Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Same OLD story: history of urban renewal

Went down yesterday to an overflow press conference with Toronto mayor John Tory and a crowd of other politicians and urban planning luminaries.  They were announcing "Project: Under Gardiner," a clever and not very costly plan ($25 million, donated) to turn the space under the downtown Gardiner Expressway, always accepted to be a grim godawful unuseable wasteland, into a urban playground. Landscaping, cultural amenities, bike and pedestrian walkways, all placed under the sheltering five-storeys-above roof provided by the highway, will now turn the Under Gardiner into "back yard and front room" for the 70,000 people who already live in the vertical city that has blossomed in the former industrial zone and transportation corridor on the west side of downtown.

Although the presser was held in a (spacious, convenient, well-appointed) space at the recently opened Visitor Centre of Fort York National Historic Park, and although speakers did allude to the potential of the fort's green spaces for dog-walking, cycling, kite-flying and the like, almost none of the pols and planners on the podium mentioned how the historic space has in fact been the prime mover in reconceptualizing the once-blighted space around it. For about 20 years people associated with the fort, foreseeing the new residential population about to settle in the area, have worked to make the fort the key identifier (Fort York Neighborhood, @FortYork, etc) of the new community, and also to maximize the value of the historic property to community values and community life. The Fort York campus is the largest green space in the community and the central node of the new non-car connections in the area, and the Visitor Centre is both an architectural asset and the best place for the community to gather (as at the press conference).  With no loss of its historic significance, Fort York has "suddenly" moved from being stuck in a peripheral wasteland no one wanted to visit to being the jewel of one of the hottest new neighborhood in Toronto.

This is not unique or strange or odd. It is always historic sites and heritage architecture - and the derided buffs and geeks who value them -- that lead in the preservation and then the rehabilitation of undervalued urban spaces.  Even when the planners and architects take the credit.

Photo:  Project: Under Gardiner, via Globe and Mail

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