uTOpia reviewed by Women's Post
Edited by Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox
Coach House Books
In the past few years, Toronto has suffered from the folly of the grand vision. Projects like Dundas Square, the Distillery District and the Sheppard Subway have offered up massive fixes to problems that never really existed. The idea, one can only guess, is to hasten growth and burnish the city's image. But cities — like other living, breathing organisms — cannot be manipulated so easily; and large-scale development tends to fail miserably, or harm functioning neighbourhoods irreparably. Failure, of course, is inevitable when planning comes before thinking.
However, a recent collection of essays about urban life in Toronto, uTOpia, brings together a group of writers that is committed to thinking about city change. And their concerns and observations, while not consistently focused, should give pause to all Torontonians, whether they're city planners or simply residents. Those who do pick up this anthology will be impressed by the variety and reach of the ideas expressed here.
One of the book's great strengths is that most of the writers are not professional planners but everyday Torontonians seeking to comment on and improve daily life in Toronto. Some offer up practical suggestions for future growth; others highlight things that are already working and in danger of being overlooked. As a result, uTOpia is a wide-ranging but erratic book, swinging wildly from Sheila Heti's poetic take on Toronto's beaches to an interview on "infill housing" in Toronto laneways. Such an approach is certainly lively for the reader, but it can sometimes weaken what is otherwise a valuable contribution to urban thought.
The heart of the book is its middle section, which deals with development and commercial districts in Toronto. Many of the essays here should be required reading for city planners, not to mention proprietors, seeking to redevelop certain neighbourhoods. Of particular note is John Lorinc's piece on strip plazas in suburban Toronto. These plazas, perhaps because of their outwardly shabby exteriors, are considered expendable by city planners. Lorinc, however, makes a persuasive argument against such demolition, showing that plazas make an important contribution to the cultural and economic vibrancy of the communities they serve.
Other pieces fall into the "visionary" trap that has so often proven damaging to city growth in Toronto. Mark Kingwell's paean to big buildings is an example of this kind of thinking. Kingwell laments the current "distrust of the grandiose," and yearns for the kind of city building that "inspires and edifies." His example of inspiring grandiosity? A downtown football stadium — by common consent, a neighbourhood destroyer, not unlike the kind of expressway that urban-planning guru Jane Jacobs fought so hard against. At heart, Kingwell's ideas are dismissive of realities on the ground — that is, the everyday ways in which people adapt to the idiosyncrasies that are unique to different neighbourhoods. Such thinking seems out of place in a book which generally has the best interests of Toronto communities in mind.
The central task of city planners, it might be said, is determining how to create the right conditions for natural growth. The best cities have always managed to muddle their way through this puzzling and contradictory mission. However, this task requires that planners, developers and city councillors do something they aren't all that good at: leave neighbourhoods (for the most part) alone, and let time work out any problems. It is to the credit of uTOpia's editors, Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox, that they have assembled a group of writers who not only understand this principle, but whose passionate advocacy on behalf of sensible growth for the city will become increasingly necessary as Toronto moves toward an uncertain future.