Splendid design seizes the right to be different

Lawrence Solomon
Financial Post
December 13, 2005

The conservative-minded in gated communities across the continent don’t like change. They regulate, to an obsessive degree, the size and style of buildings and their uses, typically in suburban settings. The result: an appalling mediocrity.

The conservative-minded in Toronto communities also don’t like change. They agitate, to an oppressive degree, to restrict the size and style of buildings and their uses, including in downtown Toronto. The result: an appalling mediocrity.

Those in small-gated communities are entitled to their mediocrity. They voluntarily, and unanimously, opted into these communities. They chose absolute predictability in their living environment.

The conservative-minded in big cities – ironically, they tend to call themselves left-leaning and progressive – have no such entitlement. These agitators are a minority among an open-minded majority that chose the parade of city life. The minority succeeds in imposing its mediocrity on the Toronto majority only because of Toronto’s dysfunctional political system, which creates private alliances between local agitators and local councillors at the expense of the broader majority.

Toronto’s dysfunctional rule-making may soon change, thanks to a report from the Governing Toronto Advisory Panel and a mayor who dislikes the drab that comes of community activism. Under new rules that the panel proposed last month to Mayor David Miller’s approval, a professional design committee would decide what’s nice or not. Yesterday, proposed provincial legislation endorsed this approach. If Toronto’s Mayor and the province have their way, councillors and their status-quo constituents will soon lose much of their power to squelch splendid design.

City design and city vitality had their heyday before the era of regulation. Property owners would please themselves in building their homes or business establishments, or real estate developers would take the initiative, divining what future customers might desire. Without zoning, without community approval, without political meddling and with the exercise of property rights, elegant neighbourhoods and tight-knit communities emerged. In almost every city on the continent, the most prized communities, the most beautiful buildings, came of a property rights regime in which property owners held the right to be different, and often seized it. The product of their daring form the heritage districts we so cherish today.

With the erosion of property rights came the erosion of design. Politicians and planning departments increasingly dictated how property would be used; architects turned their skill to second-guessing what neighbours would tolerate. Toronto, whose governance system tilts more than most to poky politics, became especially drab – its design and architecture is perhaps the dullest on the continent among cities of any size. Great architects produce their poorest works in Toronto, their lively designs deadened by the need to conform to community norms. This was even the case with Frank Gehry, the most celebrated architect on Earth. Neighbours shamelessly pronounced on his design for the Art Gallery of Ontario, in the end, gutting its brilliance.

Toronto’s government isn’t about to respect the property rights of its residents, but after a rash of activist trashing of smart downtown designs, the city seems set to trash the activists. If Mayor Miller gets his way, Toronto will replace the self-appointed local design committees with a professional design review panel.

“As a city, we must learn to despise mediocrity,” Mayor Miller stated earlier this year at a forum on architecture and design. “We can’t accept what we’ve accepted in the past. Good enough is no longer good enough.”

The professional design review panel will not be as good as the government-lite system of old. But for now, it will be “good enough.”

Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; www.urban.probeinternational.org.

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