Round Table: Size matters
Our panel explores the complexities of scale
CO-MODERATED BY JOCELYN HIRTES AND TODD SMITH, OALA
PAMELA BLAIS IS AN URBAN PLANNER AND PRINCIPAL OF METROPOLE CONSULTANTS LTD. HER PROFESSIONAL FOCUS IS IN CREATING BETTER CITIES BY INTEGRATING PLANNING AND ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL THINKING IN ANALYZING URBAN ISSUES AND DEVELOPING INNOVATIVE POLICY. IN HER CAREER OF MORE THAN TWO DECADES AS AN URBAN PLANNING CONSULTANT, HER WORK HAS INCLUDED REURBANIZATION STRATEGIES AND RESEARCH; REGIONAL GROWTH PLANNING; MUNICIPAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT STRATEGIES; INNOVATIVE LAND-USE POLICIES FOR INDUSTRIAL AREAS; URBAN REGENERATION STRATEGIES; SUSTAINABLE URBAN FORM, COMMUNITY DESIGN, AND INFRASTRUCTURE; AND RESEARCH ON THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY ON URBAN FORM. SHE IS THE AUTHOR OF PERVERSE CITIES: HIDDEN SUBSIDIES, WONKY POLICY AND URBAN SPRAWL, WHICH WAS SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2011 DONNER BOOK PRIZE. PAMELA HAS A MASTERS IN PLANNING FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO AND A PHD IN URBAN ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY FROM THE LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS.
NANCY CHATER, OALA, IS A TORONTO-BASED LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT WHO HAS WORKED ON PUBLIC- AND PRIVATE-SECTOR PROJECTS AT A WIDE RANGE OF SCALES OVER THE PAST 12 YEARS.
KEN GREENBERG IS AN URBAN DESIGNER, TEACHER, WRITER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF URBAN DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE FOR THE CITY OF TORONTO, AND PRINCIPAL OF GREENBERG CONSULTANTS. INVOLVED IN MANY GRASSROOTS AND COMMUNITY INITIATIVES, HE IS A BOARD MEMBER OF PARK PEOPLE, A NON-PROFIT DEDICATED TO THE IMPROVEMENT OF TORONTO’S PARKS. HE CURRENTLY TEACHES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO WHERE HE IS AN ADJUNCT PROFESSOR IN THE JOHN H. DANIELS FACULTY OF ARCHITECTURE, LANDSCAPE AND DESIGN. HE IS ALSO A CO-FOUNDER AND A VISITING SCHOLAR AT THE NEW CITY BUILDING INSTITUTE AT RYERSON UNIVERSITY IN TORONTO. A FREQUENT WRITER FOR PERIODICALS, HE IS THE AUTHOR OF WALKING HOME: THE LIFE AND LESSONS OF A CITY BUILDER, PUBLISHED BY RANDOM HOUSE. HIS CURRENT MAJOR PROJECT IS AS URBAN DESIGN LEAD AND CLIENT REPRESENTATIVE FOR PROJECT: UNDER GARDINER IN TORONTO.
JOCELYN HIRTES IS A MEMBER OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD. A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER AND ARBORIST, SHE WORKS AT MARK HARTLEY LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS (CURRENTLY ON MATERNITY LEAVE).
NENO KOVACEVIC, OALA, IS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR AT IBI GROUP. IN MORE THAN 20 YEARS OF CONSULTING, HE HAS WORKED ON PROJECTS IN NORTH AMERICA AND INTERNATIONALLY. SINCE JOINING IBI GROUP IN 2003, NENO HAS BEEN INVOLVED IN NUMEROUS ASSIGNMENTS ACROSS CANADA AND INTERNATIONALLY INCLUDING MASTER PLANNING, HOSPITALITY, TRANSPORTATION, HEALTHCARE, INSTITUTIONAL, AND LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PROJECTS. HE HAS BEEN EXTENSIVELY DEDICATED TO BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT AT IBI GROUP, PURSUING HOSPITALITY, HEALTHCARE, TRANSPORTATION, AND REGIONAL/SPATIAL PLANNING PROJECTS IN EUROPE, CENTRAL AMERICA, AND THE MIDDLE EAST. HE CONTINUES TO DIVIDE HIS TIME BETWEEN EUROPE AND NORTH AMERICA AND IS CURRENTLY MANAGING THE IBI MONTENEGRO OFFICE.
