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About the Author

Ken Greenberg

Ken Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher, and writer based in Toronto, whose passion and advocacy for the city over the past decades has involved him in virtually every aspect of its remarkable transformation. He lives in the Wellington Place neighbourhood.

Books by this Author
Toronto Reborn

Toronto Reborn

Design Successes and Challenges
by Ken Greenberg
foreword by David Crombie
afterword by Zahra Ebrahim
also available: eBook
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Toronto as Crucible

I arrived in Toronto in 1968, immigrating from the United States in the period of great turmoil caused by the war in Vietnam.

Although I relocated under duress, I immediately felt welcomed. The city felt remarkably malleable, not fully formed. It seemed to be still evolving, open to new ideas and desires, receptive to reshaping by me and other new arrivals. I had the sense that this was a place where I could contribute and most fully be myself. Toronto was on the cusp of a great change, and I was quickly caught up in the unfolding story of my adopted city. After completing my studies, I worked as a young architect, and then founded the Division of Architecture and Urban Design at the City of Toronto, running it for ten years under the direction of three mayors: David Crombie, John Sewell, and Art Eggleton.

Through this stint at city hall and later work as a professional (and engagement as a citizen), I have had a front-row seat as a participant and observer during decades of remarkable, often inspiring — and at times frustrating — change in this extraordinary city. I shared some of this experience in my earlier book, Walking Home, published in 2011, in which Toronto had a role among many cities. This book gives me a chance to come back to what is happening in Toronto almost a decade later in a more focused way.

Each of us has some stressful formative experiences that motivate (and sometimes obsess or even traumatize) us. One of my own subterranean drivers comes from my childhood peregrinations. Moving from place to place, often abruptly, changing cities, countries, neighbourhoods, schools (sometimes in mid-year), and friends was disruptive to say the least, even if sometimes it felt exciting. In hindsight, I realize that this constant dislocation has led to an intense compensating homing instinct, and, though coupled with a taste for travel, a need to be rooted in a place. This, in part, is what steered me to my career in urban design and to my intense love affair with Toronto. Like an attentive lover, I have been sensitive to its changes and moods ever since.

I am convinced that something out of the ordinary, if not truly unique, is occurring in Toronto. It feels like the city is emerging from a chrysalis. The processes of continual redefinition and renewal have ever been in play in our city, and there have been other periods of enormous upheaval and growth spurts; but in the last fifteen years or so, the direction has altered while the pace of change has intensified and accelerated. Fuelled by a powerful vortex of market forces and demographic pressures, Toronto has become a locus for immigration, investment, and development, and our current spectacular growth shows no sign of abating.

Toronto is being transformed by the simultaneous pressures of enormous and sustained growth; an unparalleled increase in the city’s diversity, bringing an expansion of the talent pool and new ideas; an imperative to achieve greater environmental sustainability; and relentless, often disruptive technological innovation. The city is very rapidly becoming more vertical, denser, and more mixed.

All of these factors are present to some degree in other places, but in Toronto the first and second — radical growth and an increase in the ethnic diversity in the population — are at unusually high levels. These forces are converging to form a crucible in which radical change and innovation are being galvanized. It is rocking the status quo of previous assumptions, familiar ways, rules, and practices, and pushing us out of our comfort zone. The city is at the tipping point, in the throes of a rebirth.

I have come to believe that Toronto has moved to a new level and is at a decisive moment of transformation into a new type of city: changing as much in kind as in scale. The contours of this new city are becoming visible, emerging from the old established roots — literally arising on the frame, the traces, the memories, and the structures (physical, social, economic, cultural) of an older Toronto. The city is being pushed into this new territory by an infusion of new, boundary-stretching ideas and forces.

I believe that much of what has led to the remarkable transformational shift underway in Toronto can be traced back to a critical turning point in the late 1960s and 1970s, which I described briefly in Walking Home. At that time, my introduction to the city and the launch of my career coincided with a dramatic series of events that set the stage for what was to come. Toronto was a city on the verge of massive change in line with the anticity polemic of that era. But then, a dramatic series of events occurred, setting the stage for a major course correction.

Toronto’s guide to its future in 1969, its Official Plan (like that found in many other cities at that time), called for a kind of progress inspired by the principles of what was then the modern movement in city planning. Among other things, it was based on a full embrace of the private automobile, including massive highway construction (with a complete interwoven network including the Spadina, Scarborough, and Crosstown Expressways); ripping up streetcar tracks; separating places of living from places of work as much as possible; replacing traditional main streets with shopping malls — the Dufferin, Pape and Gerrard Malls were, in fact, built as prototypes; demolition of major civic buildings — Union Station, Old City Hall, and the St. Lawrence Market were all considered for demolition — to make way for the new; and a call for widespread “urban renewal.” A vast boomerang shape indicating proposed demolition appeared on a city document, hovering ominously over the whole downtown and adjacent inner city neighbourhoods. In other words, a gutting of the city was in the offing, preparing it to be remade in the name of a then widely held view of “modernity.”

