Viewpoint (June 01, 2004)

Biking through Cabbagetown the other day, I noticed quite a few flowerboxes positioned on windowsills. They reminded me of a seemingly benign presentation by New Urbanist Ray Gindroz, a principal of Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, that happened a week earlier. As part of Toronto’s Roundtable on a Beautiful City, a new initiative to improve Toronto’s image, Gindroz’s presentation demonstrates the dangers of codifying an urban design process that fails to address the deeper needs of the contemporary city. Citing Barcelona’s initiative of encouraging its citizenry to plant flowers on windowsills as a successful urban design strategy in advance of the 1992 Olympics, Gindroz’s presentation could effectively be described as “Flowerbox Urbanism.” Barcelona’s architectural renaissance has made it the darling city the world over. Its success involves a whole lot more than geraniums.

Centred around a plan to redevelop the West Donlands, a critical area along the waterfront and immediately east of the Distillery District, Gindroz’s proposal has the potential of becoming a suburban experience that loosely adopts and widely misinterprets the meaning of the architectural elements to be found within the existing context. There is a concern that he is attempting to invoke nostalgia through the proposal of a simplified architectural pattern book to be used by developers in conjunction with a series of public design charrettes. His process requires careful monitoring as it is often used by developers to prove to the public that they have gone through a process of due diligence. The Distillery District is an emerging and sensitive area of the city that needs to entrench and sustain its viability. For this reason alone, Toronto’s Roundtable on a Beautiful City needs careful attention.

By providing irrelevant precedent analysis for public consumption, Gindroz went on to declare the virtues of Paris through the paintings of Monet. We don’t need to be educated about the Champs Elyses. Instead we should be made aware of the recent and ongoing revitalization of Saint-Denis to the northeast of Paris. Discussing St. Petersburg’s acute problems of safeguarding its cultural heritage from private developers who are snapping up valuable buildings and then destroying, flipping or rendering them so exclusive that nobody but the very rich can afford to appreciate its heritage would be far more useful than extolling the virtues of its 18th-century canals. Instead of being shown “urban harmony” through the nostalgic image of a 1930s Manhattan skyscraper, we should be discussing the great divide caused by Manhattan’s West Side Highway and use this as a means of comparison with the difficulties associated with the Richmond Street flyover and the Gardiner Expressway. Being treated to photos of the high-end dog-walkers, lamp standards and benches of Battery Park City–ostensibly a sequestered suburban community located in Lower Manhattan– is not entirely a successful model of development.

Gindroz let it be known that “people need to act in an entrepreneurial and financial way to act and care for a new kind of vision.” Using his redevelopment plan for the waterfront in Norfolk, Virginia, he brought up the concept of “ambassadors” that would circulate through the site, pick up garbage and guide visitors to the nearest retail emporium. As the session drew to a close, he noted that one must be able to bring “corporations, foundations and institutions around a central vision” and that “planting geraniums and creating a kind of paradise” counts as one of these visions that exemplifies the diversity of the neighbourhood by allowing different people to plant the same kind of flowers. We deserve better than Flowerbox Urbanism. Ian Chodikoff