The Perfect City Street


About a month ago, I posted a question on my Facebook page which asked,  “What in your view, makes a perfect city street?”  Clearly an unscientific sampling, but I was amazed by the dozens of answers that I received.   They all spoke to characteristics that we can all easily visualize.

Here’s a sampling:

  • a residential street in Brooklyn Heights. Four story brownstones running down either side of the street and a row of old trees in front of each of them.”
  •  “Trees, wide sidewalks, bike lanes, short blocks, lots of pedestrians”
  •  “.an unintimidating scale, a few places where people can sit, houses, good sidewalks, street corners that are designed with all different ages and physical capabilities, bikes and motorists accommodated, definitely lots of trees,…”
  •  “Wide sidewalks, large tree canopy, outdoor cafes, cleanliness, good people watching!”
  •  “No above head wires ,or any wires whatsoever, good evening lighting….treed meridian…..cobble stones….Edinburgh new town crossed with Berlin”
  •  “Seating and a boulevard for kiosks and fountains. Go to Lisbon”
  •  “….trees, wide sidewalks, seating areas, elegant lighting, no overhead wires, bike lanes…”
  •   Trees!”
  •  “Quality shops . Outdoor cafe seating . Lighting and of course trees”

 There were a few themes common to the posts.   Not one of them mentioned ‘move traffic’ or ‘room for cars’,  though many talked about accommodating both cars and bikes.    Many of them talked about sympathetic architecture and land uses and almost ALL of them spoke to the importance of street trees!  This last point actually surprised me. It is also interesting to note that not one of these comments was from a practitioner.

This little survey got me to thinking.   What IS the perfect city street?   Is there any way to confirm that the design of a new street will meet the goal of a perfect city street?  Is  there any way to confirm that the design of a new street will meet the expectations held by the general public?

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Streetscape planning and design is the most complex undertaking in urban design and landscape architecture.  It is so because it requires the successful reconciliation of the widest number of competing interests.   It is the only discipline in design that must successfully marry the following interests:

  • Land Use fit (particularly at street level)
  • Architectural fit (height, character, animation)
  • Right-of-way width, particularly in relation to architectural height
  • Day-lighting triangle dimensions and form (triangle vs. rounding)
  • Boulevard widths
  • Building Set-backs
  • Cross-walk design and placement
  • Accommodation of dedicated left and right turn lanes
  • Median design (where desired)
  • Roundabout design (where desired)
  • The design of abutting private landscapes
  • Transit infrastructure
  • Above-ground utilities
  • Below-ground utilities
  • Vehicular traffic and turning movements
  • On-street and adjacent parking
  • Bike traffic, comfort and safety
  • Pedestrian traffic, movements, comfort and safety
  • Street lighting and pedestrian way lighting
  • Street tree selection, spacing and sustainability
  • Low impact development infrastructure
  • Woonerf Design (where desired)
  • Street furnishings
  • Materials and finishes

It is also the only discipline within urban design where one wrong move by the designer, or domination of the process by one or more interests can compromise the goal of creating a ‘perfect street’.

This is not to suggest that there is one kind of ‘perfect street’, but rather that there are many, and the designers success will be tested by making appropriate decisions given the opportunities and constraints posed by the specific context and street type i.e. local, collector, arterial, retail, residential, mixed use etc.  It will also be determined by the degree to which all vested interests are prepared to compromise (more often than not this is the greatest single challenge).

In addition to this check-list of items to be considered, designers can find their way to a more ‘perfect street’ by reconciling competing interests and adhering to a number of guiding principles:

Ten Principles to Consider in the Design of Perfect Streets

  1. The height of buildings which frame the street must be directly proportional to the width of the right of way.   This is to say that a wide street with lower buildings will be infinitely less successful than a wide street framed by taller buildings.   The architecture frames the view of the street and provides a sense of enclosure.  It is therefore critical to its overall success of the street.   This is a law of minimums.Figure4-2 (The American Institute of Transportation Engineers “Designing Walkable Thoroughfares:  A Context Sensitive Approach” 2010)

    A generally accepted principle is that one should strive for a minimum ratio of 1:4 building height to ROW width. Preferred ratios can go as high as 1:2 building height to ROW width.  Note that in most city downtown cores the ratio of height to width is MUCH higher.  In these cases, the design of the street and boulevards becomes more important as the building wall can be perceived as overwhelming and therefore the pedestrian experience less inviting.