To many, these were frightening prospects. A citizen resistance grew out of a unique amalgam of the city’s traditional small c conservatism and a new, left-of-centre coalition, motivated by a sense of civic empowerment and led by an engaged civic leadership. The resistance grew like a snowball, gaining momentum as new champions emerged. In a series of hotly contested municipal elections, an increasing number of progressive city councillors were elected, supported by grassroots activism and community backlash.

Once they had a majority, the new “reform council,” led by beloved mayor David Crombie, used their mandate to reverse course, rejecting the dominant postwar modernist template. With the unlikely intervention of then premier William Davis, they famously put a highly symbolic nail in the coffin of the Spadina Expressway, which would have eviscerated a series of downtown neighbourhoods, and cancelled a whole network of other city-damaging highways in its wake.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the change. This was a complete about-face for the city, one that would have far-reaching consequences, setting Toronto on a very different trajectory. The car was significantly dethroned as the primary mode of transportation; plans to rip up streetcar lines were thwarted, making Toronto one of the few cities on the continent to retain this form of transit. Urban renewal and “blockbusting” of long-established neighbourhoods to make way for tower-inthe- park style redevelopment was halted. Heritage preservation was embraced, saving a number of cherished structures from demolition — including the St. Lawrence Market, now the throbbing heart of a revitalized neighbourhood; the glorious 1898 Richardsonian Old City Hall; and the magnificent beaux arts Union Station.

The middle class stayed or returned to inner-city neighbourhoods. Population attrition was reversed. The city’s traditional neighbourhood main streets, which had also been scheduled for transformation into car-centric arterial roads, were seen with fresh eyes and received new support from strengthened and decentralized neighbourhood planning site offices and the widely imitated Toronto invention of BIAs (Business Improvement Areas co-funded by the city and local businesses), of which Toronto now has more than any other city.

The separation of land uses (dividing where people lived from where they worked, with an onerous commute by car to bridge the gap) had been exposed as a failed model for urban living; it was not delivering what it promised. The vision of contented citizens able to live in quiet, pastoral suburban neighbourhoods and then make their way quickly to work via wide highways was belied by the reality of the growing inconvenience of congestion, negative impacts on health caused by a sedentary, car-dependent lifestyle, unanticipated social isolation, and mounting environmental impacts.

The reform council pushed back against the “suburbanization” of the downtown core, fighting to prevent the spread of widened roads, a profusion of surface parking lots, and segregated land use. A new Central Area Plan was formulated that introduced mixed-use zoning to the city’s downtown core, and that would eventually bring hundreds of thousands of new residents into the heart of the city to enliven the previously sterile nine-to-five central business (only) district.

The big planning and design challenge: how to actually implement the course correction. This was the challenge that drew me to city hall as a young architect with a growing interest in urban design.

David Crombie recruited me in 1977, along with a whole corps of young, motivated change agents. Working with the newly elected politicians, we formed a think tank, a kind of collegial brain trust. We came from many backgrounds, and not all were formally educated as “planners,” but we shared a mission.

We played different roles on a team dedicated to stopping the speeding freight train of “modernization” and shifting to another paradigm for the city’s future. I headed the newly minted Urban Design Group, which became the city’s Division of Architecture and Design, and my team and I were called upon to play a central role in this transformative moment. It was exhilarating.

We were trying to articulate a competing vision for the city, and we were working in a pressure cooker. Our vision was based on faith in the existing city. Its basic tenets were to move away from land use separations, car dependence, and urban renewal, instead aiming to protect the city’s existing neighbourhoods and architectural heritage, halting the expansion of urban expressways, promoting public transit and pedestrian environments, and encouraging downtown living, with lively main streets as vital neighbourhood spines.

We had a sense of tremendous transformational potential, applying new ideas and concepts that connected all the way from the city street to the city region and expanding the array of available tools and strategies. We aimed to make big moves, pivoting from defence to offence, from stopping the Spadina Expressway to creating the mixed-use Central Area Plan, launching the mixed-income St. Lawrence Neighbourhood for ten thousand new downtown residents on a stretch of obsolescent industrial sites and anchoring it with a linear park on an abandoned rail corridor, and expanding the role of Business Improvement Associations to support local shopping streets.

Combining strategies and tactics, we changed the way planning and urban design were done in Toronto on the fly. Mayor Crombie controversially introduced a forty-five-foot “holding bylaw” to buy time to prepare the Central Area Plan. We pursued a policy of “de-concentration,” linking development and diversification of land use to transit capacity, exporting office space to emerging downtown centres in Scarborough, North York, and Etobicoke.

