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TTC Gets A Wake Up Call

I want to personally thank George Robitaille, the now infamous TTC employee who napped his way onto the front page of local newspapers and became an unlikely Twittersphere sensation.

Until very recently, any time I criticized the TTC, I was sternly rebuffed: accused of being an anti-environmentalist or a self-loathing Torontonian. Or even both.  We had a “world class system” I was told. My criticism upset people.  However, ever since photos of our guy sleeping in a ticket booth gained viral status, TTC bashing is coming from all corners imaginable and fixing the TTC has become the biggest talking point in Toronto’s mayoral race.

Let me add my voice to the mix.

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Architecture Envy

I usually like Christopher Hume. His ideas are often clever and insightful and his arguments well thought out. Unfortunately, I can’t say I feel that way about some of his recent articles.

A little while ago he had this to say about the city of Dubai.

Hume’s conclusion that the city has serious problems is undeniable. But the arguments he uses to get there aren’t well-supported and quickly devolve into straw-man attacks that have little correlation to his objective, ultimately serving up as cheap shots. I lived in Dubai for three years and can say with conviction that the place has its issues. So, I hate when I have to defend Dubai, but here goes…

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Good Energy

Architecture, landscaping and promenades create enjoyable experiences. But it’s the energy that comes from discovery and connection to people and place that leave a lasting impression.

Toronto’s assets, like its energy, may elude the first-time visitor, especially during the winter months. The most special qualities — changing neighbourhoods, mixing cultures, spaces and people — lie under the surface and are best found not by tourists but by the explorer or resident. As a recent resident, I’m noticing changes to the energy of my West Queen West neighbourhood.

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Uncovering Buildings’ Secrets

As an immigrant to North America, one of the things I found hardest to adapt to was my inability to ‘read’ North American buildings. I’d grown up in a culture that used a complex series of symbols and architectural cues to communicate a building’s purpose – and sometimes other information about its owners or commissioners.

In North America, either there was a different system of symbols at work, or more recently, no symbols at all. The driving purpose seemed to be to enclose the biggest volume of space at the lowest possible cost. And as a result, I was hopelessly disoriented. Was that a discount warehouse or a place of worship?

So I was intrigued by this NPR article, that offers a whole new way of reading meaning into buildings.  Leaving aside some obvious caveats (such as, any individual with this capability probably shouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun at the same time), the technology opens up some intriguing possibilities to make our cities more open.

What sort of information would you like to see laid bare by this technology?

By Andrew Horberry
Andrew is Global Account Director at Imagination, a brand communications agency.

photo by AllAboutGeorge

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Architectural Shouting

The ground breaking ceremony (i.e. they put a shovel in the soil, rather than doing anything remotely innovative) this month for the L Tower at Yonge and Front got me thinking about “look at me” buildings. The renders I’ve seen for the L Tower don’t fill me with enthusiasm for Daniel Libeskind’s latest contribution to Toronto’s cityscape, but it can’t be denied that it’s a unique building. And Toronto is beginning to acquire a few examples of stand-out buildings (One St Thomas, for example) that enliven the skyline and streetline.

But what, I wonder, would Toronto make of this? We have our own, rather quieter, version in the shape of the lit up CN Tower. But what would our city look like if every downtown tower adopted this technology – a glorious celebration of energy and diversity, or a rampant cacophony of commercialism?

For my part, I like the dynamic presentation, especially the starfield effect at 5:17, that completely alters perceptions of the building’s shape – but then you have to remember that I used to work in advertising (and even I find the “children of many nations” sequence at 6:05 nauseating).

What do you think? Just a natural extension of “look at me” architecture, or an insidious attempt to extend advertising’s already pernicious reach?

By Andrew Horberry
Andrew is Global Account Director at Imagination, a brand communications agency.

photo by Jphilipg

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First Impressions

Toronto Pearson Airport is our gateway to the world and an entry point for millions to the city. I’ve spent countless hours at the airport, but move through the place on auto-pilot as part of my travel routine. So last night on the way back from New York, I decided to take a step back and see what newcomers experience when first arriving in Toronto.

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A Tale of Two Cities

If Toronto’s decision to transform one lane of Jarvis Street into two bike lanes is “a war on cars” (© opponents of the scheme), what would they call New York’s action to completely close Times Square and Herald Square to cars? A pre-emptive nuclear strike? Armageddon? The End of Days?

Oh, and the New York move has actually happened (without any discernible blip on seismic monitors, and with some unexpected consequences). The Toronto changes won’t take effect immediately – there has to be an environmental study first, and there’s no firm timeline beyond that.

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Building (and Protecting) the Core From the Outside

Suburban sprawl has been undermining core urban health across North America for decades, and the Greater Toronto Area has been no exception. This has been relatively accepted in the mainstream. What has not received equal attention, or the concern it deserves, is the idea of ‘peak oil.’ Peak oil, as described on Wikipedia, “is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.”

Sprawl exacts a heavy toll on our society. It means significantly higher infrastructure costs, longer commutes, higher health costs and the stretching, if not tearing, of our social fabric. These are only some of the ways in which suburban development wastes resources and drains wealth from our urban core. These are also clear present day costs without the context of ‘peak oil.’

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On Thinking Big

TED talks recently featured an inspiring presentation by Shai Agassi titled “A bold plan for the mass adoption of electric cars.” He argues that to succeed, electric cars need to be better, more convenient and more cost-effective than any gasoline-powered car on the market today.

This in itself is hardly revolutionary. What sets his plan aside is the fact that he’s developed a straightforward, actionable plan to turn this vision into a reality and have over ten million electric cars on the world’s roads by 2016. Australia, Denmark, Israel, Hawaii, and the San Francisco bay area have already signed up with many more sure to follow suit.

Sometimes you need to think big.

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Toronto Personality?

You may have noticed new street furniture beginning to roll out across the city. There are lighter glass transit shelters, clunky newspaper boxes and awkwardly curved trash bins. Some functional improvements have been made and the City has achieved its mandate for a more coordinated system.

So, we a have consistency. But what does the new furniture, defined by sterile metal and grey, say about our city? There’s a huge missed opportunity to express personality that is distinctly Toronto. Think London red phone booths and Parisian public washrooms. These unique designs have become associated with those cities. Our design approach feels stuck between generic, inoffensive form and imitation of what’s worked elsewhere like the Time Square-like billboards at Dundas Square.

Why not open ourselves to design that allows us to explore Toronto’s identity and create an ownable image?

At least we have the post-and-ring bike stand. It’s not full of personality, but it’s simple, functional and unique to Toronto. If you haven’t seen the rest of the new street furniture you will — it will be around for the next twenty years.

Wendy Gold, Founder and President of OpenCity Projects, comes from small-town Canada. While living and working abroad, she became fascinated with cities and how people experience them. But it took moving to Toronto to show her the value of a city that embraces cultural diversity and green space.

photo by Jbcurio

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