The Best Cities to Live In – Metropolis reveals its 2016 rankings.
Last fall, Toronto philanthropists Judy and Wilmont Matthews donated C$25 million to build a linear park in an inhospitable place: underneath the crumbling elevated expressway that slices through the city’s waterfront. Toronto’s “Under Gardiner” project arrives during a period marked by a difficult transition from car-centric planning to pedestrian-focused design, says Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. “We are coming of age as a city right now. We are at a moment when we understand the importance of creating a walkable city.”
In recent years, Toronto has been consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable and diverse cities. Half of all Toronto residents were born outside Canada, and the region attracts 100,000 new residents each year, including many creatives and millennials drawn to the city’s arts, education, and high-tech sectors. This rapid growth, along with anti-sprawl planning and a robust regional economy, has triggered a record-breaking downtown development boom that has spurred demand for new public spaces and more livable communities.
“It’s a new way of thinking about public space beyond these polite green landscapes,” says Donald Schmitt, a principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects, which developed the Evergreen Brick Works, a former brick quarry that now functions as a wetland and heritage education site.
The city wants the design of major new buildings to reflect the porousness required in a pedestrian-oriented city. Keesmaat cites the new Snøhettadesigned student learning center at Ryerson University, which features generous seating areas that link to the street: “The design of that building is about lingering [and] recognizing that public life takes place on our streets.”
Population and densification are also informing Toronto’s approach to transit and street design. While the city’s subway network is relatively sparse, Toronto is building new light-rail transit lines, adding to its cycling infrastructure, and, in a few cases, closing or narrowing streets, as Janette Sadik-Khan did in New York during her high-profile stint as transportation commissioner.
The city and the provincial government have also made sizable investments in Union Station, the central transportation hub—recently renovated by Zeidler Partnership Architects—and last year launched an airport rail shuttle. While the Union Station upgrades were needed to handle growing commuter volumes, the air rail link has been slow to attract riders.
Meanwhile, Waterfront Toronto (WT), a publicly owned agency, is redeveloping hundreds of acres of derelict waterfront land near downtown with projects by Diamond Schmitt, KPMB, and Moshe Safdie. One recently completed waterfront space is Corktown Common, a 16-acre Michael Van Valkenburgh – designed park that anchors a 6,000-unit midrise community. WT’s vice president of planning and design Chris Glaisek says the design leverages topography, natural materials, and compelling vistas: “It creates a variety of experiences and scales, and a bit of a sense of mystery.”
With growth in financial services, mining finance, and tech, the downtown is seeing new office construction and the redevelopment of early-20th-century warehouses, plus a combination of the two, as with Entertainment One Canada’s new headquarters in QRC West, a tower by Sweeny & Co. built on stilts over an old factory. Planners have also pushed condo builders to make their high-rises more street friendly and less monolithic in their massing compared with older slab high-rises. A design panel process introduced in recent years ensures that many projects are peer reviewed for architectural quality. Kyle Rae, a former downtown councillor, cites as one of them FIVE at 5 St. Joseph, a 48-story tower by Hariri Pontarini that looms over restored 19th-century mercantile buildings. As he says of Toronto’s architectural revival, “There’s been an enormous transformation in the expectations of the city and residents.” —John Lorinc
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