Viewpoint (November 01, 2002)

The reclamation of disused industrial waterfronts has become an important theme in the North American city. In this issue, Trevor Boddy reviews the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington by Arthur Erickson and Nick Milkovich Architects, a building whose roof-cum-landscape constitutes an important link between the city and its previously forgotten waterfront.

In recent years, Toronto has turned its attention to its long-neglected lakefront, where huge tracts of land have become available thanks to what urban designer Ken Greenberg has called “the retreat of the industrial glacier.” Had the city been selected as the venue for the 2008 Summer Games, Toronto’s Port Lands would have been home to an Olympic Village whose legacy might have been a mix of housing and cultural and athletic facilities. In the wake of the failed Olympic bid, the future of the Port Lands remains less clearly defined. However, given that Toronto’s population is expected grow by close to one million people over the next 30 years, there’s little doubt that this valuable resource will become an important area of development.

Last month, Toronto’s Department of Urban Development Services hosted a charrette, the Toronto Waterfront Design Initiative (TWDI), to solicit a range of strategies to supplement the City’s Master Concept Plan for the Port Lands. Six teams were enlisted to consider a portion of the overall area and propose ideas for its development. One team was headed up by Jack Diamond, and another by Ken Greenberg in association with Peter Clewes of Architects Alliance, all of Toronto. Visitors from abroad included Antoine Grumbach from Paris, Erick von Egeraat from Rotterdam, Fred Koetter of Boston, and Paul Ostergaard from Pittsburgh with John Ellis from San Francisco, each of whom headed up teams that included a mix of local and visiting architects and planners.

The teams proposed strategies that ranged from the pragmatic to the whimsical, from deterministic to open-ended. There were common threads connecting the six proposals; each emphasized, for example, the importance of a lively mix of uses. But the teams presented divergent and even conflicting opinions about how to approach the reclamation of this urban resource. Diamond’s team argued against the extensive provision of parkland, claiming that the best waterfronts accommodate a critical mass of urban activity; Greenberg’s proposed the bioremediation of the mouth of the Don River (pictured above), long abused as a sewer for industrial effluent.

That the proposals represent a diversity of approaches serves as an important reminder of the often conflicting forces that drive the development of successful cities. The late Charles Moore’s statement, “I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or,'” asserts the value of finding a balance between what may seem to be opposites: public and private, large and small, the natural and the constructed. Initiatives like the TWDI provide important opportunities to explore alternatives to what have become normative notions of city-making, especially with the public sector having largely abdicated its role in directing development to private interests. Jack Diamond argued that, contrary to the notion of setting density targets to generate the necessary return for the development of infrastructure, density should be set on the basis of desired urban outcomes, with the public sector taking responsibility for infrastructure investment. As we debate how to go about developing our urban waterfronts, the ghost of Charles Moore haunts us still. Diamond’s comments call to mind Moore’s famous essay, also invoked by Trevor Boddy in his review of the Museum of Glass: “You Have to Pay for the Public Life.”