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Archive for September 2012

Over the distillery and through the ravines: Toronto, part two

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Last week, I wrote about the purposefully built environment of Toronto: its transit, its unique suburban downtowns and its pedestrian facilities. This week I thought I’d turn to another facet of Toronto’s landscape: its natural facilities and adaptive reuse.

Milkman’s Run, part of Toronto’s ravine system

City in a garden
This is one of Chicago’s slogans: urbs in horto, to be exact. But I think it’s a slogan more appropriate to Toronto, as it’s literally a city set in a system of wild gardens. A system of lushly forested ravines snakes through the city, offering a respite from brick, stone and concrete. I had only the fortune of hiking a very small portion of the trail, the Milkman’s Run from Rosedale to the Evergreen Brick Works, on my last day in Toronto, but even that small taste of the Canadian city’s trail system left me with a wonderful impression.

Signage to the trail was not too conspicuous, but following the directions provided by the Brick Works web site was very easy. Within minutes of starting down the ravine trail, I felt the city melt away, though I never really lost sight of another person in the distance (which, I hasten to add, is a Good Thing: one of the classic weaknesses of urban open space is a lack of other eyes to keep it safe). The hike to the Evergreen Brick Works was an easy twenty minutes; a small portion of the trail runs by the Don Valley Parkway, but the highway’s presence didn’t feel oppressive. The entire trail was green and leafy, and my only regret is that I had not came later in the season when I am sure the fall color would have been gorgeous.

Toronto’s ravines seem to be a relatively under-appreciated urban resource. Better signposting in the city to the system, more intense focus on the system as one of Toronto’s key attractions, and improved wayfinding within the ravines themselves would go a long way toward raising their profile. Chicago has a park boulevard system that theoretically form a ring penetrating well into the heart of the city, but many parts of that system are little more than green, irregularly-maintained medians of high-speed arterials. Toronto’s lucky to possess an already intact system of trails and paths in a natural setting, isolated from vehicles but not from the city as it winds its way through the different neighborhoods — it should take full advantage of these.

By contrast, Toronto’s lakefront is the subject of more attention, fewer accolades and much more mixed reception than its system of ravines. Like Chicago — and most, if not all, Great Lakes cities — Toronto’s waterfront came of age in an industrial era, and like nearly all of these settlements the most valuable use for this land was for polluting, productive and profitable industrial uses. And like Chicago, Toronto has rail lines and highways running right along the lakeshore, as this was the logical right-of-way when built. Unlike Chicago, though, Toronto’s expressways in particular are more disruptive — it’s great fun to drive the elevated Gardiner Expressway and weave among the condos, but crossing over or under it is more akin to walking under Louisville’s Interstate 64 than Chicago’s grade-level Lake Shore Drive. And Toronto, as far as I can tell, didn’t have an Aaron Montgomery Ward, who fought tenaciously to keep Chicago’s lakefront open and free.

The point of this isn’t to say that Toronto’s lakefront is point-blank inferior to Chicago’s, though — it’s just to say that a different set of historical circumstances has led to the differing results seen today. I don’t know enough about the history of the lakefront and current efforts to comment knowledgeably about the efforts to beautify the lakefront, but Toronto shouldn’t beat itself up needlessly that its lakefront isn’t quite there yet. It’s got a pretty damn good system of ravines to supplement it in the meantime.

The Distillery District

Reduce, reuse, recycle
The city’s postindustrial and Great Lakes heritage shows up in the repurposed buildings and districts scattered throughout the city. On our walk down Queen Street West, my friend and I passed both a Candy Factory Lofts and a Chocolate Factory Lofts. One can only imagine what the first residents must have smelled upon moving in!

Two of the larger complete reused entities I saw were the city’s Distillery District and the Evergreen Brick Works. Toronto’s Distillery District used to be just that, a distillery, and has now been redeveloped to house such enterprises as high-end chocolate stores and an Ontario microbrewery. The Evergreen Brick Works were perhaps my favorite “attraction” in the city — they used to supply the city with brick and mortar, but after the quarry dried up in the 1980s, the entire complex was repurposed and now serves as a municipal park and community center.

