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How Green Is My Toronto?

Despite a worrisome future, the city of Toronto boasts a stunning legacy of sustainable design.

September 2011

By Lloyd Alter

It was a gutsy move, picking Toronto as the site for Greenbuild 2011. For decades the city has been a magnet for American visitors, a clean, safe place of inexpensive attractions and easy access. However, the requirement for passports, imposed after 9/11, and the dramatic fall of the U.S. dollar has made Toronto a less attractive destination and pretty much gutted the American tourist trade. But the U.S. Green Building Council chooses cities with a green story to tell, those that are part of the worldwide movement to build sustainable cities. As USGBC president Rick Fedrizzi noted earlier this year: “It is not a coincidence that we chose Toronto for Greenbuild 2011. Toronto and the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) have been a tremendous force in the recent growth of the global green building movement, and as a celebration of our close relationship with the CaGBC, Toronto is the perfect location for our first non-U.S. Greenbuild.”

The new Sherbourne Common Pavilion anchors Sherbourne Park to the Toronto waterfront, while also providing concession, utility, and washroom services for users.
Photo © Shai Gil
The new Sherbourne Common Pavilion anchors Sherbourne Park to the Toronto waterfront, while also providing concession, utility, and washroom services for users.
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While Canada has suffered in the current economic crisis, it avoided a real estate meltdown (in fact, house prices have doubled since 2001), and construction in Toronto has continued to boom, with 8,377 housing starts in the first quarter of this year alone. Toronto was also fortunate to have maintained a vibrant urban core with a mixed bag of commercial and residential cultures and income levels. Toronto urban planner Ken Greenberg, recipient of AIA’s 2010 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Design, says, “Toronto is a city of nothing but minorities, no majority population, and relatively harmonious relationships among the groups. I think we also have a predisposition to actually enjoy cities and city life.”

Until recently, policies at both the provincial and municipal levels of government have encouraged sustainable development. In 2005, Provincial Premier Dalton McGuinty designated a 1.8 million-acre greenbelt around greater Toronto to control sprawl and preserve agricultural lands. During his term of office from 2003 to 2010, former Mayor David Miller introduced new green building standards—which came into force January 31, 2010, after a couple of years of negotiation—mandatory green roofs, and an innovative program for “reskinning” the city’s huge supply of 50-year-old residential towers. The result of these progressive policies and investments has been a wave of green projects and initiatives that has changed the face of Toronto in the last decade.

It starts right at City Hall, where PLANT Architect designed a stunning green roof on the podium of the Modernist classic, transforming it into one of the most inviting public spaces in the city. Toronto’s waterfront, cut off from downtown by rail viaducts and expressways, is also being knitted back into the city with new attractions like Sugar Beach, a popular patch of sand and umbrellas designed by landscape architects Claude Cormier Architectes, and new green buildings like Diamond and Schmitt Architects’ LEED Gold Certified Corus Building. These are just the first visible signs of the vast redevelopment of the abandoned industrial waterfront into new residential and commercial neighborhoods by Waterfront Toronto, a public advocate and steward, founded in 2000 and supported by all three levels of government. New buildings in the 2,000-acre area will be LEED Gold minimum and include green roofs. All new neighborhoods will be LEED ND Gold.

Perhaps the most interesting and innovative green projects in Toronto are being done by the nonprofit sector. In a downtown ravine on the site of an old brickworks that supplied most of the red brick from which Toronto is built, Evergreen Brick Works has sprung. It’s an adaptive reuse of existing industrial buildings turned into community facilities and farmers’ markets, while also adding a Centre for Green Cities, designed by Diamond and Schmitt Architects, that is targeting LEED Platinum. Another nonprofit, Artscape, has converted old industrial buildings into housing for the arts community. Joe Lobko of du Toit Allsopp Hillier (DTAH) recently transformed the derelict Wychwood streetcar barns into housing, community spaces, and greenhouses that have become the focus of the west midtown neighborhood (see Artscape Wynchwood Barns).

Ultimately, what may be the greenest thing about Toronto is its dramatically increasing density. As David Owen noted in The Green Metropolis and Edward Glaeser in the Triumph of the City, more density means lower per capita energy use as people drive less and live in smaller spaces. Single-family houses are becoming increasingly unaffordable in Toronto, but cranes are everywhere in the city as condominiums rise to accommodate a new generation of homeowners, immigrants, investors, and people just wanting to live downtown.

Some are concerned that it isn’t the right type of housing, and there isn’t enough accommodation for families. According to Greenberg, speaking of the massive 7,500-unit Cityplace Development sprouting up on the railway lands south of the convention center, it is “a monoculture of tiny units, producing a transient population; it doesn’t have the amenities of a real neighborhood that make it walkable; it has very little in the way of shopping or employment; so the fact that it is dense is not enough. The question is, what does the density consist of? It is the architectural equivalent of a field of corn and nothing else.”

There are other, better examples of new green housing. Teeple Architects’ 60 Richmond Street Housing Cooperative demonstrates a remarkable collection of simple ideas, such as passive ventilation and evaporative cooling, in a stunning architectural package. A few blocks away, Regent Park, a dreadful postwar urban renewal housing project, is being replaced with a controversial mix of 5,400 housing units, all in energy-efficient, green-roofed buildings connected to a highly efficient, gas-fired “community energy system,” which architect Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance says will annually reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8,000 tons.

Serving from 2003 to 2010, former Mayor Miller irritated a lot of people with his green vision. Drivers complained about new bike lanes slowing down traffic. Many suburbanites disliked his Transit City initiative, which would have put light rail down the middle of suburban arteries. Most of all, residents hated the $60 tax on cars, added to license plate fees. Councillor Rob Ford, from a former suburb that merged into the city in 1998, promised to cancel the tax and get cars moving again. He wanted to sweep the cyclists off the streets, saying, “I can’t support bike lanes. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.” Elected in a landslide in December 2010 as Toronto’s new mayor, he immediately started ripping up bike lanes, cancelled Transit City, and is threatening to do away with just about every environmental initiative in the city. When asked about his environmental policies, he told reporters, “My dad told me to turn out the lights when I left the room.” His suburban base loves it, and when last surveyed, his popularity rating was 70 percent. The rest of us, described endearingly during Ford’s inauguration as “pinkos out there riding bicycles,” no longer matter.

The “Global Green Building Movement,” as Rick Fedrizzi called it, is under threat on both sides of the border, seen by many as a costly frill in these tough times. In Toronto, so many of the initiatives that attracted Greenbuild are at risk. Greenberg hopes that visitors will speak out when they are here and say: “Look what you have here. Don’t wreck it, don’t abandon it, don’t walk away from it. We are striving south of the border to get to what you have, yet you are putting it at risk.”

These are difficult times for sustainable design in Toronto, and it is likely to get worse right in the middle of Greenbuild, if Premier Dalton McGuinty is defeated in the provincial election on October 6 and replaced by a conservative. There is too much talent, too much energy, and too much commitment within the green building movement to let this be anything more than a temporary setback. In the meantime, come and enjoy the legacy.


This article appeared in the September 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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