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Walking Home

Walking Home

The Life and Lessons of a City Builder
also available: Paperback
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My first and recurring experience of a city occurred at 1902 Avenue L off Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, where I was born in 1944 and where I returned to live twice in my youth. Many details of that place have long ago faded, but what remains with me is an enduring mental map of a small piece of the world that included nearby Avenue M, Avenue J, Kings Highway, the BMT subway (today the F Train), Coney Island, numerous neighbourhood streets, the playground that was the centre of my small universe and my school, P.S. 193.
My grandparents had an apartment on the third floor of a six-storey building, and many other family members lived in this neighbourhood of apartment buildings and private houses. Ours was basically a one-bedroom corner apartment with a very small extra room off the kitchen. When we moved in, my grandparents moved into that small room.
My younger sister, Laura, and I slept on the couches in the living room, and my parents took the bedroom. It was crowded and uncomfortable in many ways, but there were compensations in the world outside. I remember hanging out on the roof on summer evenings, collecting butterflies and bottle caps on the streets below with my closest friend, stretching the dining-room table into the living room (with several extensions) for family gatherings, watching Ed Sullivan on the small TV with my grandfather and vacuuming for my grandmother while the radio blared.
We moved in with my grandparents again when I was in second grade. My little universe, the one I could navigate on foot and explore on my own or with friends, was defined by a stretch of Avenue L between the park at E18th Street and my school at E25th Street, where my aunt was a teacher. I often walked home to have lunch with my grandmother. All ages shared the park and playground at E18th. It was well equipped with concrete tables for playing cards (mostly pinochle), handball and basketball courts, a wading pool (which doubled for intense games of dodge ball), swings, see-saws and slides. It even had a park house with a staff and sports equipment to borrow. I spent all my free time after school there. Down the block on Avenue M, my uncle’s father-inlaw had a candy store near the corner, and we shopped in all the small food stores between Ocean Avenue and the subway station, including my favourite, the bakery, where I was sent to buy fresh bread, bagels and bialys. There was also the unforgettable live-chicken market, with its cages, noise and smells, where I shopped with my grandmother.
This small universe would be lost to me when our family moved on in search of employment and a place of our own away from the “crowded” and “congested” city. But now, many decades later and looking back, I can see this neighbourhood had many characteristics that city dwellers now value. At the time, though, we either took them for granted or didn’t have the words now used to describe them—words like “compact,” “walkable,” “transit-oriented,” “dense,” “for all ages,” “mixed-use.” When I returned as an adult, I was surprised to find that, physically, it had changed very little except that the Yiddish signs on some of the stores had given way to Russian. I do recognize that part of my positive feeling for this time and place rests on the fact that at a very young age, I was able to venture around the neighbourhood alone or just with friends. Sadly, times have changed. Even if the streets were safer and more human in scale, today, many parents still wouldn’t be comfortable with that level of freedom for real or perceived safety reasons. To what degree that trend is reversible is a poignant and open question.
Like many others after World War II, my family was experiencing the great collective antsiness, the urge to move to the greener pastures that were opening up outside the city. I was vaguely aware of adult conversations about how the city was deteriorating, while exciting new places to live were opening up in Queens, Long Island, Westchester and points beyond. This was a time of social change, with new emphasis on the nuclear-family household, wondrous new labour-saving devices and, above all, the freedom of the car and the irresistible draw of new highways. I was just as swept up as anyone in the excitement of a Sunday drive on the recently opened Grand Central Parkway or to Jones Beach, all of us packing into my grandfather’s new DeSoto. With a move out of the city, came an assumption of quality, value and status.
We first moved as a family to Fresh Meadows in Queens, a brand-new development funded by New York Life Insurance, and then a year later to a similar development on Brush Creek Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri. These post-war housing developments were full of returning GIs and their young families. With walk-up apartments and townhouses, these developments were like halfway houses on the way to suburbia. Small, bounded enclaves that weren’t exactly city anymore, they represented the beginnings of the pulling away, the sorting out of the city’s varied population into something more homogeneous and controlled.
I witnessed here the creation of a more specialized world, intended only for living, while everything else, like working, happened in some other location. These new, surburban-style neighbourhoods featured their own parking lots, and leaving them usually meant getting in the car. At first, they were actually hybrids, still within the city fabric. However, as they progressively turned inward, their connections to surrounding streets and neighbourhoods started to disappear and their edges grew sterile. The layout of these projects began to reveal what I now recognize as early modernist urban planning (which I’ll come to shortly): “super blocks” with many old streets removed and buildings set well back from the sidewalks of the remaining streets but at different distances, so they appeared to zigzag creating a “sawtooth” effect. There was also one small supermarket, where the parking lot replaced the local shopping street as the main community focus. All the same, this place of business was still far more modest than today’s super-sized versions. The area inside the project was still walkable, but there was none of the variety found in my Brooklyn neighbourhood, and the traffic rivers on its edges were getting wider and faster. It fascinates me to look back at this development formula. As we now try to create less cardependent “urban places” within suburban settings, we sometimes cross paths with this earlier transitional stage, though we’re going in the other direction.