  2. If the street is proposed to have above ground utility poles or already has them…then do all you can to bury them.  This isn’t cheap, but they are an eyesore and upstage everything else that might be good about the street.  They will also limit the degree to which street trees can be used to help frame the street.  Utility companies have spent so much money ‘pruning for clearance’ that they have, in light of shrinking budgets, simply banned the use of large shade trees within their space.
  3. If the street is part of a larger community planning initiative, then strive for city blocks no greater than 90-120 metres in length.   This improves both vehicular and pedestrian permeability and allows for more corner land uses and building entrances that help to animate the street.  To the extent possible, make them full turning movement intersections.   This will help to slow traffic and make the intersections more pedestrian friendly
  4. The personality of a street will, to a large extent, be expressed as a function of the land uses that frame it.  A residential street will differ in both form and function from a retail/commercial street or a street dominated by office buildings. The land uses will also help to define the way a street will behave and therefore the menu of elements to be employed in its design.S:ProjectsMarkham Uptown Phase 1 (P) 29056PRendering0.09.23
  5. Ensure that residential buildings have a minimum 3.0 metre setback to allow for front yard landscaping, steps, fencing at gates etcetera.  On busier streets a wider set-back may be warranted to provide a greater sense of buffering.
  6. For higher density residential buildings strive for podiums with a number of individual residential entrances at grade.   Also strive for principle building entrances located at intersections.  This provides direct pedestrian access to transit and other street amenities.
  7. If ground floor retail/commercial uses are proposed, then absolutely try to provide on street parking.  This is vital to successful retail and serves the dual purpose of offering pedestrians a sense of protection from traffic.
  8. Pay particular attention to the introduction of dedicated right and left turn lanes at intersections.   More often than not, these ‘added lanes’ will be provided at the expense of the boulevards.  As an antidote to this problem, try to widen the right of way at the intersection so that the boulevards and associated streetscapes are not lost.
  9. Ironically, the thing that people want most (street trees) is one of the most difficult streetscape elements to provide.   Their long term success and sustainability will be based on numerous constraints including species selection, spacing, soil volume, access to water and drainage, conflicts with below ground utilities, and conflicts with sight lines and driveways.  Try to make street trees one of the first considerations rather than one of the last.30
  10. Bicycles.  Yes, the one area of continuing and on-going debate among transportation engineers, civil engineers and landscape architects.   I’m not certain the issues will ever be reconciled, but I suggest the following principles apply.   Bicycles are a mode of transportation and so they should share the roadbed with cars and transit rather than the boulevard with pedestrians.    Bike lanes should be grade separated from pedestrian walkways.  They should be a unique colour so as to heighten their profile relative to cars.

There are certainly more principles to be employed in the design of ‘perfect streets’ , but these I think,  represent the major considerations.

A Park for both the body and mind

One of the things I love most about Landscape Architecture is its potential for metaphor and narrative.   More than architecture and virtually any other design discipline, landscape can tell a story.   It can engage the public directly in their own narrative, or it can introduce them to a narrative they had not previously considered.    It can combine with public art to weave a story that citizens can directly and immediately connect to.  The most successful projects are those where the narrative is direct, immediate and discernible.

Pattern Park in Richmond Hill Ontario, is such a project.  It is one of our firms newest projects and clearly illustrates the thing I love most about Landscape Architecture.

Upon arrival, visitors are presented with a challenge.   “Can you find these patterns in nature in the park?”.   A varied program of uses and park elements are designed and developed around patterns found in nature and the guest, child and adult alike, is challenged to find them while also having fun in an accessible swing park, in a water play space, on ping pong tables and on climbing apparatus.

