The Big Move


29 March 2016

As Toronto prepares for an unprecedented investment in a new public transport system, Disegno asks whether branding has come to overshadow the concept’s true objectives. Or does it simply represent a new type of “public”?

Can urban development ever be said to have a recognisable character, a personality? This is a question cities have always faced when they set out to create comprehensive plans, but it is an increasingly urgent problem for those urban centres that are in competition for the hearts of a well-informed and mobile population of global citizens.

The mismatch between desire and reality is acute in Toronto, a city whose character, at least in terms of statistics, is changing. The population has increased more than tenfold since 1945 – from around 263,000 in 1945 to 2.86 million – and is expected to hit 3 million by 2031. A recent C$50bn (about £25bn) public transportation masterplan, called the Big Move, promises regional coherence to accommodate this, but Toronto itself seems set to remain diverse. None of this is particularly unusual. What is strange, however, is that a new vision for what the “public” in “public transit” might mean underpins much of the Big Move. Stranger still is the consensus this new vision seems to be attracting.

What is public transit in Toronto? What is Toronto itself? An early suggestion as to what Metrolinx, the state-owned agency behind the Big Move, might have in mind is gleaned by riding one of the first of its key projects, the recently completed express train that meets visitors at Toronto’s Pearson airport and carries them to its downtown rail hub, Union station. The ride leaves you with the pleasant feeling of having experienced a representative cross-section of the city. On departure, the train swoops out with a commanding view of the busiest airport in Canada – which served some 38.5 million passengers in 2014 – and proceeds into what looks to be a bustling industrial area amid thriving suburbs. Next, it passes though hipster- and immigrant-friendly neighbourhoods (the converted warehouses and various storefront scripts are conspicuous), where art graffiti lines the railway, a practice that is not just tolerated, but has been institutionalised in a programme that matches local art students with blank walls. The ride, which lasts 25 minutes, ends at Union in a downtown core dense with new condo towers.

The UP Express, as the train is called, certainly presents Toronto as a neat package. So near, in fact, that you cannot help but feel it matches expectations too well – that what the passenger is being offered is somehow an illusion. A cartoon map inside the train focuses this suspicion: it shows the train route curving among cheerful icons representing parks and neighbourhoods, but mostly against a blank backdrop. Looking around, the same monomaniacal curatorial attention can be seen everywhere: in the signage, the carpeting, the hip magazine in the seatback pocket, the attendants’ uniforms. This excessive editing makes sense if you understand the UP Express not as a train, but as a carefully crafted branding effort that has been orchestrated by creative agency Winkreative, owned by Monocle editor and founder Tyler Brûlé. What is offered up is a polished – almost airbrushed – vision of Toronto. The background to the city settling on such a singular vision requires a little context.

Grands projects in Toronto have historically been intensely political and subject to compromise. Until the postwar years, the city was essentially a small colonial outpost. It was not until the 1970s that it overtook Montréal in population and as the commercial centre of Canada. Though it has experienced continuous growth very different to that of nearby American cities (Buffalo, Syracuse, Detroit), Toronto still felt the economic slumps of the early 1980s and the city took a long hiatus from high design. The saying in architecture circles is that Toronto has plenty of buildings by first-rate architects, but they all happen to be second-rate projects; Toronto has not seen the benefit – aesthetically or economically – from buildings by, for example, Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind. As landmarks and urban fabrics faced underinvestment, so too did transportation infrastructure. Looking across all Canadian cities in the period from 1978 to 2000, transportation spending grew only 0.1 per cent per year – nowhere near the population growth rate. By the 1990s, annual investment in public transit in Toronto was among the lowest of the OECD countries, yet the city’s need continued to grow. By 2031, Toronto Pearson and Union station are expected to welcome around 190 million travellers a year, while 12m trips, a large proportion of which are by car, already take place within the Greater Toronto Area each day.