TODD SMITH, OALA, CHAIR OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD, IS A LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT AND ARBORIST, WITH A FOCUS ON TRANSIT LANDSCAPES, WATERCOURSE REGENERATION, PLANT PALETTES FOR AESTHETICS AND FUNCTION, WELCOMING PUBLIC SPACE, VALUATION OF TREES, AND CULTURAL LANDSCAPES—THE LONG VIEW.
NEIL TURNBULL, OALA, IS THE FOUNDER AND PRINCIPAL OF NEIL TURNBULL LTD. HIS HISTORY, EDUCATION, AND EXPERIENCE ARE UNUSUAL, AND THIS HAS BEEN IMPORTANT IN FORMING HIS APPROACH TO LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: COMMERCIAL ART AT CEDARBRAE COLLEGIATE, PART-TIME WORK AT LL SOLTY LTD, FOLLOWED BY TWO YEARS OF HORTICULTURE AND BEEKEEPING AT THE WEST OF SCOTLAND AGRICULTURAL COLLEGE. NEIL THEN STUDIED ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES AT TRENT UNIVERSITY. HIS FORMAL EDUCATION WAS COMPLEMENTED WITH PRACTICAL WORK, INCLUDING STINTS AS A COMMERCIAL ARTIST; LANDSCAPE SUPERVISOR FOR LL SOLTY LTD AND VICTOR BOHUS LTD; AND THREE SUMMERS AS AN INTERPRETIVE NATURALIST WITH PARKS CANADA. AT THE CITY OF TORONTO PLANNING DEPARTMENT, HE DID ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH AND GRAPHIC DESIGN. HE WAS A FOUNDING PARTNER OF ACME ENVIRONMENTALS LTD UNTIL, IN 1978, HE ESTABLISHED NEIL TURNBULL LIMITED, WHERE HE HAS CONTINUED TO PRACTISE AS A DESIGN/BUILD LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT. SINCE 1978, THE FIRM HAS DESIGNED, BUILT, AND MAINTAINED HUNDREDS OF PRIVATE GARDENS IN SOUTHERN ONTARIO AND FARTHER AFIELD. SOME NOTABLE INSTITUTIONAL GARDENS INCLUDE THE ARTHUR MEIGHEN GARDEN AT THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL THEATRE, THE MAX TANENBAUM GARDEN ON THE PRINCESS MARGARET HOSPITAL’S 16TH-FLOOR ROOFTOP, AND THE SPIRO FAMILY GARDEN AT TORONTO’S BAYCREST CENTRE. THE FIRM RECENTLY COMPLETED THE VERTICAL CREVICE GARDEN AT THE GARDINER MUSEUM IN TORONTO.
Todd Smith (TS): With the increasing dialogue on landscape urbanism, landscape architects are increasingly focused on finer-scale urban interventions, with less emphasis on the role of form, pattern, and process. Are we getting it right, regarding scale, in cities and regions and gardens and at the lot level, wherever we’re practising? How does scale affect your practice?
Ken Greenberg (KG): My beat is the city, which involves interrelated scales: from the region, the district, the neighbourhood, the city block, down to the lot, buildings, and individual dwellings. A key concept that Jane Jacobs introduced is organized complexity of interactive, ecologically related systems, a concept that she took from the biological sciences. With that in mind, I’ve worked with architects, landscape architects, all types of engineers and economists, and I’ve found that landscape architects have two inherent advantages when it comes to thinking about the city. One of them is that if you approach it with an ecological sensibility, scale is boundless. Interactive systems, whether you’re talking about geology, hydrology, or vegetation, are not about political boundaries. These interactive systems in nature operate at many scales. And good landscape architects understand that and tend to think that way.