In park design it is equally important to remember that the mind is a sense just as sight, smell, touch and sound are senses.

Ten random principles to consider when starting your career in Landscape Architecture:


When you first start out in Landscape Architecture it is easy to be left feeling like a very small cog in a very large wheel.  While it is true that starting out in a small office will offer a different experience than working in a large office, there are certain general principles that if followed,  I believe will  keep you challenged, inspired and confident of your potential for future growth in the profession.    These are in no particular order:

  1. Bring your sense of humor.  Everyone needs a laugh and nothing can limit a career faster than passivity, complaining or negativity.   I make it a goal of mine to ensure that I make everyone laugh at least once during every meeting I attend.  I’m not always successful but that’s not the point.   It goes a long way to building relationships and can have the residual effect of making others enjoy the work as much as you do.  It’s a great team building strategy and can set you apart from others.
  2. Grow your own career.   If you aren’t being given new responsibilities and want new responsibilities then just take them.  If you are handed work to do then ask yourself questions like “can this design be better?” “Can this detail be more easily constructed?” “Is there a way to make this just as effective but less expensive?”    If you think it can, then you should propose the changes you think need to be made.  Sketch your ideas so that it’s clear you haven’t spent a ton of time on your own behalf.    The more you do this and the more successful you are at doing it, the more you will be trusted with new responsibilities.   If they aren’t generally accepted or you aren’t encouraged to work this way, then maybe you are in the wrong work environment.
  3. Help the Firm.  I suggest offering to take on an administrative project that will further the efficiency and effectiveness of the office.  Web site design or data entry, in-house graphic standards, organization of block and detail libraries are all examples of projects that can greatly improve office efficiency as well as give you something to do if the project work slows.   No firm likes to have people sitting on their hands and every office likes continuous improvement.
  4. Lobby for what you want.  If you want to make the jump to project management and believe you are ready to make that jump, then wait for an interesting project to come into the office (it can be big or small), and then lobby your superiors to make you responsible for it.  I did this two years into my career in California and ended up working on Euro Disneyland for five years and living in Paris!
  5. Learn EVERYTHING.  This is to say that if you really want to climb the ladder as it were, then make yourself a student again.   If you don’t know about constructing on-slab landscapes, then learn about it. If you don’t know about LID, then learn about it.  If you don’t know about green roof systems, then learn about them.    Try to get involved in projects where you can learn the most.  Rest assured you won’t learn everything even if you try, but you’ll learn more than others and will end up with a much broader skill-set.  Remember that you can also learn a great deal by listening to the other professionals you are working with.  Clients, Engineers and Architects are your collaborators and you can learn just as much from them as you can learn from other Landscape Architects.  Ask them questions.   They love to talk.
  6. Work in the Public Sector.  If you get the opportunity to work in the public sector, do it.  You don’t have to do it forever (though some do), but learning about the public sector and municipal / agency approvals from the inside, can become an extremely valuable asset if you later return to the private sector.  Clients will become reliant on you for your working knowledge of the system as well as your established relationships with staff.
  7. Measure EVERYTHING.  As designers our decision-making is in part, centred on the dimension of objects and scale.  For example, in community design the dimensions of roads and their proportion to building heights is critical to the design of successful streets.  Sidewalk and boulevard widths and building setbacks can significantly alter the appearance and character of new neighborhoods.  Small parks are very different from large parks.   On a smaller scale, the dimension of everyday objects like light poles, seat-walls, steps, landings,  gates, hand-rails, guards, parking bays and pedestrian trails are all critical to successful design.  Knowing them by heart also helps to streamline the design process.    In many cases, dimensions are a function of guidelines and building codes.   Get to know them intimately as well.
  8. Make research a daily part of your life.   If you are working in an established office then you will have a myriad of built projects to refer to as reference.   Review the drawings.  Review the details.  Learn the patterns of the drawing sets and corresponding details.   It is better than having a complete library at your finger tips.  Though if the office has a library then review that too,  as well as internet blogs, suppliers and reference web sites.
  9. Get Involved. Get involved in your profession early. Whether it is the CSLA or ASLA or your local chapter – get involved.  Volunteer on a Committee or Sub-Committee.  While I have not personally done this to any great extent I have seen first-hand the benefits of getting involved.  Getting involved early can lead to becoming a Committee Chair, or better yet a member of the governing Council.  It can offer access to a number of worthwhile events and conferences as well as give you exposure that you otherwise wouldn’t have.  In this same vain I would suggest that you also take your professional certification exams as early on in your profession as you can.   Getting that stamp offers opportunities for advancement.   If you fail the first time out, look at it as a snap-shot in time.  It is a good way to learn where you are in professional development terms.
  10. Have a Life.   It is very common for recent graduates to work long hours, nights and weekends hoping that this makes them stand out from the crowd.   It is true that most firms will not discourage this approach.  After all, it helps their bottom line.   Keep in mind however, that the amount you work is not necessarily tied to your creativity, energy and/or passion for the job.    Don’t work at the expense of having a full, varied and rewarding life.   Follow ALL of your passions and interests.  You never know where they will lead…including possibly in new directions as a Landscape Architect.