Neither of these developments are unique to Toronto — the Distillery District reminds me strongly of Milwaukee’s Third Ward, another formerly industrial neighborhood now home to trendy shops and eateries, and to a lesser extent Soho in New York. The Evergreen Brick Works are more distinctive, but the reuse of old industrial structures as parkland isn’t new either — the High Line and soon-to-be Bloomingdale Trail show that. But these two developments, and in particular the Brick Works, are exemplars of adaptive reuse — the latter in particular does a good job of balancing its new role as a park with its history as a quarry and industrial site.

Evergreen Brick Works

Toronto was a wonderful place for a weekend, particularly for a visitor from Chicago. It was a city with just enough similarities to my current town that I was able to understand its foundation — I immediately felt at home with the regular street grid; with the TTC’s system of subways supplemented by long, straight bus lines; with the industrial reuse of buildings; and with the “wall of condos” along the lakefront. But its richly remarkable differences I felt as well — the smooth clang of streetcars along the streets; a gorgeous system of ravines; intensely dense suburban development; and, in comparison, a lack of a huge swath of economically deprived territory.

I’ve still got a lot to understand about Toronto. But I think it’s a city in which lots of the current movements of North American urbanism, and in particular “cold city” urbanism, are in evidence. And even if you don’t care that much about urbanism (in which case, why are you reading this?) it’s definitely worth a visit. I’ll be back.

Written by Andrew ACG

September 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

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“Queen Street West is my patio”: a weekend in Toronto

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“Queen Street West is my patio!” — so said a good-natured guy to his friends on the other corner as my friend and I walked down the namesake street of Toronto’s West Queen West neighborhood last weekend. I found it a witty aphorism that something that captured my experience of Toronto, its public space and sense of urbanism in my short three-day tour last weekend.

Toronto reminds me of a lot of Chicago: it’s a denser, older, gridded lakefront city that simultaneously has less touristy pizzazz but more of the vibrant energy that comes from being a nation’s largest and preeminent metropolis. Both are towns with few natural barriers aside from their respective Great Lakes, with suburban development spreading in all directions away from the water. The differences are considerable as well: Toronto has a significantly more international feel, and the density of the Greater Toronto Area is nearly twice that of the Chicago metropolitan area.

This post got a little unwieldy in the writing, so I’ll discuss my transit, walking and wayfinding experiences in the city this week, and finish up with my thoughts on Toronto’s lakefront, ravines and industrial heritage next week.

Take the Rocket
I of course couldn’t go to Toronto without taking a spin on the streetcar system, since it has by far the largest remaining streetcar system in North America. I’m of two minds on it: the ride is markedly smoother than taking a normal city bus (although I have taken Taipei city buses in reserved bus lanes, which does go a great way toward reducing that jarring-and-lurching feeling.) On the other hand, I walked down Queen Street West during the Friday afternoon rush and those streetcars were plodding down the street, stuck in traffic and bunching just like the North Ave bus on a Saturday afternoon. The answer here is to rip up the rails à la Rob Ford and replace the streetcars with buses; but it did underline the fact that streetcars don’t intrinsically move any faster, although the riding experience is considerably more pleasant.

Coming from Chicago, Toronto’s street grid felt very familiar. There is a distinctive lack of diagonal arteries by comparison, and there’s unfortunately no “Philadelphia system” of house numbering, so you can’t say that Eglinton is “2300 North,” in the way that you can say it in many cities west of the Appalachians.

Toronto’s long continuous straight thoroughfares lend themselves to long bus/streetcar routes that largely follow one street: so you can get lines like the Queen, Eglinton or Lawrence lines, much like you have the Fullerton, Garfield or Western buses in Chicago (in contrast to places like Boston, New York or Washington, whose buses I find confusing both in naming and in route.) The subway lines largely follow surface streets, as you can see in their names: the Yonge-University-Spadina and Bloor-Danforth subways follow, well, Yonge, University, Spadina, Bloor and Danforth streets. In fact, the in-car maps on the subway have street grid numbers to help identify addresses along those streets, much like how all of Chicago’s L stations have street coordinates on the signs.