The second advantage is the concept of time. Because landscape architects are dealing with things that grow, there is automatically a sense of things being perpetually unfinished—like the city—and evolving. The sensibility that comes from a world of growing things applies to a city. (Architects, on the other hand, which I was trained as, have to overcome their object fixation in their approach to the city. There’s a tendency to gravitate to the thing, and to be more focused on it than on the context that supports and is affected by it.)
Landscape architecture’s approach to time is one of the reasons why some of the most interesting assignments in urbanism, worldwide, are now being led by landscape architects. Frankly, I think landscape architects in Canada are still very often hired to embellish architectural projects, and haven’t yet got the temerity to challenge the boxes in which they’re put. But globally, you’re seeing landscape architects bring this very big set of sensibilities about time and space to urban projects, which is a game changer in a very positive way.
Nancy Chater (NC): One thing that’s changing, in terms of place-making and the accumulation of places into city building, is the recognition of the importance of the public realm. The sense of scale within the public realm is also changing—such as redoing streetscapes to make roads thinner and sidewalks wider. There’s also the scale of the human body, the experiential scale of the person, people in space together. That’s a scale we can see, we can apprehend visually, and it’s very much affected by the sense of the boundaries to that scale.
Then there are all the scales we don’t see, such as global economic forces. You can even go smaller into the micro scale of soil organisms and ecological systems, which then zoom back up into that larger ecological network.
One exciting change is the new focus on walkability: bringing the city scale out of the automobile and onto the sidewalk, or into the park. Slowing things down to a walking pace affects what you’re able to see and changes your experience in a space and your sense of scale. We’re at a fascinating point where cities are being rethought at a different scale—a walkable scale.
Pamela Blais (PB): In terms of the different kinds of scale, there is the scale of territory, which is basically geographic scale. This requires looking at certain things in terms of patterns of land use, density, mix of uses, etc. And then there’s the object, which includes the physical building blocks that actually make up cities. Those have a scale component to them which is really important in terms of the urban environment, but it’s a different kind of scale.
And then there’s time scale. A lot of the work I do is very long range. Typically you’d look at twenty, thirty, even fifty years. There’s a project I’m submitting a proposal on which is a fifty-year outlook.
The idea of nested scale is really important because, at least in terms of the work I do, we’re trying, at a regional scale, to create the conditions for things to happen at the local level. We can try to plan a region that is going to be supportive for transit, with density in the right places and the right mix of uses, and we can be successful at that at the regional level. But if you don’t then design those small local areas very carefully in terms of transit accessibility, you’re still not going to get people to use the transit. So much of it has to do with where the entrance is to the transit station: can people see it, does it integrate with the building around it?
So we can do those big things at the regional scale that create the preconditions for something to happen at the local level. But it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen unless the design at the micro level is also in play. Those things are not only nested, they’re interdependent. They have to work together. And I don’t think we’re getting the regional conditions right yet. Even though we have the Growth Plan, it hasn’t really been achieving a lot of the objectives. And most of the objectives that have been achieved—the densification, for example—most of that’s in downtown Toronto, which has very little to do with the Growth Plan.
KG: Planners and physical designers have often thought that you could go from the region to the city to the neighbourhood and predetermine everything. But that clearly doesn’t work in a dynamic, evolving society. I think the key is to understand interrelationships through the lens of ecology. A good analogy is an ecotone, where habitats merge and there are things that happen as one species influences another, and you have changes, and you can’t exactly say how things are going to evolve.
Cities work in a continuum of interrelationships, and that runs against all these pre-planned, enormous projects we’re seeing in China and the Gulf States where, through a severe case of hubris, people imagine that they can take vast areas and understand exactly how people are going to live over decades and what the physical environment will look like.