There are more, but I like the number 10.


Upon reflection…also consider No. 11 :

Know that it is not about you.  The vast majority of your greatest achievements will not come as a result of your efforts, but as a result of your work with others who have become your friends. People who respect your talents and capabilities, who enjoy your company and who bring out the best in you. So don’t be a dick.  That is all

On Syria


I spend my life designing and building new streets. Streets just like this. When I see images like this it actually makes me ache. If we don’t help the people fleeing from this carnage then we have lost our way. Further…if we don’t find a way to stop this carnage, then we have no choice but to hang our heads in shame. And to be clear, it is not about the street. It is about those who inhabit it and bring it to life.

The Old City Hall Conundrum


Old City Hall in Toronto is a building that has served as a Provincial court-house since the construction of New City Hall in the 60s.  It is a classic example of Romanesque Revival architecture and at one time was the largest civic building on the continent.  It is an iconic fixture of our public realm

In September the City adopted a staff report that confirmed they would not extend the Province’s lease beyond 2021.  That same report authorized staff to release the reservation placed on some areas for  future use as the Toronto Museum Project and to create publicly accessible space.

So clearly there is a move afoot to consider its use as a  museum….of something.

At the same time, the report recommended that staff report back with final recommendations for a strategy for new tenants at Old City Hall which — of course — precludes any final decision on a Museum.  Perhaps the plan is to use rental revenues to offset the cost of installing a museum.

Since September the City hired a Real Estate Consultant to advise them on the ‘highest and best use’ for Old City Hall.  Their conclusion?   Conversion to a retail centre that contains a mix of food service, leisure, event and civic uses and provides some encouragement for future office.

Old City Hall is located next door to the two biggest shopping malls in the City. The Eaton Centre and The Bay Store on Queen Street.  So…retail?  Really?

Clearly, the City’s real estate consultants responded to the terms of reference they were given.  But I would argue that what the City needed was not a ‘highest and best use’ assessment, but rather a business case to justify keeping Old City Hall an entirely PUBLIC building and to do so at little or no net cost to the City.  How do we strategically and financially  justify its use as a public amenity now and in the future?

Old City Hall is an iconic building in an iconic location.  Few citizens know that it is a court-house and a jail.  But they know it as a public building.  They know it as part of the architectural fabric of this city.  Grand steps to the front doors and a monument to lost soldiers out front.; the backdrop of every Remembrance Day Ceremony.  It contributes to the ‘look’ of our city as it sits as a visual anchor looking north from Bay Street.  In many ways, it is the logo of the Toronto brand.

How does one keep the origins of this building intact, while facing the inevitability of change?   How do we ensure that it’s ‘highest and best use’ is to keep it as a public building?

The City owns two premium properties in addition to Old City Hall; the Central Library on Yonge Street and the Toronto Archives on Spadina Road.

