Ken Greenberg Built This City on Walks, Not Sprawl
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Ken Greenberg Built This City on Walks, Not Sprawl

2011_06_24harbourfront.jpg Ken Greenberg’s Harbourfront redesign helps people connect to the lake. Rendering by Greenberg Consultants.

Walk around Toronto and you’ll see evidence of Ken Greenberg‘s efforts to make Toronto a more livable place. The local planner (and former director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City) has had his hand in crucial projects from Harbourfront to the ongoing redevelopment of Regent Park as a mixed-income community.
Now he’s taken a step back and written a book, Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder. It’s part autobiography, part love letter to Toronto, and part manifesto for reclaiming our cities after heading in the wrong direction for a couple of generations.

Walking Home is a book about cities, not about Toronto per se. That said, Toronto is arguably the lead character in it. Greenberg talks, for example, about the work he has done around the world, from Boston, New York, and Amsterdam to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. But Toronto stories abound, from the revitalization of the St. Lawrence district to the creation of the Martin Goodman Trail, the success of [murmur], and a host of other projects.
Brooklyn-born, Greenberg spent time in suburban New Jersey and Europe before coming to Toronto, which, despite its stodgy mid-century reputation, he found to be a haven. Unlike so many American cities, the downtown Toronto of the late 1960s hadn’t been ravaged by expressways and a flight to the suburbs. “I had this tremendous sense of a second chance. A chance not to make the same kinds of mistakes,” he says. “There was a lot of new consciousness about the city and the value of the old neighbourhoods.”

The St. Lawrence neighbourhood. Photo by candrika from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

That sentiment led to the rescue of buildings like Old City Hall and the St. Lawrence Market, killing the Spadina Expressway, and the election of the “reform council” led by David Crombie and featuring outspoken members like John Sewell. “Initially it was about stopping bad things from happening and it soon became … about formulating a vision for what another kind of North American city might be,” Greenberg says.
Not surprisingly, Jane Jacobs looms large in the narrative. Greenberg was first “introduced” to her as a student through her seminal work, The Death and Life of American Cities. Both he and Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968 and she became more than just an influence, also a friend, colleague, and mentor to Greenberg. “That was just an extraordinary thing for me,” he says of their opportunities to collaborate while also sharing a personal relationship.
It’s worth remembering, as Greenberg notes, that Jacobs was not a planner by training and she didn’t relish the role of urban guru, but he still sees her mark on Toronto as indelible. “Even though she very rarely had any official roles … I think her body of thinking and all the works she created over the many decades she lived in Toronto were both informed by Toronto … and also tremendously influenced this city and gave a a whole bunch of people, including myself, the confidence and the inspiration to pursue a lot of strategies and ideas she’d laid out.”
At the other end of the scale is urban sprawl, described by Greenberg as a “two-and-a-half-generation aberration” facilitated by cheap energy and the dream that cars could provide an alternative to city living.

2011_06_24mississauga.jpg Greenberg’s plan to give the ever-sprawling Mississauga a proper centre by 2021. Rendering by Greenberg Consultants.

Greenberg the writer is not averse to a clever turn of phrase dispensing such bon mots as:

  • Zoning laws turn spaces into “components [that are] predetermined and separated, like the food on a small child’s sectional dinner plate.”
  • “In some ways the city resembles jazz; its overall plan is the rhythm section, which provides the context and springboard for improvised solos.”
  • Planning is like “urban judo” where planners need to identify forces of momentum and capitalize on it rather than confronting it.
  • The Ontario Municipal Board is “unworkable” and a “constipated judicial model.”
  • Cars have “de-spatialized” our environment and we’ve “substituted a sense of time spent in a capsule” for human interaction and a sense of local scale.”
  • The forced creation of the megacity “hardened an obsolete and arbitrary boundary at exactly the place where large-scale issues needed to be reconciled.”

The book isn’t political, necessarily, but it’s not hard to see where Greenberg’s feelings lie. He spends pages slamming amalgamation and the funding inequities imposed by the Harris government on Toronto and other municipalities. He spends at least as many praising the likes of Adam Vaughan, David Crombie, and especially David Pecaut and the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance.
Without naming Rob Ford, he notes that new administrations that stay the course with long-term planning visions are more successful than those who introduce erratic change.
“Clearly we’re at a point now where a lot of things we accomplished are at risk,” he says.
Greenberg sees the megacity as a bloated, powerless body that fails both to recognize the reality of our growing region and to meet local needs. He notes the success of local citizen committees in New York, somewhat ironic given Ford’s move to scrap Toronto’s citizen committees earlier this spring. “We need to simultaneously have a citywide perspective […] We also need a regional perspective, but you need these nesting boxes. You need to get down to these neighbourhoods that people can know and understand and have involvement in,” he says.

Ken Greenberg. Photo by Bruce Rogovin.

Also high on Greenberg’s hit list is the Ontario Municipal Board, the unelected provincial body that he describes as a de facto planning board for Toronto, overruling the decisions of city staff and politicians and creating an adversarial process that works against city-building efforts.
He spends several pages listing its faults (most of which we’ve discussed before), saying that it’s “the antithesis of the kind of informal, qualitative, multiparty dialogue that is essential to promote best practices in city building.” That’s a polite way of saying it might be easier to make Toronto a great city if they just stepped the heck off. “It’s the worst system I’ve ever encountered,” he says matter-of-factly.
Of course, there’s also the ongoing battle to reconnect Toronto with its waterfront. Greenberg has won multiple awards for his plan to reconstruct the Lower Don River, but that pesky Gardiner Expressway is still there (despite bits and pieces falling off every now and then).
Having helped reclaim parts of Boston following its “Big Dig,” he sees both the potential underlying the removal of the Gardiner and the need to replace it with something viable. The question is whether we’ll replace the aging highway with a replica or something more innovative. Simply eliminating the expressway won’t solve anything, but expansion of transit, for example, can take cars off the road, and wider sidewalks can welcome pedestrians, making it easier to eliminate the celebration of automobiledom that is the Gardiner and to build something less grand.
“We’re behind in a transformation that’s happening in many cities,” he says, which is not a surprising statement given the mayor’s “War on the Car” rhetoric and the recent hullabaloo over the City’s bike counts on John Street.
Planning can be a business where it takes a lot of time to watch a vision become reality, but Greenberg doesn’t have to look far to take pride in achievements. The ongoing redevelopment of Regent Park and its social and economic spinoffs top his list, followed by projects like the Lower Don and Harbourfront.

You might recall Greenberg grabbing the spotlight last year when he quit the Lower Don project he helped devise over the City’s plan to drop a suburban-style hockey arena in the middle of it. He came back after they compromised with an innovative (if expensive) solution to stack the four ice pads.
A study released last year by David Hulchanski showed how Toronto’s middle class is disappearing, leading to polarization. That’s something that concerns Greenberg, along with an aging, car-dependent population, and the need to curb urban sprawl. Despite all the obstacles, however, Greenberg is optimistic about how people are leading their governments and developers in the right direction.
“Cities are where we’ll meet the greatest challenges facing our generation and those to come and where we will ultimately solve our greatest problems. I don’t think we have any other choice.”