Neno Kovacevic (NK): Time scale has dynamics, has a process, and has patterns. And we’re still in the early days of understanding those dynamics, especially in light of climate change and how to predict the patterns, and how to predict the change.
Neil Turnbull (NT): Picking up on the idea of ecotones—these are extremely important areas in any community. Sidewalks are ecotones between the street and buildings. The edge of a woodlot or bank of a pond, lake or river, or dunes between the sea and meadow or even the area of spilled sand around a sand box are all uniquely rich environments. Ecotones can also be carried between properties…but to design these dynamic edges into gardens and the landscape at large is a fundamental challenge/ opportunity for the landscape architect.
JH: Maybe instead of a continuum, which implies starting at one place and getting to another, we should think of it as a back and forth, like an ecological web rather than a pyramid. In a web, everything is informing everything else and there is a back and forth between elements.
TS: What are some of the scale issues in terms of the projects you work on?
NT: The surroundings are incredibly important. The “borrowed landscape” is something you’re trying to bring in to create perspective and drama; it increases the whole scale of the feeling that you experience. Forced-perspectives features work very well in small gardens, but when you have complete open areas with massive, endless views, punctuation with trees or ornament can comfort the eye and enhance the scale and view.
NC: Connectivity has such an impact on scale. You can have a small space, but when it’s connected, it grows through its adjacencies and connectivity. That’s what makes the public realm improve exponentially.
One of the new approaches is flexible spaces. Parks are no longer single-use: for example, here’s your ball diamond, here’s your soccer pitch. Because of density, public spaces need to be more flexible to accommodate different programs at different times. That creates an interesting design challenge if you’re doing, let’s say, a public square. With the Planning Partnership I worked on the Sorauren Park Town Square, in the west end of Toronto. The space has to accommodate a big crowd of people for the farmers’ market and performances, but on a weekday morning, it’ll be relatively unpopulated, and you don’t want it to feel empty or vacant. How do you design something that’s going to feel comfortable and inviting when it’s virtually empty and then can accept a large crowd?
TS: How are you designing with these constraints? How are you being strategic?
KG: Negotiation. You have to think of ways of weaving together different kinds of understanding. When you’re dealing with projects in the city, where all the property is already spoken for, and other people have plans, and you have different city departments and agencies that have control over things, you have to make connections in these webs. In other words, what we used to call the ground becomes the figure. You’re reversing the whole figure/ground relationship.
When David Crombie did the Royal Commission for the Toronto Waterfront, he got us starting to talk about the bioregion, which was really important. People hadn’t been used to thinking of us as collectively inhabiting this region. It helped us get out of a paradigm of separations and into a paradigm of connectedness.
PB: In my work, I don’t really think of scale as a constraint. It’s just a given. But those things that drive urban growth and regional growth (immigration, globalization, etc.), as planners we can’t control them. So we’re just dealing with those as they come, and trying our best to take patterns of growth and shape them into a workable region. It’s not really a constraint, it’s just reality. There’s not really any optimal size in my view. You can have a highly functional region of nine million people if you design it right.
NK: But at the same time we always think of different scales, whether we’re doing a small space or something at a regional scale, and we always go back and forth and relate those to our experiences of places.
PB: There’s no prescriptive approach to any particular scale, it’s just constantly being informed by the way things are changing at a global, regional, local, and individual level.
KG: Standardization prevents us from exploring intimate scales and sometimes grander scales. In Toronto, we have a standardization of all the road standards and rights of way, which happened with amalgamation and are all based on suburban practices. So laneways had to be bigger, streets had to be bigger; and, as a result, we’re sacrificing a lot of opportunities to do a greater range of scales. In fact, most of the pre-war city of Toronto would be illegal according to our new standards. I think we have to be a little more adventurous in challenging the standards and what’s driving them. For example, gigantic fire trucks that need a gigantic turning radius… and garbage trucks. If you look at other cities in the world, they have those things in a range of sizes because they have to. We need to become human-centric again and think about what makes us comfortable as human beings on the ground and not get totally taken up with these abstract templates that ignore the social control aspect.