A turning point occurred in 1998 when Toronto amalgamated with five nearby municipalities into the current mega-Toronto, an area slightly larger than Chicago. Amalgamation was universally reviled (the word even sounds like “armageddon”) and an important consequence was a shift in municipal political power from the liberal downtown core to the conservative suburban ring. At the same time, municipal services were equalised across the region, essentially resulting in a vast redistribution of wealth. The effects of amalgamation to reverberate through city politics.

Amalgamation was followed ten years later by the consolidation of regional transit authority under a new agency, Metrolinx. Unlike the municipal operator of subways and streetcars, Metrolinx is provincially controlled, which allows it to deal with a regional issue (mass transit) at the appropriate level. The current $50bn transportation masterplan, the Big Move, was drawn up in 2008, and projects adding up to $16bn are now underway. This huge investment will only bring public transit in Toronto up to the level of other cities, but the fact that so much money is being spent in such a concentrated and coordinated manner nonetheless has its consequences. “I think we’re way behind with design,” says Tarek El-Khatib, a senior partner at Toronto-based architects Zeidler and a collaborator on the UP Express. “If anything, we’re just starting to catch up to the complexity of what design means in terms of creating good cities. There are a lot of buildings with doodads on them that make them look design-y, but the reality is that the public realm is extremely poor in Toronto.”

Like amalgamation, Metrolinx has proven to be a source of discontent. To take one example, Metrolinx aims to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, meaning that it works towards policies that reduce automobile use, such as increasing the fuel tax and parking fees. As light rail lines began replacing automobile lanes in already congested streets, former mayor Rob Ford famously vowed to oppose the “war on cars”, and city councillors and residents dug in for a long battle. In the political tug-of-war between city and suburbs that amalgamation unleashed, radical transportation solutions have become less and less likely. Montréal remains a far more bicycle- friendly city, while a recent Toronto City Council debate about whether or not to tear down an elevated expressway taking up lakeside real estate resulted in the adoption of a “hybrid option”. It sounds promising, but really just means that it’s likely nothing will be done.

Acrimonious debate has greeted most Big Move proposals. Which should have priority: the Scarborough subway extension or the poetically named Downtown Relief line? The isolated suburbs deserve to be integrated, but the beleaguered downtown also needs relief. These projects have been cancelled, postponed, and re-conceptualised time and again and it has even become somewhat unclear as to who is in charge. The Toronto Transit Commission runs the subways, but Metrolinx seems to be conducting many of the studies. And these are just two efforts among the 62 outlined by the Big Move. Most of the others on the table for the next two decades involve equally contentious choices. Where exactly will the new transit corridors run? Who will be served by the new bus and rail lines?

The UP Express is interesting because it has been spared the brunt of the discontent. Part of its success lies in the way it unites the suburbs with the city centre, which goes beyond providing a simply physical link. The UP Express is something which the traditionally anti-transit suburban crowd can admire, rather than oppose. Importantly, the UP Express does not present an attitude hostile to cars — if anything it is meant to appeal to car owners. As local transportation consultant David Sajecki notes, “transit begins with the car, and the car is a very comfortable way for people to get around. It’s easy.” But it should be noted that without better public transit the car will become less comfortable. Without the Big Move, the average commute time is expected to rise from 82 to 109 minutes over the next 15 years. Wooing people away from cars requires, in Sajecki’s words, “a more sensitive approach to design for transportation planning”.

The importance of this “sensitive approach” should be emphasised: what Metrolinx has done with the UP Express is to recast public transit as a business-class experience, which is no small accomplishment. Popular conceptions of public transit tend to lean towards buses and bare- bones subway cars filled with minimum-wage service workers – that is, mass transit as a reliable last resort. In a sprawling metropolis such as Toronto, where crawling traffic means that driving is not always a viable option, there is certainly a parallel ideal to be developed: mass transit as the saviour that provides a tolerable commute. In either case, transit is anything but glamorous. It’s a phenomenon that makes the UP Express an oddity: it is aspirational public transportation.

