City Building and The Legacy of Church Architecture in Toronto

I found it curious that both of the churches in Toronto where my father was minister were no longer active United Churches.   Mount Dennis United Church had recently been converted into an evangelical Filipino Church and Deer Park United Church was proposed to be partly demolished to make way for a new condominium.

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Deer Park United Church Before
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Deer Park United w. Condo
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Deer Park United w. Condo

I was certainly aware that United Church congregations had been dwindling in numbers over the last number of decades, but wondered just how deep the rabbit hole went.  If the trend is true for the United Church, is it also true for other places of worship?  What might this mean for Toronto, whose public realm is defined in large measure, by its vast number of churches – many of which are iconic structures that beautify and give life to streets and neighbourhoods?  What might this shift mean for other Canadian Cities who are no doubt, faced with the same statistical inevitability?

In its heyday, the United Church was second only to the Catholic Church in the number of churches it had constructed and operated in Toronto.    The United Church had 131 churches and the Catholic Church (of varying sub-denominations) had 133.  It appears that the vast majority of Catholic Churches remain intact and continue to operate as Catholic Churches.   This is not the case for the United Church of Canada.

In 1980, the UCC had a national membership of 389,492.   By 1990 that number had dwindled to 338,040 and by 2000 their numbers dropped to 270,361.    As of 2011 the membership sat at 166,936.  Roughly 42% of its 1980 numbers.

http://www.calgaryherald.com/life/Churches+keep+faith+congregations+steadily+shrink/9347983/story.html

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Eglinton United Church as a Condo

If one assumes that this decline has been distributed evenly across its ministry, then clearly the maintenance of 131 churches in Toronto would become an unsustainable challenge.

And so what has actually happened?   What are the numbers?*

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Of the original 131 churches, 82 remain as originally constructed or as merged congregations that combined forces to save at least one of two buildings.  Another 10 churches have been redeveloped as both churches and other uses such as community centres, seniors residences and health centres.  Approximately 92 churches total remain intact as churches.  (70%).

It is also interesting that only 15 church sites have been demolished and replaced outright by some other land use. (11%)

Other changes include:

No. of churches taken over by other faiths:                                               6

No. of churches converted to condos or other residential uses:           9

No. of churches converted into schools:                                                      0

No. of churches converted into community theatres:                              1

No.  of churches converted into community centres:                               1

No. of churches expanded as a result of amalgamation:                          5

Based on these numbers it appears that the decline of the church has been managed with a great deal of creativity and innovation.   There seems to have been a concerted effort by the City and Church to maintain the buildings as physical structures within our public realm and this, I think, should be applauded.

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The Former St. James Bond United Church

One concern of note however is the fact that so few have been converted into schools or community centres.   It seems to me that those public uses would serve a greater good than converting to condos or other ‘singular’ uses.   Those public uses would not only allow for the maintenance of iconic architecture, but also ensure that they remained focal points for community use and enjoyment.

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The Bathurst Street Theatre

If this trend is likely to continue (and it is), then perhaps the City Planners should try to get out in front of it in order to ensure that every opportunity is taken to preserve the public nature of these beautiful buildings.

*Note:  The statistics cited are approximate.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_Church_of_Canada_churches_in_Toronto

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

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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.

Paul

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

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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

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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

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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…………….

http://metronews.ca/news/toronto/1439299/pedestrian-punches-cyclist-in-the-face-for-running-queens-quay-red-light/

Biophylic Design. Really?

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAMOAAAAJDZmZTJiYzZhLWU1ZDItNDU3OC04MDk3LTVhZTdiZDNjNzVhMwI have a few well known pet peeves. Perhaps the most common to interrupt my otherwise calm demeanor is my disdain for designers who invent new words to describe already well-established concepts. Makes me crazy. My sense is that it is done mostly to give one designer an upper hand over another. To make his thinking ‘cutting edge’ and ‘out in front of the trends’. Or even worse, to make his language THE trend. More often than not it is complete hooey.

Most recently, a new ‘up and comer’ used the term ‘amenitized’ to describe the process of arriving at an agreed upon program of uses for a new park. As in..”we must decide how we are going to amenitize this park”.

Well. No. We don’t. What we need to do is agree on a program of uses for the park.

“Program of uses” is a perfectly acceptable and widely used term to describe the stuff we’re going to put in the park. ‘Amenitization’ sounds like the interest bearing account that the park funds will sit in whilst we decide on how the park will be programmed.

Maybe I”m just getting old and becoming resistant to change. Let me know if you think this is the case and I will pack up my parallel rule and Staedtler blue pencils and head off into the wilderness in my canoe. Or better yet, put me on an ice-flow in a lawn chair..if there are any ice-flows left.

The most recent term to force me into considering re-tipping my canoe paddles with epoxy for the long solo trip into oblivion, is Biophylic Design.

The term Biophylia, was first used by psychologists to describe someone who has a highly measurable connection to nature and natural systems. Just like me! Whoohoo! I’m a biophylic!

The term has since been co-opted by a number of professionals and academics in planning and design to describe a human need for a connection with nature as well as an imperative for design professionals to satisfy that need.

Adherents of the ‘Biophilia’ movement see their job as influencing planning and design (particularly in an urban context) in such a way as to ensure that it responds to, and more closely reflects , nature and natural systems.

I have no problem with this idea. It is a mantra which I take into my work every day. It is the reason I am a Landscape Architect. I’m even writing a book about it. But please people….can we LOSE the term ‘Byophylic Design’?!!

In 1968, the famed Landscape Architect and Planner Ian McHarg, published his seminal work ‘Design With Nature’. It set out the principles and tools required to connect planning and design to nature, natural features and systems. That book is the grandfather of environmental assessments, coastal zoning regulations, flood plain regulations as well as the greening of urban places and the expansion of parks and open space systems world wide. One could also argue that his work was the genesis of sustainable development, LID (Low Impact Development), and urban green renewal policies that drive much of our discourse today.

I would argue that much of the progress we have made in the last 45 years is not only attributable to him, but to generations of students and practitioners in design who took his lead, refined his ideas and expanded his influence.

And so I would argue that Biophylic Design is NOT a new idea. It is little more than a new and unnecessary word used to describe an evolution in design that is already underway and has been for generations.

What Biophylic Design describes is integrated design. It describes the process whereby architects, engineers, planners, landscape architects and urban designers, give up their professional silo’s in favor of a collaborative design process underpinned by an environmental imperative.

The biophyliac’s of the world can project their ethic all they like, but at the end of the day, it will take an integrated approach to design to fulfill their dreams. We don’t need a new word to do that. We just need to get on with the work at hand.

I’m going to go patch the hull of my canoe now.

Paul