Sometimes We All Need To Be A Little Aspirational

June 1, 2015


(There’s an old Rodney Dangerfield joke that goes something like this:

Rodney’s talking to his agent who’s suggesting the comic change his name, to be a little more acceptable to the mainstream. “What’s in a name?” Dangerfield counters. “William Shakespeare.” His agent, looking puzzled, replies: “Who are you gonna listen to? Me or your friend?”

Who are we going to listen to when it comes to deciding on a major piece of infrastructure like the eastern 1.7 kilometre portion of the Gardiner expressway? A mayor who is, for reasons still obscure, determined to maintain (with only slight but highly damaging modifications) the status quo by ignoring an… a-hem, a-hem… elevated mountain of expert evidence or those very expert voices that are trained to make planning and design decisions that best adapt to the city’s future needs?

Here is one of those voices, Roger Keil, Chair in Global Sub/Urban Studies at York University. He’s kindly given us permission to re-post an excerpt from his fantastic weekend Facebook piece. Read it. Link to to it. Share it. Contact your city councillor to let them know that following Mayor Tory down his misguided Gardiner east path is a nothing less than redoing past mistakes. Honest mistakes then. A willful one now because we should know better.)

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“The same machines that built this place, can take it down again!”*

Every few years Toronto, in its search for a sustainable future, is confronted with another planning decision that will stall – or propel – its ambition to become a true city of the 21st century. This was the case with the famed Spadina Expressway that was stopped before it could slice Toronto’s civility into pieces. At the end of the era of the downtown bypass, almost half a century later, we are now confronted with a similar conundrum: To tear down, or not to tear down the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway. The current administration has expressed its support for the so-called “hybrid” solution, a tepid compromise between the untenable status quo with the crumbling concrete coming crashing down and the possible future of a street-level boulevard to replace the aging, sorry monster that bears the honoured Commissioner’s name.

Fear of taking down the eastern expressway is easy to understand, yet even easier to dispel. Who wants to restart “the war against the car” in Toronto? Nobody. Who wants to unnecessarily upset the auto-mobile suburbanites when they are already alienated? Nobody. Who wants to live with years of unfathomable construction on their doorstep that will surely disaffect even more people? Nobody. Who wants to risk the cost overruns any project of this scale certainly might entail? Nobody.

But let’s assure the wavering members of Toronto’s city council ahead of the decision they will have to make that those fears are unwarranted. The war against the car will most certainly escalate when the Gardiner remains standing. Why? Because traffic on it (and underneath it) certainly will, too. We will create an illusion among the citizens of the entire city, suburban or central, that it is okay to use your car for every mobility need that might arise. We will squander our emerging ingenuity to seek better solutions for all of us in all parts of this transit city to connect everyone to a more equitable share of the Toronto’s opportunities. If we don’t rebuild now, we will see decades of tinkering and summer closures ahead. The writing is already on the cracking wall of the existing structure. And lastly, the immense cost of the existing roadway is already known – and that of the “hybrid,” too. We have unaccounted overruns as we try to fix the irreparable.

The decision on the future of the Gardiner is a case in concrete politics: it is about the removal of a real barricade to the city’s future. But it is both less and more than that, as it has become a symbol more than a concreted roadway, a barrier in our minds more than a barrier at the lakeshore. In some ways, as a symbol, the eastern Gardiner is vastly overrated. The world will not end if it remains in place. The city will live around it. It has become the tail that wags the dog: the little extension on stilts that is sticking out from the downtown towards the eastern beaches. It is hardly important in the grand scheme of things as the city pours concrete into residential and commercial infrastructure everywhere. But in other ways, as a symbol, it will stand as a blockade in our minds for future decisions we make. If we keep it up, if the “hybrid” succeeds, it will stand as a point of reference for our timidity and failure to do the right thing when it counted. As a community, we would slump once again with drooping shoulders when we were asked to be decisive and to point towards a better future. We will be forever losing each battle that lies ahead before it has begun. The “hybrid” Gardiner will be our curse.

Fred Gardiner would ultimately agree. He smiles from somewhere at Toronto planners for their ability to imagine something radically different. That’s what he did, although we might not like the outcomes much anymore as we are seeking urban livability in the 21st century.

As Mayor John Tory expresses his preference for the “hybrid” at this critical juncture in Toronto’s history, he needs to understand this: hardly anybody who has any professional capacity to judge is with him on the issue. Why, we must ask him, would he risk speaking against the wisdom of the planners and urbanists who spend their lives making sense of this city, which he says he loves? Why can’t he trust the planners, urban experts and public health specialists near and far? The “hybrid” is the worst compromise we can imagine. It kills all spirit of reasonable change in Toronto.

(*Credit for the title goes to Winnipeg’s The Details from their song Lost Art.)

hopefully reposted by Cityslikr