It is worth describing the UP Express aesthetic. Not for its uniqueness, but rather for how typical it is. The livery, signage, and stations all match nicely – as is to be expected – but so do the staff uniforms, retail mix in the terminal, and graphics on the transit fare card. The design language builds from retro colours and simple, flat, cute graphics. The result is described in the marketing literature as “Canadian”, but based on an association with something common to regionalist styles the world over: wood, presented in an abstract and refined way. The atmosphere is understated and clean; the combination of circa 1960s retro styling with modernist minimalism and an abundance of wood familiar from magazines such as interiors title Dwell. The frequency with which this style seems to dot the residential streets of Toronto suggests it has become a new vernacular, associated with the renovation of run-down buildings for resale on the newly booming real-estate market. Its obsessive formalism often appears a little too well-considered.

Generally speaking, this style matches a certain demographic. The ideal passenger of the UP Express blends yuppie with hipster: he or she is middle class, cosmopolitan, style conscious. It certainly appears that there are plenty of Torontonians who fit this profile. A visit to the Monocle Shop, which is nestled in an old neighbourhood next to bakeries and cafes, offers the spectacle of polished young urbanites darting in and out to buy travel bags and passport wallets designed in Tokyo and Amsterdam. The revelation is that such a specific aesthetic ideal is not only fitting for an express train and a transit system, but also for an urban hub that sees itself as global. The underlying idea is that the city itself is reframed as an experience.

In interviews and press releases, the progenitors of the UP Express often describe its design as “welcoming”. This is not quite the right word, as the ambition seems to be to make public transit part of an all-encompassing experience that one never has to leave. A better word would be “seamless”. Imagine walking around Geneva, say, and hopping onto a comfortable train to a pleasant airport lounge and into the hands of a thoughtful airline, then repeating the process in reverse until you arrive at the centre of Toronto, before continuing on to a boardroom or bar or gallery. All this takes place within a sort of distended bubble, a global-network enclave. One mark of such a style is the elision of distance; thus the cartoon map of the UP Express route re-imagines a trip to the airport as a pleasant stroll.

The true genius of this strategy, however, is not in shrinking the world, but in blurring genres. In this regard, Porter Airlines is an important reference point in Toronto. Porter is a small airline that flies turboprop planes out of the impossibly idyllic Toronto Island airport. Since its foundation in 2006, Porter has been subject to a multifaceted branding effort by Winkreative, something that everyone in Toronto has seen. It is likely that this precedent was what secured the patronage of Metrolinx, which hired the agency to not only brand the UP Express, but also to update the logo and signage for GO Transit, Southern Ontario’s inter-regional public transit system. What Winkreative did well for Porter was to provide an entire ecosystem to complement traditional branding. It not only produced advertisements, livery and uniforms, but also, for example, an ad campaign for Porter’s special, ultra-quiet jets (made by Bombardier, which is headquartered in Montréal). Then there’s Monocle, Winkreative’s sister journal. Both Monocle and Porter have partnered with luggage manufacturer Rimowa (which is German, but has a factory outside of Toronto). Opening an issue of either Monocle or Porter’s similar in-flight magazine, you can see how it all comes together: there are advertisements for the luggage and the airplanes, as well as for cities and countries, which are conflated with articles extolling their unique virtues. Stepping into the Porter ecosystem means entering a curated world that replaces quotidian existence.

Creating an all-encompassing experience is easy at the small and naturally charming Toronto Island airport, but another strategy is required for an entire transit system. Here, Metrolinx may have learned from Toronto’s larger airport, Pearson. Rather than creating a more beautiful world ex novo, Pearson offers connected islands of refinement: there’s artist Richard Serra’s Tilted Spheres in Terminal One; the Global Entry shortcut through immigration; and now the UP terminal to take you downtown. To live in this better world, it seems to suggest, one simply needs to opt in, although of course one has to pay for it. A standard adult return is C$53 in comparison to C$14.40 on the regular and non-direct train.