The one thing I will pile on the TTC for is: token and paper transfers?! I mean, I enjoyed attempting to decipher the cryptic codes on the transfer slips, and the tokens were a blast-from-a-past-I-never-experienced (I’ve never taken any transit system at a point when tokens remained the only way to pay the fare.) The TTC’s passes do come in paper card form, but even then these have to be scanned by TTC operators and subway station attendants. It’s just surprising that individual fares are still being issued on tokens and not some sort of smart card.

On the other hand, I’m a big fan of the way that bus-subway and streetcar-subway transfers are smoothly integrated in the city outside of downtown: I took the 28A Davisville bus from the Evergreen Brick Works, which pulled into a bay inside the fare-paid section of the Davisville subway, meaning that I didn’t have to pay another fare. It’s diametrically opposed to the Los Angeles approach, where many transit riders are illogically punished by having to pay double fare to transfer, and underlines the grid-based nature of Toronto’s system. Obviously, for those with passes, this doesn’t matter. But psychologically, I think that it underlines the fact that transfers are a natural, normal part of a well-functioning transit system.

By comparison, the CTA’s Orange Line is the line with the best bus-train integration — although the location of many of those stations, between highways, industrial canals or strip malls, dictates that many, if not most, of the riders arrive by bus — with dedicated bus bays, but the Orange Line stations don’t incorporate a single fare-paid zone.

Finally, Toronto has some snazzy bus shelters. Even in some more suburban areas that I would assume don’t see extremely high ridership, I saw some nicely appointed bus stations that go a little way toward avoiding the second-class (or worse) status to which the bus rider is often relegated.

A forest of condos
North York is supposedly Toronto’s “second downtown,” and is pretty close to the geographic center of the region today, so I took the Yonge subway up here on a whim on my last Sunday in Toronto to check it out. It’s unlike nearly all suburban development I’ve seen in the United States. The street that it in fact most clearly reminds me of is Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles, which similarly is a linear forest of tall buildings rising starkly away from its squat surroundings. But the vast majority of buildings on Wilshire are commercial and office buildings, while the majority of the tall glass-and-steel behemoths rising on either side of Yonge Street are condos.

North York’s an unmistakeably suburban streetscape: Yonge Street is considerably wider than it is just a few miles south, there are more curb cuts and the number of pedestrians is significantly reduced. At the same time, sidewalks are quite generously proportioned, many of the storefronts are pedestrian-oriented and face onto the street, and of course there’s a reliable form of rapid transit throughout the corridor. The subway from North York Centre to Bloor/Yonge, the busiest in the system, takes no more than 20 minutes.

Encouraging denser development around transit systems is of course axiomatic in modern transit and land-use planning. But what is fascinating about North York is that the visual density around the station is much higher than some closer to the center city (Summerhill or Rosedale, for instance) and that there’s an extremely sharp delineation between the tall condo development and single-family homes. A five-minute walk away from Yonge will bring you to classic postwar inner-ring single-family homes and lawns. It’s a little jarring.

Queen St West

Walking a very long patio
Transit wasn’t actually my main way around the city: I actually ended up using walking as my primary method of transportation, and as an attraction in itself — I spent most of my Friday walking down Queen Street West from downtown Toronto to Roncesvalles, circling north on Roncesvalles and walking back downtown on Dundas.

Queen Street West is one of my favorite urban streets. Many of the shops on that street don’t even really appeal to me, and I’ve never been much of an fine art/gallery kind of guy, which comprises a large portion of the street. (The one thing I did do was poke my head into several bookstores, of which Toronto seems to still be amply supplied — at least for now). But the storefronts on Queen Street, for the most part, come up to the street and are continuously built-up; there are very few surface parking lots, cars can be parked all the way along the street and there’s of course a streetcar line running down the entire length.

