Jan. 9, 2013
Why Richard Florida is dead wrong about Island airport expansion
We need to open the lens a little wider to see the true devastation extending the runway at Billy Bishop would cause on the lakefront
By Ken Greenberg
From south Etobicoke to the Scarborough Bluffs and beyond, what is emerging all along the Toronto waterfront is one of the most remarkable transformations of its kind in North America or anywhere.
The revitalization of a band of strategically located obsolescent lands is providing notable new and improved places for the public to enjoy: parks and trails, a linked series of neighbourhoods, places to live and work and places of recreation, repose and natural beauty.
It’s “cottage country” in the heart of the city for the many hundreds of thousands who can’t afford Muskoka or a plane ticket to more exotic resort destinations.
It’s also where Toronto is reinventing itself for the 21st century, adjusting to the city’s new southern face. Our waterfront is materializing not as a singular project but the collective work of generations of Torontonians, supported by the cumulative investments of all three levels of government and the private sector.
Its future contours are just starting to be visible as the many pieces fall into place along its length – from the promise of a revived Ontario Place/Exhibition Place, including the newly announced park, to the Music Garden shaped by Yoyo Ma and the Queens Quay Greenway currently under construction, to Sugar Beach and Sherbourne Common in the heart of the new East Bayfront neighbourhood, with George Brown College and $2.6 billion of private investment in progress – making it one of the largest such revitalization efforts in the world.
The rub: this entire band of waterfront is on the flight path of and bisected by the overburdened “land path” leading to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.
And unlike the other cities where a close-by airport is somewhat removed from the core, Billy Bishop sits right on Toronto Harbour, the heart and focal point of this entire blue edge, framed by the most active and populous areas of the waterfront and the gateway to our unique treasure, the Toronto Islands.
The key to the waterfront’s future success? No one activity can be allowed to dominate the others. This equilibrium breaks down when a single element is exaggerated or over-scaled to the point that its impacts impair other uses and activities.
That is what the proposed expansion of the airport, extending the runway by 400 metres to allow jets, would do.
Richard Florida understood the issue of balance when we worked together to fend off two previous threats to the waterfront: the ill-advised attempt to remove parkland and replace the city’s approved plan for the Lower Don Lands with a “lifestyle” shopping centre, Ferris wheel and luxury marina; and the proposed mega-casino resort complex whose preferred waterfront location was Exhibition Place.
It was clear, given their adverse impacts, that these temptations to sacrifice long-term benefits for illusory short-term gain made little sense.
But Florida argues in a recent article in the Toronto Star that airports contribute to local economies and that the benefits of expansion outweigh the potential costs. We should “bring on the jets” at Billy Bishop.
I can only assume that he has seriously underestimated the impacts of Porter Airlines’ proposal. I want to open the lens a little wider to look at the big picture and what’s at stake.
New York is one of the cities cited in Florida’s article, and it’s an apt analogy.
New York City has been steadily turning over its river and seaside edges to magnificent public uses, ringing the island of Manhattan with an accessible waterfront from Hudson River Park, which replaces the West Side Highway, to the Battery at the southern tip, and now the new East River Esplanade and over the Brooklyn Bridge to the enormously popular, still expanding Brooklyn Bridge Park. And all of it surrounds NYC’s own “blue room,” New York Harbor, including Governors Island, Staten Island and Liberty State Park.
A new study released by TD Economics in December entitled The Greening Of New York City: Lessons From The Big Apple looks specifically at the economic value of such green spaces, arguing that rehabilitation for public uses is an effective urban development strategy.
It notes that New York is hailed as one of the greenest cities in the U.S., the result of strong leadership that views the environment not as a cost but as an economic opportunity.
In Florida’s Star article, there’s a telling quote from a source who says airports are to 21st century cities what highways were to the 20th in terms of expanding communication.
Need we remind ourselves of the damage done by overreliance on urban highways when we pushed them through the hearts of our cities, eviscerating neighbourhoods and creating new barriers? And how Toronto famously reversed course, rejecting the proposed Spadina Expressway, Crosstown Expressway and Scarborough Expressway to our lasting credit and benefit?
