Viewpoint (September 01, 2004)

In mid-July, David Caplan, Minister of the Ontario Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal released a discussion paper entitled Places to Grow: Better Choices, Brighter Future that attempted to describe a general framework for the growth of 26 urban centres in Ontario over the next 30 years. The report looked at existing land uses such as roads, hospitals, schools and transit systems. The discussion paper contained a lot of references to issues of “smart growth,” “sustainability” and “infrastructure”–topics of validity and purpose but which are meaningless unless a concrete strategy is devised to ensure their successful implementation. While it is noble that the province is looking at ways of preserving farmland or limiting the powers of the pro-developer Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), it remains to be seen whether there will be tangible results emerging from the discussion paper. And while many other provinces are encountering similar obstacles where there is a disconnect between policy and implementation, the situation in Ontario is particularly acute, given the scale at which the region is developing. As the provincial and federal governments are learning to respond to the needs of cities, it is important that they do not confound the issues of growth, infrastructure and basic processes relating to new architectural commissions. The physical issues of sprawl, housing, health care and education will need to be parsed out and then linked together so that there is a clear distinction amongst them.

Lumping together projects such as hospitals and schools within the category of “infrastructure” is dangerous. The consideration of a school or hospital as infrastructure means that architectural commissions for these projects may become increasingly utilitarian and would thus lower the bar of publicly funded architecture. Infrastructural improvements can be architectural but architecture cannot be equated with infrastructure.

Infrastructure can incorporate many aspects of urbanization that might include road ecology, stormwater management systems, power generation, highways, toll-roads and mass transit. Infrastructure should be thought of as not only a matter of technical efficiency, like Boston’s Central Artery Project or Vancouver’s SkyTrain system, but as an issue that must address social and environmental issues in accordance with growth patterns within a region. Additionally, infrastructure serves as a catalyst for a variety of public and private programs to exist. To function intelligently, infrastructure programs should be thought of as a platform upon which architecture can be built. Policies should be coherent and visionary in order for successful initiatives to occur.

Architects need to assist provincial governments in establishing more coherent guidelines and implementation strategies for existing and emerging urban centres. We can act as an effective broker between our clients (developers) and government leaders to strengthen the coherence of urban development at a large scale that incorporates sustainability, smart growth and infrastructure mandates. Architects are also better prepared to disseminate these issues to the construction industry in a more cost-efficient and cost-effective manner. Our involvement will also avoid the possibility of our governments confounding two important elements that constitute our built environment: architecture and infrastructure.