Dateline: Toronto: ISLAND AIRPORT REDESIGNED; Jane Jacobs Dies PART II

Last week we wrote a lick about our experience with the Toronto Island Airport charrette. This charrette, (French for “design marathon” [goodness, he’s also a sophisticate! –ed.]) was organized by the much-vaunted Office for Urbanism on behalf of the city of Toronto. The island airport site had been put forward by some committee or other as a possible location for the city’s bid for the 2015 World’s Fair, and the charrette’s purpose was to look with “fresh eyes” at the site’s potential.

Facts about the island airport site:

1) it consists of 200 acres of flat real estate complete with acres and acres of super-hardened concrete runways interspersed with quadrangles of chemical-laced grass;
2) its substrate consists of lake-current-carried sand washed there from the Scarborough bluffs, sand that has a propensity to form dunes which must be periodically bulldozed by the airport landlords
3) it lies across a 121-metre shipping channel at the bottom of Bathurst Street;
4) the channel crossing, a five minute ferry-ride (of which some three minutes are spent tying off at either end), will set you back $35 million [sorry. Could you repeat that? –ed.].

Allow us to backtrack a bit.

The five minute ferry ride was posited in the beginning of this century [nicely put! –ed.] as the reason the airport loses so much money for its operators (they said no one wanted to take the ferry when they could instead drive to the city’s Pearson International Airport). They claimed the five minute ferry ride had to be replaced by a bridge in order to build back to the level of activity the airport enjoyed in the late 1980s. In 1988, for example, when we found ourselves disembarking from a noisy little machine that had flown us up from New York’s LaGuardia airport, the island airport served some 800,000 passengers yearly. Since then its ridership has plummetted: today it serves just 80,000 passengers per year. All because of the missing bridge? That’s what they want us to believe.

Question: how come 800,000 passengers crossed by ferry per year in the late 80s? Why wasn’t a bridge necessary then?

It’s possible there’s another explanation.

It’s possible no one wants to travel on the crappy, noisy little planes the island airport has to use to fulfill its terms of contract (there’s no room for jets to land).

It’s possible Air Canada, which controlled commercial flights from the island airport until quite recently, and which went through such financial turmoil in the 1990s, pulled strings to make the airport falter.

It’s possible that building a bridge to the island airport had nothing to do with plans to make the airport fly, but instead were about nascent dreams of car-dependent urban development over there.

It’s possible that together with the proposed “Gardiner Expressway Extension” [don’t you mean the Front Street Extension? –ed.], which would dump its hourly load of sprawl-fed car commuters at the foot of the proposed bridge, the pressure for a “harbourfrontal lobotomy” of the island airport site would be too great to bear.

But all of this is besides the point. In 2003, plans for a bridge were quashed when the current mayor, David Miller, was elected. It’s clear that he separated himself from his also-ran opponents with his oppostition to the bridge. Toronto voters responded to his stance. The bridge, which was to have cost $22 million, was cancelled. In a mysterious transaction, the Port Authority received $35 million cash, instead.

That’s the $35 million we were speaking of [um, thanks, I guess. –ed.].

To recap:

We stumbled into a Situation on the weekend.

Known in the business as a charrette, a group of about thirty earnest souls, some professional designers of one stripe or other, some just gadabouts with a couple days free and the connections to put themselves in the right place at the right time, converged on the Toronto waterfront to take aim at the future of the Island Airport.

Two days later, Jane Jacobs died.

Coincidence? We don’t think so.

For who was Jane Jacobs, and what is the Island Airport? Answers to these questions will point to a much deeper mystery, an enigma, a conundrum: nay, some may even call it a conspiracy.

Among the many examples of lipservice paid to Jane Jacobs and the principles for which she stood, there have appeared one or two examples of people speaking their true, dark thoughts about her. We give you the New York Times, for example (to read it you need to sign up for the (free) registration). Its sickening “critic’s notebook” of this past Sunday, called “Outgrowing Jane Jacobs,” has since been reprinted in a number of places, including the Toronto Star. In it Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:

But the problems of the 20th-century city were vast and complicated. Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation’s dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities. She could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification. And she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments.

Really, Mr. Ouroussoff? What do you know of what Jane Jacobs thought? We suspect she would contest your contention that cars “remain critical to the development of American cities.” We suspect she would see your claim for what it is, “the gospel of the car ad.” We suspect she was capable of seeing this “beauty” you speak of for what it is also, and was aware of the seeming contradictions you imply in her observations on the nature of traffic. We recall in Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) her writing

Sidewalks 30 or 35 feet wide can accommodate virtually any demand of incidental play put upon them—along with trees to shade the activities, and sufficient space for pedestrian circulation and adult public sidewalk life and loitering. Few sidewalks of this luxurious width can be found. Sidewalk width is invariably sacrificed for vehicular width, partly because city sidewalks are conventionally considered to be purely space for pedestrian travel and access to buildings, and go unrecognized and unrespected as the uniquely vital and irreplaceable organs of city safety, public life and child rearing that they are.

“Sidewalk width is invariably sacrificed for vehicular width.” How telling. But nowhere is Jane Jacobs “anti-car” in her writing. She is simply realistic about cars: their danger, the disruption they promise, and the sick addiction the modern world has come to have for them. With James Howard Kunstler, who contends: “Nobody, it seems, can imagine an American life not centered on cars,” Jacobs would have agreed.
With Enrique Penalosa, who has famously said “You can build cities for the car or you can build cities for human beings,” Jane Jacobs simply advocated on behalf of the latter.

It’s no surprise though that newspaper pundits, dependent on the automobile for the advertising that fills their centrefolds [my god, are you getting to the point at last? –ed.], would get all meally-mouthed about someone who really spoke truth to power about the dangers automobile dependency presents to urban life.

And now she’s dead, while we conduct design charrettes where folks throw her name about as if they have a clue what she really thought.


One Response to “Dateline: Toronto: ISLAND AIRPORT REDESIGNED; Jane Jacobs Dies PART II”

  1. RC says:

    It's funny about Jane Jacobs. She was a queer fish sometimes.

    And I would say it's partially true that she never really came up with any solutions or approach to dealing with extremely rapid suburban expansion - her descriptions of the best places, with mixes of ages of buildings and types is impossible to achieve in suburbia except through architectural style tomfoolery.

    Interestingly - the Globe coverage included some of her supposed "favourite" places - one of which of course was Kensington. However, apparently one of the others was Mississauga City Centre - a place that I simply cannot fathom someone like her appreciating, and a place that is also about as car-centric as they come. I know I can't appreciate it!!! The article declared (and I've heard from other sources) that she made it a habit on weekends to *drive* out with friends to visit many of Toronto's suburbs (partly why they feature so strongly in Dark Age Ahead). I think perhaps her surprise at finding such strong community groups and culture in those places overruled a sensible understanding that they were inherently physically dysfunctional - she also didn't seem to bring up the End of Oil as a part of her "Dark Age" - something that is also perplexing (am I wrong about that?).

    I believe she also was strongly behind the St. Lawrence development, which I think missed the mark on a number of levels (while doing many good things, such as mixing tenures, incomes at a reasonable density etc) but which is a deadish and boring contribution to the city as a whole, and which really has quite limited opportunities to change, grow or evolve.

    I wasn't aware of these less appreciative opinions out there about Jane Jacobs though - I suppose now she's gone, it's open season on twisting what she was about to whatever purposes suit. That is, more than people were already doing!


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