What Porter CEO Robert Deluce is proposing is not an incremental enlargement of the airport but a profound change in its nature, a virtual doubling of air traffic and then some. A comparison has been made with the volumes at Ottawa International Airport. It’s important to understand what this would mean both physically and operationally.
The airport’s current 2 million annual passengers already cause severe vehicular and pedestrian congestion in the Bathurst Quay neighbourhood as lines of taxis wait on the east side of Little Norway Park and buses pick up and drop off passengers.
Conflicts intensify dramatically in the morning and afternoon rush hours, when students and other locals enter and exit the Harbourfront School and Community Centre, which have already become an island surrounded by traffic.
Many more fuel trucks to supply large new jet fuel storage tanks would also be added to the traffic mix.
Along with large increases in traffic of all kinds – cars, buses, taxis, service vehicles – and pressures for additional parking, extension of the runway would require the building of vertical walls to protect Bathurst Quay from jet thrust, blocking views of the lake and islands.
But the effects of airport expansion are not just local; the ripples for land, water and the atmosphere would be felt from south Etobicoke to the Bluffs
On the water side, airport expansion would shrink and engulf our own “blue room,” a sheltered historic harbour used and enjoyed by boaters in kayaks, canoes, sailboats, excursion boats and ferries.
David McKeown, Toronto’s medical officer of health, has made in-depth studies of the environmental and health impacts of such a dramatic change. In November he issued a heath impact assessment detailing significant negative effects on climate change, water and air quality, noise levels, health care costs, tourism, recreation, cultural activities, community services, community character and feelings of safety and well-being.
The critical point he makes is that it’s a mistake to narrowly consider the many individual negative impacts of airport expansion in isolation. Rather, we must look at their cumulative impact on a setting already under pressure. Expansion of current levels of activity at Billy Bishop risks pushing local problems over the edge and undermining the whole waterfront’s ability to perform extremely important roles for the city in economic, social and environmental terms.
Politically, once the die is cast on expansion, the city relinquishes effective control over these impacts to the federally appointed Port Authority, which can then saddle the city with the legal obligation to deal with repercussions. And opening that door would unleash an unstoppable momentum to keep escalating air traffic and its collateral effects.
The stated goal of airport expansion is to offer jet service to western Canadian cities, California, Florida and the Caribbean. This would of course not be limited to one carrier. WestJet and Air Canada, among others, want in on the act; WestJet has already announced its intention to seek slots to fly its expanded fleet of 737 jets into Billy Bishop.
I do use Billy Bishop airport. I can even walk there. I recognize how convenient it is for travellers like me, but that does not justify its expansion. I accept it at its current size with the proviso that we now set about repairing the environment around it and solving the problems it is already creating, not exponentially multiplying them.
By any measure, airport expansion represents a drastic shift. Its negative impacts are not “surmountable,” nor can they be solved by a combination of technological fixes. The expansion of the airport and the introduction of jets runs the very real risk of undoing and setting back decades of efforts, going back to David Crombie’s Royal Commission and the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, including the current excellent work of Waterfront Toronto. The overall aim of that work has been to reclaim the water’s edge as an area that is “clean, green, accessible to all and contributes to economic prosperity and vitality of the city as a whole,” in McKeown’s words.
In the end it comes down to the issue of balance.
Periodically, every great city has to make strategic decisions, irrevocable choices that come around only once.
Now is the time to reaffirm the great and generous waterfront vision unanimously adopted by city council in 2003, not to abandon or undermine our project. Airport expansion, whatever its merits in terms of convenience for a particular group of business travellers, should not trump the larger public good.
800 hectares Area tapped for waterfront development.
300 hectares Waterfront land designated for parks and open spaces.
55 hectares Contaminated industrial land reclaimed for development in the East Bayfront and West Don Lands.
$1.9 billion Gross output for the Canadian economy generated since 2001 by waterfront projects.
40,000 Jobs that will be created on the waterfront once projects are completed.
34,000 Trees that will be planted.
17 New or improved parks.
Ken Greenberg is an architect, urban designer, teacher, writer, former director of urban design and architecture for the city of Toronto, and principal of Greenberg Consultants.