Queen Street compares favorably to the other large public space I saw in Toronto, Yonge-Dundas Square. That was filled with lots of people à la Times Square in Manhattan, but seemed to be largely a glitzy crossroads of people trying to get from one place to another. Queen Street’s also obviously filled with people trying to get from one place to another, but it seems more of an organic public realm — people lingered and chatted, they strolled, they popped in and out of stores. In many ways, as I read in American Urban Form, the street is the North American public space par excellence, and so it seems appropriate that Queen Street was one of the best public spaces — “patios,” if you will — that I encountered on my trip.

Next week: Toronto’s landscape, both industrial and natural

Written by Andrew ACG

September 20, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Chicago’s Pedestrian Plan: a West Town pedestrian’s thoughts

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The city of Chicago’s glossy Pedestrian Plan is pretty impressive. The plan’s substantive recommendations are broken down into safety, connectivity, livability and health sections. Given that pedestrian safety and accommodations are by no means evenly protected nationwide, it’s a timely subject. Closer to home,  my own Wicker Park/West Town pedestrian experience provides a lot of food for thought.

One very basic step that I don’t think is present is to simply repaint all the lane and crosswalk markings on the street. Many lane markings are already close to nonexistent, and given Chicago’s northerly location, there are large chunks of the year when traveling both before and after work are completely in the dark, only making it harder to discern where there are any stops. The stretch of Division Street between the Kennedy and Ashland is particularly badly painted, in my experience, and it doesn’t help that it’s next to a dank underpass.

Similarly, stop signs should be clearly visible for drivers, and care should be taken that foliage in the warm months doesn’t block the signs. I speak from personal experience: again on Division St, I’ve missed a stop sign (once), thankfully not hitting any pedestrians.

With regards to the yellow marked pedestrian signs, I like these insofar as they are remarkably visible from a vehicle. The one closest is to me is on the Paulina St sidewalk, between Bangers & Lace and Starbucks — anecdotally, I’ve found that drivers are more likely to stop for me in the crosswalk once that sign went in. My one concern is that these kind of signs can create the impression that these crosswalks are somehow “special,” when in reality all crosswalks should be treated this way.

I’m particularly interested in the city’s footnote on page 69, in its “Connectivity” section, that the city is considering creating parking maximums for locations within an eighth of a mile of a transit station. I’m particularly interested in this (having written about buildings close to transit stations before) as I’ve found that in Chicago, there are numerous rail stations that have pretty pedestrian-unfriendly development around them — not even counting the expressway

The three Blue Line stops of Western, Damen and Division provide a particularly apt continuum for comparison. Damen’s the “best” here, with relatively pedestrian-friendly development radiating out in most directions from the station. Western, just half a mile northwest, I’ve always found to be particularly unfriendly: from the elevated station, there are two surface parking lots on either side of Western and a McDonald’s with more surface parking, not to mention Western Ave itself, which is already a pretty wide street.

I always think of the optimal model in these cases being Arlington’s corridor model in the greater DC area, with density skewing downwards from each Metro station — at least in theory — all the way down to street. Of course, this is more easily said than done, particularly when large portions of Chicago’s rail system are decades older than the DC Metro — I don’t think tearing down buildings and mandating skyscraper construction around the L is going to work. But mandating that future development take transit proximity into account with regards to parking is a good start.

Finally, a suggestion that’s a little bit out of left field, but I didn’t find any mention of sidewalk trees in the plan. This is obviously costly. But research has definitely found that trees on a sidewalk, even when they are leafless in the winter, contribute to the pedestrian experience. My least favorite long stretch of sidewalk in my neighborhood is on Augusta Ave, precisely because it’s already a narrow, often poorly-maintained sidewalk that lacks any sort of street foliage cover.

The Chicago pedestrian plan is a good start, although as always these plans are more easily achievable on paper than they are in real life. But it sounds

Written by Andrew ACG

September 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Chicago, Pedestrian