Viewpoint (May 01, 2006)

On a recent spring day, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (TWRC) organized a leisurely boat cruise to launch the latest design competition seeking to connect a 3.5-kilometre stretch of the waterfront focusing on various key sites along the water’s edge. Selected by a jury comprised of Atom Egoyan, Bruce Mau, Ken Greenberg, Brigitte Shim, Claude Cormier and Lise Anne Couture, five teams were chosen: Foster and Partners, Stan Allen Architects, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, West 8 and Snhetta. Each was partnered with at least one Toronto firm and will be given $30,000 for their troubles. The teams were given six weeks to produce their designs, and the schemes were presented during the second week of May in a public exhibition. The final results will be announced at the end of this month. While funding for the project is secured, the amount is not very ambitious: $18 million has been approved for rebuilding the heads of the slips over a 10-year period.

Are we cynical? You bet. Toronto has gone through countless design competitions. This latest competition is the equivalent of applying a band-aid solution to what’s ailing Toronto’s waterfront. It will be interesting to see what happens when the winner finds out that the TWRC doesn’t always have the ultimate authority on the entire waterfront, or that there is insufficient funding and a lack of political will to implement the selected vision. Toronto’s culture seems to support initiatives that throw design ideas against the rocks along Lake Ontario’s shoreline.

But what of the many other neglected neighbourhoods across Toronto, or any other city for that matter? Cities inherently contain overlooked areas which are arguably more important for the identity of a city than a destination zone along the waterfront. The Design Exchange, in association with the City of Toronto’s Clean & Beautiful City Neighbourhood Beautification Project, has recently pursued an initiative entitled Orphan Spaces that hopes to empower several forgotten Toronto neighbourhoods and help them fulfill their maximum potential.

With a budget amounting to the cost of a buffet lunch on the TWRC’s recent boat cruise, a companion exhibition also entitled Orphan Spaces will be on display at the Design Exchange this month, in time for the city-wide Festival of Architecture & Design. Several design teams have proposed their visions for the reinterpretation of underutilized spaces across the city of Toronto in areas that are not currently represented by Business Improvement Areas, and which are located in neighbourhoods that are economically or urbanistically challenged. These neighbourhoods have tremendous cultural, historical and social assets but are in need of having their economic and urban design opportunities maximized.

Facilitated through a process involving local activists, politicians, city officials and economic development representatives from the public sector, the participating design teams were introduced to a grassroots level of urban visioning that is tied to strategic developments designed to boost local communities in a modest yet effective way. Seven neighbourhoods in the city worked with local design teams, and will hopefully continue to find the ways and means of financing the outcomes of this competition/charrette/speculative venture, as there is enough interest and concern to implement the proposed urban initiatives. By engaging design professionals, community members and students who are interested in building upon a neighbourhood context that can benefit from visionary and socially inclusive design schemes, Orphan Spaces may prove to be a very successful and productive program that other cities will find useful in applying to their own neighbourhoods.