Ken Greenberg's Blog

January 09,2014

NOW Magazine

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.

Waterfront countdown

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. 


January 04,2014


The 21st century city stands poised to play a critical role as a great problem solver and generator of prosperity. We are discovering that only dense cities can reduce our heavy environmental footprint and address the devastating progress of climate change. We are figuring out how to get more out of less, drawing on their inherent capacity to solve multiple problems laterally, not one at a time. And we are embracing Jane Jacobs’ profound insight that cities are not mechanical constructs, but ‘organized complexity’ better understood by analogy with the science of living organisms. But here’s the rub: while this new way of seeing the city is widely shared, we often find that we have inherited systems on auto-pilot that were designed to produce a very different kind of urban world.

Municipal governments are siloed provinces of ‘functional’ specialists who too often pay little heed to the way their work affects the quality of the whole. Planners deal with land use, transportation engineers with moving vehicles, designers with buildings and landscapes, municipal engineers with the arrangement of services and so on. This specialization occurred primarily in the two generations following World War II. By the time the dust settled, we had profoundly reshaped most of the urban environment in North America and many other parts of the world in pursuit of a fragmented, often sprawling, auto-dependent model of zoned homogeneity and functional efficiency. Even though our thinking has changed radically, the ‘siloed’ departmental structure set up to deal with specific problems in isolation too often remains intact.

It is challenging to do innovative city building projects by feeding them into the old bureaucratic stovepipes. Working through these structures can be like using a hammer to turn a screw. Once we accept cities as dynamic, constantly evolving organisms, it is clear that we need a more supple modus operandi, harnessing our new understanding and using digital age interactive tools. It is a little like getting from classical scores to the improvisational qualities of jazz. It will require a “cognitive leap” from the ways things are currently done, a “disruptive technique” which leads to new ways of solving problems and organizing systems.

None of our basic urban challenges exist in isolation. The city needs to be thought of three dimensionally, not just as policies and programs, but as physical places with anticipatory modelling and testing of outcomes. It is critical not to circumscribe problems and opportunities too narrowly—in many cases the meaningful unit of consideration is much larger than the ‘project area’ or even its immediate context. We need to look at the surrounding square miles to truly get all the issues on the table and see the tentacles that extend well outside the boundaries. Underlying social relationships, environmental considerations, economic forces, natural systems, infrastructure and transportation all have their own larger scale logics and do not often fit neatly into planning districts or municipal boundaries.

Cross-sector collaboration is essential as we re-invent our economic base, retool our infrastructure, expand our cultural sector, and plan for an aging population. We cannot deal with transit, traffic, cyclists, pedestrians and the economic vitality of our retail streets in isolation. To be effective in city building we have to get the focus back on the real issues and harness the full power of city design as strategic problem solving in the broadest terms. This means not only using the full capabilities of the design professions but also linking the physical and operational decisions to the economic, environmental and social dimensions of change.

This shift has been occurring in pockets through an intensive empirical process of trial and error that leads from one city to another. We are gradually moving away from compartmentalizing inside and outside municipal government. Instead, we are blending public and private initiatives, working across disciplinary lines and engaging civil society in new ways. Different kinds of knowledge and new skill sets are added to the creative process, including the contributions of designers, planners, engineers, economists and market specialists; environmental scientists, community service providers; civic leaders; artists and arts organizations among others.

In order to fuse all this expertise, it is necessary to create an actual ‘place of convergence’ in City Hall where insights can be pooled and a technique for visualizing overlapping initiatives ‘on the same page’ can be created. Building on my informal experiences with such a model in Toronto, we set up a ‘Design Center’ when I worked with the City of St. Paul. With its own director and a small staff, the design center had a core membership of individuals who worked within City Hall as “city designers” in various capacities, plus a larger ancillary group of staff from the county and other agencies. As we hoped, it has provided a forum where design and city-building issues are discussed by city planners and architects in Planning and Economic Development, landscape architects in the Parks Department, Building Department officials, and transportation and civil engineers in Public Works. 

When we kick the tires, pitch new ideas and react to one another, we expand the collective “brain” of the team and, in a sense, simulate the complexity of real-world conditions. The expanded team works together from start to finish – like building the entire car together rather than the fragmentation of the assembly line. Often we discovered that the “solution” in one area actually resides in another.

Most recently I have been working with the City of Edmonton, Alberta on two assignments: one to do with the creation of a ‘Connectivity Framework’ to track and frame the evolution of this rapidly growing city, and the other to examine how staff from different disciplines can more effectively integrate their work. At this stage in Edmonton’s evolution, things are moving much too fast for the old paradigm to cope effectively. 

The use of the ‘Framework’ will be a ‘leap’ to get Edmonton from a “good city to a great city.” I have been working with city staff to create a dynamic two and three-dimensional tool that provides an overview of all of downtown plans in time and space. This digital framework depicts the downtown both as it is and how it is evolving, adding even an historical dimension. At once we can examine how historic  forces like the river and the removal of rail yards as well as new interventions can be harnessed to help shape the mono-functional CBD into a mixed and vibrant lived-in downtown. This tool shows catalytic projects underway and displays the achievement of the city’s transformational goals in an engaging way. 

