Can we just build a new neighborhood and make it look good? This is an open question in urban planning right now – not just in Toronto or Canada, but in the Western world. There are a few examples of new districts that have become favorite destinations.
Now Toronto has a chance to answer that big question with a major project: the redevelopment of 520 acres on a former airstrip, Bombardier factory and military land in Downsview, a former airstrip in the city’s northern area. This week, developers Northcrest and Canada Lands Company will release a “framework plan” for the project. It promises walkable urbanism filled with parks and “green corridors” and a runway turned into a one-mile-long pedestrian street. It would be light on cars, great at managing storm water, and filled with Scandi-style massive wooden buildings.
After a year of Zoom-meeting consultancy, the vision that has emerged is extremely ambitious, highly innovative and equally exciting. The question is how much of this dream will actually come true.
“It is a scheme that puts nature first, and then people and then built form,” says Kevin Bridgman, partner at local firm KPMB Architects. “It’s very different from the result you get if you start with buildings and densities.”
The designers, which also include leading Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and Danish landscape architects SLA, are pitching the project around a concept they call “city-nature”. One hundred acres of newly opened space will slice through the new neighborhood, creating small and medium-sized parks that take in rainwater, migratory species, cyclists and children to play.
“For everyone in Toronto who needs to leave for the weekend and move to a cabin in the countryside, we ask: Can you get over that feeling in the heart of the city?” says SLA project director Rasmus Astrup.
There will also be some buildings. The scheme calls for 50,000 units of housing for 80,000 people – mostly in mid-rise structures, meeting or exceeding affordable housing requirements, and clusters to create vibrant spaces. It also promises 41,500 jobs by 2051, including a film production studio that will open over the next few years. Development will begin at the opposite end, clustered around Wilson and Downsview Park subway stations – two of the four public-transit stations serving the site.
The architecture is still unclear. But early paintings mostly show five- to eight-storey structures, arranged around lush courtyards, with barely any cars visible. The architectural language, as would be expected from Henning Larsen and KPMB, is a sober modernism, with hints of lots of brick and wood structures. (The low height makes it possible to use largely wood, an emerging carbon-lite technology, instead of concrete.)
The airport runway provides a spatial and conceptual through-line for the project. The 2.1 kilometer runway will remain as a pedestrian street, surrounded by housing, shops, daycare and a school. “The runway turns from connecting people on a global scale to connecting people locally,” says Michael Sorensen, head of Henning Larsen’s North American office.
In the next year, the developers plan to open the airport for public events, allowing people to connect with the place. That would be the milestone. The airport is over a century old, but most neighbors have never crossed the fence. “The site is unfathomably large,” says Mr. Sorensen. “As a Dane, coming from such a small country, it’s hard to turn your head around.”
This little joke captures an important truth: The project is massive. So how do you create a sense of place? The “city-nature” concept, a trademark of SLA and a feature of Danish urbanism, helps. The plan will provide a network of courtyards and “greenways,” Mr. Astrup says – “that extra layer that every community needs.”
The designers are also engaged what is there. The downswing is strange today: a shaggy collection of aerospace factories and sheds, buttoned-up military buildings turned into parkour gyms and marine parking lots. The 18-acre military warehouse houses a flea market, which was built to withstand a missile attack. Now the designers plan to open up the building and run a road through it, which connects the samosa stand and electronics dealers to the landscape beyond.
The danger here is that these ideas will falter. The federal government held a design competition for Downsview in 2000 which produced An impressive plan led by Dutch provocateur OMA. What’s built up are a general park, serious townhouse, and big-box stores.
Today is your chance to start all over again. But this will require painstaking and creative work on architecture and landscape. And many departments in the City of Toronto will need to be flexible, abandoning their suburban formula for built form and street design.
Public sector pension fund-owned developers Northcrest are adamant that they will take their time and stand up for quality. Let’s hope If they are not, a change of ownership could spell disaster – a Danish-style public area could be replaced by a condo junkspace. However, for now the dream is alive.
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