For its part, Metrolinx endorses the experience of UP Express to the degree that the train has prompted it to set up a design-review board, a body intended to raise the quality of design across all its services. “I don’t think it needs to cost that much more to have good taste,” says Metrolinx board member Kathy Haley. “I think we just need to be selective and thoughtful.” But what needs to be done to make higher design standards stick? According to Wahn Yoon, the head of Winkreative’s Toronto office, “the critical step is to codify it. Establish a vision, establish precedent, create momentum, but you can lose all of that if people go back to their old ways.” With funds at its disposal that few other transportation agencies have, Metrolinx is in a unique position to codify the experience it seems to have in mind.

Designers in Toronto have been eager for a change in mindset along these lines. One trope among Canadians is that their country is plagued by a willingness to settle for “good enough”, with a lowered threshold of expectation making it difficult to appreciate things that are outstanding. Toronto is, by some measures, an exceptionally pleasant place, topping the Economist’s index of “best places to live” in 2015. Yet Shawn Micallef, editor of local pro-urban magazine Spacing, pinpoints the problem well. “Sometimes I characterise the city as a teenage city. The mental image of Toronto hasn’t caught up yet with what the city actually is,” he says. “This is a generalisation, but a Torontonian’s view of what our city is is maybe Dayton, Ohio or Indianapolis, Indiana.” In Micallef ’s view, a crucial part of the mentality of bigger cities is accepting the necessity of mass transit. “No offence to those places, but smaller places where you can drive to wherever you’re going and maybe park in front of it – you can’t do that here. No great city is easy to drive in.” Thus designers are presented with a serious challenge: overcoming the (false) view that Toronto is a small city by offering a compromise solution (mass transit) to make up for something it’s lacking (a comfortable drive). The alternative is to see public transportation as desirable.

The vision of an exceptional Toronto built on desirable public infrastructure is perhaps best seen in the ongoing renovation of Union station. Seeing it does take some imagination however. As remarked by Alex Josephson, a founding partner of Toronto-based architects Partisans and one of the architects working on the project, “the renovation is very Torontonian because it’s all happening underground and behind the scenes, with very little fanfare and no big renderings.” All there is to see at Union station right now is a disjointed multi-modal sprawl punctuated by caution tape and construction hoardings. What it will become, however, is a destination, or so we are to believe. Josephson goes so far as to promise a space more impressive than the great hall in Grand Central station in New York, but adds that “it’s not just for a certain demographic; it’s going to be for the city.” We could summarise the emerging vision for Toronto’s urban development in this way: creating infrastructure to be used by everyone when necessary, but also to be sought out and enjoyed as a cultural amenity.

This vision matches the physical and demographic changes underway in cities like Toronto. Thanks to a growing population and an urban-growth boundary, Toronto is becoming denser every year. It consistently has amongst the most high-rise buildings under construction in North America, and, according to CivicAction, a coalition of Toronto’s civic leaders, even now 42 per cent of its population live in apartments. At the same time, the average apartment is becoming smaller and more expensive. As private space shrinks, public space becomes more valuable, with sites such as parks increasingly expected to become more than mere infrastructure. It’s a point made well by Sevaun Palvetzian, an urban activist and CEO of CivicAction. “For many of our residents, public space is the back yard or living room of the 21st century,” she says. “Things that have historically been treated as icing – public realm and good design – are increasingly being seen as fundamental cake.” Within this trend, demographics are important. As members of the middle class, in particular, spend more time in parks and other public spaces, they demand that these spaces compare favourably with the suburban living rooms and back yards of the older American ideal.

