Recent urban changes in New York City, Chicago, Bogota and London may hold the secrets to implementing transformative ideas in Toronto.
Two executives on the Crossrail project in London look at the roof of an old Victorian tunnel being brought back into use for the mammoth rail project linking all of London's major employment centres.
Sometime in 1907, while working on a new city plan for Chicago, esteemed architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham articulated a mantra that would influence generations of ambitious city-builders.
“Make no little plans,” he said. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”
More than 100 years later, Burnham’s reach-for-the-stars philosophy lives on, but what it takes to implement a transformative idea continues to evolve.
The urban renewal that re-created North American cities such as New York, Halifax and Toronto in the 1950s and 1960s was very much a top-down endeavour, for better or worse. While paternalistic planning helped give us subways, highways and water systems, it also ran freeways through neighbourhoods and shuffled low-income residents into isolated highrises.
“They would just go, hell or high water. If you were in the way, they’d steamroll you out of the way,” said Matti Siemiatycki, an expert in urban planning at University of Toronto. “That is the dark side of the big idea.”
In the decades since, there has been a growing emphasis on building consensus within communities. Planning is now deeply attuned to the sensitivities of residents about how big ideas will affect the existing fabric of the city.
But the do-no-harm approach has a downside, too: When everyone has equal say, sometimes nobody wins.
“Certainly locally, I would argue perhaps that the pendulum has swung too far,” said Eric Miller, a transportation engineer at the University of Toronto. “We have this opposition to change. Change does come with disruption, and if the status quo is not sustainable in the long run, then change is going to happen.”
Combine endless rounds of consultation with the rising clout of NIMBYs and a series of penny-pinching governments, and the resulting hill to realizing transformative urban change can sometimes seem too big to scale.
Yet recent examples from around the world show that it is possible to fix a city in the 21st century. From New York to London, busy thoroughfares have been reclaimed for pedestrians and new transit construction is underway.
While these ideas might not be quite right for Toronto, what led to their implementation holds important clues about how to kick-start change. The recipe varies by city and circumstance, but it often includes some combination of a powerful grassroots movement, strong leadership, a bold vision and, perhaps most importantly, the willingness to take a risk.
New York: A broad coalition with a common goal
The commonly accepted story behind the streets renaissance that took place in New York City in the mid-2000s lays most of the credit at the feet of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his visionary transportation chief, Janette Sadik-Khan.
However, according to Charles Montgomery, who examined the changes in New York in his 2013 book bookHappy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, this version of events is “mythical” and “just wrong.”
To be sure, strong leadership at city hall was essential to reclaiming Times Square for pedestrians, building a network of separated bike lanes and turning underperforming road space around the city into public plazas.
But the real heroes, says Montgomery, were the handful of activists who built a broad, grassroots coalition, backed by Internet whiz Mark Gorton and weaponized for maximum reach with a cutting-edge multimedia campaign.
Their vision of a city where pedestrians, not cars, could be king was not new: Since the advent of the automobile, there has been pressure to more evenly allocate the use of city streets. Yet what distinguished this effort was the way the issue was framed.
“Part of our success has been to define our agenda in a way that’s more inclusive,” said Paul Steely White, who is head of Transportation Alternatives and helped launched the campaign. “We’re recognizing that everybody cares about safe streets, whether they drive, walk, ride a bike.”
Against the backdrop of outrage over unnecessary pedestrian deaths and increased pollution, they built their coalition gradually, expanding in “concentric rings,” said Steely White.
“It’s like Jane Jacobs always said, ‘Don’t try to win over your opponents,’” he said. “You have to find your friends first.”
That list did not always include Bloomberg, who in 2006 defended the congestion on city streets as a sign of progress.
“We like traffic,” he said. “It means economic activity. It means people coming here.”
To bring the mayor around, Steely White said, the group tried to cast the issues in terms of economic competitiveness. Some of the first breakthroughs came after they teamed up with the city’s leading business improvement districts, such as the Times Square Alliance.
“They were a validating partner for us, because otherwise it was just sort of the non-profit idealists, but then we added all these (groups) who had backing from the city’s leading real-estate interests and leading retailers,” he said.
The fight was also more aggressive than ever before.
“We weren’t saying, ‘Pretty please, can we have another bike lane here,’” Gorton said. “We were saying, ‘We want to change transit policy in the city, and you people are backwards.’”
They took aim at the car-loving leadership of the department of transportation, and mounted a campaign that prompted the resignation of the previous commissioner in 2007.
When traditional traffic engineers predicted that giving Times Square over to pedestrians would create “Armageddon-level gridlock,” as Steely White recalls, the coalition found its own engineers to debunk these claims.
“We happened to be very fortunate that we had a mayor who was a very smart person, who was a technocrat, and when shown that there were better ways to do things, would be willing to adopt that,” Gorton said.
Chicago: An ambitious leader and a bold target
During the 2011 Chicago mayoral campaign, a coalition of cycling advocates and non-profit groups put together a sustainable transportation platform, and reached out to all the mayoral candidates.