In 1954, we finally moved to real suburbia, to our own single-family house on Beacon Street in Newton, Massachusetts. Our neighbourhood was just inside the rapidly changing edge of older neighbourhoods where Route 128 had just been built, ringing Boston on the border between countryside and city. This place was closer to the suburban pastoral ideal. Waban Village Center on the commuter line (now the Green Line of the “T”) was a short distance away, providing a quick train ride into downtown Boston. At the same time this was one of a scattering of historic or historically inspired “urban villages” close to the countryside. There was still the smell of real farmland, collecting tadpoles and fishing in creeks and ponds was within my reach. But the landscape was changing rapidly, and in a short time the nearby countryside would fill in around us with newer suburbs.
Then, in 1958, an unexpected break took place in my family’s migratory pattern. My father had accepted an offer for a two-year assignment in Geneva, Switzerland.
We moved into a relatively new, modern apartment building on Rue Crespin, not far from the historic centre, and I made the liberating discovery of a city within the reach of a teenager. My world had expanded; I was no longer dependent on being chauffeured around. I had to get a bicycle licence and learn the rules of the road to pass a road test, but between my bike and the frequent tram service, I had the run of the entire city, including the nearby agricultural villages just outside its boundaries. I planned a multiday bicycle trip around Lac Léman with school friends, staying at youth hostels, and we also visited the Salève, a local mountain that towered over the city just across the border in France. I was enjoying the rites of coming of age with a degree of independence I couldn’t have experienced in suburban America. In short, my family and I were living in a culture where the city was clearly seen as something to enjoy, not a place to escape from. Daily shopping for our household happened practically on our doorstep—at the local Migros supermarket or after a short walk to Geneva’s other main supermarché, Coop, or the nearby street market. My mother took courses at the university. My sister and I created an impressive stamp collection just by soliciting used envelopes from all the consulates and international agencies we could get to on our own. Even as a teenager, this shift raised a lot of questions for me, not in abstract terms but very practically. How did I want to live? Wasn’t this kind of life in a city more desirable than what I had experienced before, with a much more interesting world at my fingertips? This was the beginning of a revelation. What if all the things I’d been been taught to assume about the disadvantages of the “city” were only that—assumptions— and not immutable laws of progress? What if older cities weren’t bad? What if they could become “modern” too? Geneva certainly seemed to have modernized while still retaining its valuable older qualities.
After two years, we moved briefly back to my old Brooklyn neighbourhood, where I attended Midwood High School. I quickly began taking pride in myself as a New Yorker, starting to hang out in Manhattan. My grandparents’ apartment was crowded, but the City was mine. When my family moved again—this time to South Orange, New Jersey, another older suburb on the rail line built around an historic village—I was ready to set out on my own. Amherst College in Massachusetts had already accepted me for early admission, but while waiting for the school year to begin, I was a fish out of water. Without a car in South Orange, I was stranded, but getting one was not the answer. I was still tied by an umbilical cord to Manhattan and found myself constantly running there on a bus or train.
How did my own early trajectory fit into the bigger pattern of domestic migration at the time? While I was jumping in and out of the suburban pool, massive change was afoot. Our outward moves were part of a vast transformation in which cities were stretched and hollowed out and their populations drastically depleted. In the two generations after World War II, the American urban landscape was profoundly reshaped, and when the dust settled, significantly more Americans lived in suburbs than in downtown neighbourhoods. Though there had always been out-migrations (from Manhattan to the Boroughs of New York, for instance), this one was different in magnitude and kind. As the rings on the periphery now began to dwarf the centre, the centre itself was being reshaped according to a radically different vision.

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Where Angels Come to Earth

Where Angels Come to Earth

An Evocation of the Italian Piazza
by (photographer) Vincenzo Pietropaolo
text by Mark Frutkin
foreword by Ken Greenberg
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“Italy is indeed the kingdom of the piazza, the ubiquitous city square that is a key element in Italian architecture as well as its social, economic and cultural life – and the reason so many Italian cities today remain civilized places to live. Piazzas offer vibrant, diverse spaces that continually recreate and revitalize the urban environment. Many of them also happen to be extraordinarily beautiful.”

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