News / Toronto

'The city is a giant R&D lab:' Architect and planner Ken Greenberg talks Toronto

"It's not the most perfect or elegant city, but the churn that's going on in Toronto, i just find it so endlessly interesting," says Ken Greenberg.

Ken Greenberg’s fingerprints are all over Toronto. He was the director of the city’s architecture and urban design department from 1977 to 1987 and has been involved in nearly every major urban revamp in the city for the past three decades, from the revitalization of Regent Park to the new Under Gardiner project, which will reclaim 10 acres of public space beneath the controversial expressway. The accomplished architect and planning powerhouse stopped by Metro Wednesday to talk about Toronto’s complicated relationship with the car, and how to build a city of the 21st century.

Liz Beddall/Metro

Ken Greenberg’s fingerprints are all over Toronto. He was the director of the city’s architecture and urban design department from 1977 to 1987 and has been involved in nearly every major urban revamp in the city for the past three decades, from the revitalization of Regent Park to the new Under Gardiner project, which will reclaim 10 acres of public space beneath the controversial expressway. The accomplished architect and planning powerhouse stopped by Metro Wednesday to talk about Toronto’s complicated relationship with the car, and how to build a city of the 21st century.

Toronto must overcome decades of car-centric planning in order to become a city of the 21st century, says the former director of architecture and urban design.

In the amalgamated city of Toronto, nearly two-thirds of people live in areas that, as Ken Greenberg puts it, “were designed around the automobile.”

“Everything is connected by car. You’re not meant to walk around,” he said. “It’s a different lifestyle.”

But as more Canadians – particularly young ones – flock to major cities, that’s changing.

Greenberg is fond of pointing out that a quarter of North Americans aged 16 to 34 don’t have a driver’s license. Millennials are moving beyond the automobile, he said, and cities like Toronto need to catch up.

“Toronto is having an identity crisis at the moment. We’re trying to figure out as a city how we move to a world where we’re less dependent on the car,” he said. “But the politics of that is complicated.”

Case in point: the Gardiner Expressway. The city is spending $1 billion to prop up its eastern stretch in order to save a small number of drivers two to three minutes a day.

Greenberg, who helped revitalize Regent Park and is heading up the new Under Gardiner project, says the private sector has been quicker to adapt to the return of urbanism than city officials.

“Developers who are being driven by the market are providing fewer parking spaces in new buildings, for example,” he said. “We used to talk about two spaces for every unit and now we’re down in some places to one for every four units.”

Greenberg urged municipal leaders to follow suit, lest they cede their authority to developers or “disruptive” companies like Uber, Airbnb or Google.

“There’s an inevitability about the shift,” he said. “The question is how gracefully we do it or how awkwardly and grudgingly we move in that direction.”

On the Gardiner

Greenberg was “disappointed” when council voted to maintain the expressway’s eastern leg, but now that we’re stuck with the roadway, he wants to make the best of it. The Under Gardiner project, made possible by a $25 million philanthropic donation, seeks to take back a sizable portion of the public realm that was previously given over to cars.

“It’s thinking about a piece of infrastructure that was built 70 years ago in a whole new way,” he said. “I think it will play back to us the city that we are becoming.”

On John Tory

The mayor’s support for maintaining the Gardiner didn’t win him any points with Greenberg, but his vocal support of the Under Gardiner project certainly did.

“People grow in office,” Greenberg said. “I see John Tory finding his stride. He’s talking about evidence-based decision making … and one of his slogans was ‘One City’ – trying to bring people together – and I see more and more evidence of him working towards that.”

On self-driving cars

For an avowed cyclist, Greenberg has quite a fascination with self-driving cars. The 70-year-old architect sees the impending arrival of autonomous vehicles as a kind of litmus test for cities. One on hand, they could be an excellent addition to public transit networks, he said, helping ferry people “the last mile” between GO stations and their homes or workplaces. But on the other, he’s concerned they could lead to a retrenchment of the private automobile.

“That scares me a little,” he said.

On Toronto and the world

Greenberg has worked and lived in cities ranging from Paris to Amsterdam and Hong Kong, but he keeps returning to Toronto. He believes Toronto has much to learn from other cities – particularly in terms of shifting from “traffic” planning to “transportation” planning – but also something to teach them.