The Central Reference Library occupies half a city block and while in its day it was viewed as ‘cutting edge’ architecture, in fact it is a static building.  Half of the floor plate is given up to a four story vaulted ceiling, and it offers little to nothing in the way of contributing to life on the street.  It is a wall of brick.  It fails to help animate our city in a way that should be demanded of all public buildings.

The Toronto Archives building is a small building that occupies a large site on Spadina .  It is in a residential neighbourhood and the site would be better suited to high end residential development.   It is also not a building that contributes in any meaningful way to the life of the street.

My business case is this:

Sell both the Central Reference Library and the City of Toronto Archives properties and use the significant proceeds to convert  Old City Hall into the new City of Toronto Central Reference Library and City Archives.    What could be more fitting than an old building housing old books?   If there were a demand for a ‘museum’ at Old City Hall, then what better than to couple it with our city archives?

Bring in some limited retail that is synergistic with a library. The retail could generate revenue to help off-set operating costs.

A  City such as ours has a multitude of moving parts: assets, liabilities, challenges and opportunities.   The measure of our success is determined by our ability to move those parts and assets around in order to achieve our greatest opportunity and deal with our greatest challenges.  Old City Hall is one of those challenges….and one of those opportunities.

Nature Wins


When the new community Cornell was being planned in Markham, I was still with the city as Manager of Parks Planning and Urban Design.  The original plan called for 18 stormwater management ponds sprinkled across the hundreds of acres of development land.     I suggested (more like insisted), that the City would better benefit from having one major pond at the very south end of the lands next to the 407 which at the time was under construction.  I argued that it would be easier to maintain, it would offer a chance at creating a viable recreational amenity and it would buffer the new community from the 407.  It would also benefit from being physically connected to a large sugar bush that was to be protected and expanded.

Surprisingly, I won the argument.

Everything that you see in this photo was a Markham corn field 12 years ago. Everything.

I am pretty certain it is the largest storm water management pond in the country. (though I’m quite prepared to be corrected on this point).

I designed it in 2003 with Ecotech Engineering on behalf of H+R Developments, and the plan called for the construction of a series of interconnected pathways, overlooks and connecting municipal parks as well as the planting of over 2100 trees and 9000 shrubs, shoreline and emergent plants.

Most have thrived and new species such as Robinia pseudoacacia and numerous shoreline species have taken root.  It is now habitat for fish, wood ducks, mallards, geese, cormorants (though I’m not happy about that) egrets and swans not to mention a plethora of mice, rabbits, fox, coy wolf and grouse.

Who says urban development always negatively impacts the environment?  This project is a case study in the principle of environmental ‘net gains’.

Queen’s Quay Key

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAKXAAAAJDIwMDFkY2M5LTFhN2MtNGJjNy1iNGZjLTYxZDU4NmZjNjgzNwThere has been considerable debate in the papers and on-line recently about the success/failure of the new Queen’s Quay streetscape. It is generally loved by urbanists yet the average Joe finds it confusing and the police have now dubbed it the most dangerous street in the city.

The design essentially separates all modes of transit into dedicated rights-of-way. Two lanes of car traffic next to two dedicated trolly lines next to two dedicated bike lanes, next to a pedestrian zone closest to the lake.

I had a chance to walk it’s length last night and I’ll say this. It IS dangerous. But not how you would expect.

The biggest problem seems to be that there is little separation between pedestrians and cyclists. In some cases there are street furnishings like benches and street lights, but in many others there is little more than a paving band to announce to pedestrians that they are about to get clipped by Toronto’s wannabe Lance Armstrong.  

The street was packed with pedestrians while cyclists, skate-boarders and skaters were zipping along in their lanes at very high speeds. The generally distracted and happy pedestrians often meandered into the bike lanes completely unaware that they were in danger. I saw several accidents averted by wits, citizenship and good luck.

 There is a generally accepted principle that bicycle traffic should share the same passageway as cars. This is particularly true where the use of bicycles is promoted as a means of commuting. The problem here is that the bicycle traffic shares the passageway with pedestrians. So I think it is both a grade separation and a location issue.

 Seems that a retrofit might be in order.+

UPDATE:   As I was saying…………….