Transcript of my Speech at the 2013 Toronto Urban Design Awards

These Awards present an opportunity every other year to pause, take stock and recognize the work we are collectively doing to create a great city.

The city, after all, is expressed and emerges in the places and spaces that we experience and share in common.  The way we design these places has the potential to enhance our connectedness to each other, to both the past and the future, and to the environments that sustain us.

When we get urban design right, the massing, placement, and detail of our buildings enhance the public realm and both enables and enlivens our experience of the city as pedestrians. And who are pedestrians? Pedestrians are you and me, going about our everyday life – whether walking to work, out for dinner, or to school.

I believe you can measure the design of a great city and the places that work – whether in Parkway Forest, at Shepherd and Don Mills, or in the Annex – by measuring the quality of the pedestrian experience.The form might be a bit different from one place to the next, but the principles of good design, and getting the details right – and the impact on every day life – are the same.

Now think about this for a minute: If this is true, if we are ultimately planning the city for the people who inhabit it every day, then urban design cannot be diminished to a frivolous afterthought, to be employed once the real planning is done. Great urban places define and redefine us through their distinctiveness, accessibility, and inspiration; building our capacity as an economic unit to attract and retain talent and capital over the long term. And this is why these Awards are worth the effort. The extent to which we are able to generate a shared language — which leads to a shared understanding — of the city we are seeking to create, the more successful we will become in defining our ‘built’ identity.

As urban designers and planners, our policy frameworks are the tools we employ to facilitate a dialogue about these shared expectations. City of Toronto staff are dedicated to development review precisely because we appreciate how much the details of our collective city building matter today, and for the very, very long term.

But it’s not all about policy; other inputs shape our city building outcomes. The Design Review Panel provides thoughtful, professional advice that is both recognized by City staff and integrated into comments, and serves to shape, refine, and sometimes challenge the thinking of applicants. The Toronto Public Art Commission plays a similar, essential role. And there is evidence in the Award winners of the impact of these advisory groups and their keen expertise in city building.

Let’s come back to these Awards, and why they matter.  Through the recognition of a multitude of projects selected from 125 submissions received in 7 categories, this is our way to celebrate the work you do – whether in design, development or construction – to build a great city. These awards represent a maturing of our city.  As we grow up – both literally and figuratively – I believe that we are figuring out how to take ourselves more seriously. We are continually raising our own expectations, and then setting out to exceed them. And in doing so, we have become less frivolous with space, more conscious of detail, more aware that each of our efforts accumulates to create a sense of place, an identity, and ultimately has the potential to add value – thereby shaping what we believe, how we feel about ourselves, and our expectations for the future.

One panelist in our Spring Roundtable on Our Urban Fabric suggested that we need to think more about pleasure in public space.  Happiness.  Does happiness matter in public life? We know that civility does, and surely it’s easier to be civil, or gracious, when we are happy.

The morning after this Roundtable I was out for my morning run, and standing at a bus stop along my route was a woman with two small children. Toddlers.  But they were silent and still, bundled in mits and hats and scarves, their hands, firmly enclosed by their silent – clearly weary – mother.  It was 6:30 am!  I thought of the details – if only the shelter had a bench, or was heated (Ottawa and Winnipeg have both figured this out)! Then I thought like a planner – she must have a long trip, maybe she lives very far from where she works… you can see where this goes.

My point is that urban design is not an exceptional attribute – it is critical to the lifeblood of a great city. It informs and shapes every day life. It matters not just to those with money to spend and places to see; it matters even more if you have a long, early morning commute on transit, with two little kids in tow.

The projects you see awarded here today get this key idea right: the notion that great urban design is not exceptional, but essential.  In this way, all of these projects make the city a better place – they are the pieces that contribute to the vision of a larger whole.

Sometimes people say that the City of Toronto has no vision – I’m always a bit surprised by this; we have a vision of our city in our Official Plan.  But clearly we haven’t socialized it enough. That we must fix – and doing so is a key objective of our Divisional Strategic Plan, launching this fall. It is the role of City Planning to be clearer.  This vision in the Official Plan, this vision that includes beautiful architecture and excellent urban design that astonishes and inspires, is a Council-endorsed vision. It provides direction to the many decisions we make every day.

I want to close by thanking you for choosing to take ownership over your city.  You’ve poured your passion and energy and capital into making the city a better place.  That’s really what city building is – a massive, complex, collaboration that demands our best energy, our strategic use of resources, our heightened creativity.

Let’s build a great city, together.