NC: There’s an interesting trend to re-urbanize suburban forms, scales, sizes—things like suburban plazas. What people really want is to be together—people draw people—so there’s a re-urbanization of these suburban places and it’s affecting scale. And another thing is that public art is playing an increasingly important role in place-making within cities and in the re-urbanization of suburban places. Public art creates a narrative of place, an experience of place, and a set of memories that actually impacts our sense of scale. It can bring a very large canvas down to a human scale.
PB: I wonder if creating a sense of place and returning to the human-centric is how we would describe good scale these days? We are moving more in the direction of having the individual inform design even at larger scales.
KG: Yes, absolutely. But one of the challenges we’re having is that a lot of interesting projects are happening privately because public standards don’t allow for them. On many projects, people want rights-of-way that are smaller, pedestrian-oriented lane-ways, curbless streets, and the city won’t take those as dedicated spaces because they don’t meet city standards. This is leading to an erosion of public networks, and to an increase in POPS—privately owned public spaces. They’re publicly accessible, but I think there’s a risk if we keep going in that direction. We might end up having all these private worlds that, at the end of the day, no matter how benevolent the private owners may be, are not exactly the same thing as true public space.
PB: Ken’s talking about public infrastructure, but as private buildings are growing bigger, there’s a real tension between that scale and the human scale of a walkable, cycleable environment. This is intertwined with globalization and technological change—as markets get bigger, firms look for economies of scale, which make buildings bigger. Whereas the average supermarket used to be 30,000 square feet, a Walmart is now 150,000 square feet. That draws on a much bigger market area, which means people are going to be driving there. It also happens in urban, downtown areas where the land is so expensive and the process of getting things approved is so expensive, the scale of the building has to go up, too.
KG: There’s a counter-tendency which is interesting, too. For example, Walmart is developing a line of stores that are 20,000 square feet and that go in as shops under dwellings, because they want to reach the urban market. In other words, there’s an argument around ideas of efficiencies and economies of scale, especially at the level of organizational scale. Art Eggleton’s study of Toronto Community Housing—a mega-organization—recommended breaking it up because it was too big. Mike Harris’ government’s theory of amalgamation is being challenged. People are understanding that there aren’t necessarily economies with that scale and there are a lot of unintended negative byproducts.
As designers, we can’t just limit ourselves to the physical things we’re working on; we also have to address how they’re run, how they’re managed. There’s a very, very important correlation between how things are conceived, run, funded, and managed, and getting to scale in terms of the physical outcomes.
TS: What are some Ontario examples of good scale and bad scale?
NC: That placelessness—when you drive somewhere and it could be anywhere—that’s an example of scale not working…
NK: The U.K. has stopped issuing shopping mall licenses because they did not bring the benefits to the community that everyone was expecting. They learned the lesson and said no more. There’s a scale to urban downtowns and there’s a scale to big-box stores, and there should be some kind of correlation between the two.
JH: So it’s an opportunity to change policy?
PB: It’s s a matter of how you can have a strategic approach to the things we need, such as distribution centres and the like. It’s a complex question. We’re not doing a good job of understanding the tools we have. We try to create a planning framework, but it’s often overly rigid, particularly when it gets down to the local level, where it’s typically completely reactive. We’re not getting growth in the places we want it, and we’re not using all the tools in our toolbox.
We’re not using investment strategically in public infrastructure, not only in roads but also in facilities like hospitals and universities. There’s a big debate going on now about
a new hospital in Windsor, which is going in a greenfield site. That’s just such a huge missed opportunity, for Windsor especially, which is so decimated. Why not put it downtown? As my book, Perverse Cities, argues, we have a set of financial incentives and disincentives that exactly undermines the goals we set out in our plans. Planners don’t realize that a financial tool is something in their toolbox.