Front-runner Rahm Emanuel agreed to a meeting. An avid cyclist, Emanuel was drawn to one idea in particular: building 100 miles of protected bike lanes.
“I don’t remember his exact reaction, but it was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” said Ron Burke, executive director of Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance. “So, it didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting for the mayor to get on board with cycling as a way to improve the city’s transportation system.”
Chicago already had an iconic waterfront trail, and had recently expanded its share of traditional, painted bike lanes under former mayor Richard Daley. But protected bike lanes, which physically separate cyclists from other traffic, were a much more pioneering — and costly — approach to promoting alternative transportation and promoting public space.
It is rare for a mayor to campaign on a transportation platform, but when Emanuel championed bike lanes, he framed these facilities as more than just a boon to cyclists.
“It was part of an economic development strategy for the city, to bring jobs to the city, but also part of his strategy to make the city a family-friendly city,” said Gabe Klein, Emanuel’s former commissioner of transportation.
Once in office Emanuel took up the cause with gusto. He set out to best the efforts of other bike-friendly cities by building 100 miles of protected bike paths in just four years, and launching an ambitious bike-share program.
Despite having no dedicated budget, and some very real logistical obstacles (as Klein points out, it was challenge to even find the space for so many protected bike lanes), city staff went to work. They held extensive public consultations and scraped together funds from other projects to start building a network that would put an upgraded bike facility within a half-mile of every resident.
“Because the mayor was so strong on this issue, and because we were new in this job, there was sort of an understanding that this was part of our mission, that we were going to do it,” Klein said.
Today, Chicago has one of the most successful bike-sharing programs in the U.S., and is on track to meet Emanuel’s 100-mile goal.
“Nothing good ever happens unless someone takes a risk, takes a leadership role and is willing to make mistakes,” Klein said. “Otherwise, you end up with run-of-the-mill improvements that are not game-changers.”
Bogota: No NIMBYs allowed
Gil Penalosa, the charismatic former parks and recreation commissioner of Bogota, has a name for the vocal army of NIMBYs and naysayers that seem to emerge, on cue, whenever transformative urban change is proposed.
He calls them “civic cadavers.”
“They are people, you thought they were dead, because they have not shown up, but all of a sudden you try to do something, and they resuscitate,” said Penalosa, who is now executive director of the Toronto-based non-profit 8-80 Cities.
Alongside his mayor brother, Penalosa helped usher in the series of sweeping changes in the late ’90s that made Bogota a model for a new kind of urbanism that treated motorists and pedestrians as equals, and open spaces as a city’s greatest asset.
He led the development of 200 parks, including the 360-hectare Simon Bolivar. Under the leadership of his brother, meanwhile, the city built sidewalks and rapid bus lines instead of elevated highways, and launched a much-celebrated open streets program that closed thoroughfares to cars on Sundays.
If the city’s leaders had focused on the civic cadavers, none of this would have been possible, he said.
While he “listened honestly” to all stakeholders, Penalosa said he was keenly aware of the need for action.
“There will always be concern,” he said. “The citizens pay us every other week to get things done, not to have 20 reasons why things can not get done. We have to become champions of doing.”
London: A vision whose time had come
When work began on the long-awaited $27-billion London Crossrail in May 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was at Canary Warf, where the foundation for the first new station was being laid.
“Many people said it would never be built,” Brown said, “but today we are celebrating a defining moment for London.”
In many ways, it was a moment that had been in making for more than a century. In a paper published this year in the Town Planning Review, Michael Hebbert of the Bartlett School of Planning in London noted that reformers in the 1800s had pushed in vain for a Grand Central Station to unite the city’s privately operated railways.
“The issue was investigated at length by the House of Lords’ Committee,” he wrote, “but its final report in 1863 went against the ‘objectionable’ notion of a single unified terminus.”
The plans would be redrawn countless times before the Crossrail, which will cover 100 kilometres of track and provide the first direct connection among all the major employment hubs in central London, finally won approval. But experts say the lengthy gestation period was an important part of the process.
“I know that people get frustrated by the long time it takes for projects to materialize, but … sometimes you have to go through these painful phases in order to come up with what’s finally going to be built,” said Harry Dimitriou, who heads the Bartlett School’s program in mega infrastructure planning.
“The project that you started off with will change,” he said. “The most important thing is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to retain the qualities of the original.”
However, as Hebbert observed, the transit expansion touted as Europe’s largest civil engineering project may still be languishing in the planning stages had it not been for a combination of strong political leadership and the right economic conditions.
The London Government Act of 1999 gave the central city a directly-elected mayor with the ability to fight for federal funding for Crossrail — and persevere despite a difficult recession.
“The elected mayor has been hugely powerful in being a single advocate for investing in transport in London, but also been able to kind of control the transport authority to be able to demonstrate delivery,” said Richard de Cani, London’s director of transport strategy and planning.
Crucially, the city’s leadership sold Crossrail as an economic investment, securing government dollars and contributions from the business communities through development fees.
“It was the transition from it being just a plain old transport scheme to something that was transport enabling economic growth,” said de Cani. “That’s what got it over the line.”