“Toronto’s outstanding contribution … is that we have brought so many people from all over the world to live together,” he said, noting other cities, including Tokyo and Copenhagen, look to Toronto as a model for integration.

On embracing risk

Greenberg’s biggest piece of advice to Toronto was to be less risk-averse. Many cities in the developing world, including Bogota and Mumbai, are bursting with pilot projects and experiments with new urban initiatives. Toronto is moving in the right direction, he said, but remains bogged down by “layers and layers of regulation” and “ponderous and expensive” environmental assessment processes.

“What a city really is is a giant R&D lab, full of trial and error. We need to embrace that,” he said.

Liz Beddall/Metro

Toronto must overcome decades of car-centric planning in order to become a city of the 21st century, says the former director of architecture and urban design.

In the amalgamated city of Toronto, nearly two-thirds of people live in areas that, as Ken Greenberg puts it, “were designed around the automobile.”

“Everything is connected by car. You’re not meant to walk around,” he said. “It’s a different lifestyle.”

But as more Canadians – particularly young ones – flock to major cities, that’s changing.

Greenberg is fond of pointing out that a quarter of North Americans aged 16 to 34 don’t have a driver’s license. Millennials are moving beyond the automobile, he said, and cities like Toronto need to catch up.

“Toronto is having an identity crisis at the moment. We’re trying to figure out as a city how we move to a world where we’re less dependent on the car,” he said. “But the politics of that is complicated.”

Case in point: the Gardiner Expressway. The city is spending $1 billion to prop up its eastern stretch in order to save a small number of drivers two to three minutes a day.

Greenberg, who helped revitalize Regent Park and is heading up the new Under Gardiner project, says the private sector has been quicker to adapt to the return of urbanism than city officials.

“Developers who are being driven by the market are providing fewer parking spaces in new buildings, for example,” he said. “We used to talk about two spaces for every unit and now we’re down in some places to one for every four units.”

Greenberg urged municipal leaders to follow suit, lest they cede their authority to developers or “disruptive” companies like Uber, Airbnb or Google.

“There’s an inevitability about the shift,” he said. “The question is how gracefully we do it or how awkwardly and grudgingly we move in that direction.”

On the Gardiner

Greenberg was “disappointed” when council voted to maintain the expressway’s eastern leg, but now that we’re stuck with the roadway, he wants to make the best of it. The Under Gardiner project, made possible by a $25 million philanthropic donation, seeks to take back a sizable portion of the public realm that was previously given over to cars.

“It’s thinking about a piece of infrastructure that was built 70 years ago in a whole new way,” he said. “I think it will play back to us the city that we are becoming.”

On John Tory

The mayor’s support for maintaining the Gardiner didn’t win him any points with Greenberg, but his vocal support of the Under Gardiner project certainly did.

“People grow in office,” Greenberg said. “I see John Tory finding his stride. He’s talking about evidence-based decision making … and one of his slogans was ‘One City’ – trying to bring people together – and I see more and more evidence of him working towards that.”

On self-driving cars

For an avowed cyclist, Greenberg has quite a fascination with self-driving cars. The 70-year-old architect sees the impending arrival of autonomous vehicles as a kind of litmus test for cities. One on hand, they could be an excellent addition to public transit networks, he said, helping ferry people “the last mile” between GO stations and their homes or workplaces. But on the other, he’s concerned they could lead to a retrenchment of the private automobile.

“That scares me a little,” he said.

On Toronto and the world

Greenberg has worked and lived in cities ranging from Paris to Amsterdam and Hong Kong, but he keeps returning to Toronto. He believes Toronto has much to learn from other cities – particularly in terms of shifting from “traffic” planning to “transportation” planning – but also something to teach them.

“Toronto’s outstanding contribution … is that we have brought so many people from all over the world to live together,” he said, noting other cities, including Tokyo and Copenhagen, look to Toronto as a model for integration.

On embracing risk

Greenberg’s biggest piece of advice to Toronto was to be less risk-averse. Many cities in the developing world, including Bogota and Mumbai, are bursting with pilot projects and experiments with new urban initiatives. Toronto is moving in the right direction, he said, but remains bogged down by “layers and layers of regulation” and “ponderous and expensive” environmental assessment processes.

“What a city really is is a giant R&D lab, full of trial and error. We need to embrace that,” he said.

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