Like all good bureaucrats, many planners retreat to their technocratic training when questions and disagreements arise. Rather than engage, the practitioners (with the full support of the profession) often descend into self-preservation mode. Specifically barred by the Professional Institute from providing advice to interested parties (ie. citizens) without prior written approval, public planners are forced to reduce themselves to hiding behind jargon and well-honed methods of deflection – an enforced bureaucratic comfort zone from which most often never emerge.

By tireless attempting to legitimize their sense and role of virtuous supremacy, what the professional body, practitioners and ultimately politicians fail to realize is that Planners are only providing opinion after all – and opinions are like assholes. Political interest is not the public interest; the Official Plan and Zoning By-law are. Planners are explicitly trained not as advocates, but rather as measured rationalists of the vile sort. Rooted in numbers, experience and visual relationships, planners are bound by code to be uninterested and unbiased – while receptive to the notions of both public comment and the right to build. It’s an often rhetorical position built on a combination of qualitative and quantitative factors.

In the end, vast disconnects between reality and decision-makers exist. A real lack of understanding by both professionals and elected officials is becoming increasingly evident. Lost in the advocacy of it all, politicians, proponents, interest groups and professionals of all stripes end up fighting for the all important political capital. Rather than focusing on the much espoused goals of ‘efficiency’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘good planning’, land use and public interest discussion often degenerate into a dreadful scene of jockeying and political opportunism in the rear corridors of the Chambers. An increasing fear among over-worked public planners of offering a position is exasperating the cycle. Unpopular professional opinion equates villain status and raises the ire of meddling politicial masters or infinitely moneyed developers. Staying ambiguous on either worthy or undesirable development is exponentially easier than preparing for and suffering under months worth of stakeholder pressures and intense multi-day cross-examination at the Ontario Municipal Board… particularly as the unrelenting inbox back at the office awaits your return.

The neighbourhoods are the true frontline battle scene of Planning Departments; one project did never a City make. From a professional perspective, a lot of the fundamental work is done in the neighbourhoods – tirelessly facilitating compatible development in a voracious market with a reactionary citizenry. It’s a tragedy that this work is undervalued and misunderstood by a profession consumed with plastering standardized phallic symbols on the cubicle wall as beacons of divinely inspired ‘city-building’.

While we may have come a long way since the bad old 1960s, the rational modernist ideals of orderly over-designed ‘efficiency’ and ‘function’ once espoused by the planning profession have not disappeared. They’ve only slyly repackaged themselves into a sleeker version embracing all of the latest fads and movements. Public participation is critical. As with any institution, Planning as a profession is entrenched and weary of adaptation and change; it's also reluctant and when does finally spring into action is as sharp as a bludgeon. Despite the adoption of unenforceable ‘urban design principles’, the professional virtues of fragmentation and standardization of old remains – and most likely always will. The sole difference being that new millennium ‘tinted float glass’ has replaced 1970s concrete as the established material de jour.

1. From a regulatory standpoint in Ontario, Committee of Adjustments administer the vast bulk of low-density neighbourhood planning. Specializing in zoning by-law variances, these Council appointed bodies are designated to consider varying existing zoning in order to facilitate growth with the proviso of having particular regard for local conditions. Want to build a new house larger than permitted? Sever your property? Add a couple of floors onto your condo building? This is the place. Larger projects are subject to a myriad of other processes – and direct Council consideration. All decisions are of course appealable to the Ontario Municipal Board.

2. On July 6, 2006 the Ontario Municipal Board approved a new Official Plan (pdf) for the City of Toronto. This document sets the objectives and goals of the city over the next 25 years. All policy and development must conform to this document. Policies specifically dealing with low density neighbourhoods are outlined in Sections 2.3 and 4.1. A new regulatory comprehensive Zoning By-law which will implement the Official Plan is currently in production.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Communities in Bloom!

In the spirit of summer... I nominate this place - the southwest corner of Sherwood Avenue and Mount Pleasant Road. How often does one walk along a dreary public sidewalk, only to be engulfed by an overflowing 'private' garden?