Cities: the good and the world class.
Flyvbjerg, Bent; Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter Megaprojects and Risk: an anatomy of ambition. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 207 pp. ISBN 0-521-00946-4
Toronto's strength has been in its ability to be good, rather than great. The pleasant and lively central city neighbourhoods, the relative safety of its streets, the sometimes-strained tolerance with which its citizenry has become multicultural, have all elicited admiration from other places and approval from residents. The general consensus, as Christopher Hume concedes in his essay in the revised edition of Eric Arthur's No Mean City, is that Toronto has slipped from being the livable city it was hailed to be 20 years ago without becoming the World Class City once promised by its boosters. The need for vision when seeking greatness--and World Class City stature--haunts Arthur's book; the assumptions that operate when cities and regions try to achieve this status through massive development projects haunt the second book in this review, Megaprojects and Risk.
Great cities demand great histories, and good cities can be ennobled by an excellent biography. London, Paris, and New York have their share of great histories, and lesser cities like Boston, Chicago, and Melbourne have been fortunate to inspire classic works that focus on their development in the 19th century: Streetcar Suburbs (Warner 1962), Nature's Metropolis (Cronon 1991), and The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (Davidson 1978), respectively.
Eric Arthur's Toronto: No Mean City falls in this latter category. Until his death in 1982, Arthur was a Professor of Architecture at the University of Toronto, with a strong interest in Toronto's built environment heritage. No Mean City is primarily an architectural history, richly illustrated with sketches, archival photographs and anecdotes that give the reader a sense of Toronto's first century, from the British colonial settlement's establishment in 1793 to the turn of the 20th century. While Arthur spends much of his time describing the churches and hospitals, colleges and grand mansions of the era, it is his description of the elusive beauty of the ordinary cityscape, the row houses and the commercial blocks, which was so influential. The first edition of No Mean City, published in 1964, helped inspire the movement to preserve inner city neighbourhoods from the wrecker's ball. Forty years later, the book still moves readers in its ability to describe the best of Toronto's built environment heritage.
The book is now in its eighth reprint, and although this current volume bills itself as a revised third edition, it has been substantially expanded since the last version came out in 1986. There are four short introductory essays. Christopher Hume, architecture critic and urban affairs columnist for the Toronto Star, addresses changes to the city since the 1986. Catherine Nasmith, architect and past chair of the Toronto Preservation Board, writes on current preservation battles; the writer Susan Crean explores Toronto's art scene; and Mark Kingwell, popular philosopher, inveighs on the sports landscape. Of these four short essays, the best in my opinion is the one by Crean, who reminds us that Toronto's landscape of the imagination has been shaped by creative works like Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, Lillian Allen's dub poetry, and Barbara Klunder's Bamboo Club mural on Queen Street, Toronto's main commercial artery.
The new essays reflect the social emphasis of No Mean City. Arthur was always interested in the architecture of the everyday. Arthur interposes his history of the building of 19th century Toronto with extensive captions to copious illustrations, and some of his best passages deal with the interior of a grocer's shop, or the reaction of a prisoner to the front door of the Don Jail. Although his tone is sometimes elegiac, Arthur was by no means trapped in blind nostalgia. He championed Viljo Revell's innovative design for Toronto's New City Hall, and was a vocal supporter of the best that contemporary architecture had to offer. But he was also cognisant of the virtues of Toronto's traditional residential streetscapes:
"Collier Street: sunlight and shadow, the feeling of space and security through enclosure that has disappeared from the modern street. We no longer have residential street architecture, only houses" (222).
As Arthur points out, Toronto never had a grand vision. The first plan had no central green space, the waterfront was casually handed to the railway companies in the 1850s, and the city's ravines have been steadily nibbled at by successive generations of developers. Twentieth century decision-makers allowed much of the best buildings and streetscapes to be destroyed. University Avenue, a handsome boulevard in the 1800s, was transformed into a disastrous traffic artery flanked by offices and hospitals with "filing cabinet facades" and separated by a median with a collection of some of the worst public art in Canada. Toronto has continued to succeed largely despite its planners, rather than because of them.
