TOLO - a tale of two waterfront cities

Friday 21 April 2017

Juliana Vasquez © Canada House

London can learn from the way in which Toronto is revitalising its waterfront areas through a concerted push towards high density and the creation of walkable environments. But it perhaps needs a single body to look after its full extent – the equivalent of Waterfront Toronto – with a holistic vision that gets over its currently piecemeal approach.

Those were some of the key points to emerge from a live link-up between those bringing change to both cities yesterday at Canada House as part of NLA’s International Dialogue season.

Minister-counsellor and senior trade commissioner, High Commission of Canada, Greg Houlahan welcomed the audience with a history of Canada House, the second oldest building fronting Trafalgar Square only to St Martin-in-the-Fields. ‘London and Toronto have much in common’, he said. ‘The two cities are defined in many ways by their waterfronts and both have similar challenges’.

Alison Brooks said she could call both cities home despite having lived longer on this side of the Atlantic, and that London’s Thames-side setting and the city itself had been transformed when Bazalgette created the embankments. ‘The riverside became imbued with a sense of possibility’, she said. But not having a body that could oversee the complete regeneration of the Thames was ‘something we need to redress’. The intensification of cities could be helped with the counterpoints that rivers can offer, she added, but London struggles with the fact that the Thames is tidal and ‘fierce’. Brooks said she had been first made aware of how a city can reimagine itself with the Montreal Expo of 1967, and later by Ontario Place, where the architecture of optimism and faith in the future had even led to her marrying there. But waterfronts need to be kept public, Utopian and fun, with a city guardianship maintained, boasting diverse typologies which can contribute to creating an identity.

Diamond Schmitt partner Donald Schmitt said that cities like Ottawa had been affected by their waterfronts being where industry and rail met the water’s edge, a condition that remained in place until 1970. The practice is now redesigning the railway station there into the new home of the senate, reinforcing the importance of the public realm, and bringing that principle to a series of schemes in Toronto too.  Former president and CEO of Waterfront Toronto John Campbell outlined the 13 years of work his organisation has been involved with, planning the waterfront for a ‘liveable city’ and transforming a place previously filled with railways and expressways. He had done so through initiating international design competitions to get the best talent, creating design review panels and leading on the creation of great parks and public spaces. FP Design partner Kathryn Firth said this was one of the key differences between the two cities. ‘We need a Waterfront London’, she said. City of Toronto planner Jennifer Keesmaat said her department is concentrating on creating a city that walks and cycles to work, and on increasing densities in the centre, partially through maintaining the ‘strong public policy lever’ of its Green Belt. The other secrets to the city’s latter-day success include its urban structure plan guiding growth, and tall building guidelines which insist on schemes which add to the city rather than being just a ‘postcard’. ‘There is nothing worse than tall buildings which are not preoccupied with the public realm’, said Keesmat.

Keesmaat added that it was also crucial to build out a public transit network which is an ‘everywhere to everywhere’ service rather than one which concentrates on journeys to the centre alone. Finally, Keesmaat said that ‘public space for public life’ was the hook on which we all hang as the ‘soul of the city’. To this end the city is developing a project to create a 21-acre park built over an existing, operating rail corridor.

Questions from the floor included the thorny issue of house prices, which, mirroring London, have risen by 33% over the last year in Toronto, perhaps through an influx of money from Asia, and which may be addressed through several measures including rent controls and another principle London might look at in time - a foreign buyers’ tax.

David Taylor
Editor, New London Quarterly 

Part of the NLA International Dialogue programme


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Toronto : London


As both London and Toronto tackle critical city-making issues, from tall buildings and suburban regeneration to waterside regeneration, this NLA International Dialogue will bring together experts working in both cities for an exchange of ideas and approaches. How can both cities learn from one another?