The Framework will get all layers ‘on the same page,’ much like a Google Map with a zoom feature with the ability to delve down into individual project areas in more detail. It can harness the city’s GIS capabilities to see how the downtown is evolving as a dynamic set of relationships and possibilities, many of which are mutually reinforcing one another including land uses, modal shift, changing demographics and economic metrics. Edmonton may be breaking new ground with this interactive tool. However, to be truly successful, the Edmonton Connectivity Framework must be more than a onetime effort—it must become a living instrument. Aspects of this kind of capability may exist elsewhere but not in this comprehensive form. 

The combination of increased appreciation for how cities actually work plus the explosion of new technological advances make this is an ideal time to make the shift toward innovative new ways of city building. The possibilities are limitless. Mid-size cities with motivated leadership may in fact blaze the trail for cities around the world. Projects like the Edmonton Framework initiative and the St. Paul Design Center are worth replicating in larger cities with more sophisticated bureaucracies. Only then can we switch off the auto-pilot.

September 27,2013

Why a Reality Check is Badly Needed on the Transit File and Anne Golden’s Panel May Be Our Last Best Hope

For over sixty years, transportation planners have tried to slay the congestion dragon.  With ever wider roads and highways and clogged city streets, our cities are drowning in traffic congestion and corresponding social, environmental and economic stresses. As Toronto’s Board of Trade continually points out, the GTHA is overrun with cars and paying a huge price for congestion. The only thing that really works in big cities is getting more people out of their cars through a focus on moving people rather than vehicles. There are many compelling reasons to do this from public health to environmental impacts and convenience, and in the end the driving imperative will come from the inexorably rising cost of energy. Recognizing this reality, cities around the world are making the shift to safe and efficient multi-modal networks. But the Toronto Region seems to be having an unusually difficult time with this, both figuring out what to do and how to pay for it. This panel last best hope for an honest unbiased assessment of what is needed and the courage to courage to voice some uncomfortable truths.  


The Scarborough caper is getting stranger by the day. The worst thing that could happen and my real fear is that the City of Toronto will now raise taxes to add $1 billion more to add to the Provincial and Federal dollars for this trophy line (and then nothing else) and we will then build the biggest white elephant in our transportation history with everyone later pointing to the others and saying they made me do it.


The truth is that both of the latest dueling Scarborough plans have severe shortcomings. To quote a friend there is political logic and logic logic and we now badly need some of the latter. We seem to be engaged in a no win game of subway poker with our politicians outbidding each other, grandstanding with our meager pile of chips. The emperor truly has no clothes. Subways are one important tool. So are Commuter Rail, Light Rail, Street Cars, Bus Rapid Transit, Buses, Taxis, Bikes and our own two feet. They all have their place and great cities use them all in the appropriate places. Subways can carry up to 36,000 passengers per hour. They are extremely expensive and only make sense when they are needed to do a job of heavy lifting. The critical failure we have experienced in recent decades has been uncoupling transportation investments from land use, the form and density of the city they serve.


The land bordering both of the proposed subway routes are now largely occupied by very low intensity uses not suitable for higher order transit. If a subway is to make any sense there would need to be an ironclad commitment to re-purpose these lands to make sense of this massive investment, in other words a pro-active and simultaneous strategy for doing this in advance by assembling the land and/or forming partnerships to plan for and implement dense, compact, mixed-use transit-oriented  neighbourhoods along the route as an integral part of the transit plan. Otherwise we are just repeating the dismal failures of the original University line and Sheppard line.

But what happened to city building side of the equation in this debate of dueling slogans and sound bites? One or two stops on either line are totally inadequate. At very least provisions for a significant number of additional stops forming transit hubs at reasonable spacing should be "roughed in" for future build-out (with private sector participation if necessary) otherwise we are completely wasting the city-building potential of the subway line as we have unfortunately done before.

Only a very rich society can be so wasteful, poised to spend billions of dollars on a marginally useful piece of infrastructure overkill accomplishing little and ultimately requiring huge operating subsidies. Are we becoming Saudi Arabia or Dubai, ready to build vanity subways with almost no stops while ignoring growing and urgent real needs elsewhere in the GTHA? And if we do this what does it portend for the future and the rest of the transit investment plan? All of which to say I think Golden Panel may be the only vehicle with the potential to shed some urgently needed objective light on the poor and incomplete thinking that underlies both of the Scarborough proposals and the many flaws and disconnects across the region in the way we going about the Big Move failing to truly connect city building and infrastructure investment. If we are going to credibly make the case for revenue tools we have to also make the case for spending the money wisely.


We are in a strange place. These transportation projects are multi-decade efforts extending beyond the terms of single administrations and need to form viable networks joined at the hip to shared visions for the cities they shape. We on the other hand have no national policies or program or for that matter reliable provincial municipal ones, seemingly preferring to randomly cherry pick favorites and pander based on short-sighted and volatile political calculations.  It’s not working. It is causing inertia, cynicism and a pervasive sense of failure. Somehow every great city eventually does figure this out. So unless we think we are uniquely incompetent or dysfunctional, we will have to face this challenge. Hopefully this panel can help us to step back, take a deep breath and get back on track.


Ken Greenberg is an Urban Designer based in Toronto and author of Walking Home published by Random House.