It is in this realm of what Peter Hall (1982) called "planning disasters" where Bent Flyvbjberg's Megaprojects and Risk: an anatomy of ambition, demonstrates how the built environment is often shaped by obstinate folly and a lack of accountability. Flyvberg is Professor in the Department of Development and Planning at Aalborg University in Denmark, and the author of Making Social Science Matter: why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again (Cambridge, 2001). With his two co-authors, Flyvbjerg has produced a clear and lucid account of the economic, environmental, and social impacts of megaprojects. As in Making Social Science Matter, a lucid critique of existing norms is combined with practical suggestions for improvement.
Megaprojects and Risk focuses on three 1990s European transportation megaprojects: the Channel rail tunnel between the United Kingdom and France (Europe's longest rail tunnel), the Greenbelt Link connecting East Denmark with Continental Europe (combining Europe's longest suspension bridge and second longest underwater rail tunnel), and the Oresund Link between Sweden and Denmark (a mixed-mode tunnel). The authors begin by questioning the habit of radically underestimating the projected costs of huge infrastructural undertakings. Since the Suez Canal was built in 1864, at roughly 20 times its initial estimated cost, money and time overruns have rarely been honestly dealt with by either governments or private sector megaproject promoters. This creates a culture of cynicism, where the public knows that potential risk is being hidden, either through incompetence or actual dishonesty, and also a lack of learning from one project to the next. Coincidentally (for the purposes of this review) the authors refer to Toronto's Danforth subway extension as one of the few projects that came in roughly on time and at cost, along with France's TGV rail line (21). While some transportation megaprojects do meet an acknowledged need, it is also common to radically overestimate potential demand, especially in the case of urban heavy rail projects.
Public-private partnerships have often become the worst of both worlds, as governments still see themselves as the promoters of projects (thus calling into question how they can guard public interests), without having any real accountability as to costs to the taxpayer, the investor, or the environment. While Environmental Impact Assessments have to be prepared beforehand, there are rarely any comprehensive audits of economic, environmental, or social impacts after the projects have been built. This is due partly to jurisdictional issues, since megaprojects are often intergovernmental as well as managed by special purpose organizations. But the authors also question the accountability of these projects, whether "civil society can have the same say in this area of public life" (5).
Nothing in this critique will be new to readers of Susan Fainstein's The City Builders (2001), Peter Hall's Great Planning Disasters (1982) or any recent analysis of sports or culture related megaprojects (Zukin 1995, Lenskyj 2002). However, Megaprojects and Risk distinguishes itself in two ways. First, its accessible style, with highlighted summaries of key points, and reliance on case studies, makes it suitable for undergraduate students as well as professional planners and project managers. Second, the authors provide an alternate accountability model for transportation megaprojects, which they hope would allow for a level of public participation in decision-making and accountability mechanisms.
Unfortunately, the authors leave largely undiscussed the question of the lost opportunity costs: whether, for instance, the money spent on a fixed link between Sweden and Denmark would have been better served by improving regional public transport. In Toronto, the Sheppard subway line has been constructed during a time when the existing public transit infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating in the face of senior government funding cuts. This is a clear example ofa megaproject sucking resources from the maintenance of basic quality of life concerns.
Together, No Mean City and Megaprojects and Risk provide essential reading for those who seek to improve Canadian cities in the 21st century. In an era when the broadening of the 402 highway through Windsor and the Sky-to-Sea highway between Vancouver and Whistler (in conjunction with the Winter Olympics) are being presented as the best ways for Canadian cities to compete in the global market, and where Toronto's Waterfront Development Strategy and Business Plan argues that "in an era of globalization, Canada's brand cannot just be 'nice, clean, and safe'" (Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation: 9), it is vital to have countervailing voices that remind us of past legacies and present foolishness.
Cronon, William. 1991. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: WW Norton.
Davison, Graeme. 1978. The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne. Carlton: University of Melbourne Press.
Fainstein, Susan. 2001. The City Builders: property development in New York and London 1980-2000. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Hall, Peter. 1982. Great Planning Disasters. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lenskyj, Helen. 2002. The Best Olympics Ever? Social impacts of Sydney 2000. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation. 2002. Our Waterfront: Gateway to a New Canada. Summary. Toronto: Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation.
Warner, Sam Bass. 1962. Streetcar Suburbs: the process of growth in Boston 1870-1900. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
University of Melbourne
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|Title Annotation:||Toronto: No Mean City, 3rd ed.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of Urban Research|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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