NT: In some ways we need more legislation and in other ways less. We keep redoing the same things that Europe learned not to do ten years ago. We’re still supporting single use; we’re still separating institutional, commercial, and residential. Many of Toronto’s new condo towers are dead areas at street level. These areas could be offices and commercial, not just foyers for the residents.
KG: I think the Internet will have a huge impact on all these issues. Through GIS, through all kinds of geo-spacial systems that correlate economic data, demographic data, physical data, and urban systems, the Internet is making it possible to have a real-time understanding of interactions and data that we never had access to before. And if we learn how to use that to create lines of communication among people who are working on different things in different ways, this becomes really, really powerful.
PB: I agree completely, but the problem is that there’s nobody doing that right now. The government should be doing that because they’re the ones that can mandate it at the regional level, but there’s no mechanism, even though we have a Growth Plan. As far as I know, the only people doing it are the Neptis Foundation. They’ve recently re-launched something they call the Geoweb, which is an online mapping tool. Anybody can access it and it has all these different layers: natural layers, municipal boundaries, all this employment data will be up there, and you can use that as a resource for looking at what’s actually going on in the region.
KG: The Isle de France, which is the region around Paris, and Metro Portland in Oregon have been doing this for a long time.
NC: I feel that the Internet is affecting the speed of everything, the speed of design—as if, with Google Earth, there’s no need to leave your desk; just click on Street View, look at the tree… The speed is frenetic, but there’s also a sense of simultaneity of these scales. The transmission of information across time and space boundaries is somehow affecting my sense of scale. You can know instantaneously what’s happening in other places.
NT: The adage: junk in, junk out, still prevails. There’s always a danger, with computers, that designers won’t spend enough time on the properties they’re designing. You cannot solve real design problems on your drafting table or on your computer. You solve them by being in the space and testing ideas in situ.
The Internet is an incredibly powerful toolkit and it is possible to learn a great deal about a site through the lens of Google and other sites. This adds great efficiency to a design project, but it is still imperative to test ideas in real space and time.
KG: Rather than just being fatalistic about technology, I think what’s important are the conscious decisions we make about how we use technology. Take driverless cars as an example. If there were fleets of collectively owned vehicles, it could do wonders in the last mile of transit systems and assist with active transportation and so on. On the other hand, if they are all individually owned, it could be the greatest enabler of sprawl we have ever seen.
PB: My interest in technology is in how it affects urban form and how cities grow and change; obviously, it’s having a big impact on things. Online shopping is behind those massive distribution centres we see; on the other hand, certain kinds of things are dematerialized. For example, we don’t really need banks anymore; you just do it on your phone. Uber and automated vehicles are potentially radically transformative of urban form. You wouldn’t need parking anymore, because vehicles would just keep going around. So the idea of investing in parking structures seems already outdated to me.
I think what it really gets down to is how can we create flexibility in our frameworks that allow us to deal with the unknowns, including potentially extremely disruptive climate events.
KG: We shouldn’t be doing any parking now which isn’t capable of being transformed into something else, because all of those underground garages with low ceiling heights, all the ramped floors—in fifteen or twenty years, we’re going to be saddled with corroding buildings.
NC: Other ways the Internet could enrich our sense of public space are things like self-guided walks, such as a public art tour. You could put an app on your phone and tap into the cultural heritage of a site. I worked on a management plan for Guild Park and Gardens in Scarborough, which is an amazing natural heritage and cultural heritage site with an incredible story. To engage people in that site, you could have signage and more traditional sorts of storytelling through the park, or you could create a self-guided walk through an app on your phone.
PB: Walkability is a huge public health issue, of course. With people in automobiles, we have an epidemic emergence of obesity, diabetes, asthma among children, social isolation, and mental health issues. The public health aspect of scale and design is important.
KG: A simple quote from David Crombie: “Everything is connected to everything else.” When we pulled on this string of scale, it’s so interesting to see how many aspects came into play.