The best way to describe the importance of this vision is through analogy. The type of branding ecosystem that Metrolinx seems to be embracing is one that offers Toronto something akin to the kind of fantasy served up in Wes Anderson films. It begins with an aesthetic that is highly formal, highly controlled, and which penetrates to the smallest details. Just as Anderson veers towards nostalgia (either the old world or retro modernism), the branding of the UP Express is supposed to evoke the golden age of travel and the updated GO Transit signage celebrates the triumphs of modern graphic design. Most remarkably, Anderson’s films prove that the pleasures of travel and tourism have less to do with being in a different place than with seeing the world differently. One can be a tourist in one’s own city. Appreciating unique things and experiences only requires – again in the words of Metrolinx board member Kathy Haley – being “selective and thoughtful”.

The standard critique of Anderson’s films also applies to Metrolinx’s seeming strategy: they avoid all politics surrounding highly charged situations and even exacerbate the contradictions involved. In the words of critic Noah Gittell: “With each passing film, Anderson seems to go deeper and deeper into his own universe, and reality gets pushed further and further to the edges of the screen... Wes Anderson may be a brilliant artist with a strong commercial sensibility, but he refuses to push himself to explore new social circles.” The critique also applies to hipsters, a social group that harbours plenty of contradictions, but which greets them with aesthetics instead of politics. Not that hipsters or Anderson or Winkreative are unaware of their apolitical stance. The conundrum of earnest irony is, in fact, a philosophically rich terrain. To return to Metrolnx, and the Big Move, it would be nothing short of miraculous to be able to describe a $50bn, a multi-decade regional transportation masterplan as apolitical.

This sense of having no politics is a defining characteristic of Toronto’s urban development today and has been masterfully cultivated. Being sensitive to the needs of the middle (or perhaps, more precisely, upper-middle) class forms the basis of the broad consensus underlying city building in Toronto. Redeveloped districts full of condo buildings with names like Extreme Architecture and The Paintbox, as well as eco-friendly parks designed by avant-garde landscape architects, undoubtedly displace low-income residents in the same way that urban renewal has in the past, but in talking with local architects, you are as likely to discover that they live in these condos as to hear anything critical about this form of development. It is hard to disparage high-density, high-design projects. It is much easier to ignore mild contradictions, like the fact that the city’s leading architectural school, the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, is named after a major developer.

The conflation of design with prosperity is a staple of creative-class economic thinking, which Toronto, like many other cities, has embraced. Creativity is certainly big business in Toronto. The film industry is booming and local design firms like Bruce Mau have shaped taste the world over. Bruce Kuwabara, head of the internationally important Canadian Centre for Architecture, is Toronto-based and also a partner in one of the city’s best-known architecture firms KPMB. Even Winnipeg-born and London-based Tyler Brûlé didn’t have an office in Toronto before UP, recalls Yoon: “Tyler called me up and said, ‘Is this the right time for me to make an investment in creating an office in Toronto in Canada?’ He was almost asking if this was the time for him to become the prodigal son and come back to his home country.”

Urban studies academic Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, has developed a theory that the creative class is important because a creative environment is also an inclusive environment. If creativity is promoted, diversity will thrive. I would suggest that this has turned out not to be the case. The art-for-art’s-sake formalism of, say, Wes Anderson may look idealistic and cosmopolitan, but ultimately does not represent a political stance. Tolerance and inclusion are things that must be fought for.

The aesthetic or vision that characterises Toronto’s current urban development looks more radical than it is. It is a refined, international, contemporary style passing as regionalism; an upper-middle class amenity passing as public amenity; business class passing as creative class. But all this is only problematic if the rhetoric is to be taken at face value. Beneath it all is a shift that is necessary in Toronto and other cities. In a world of public-private partnerships, it is encouraging to see urban development that is based on large public projects, with the private pushed to the sidelines, although perhaps this requires an updated understanding of “the public”. The ideal of mass transit in the past was almost militantly populist, which usually translated into it being cheap and bare-bones. Why should public transportation always aim for the lowest common denominator? If “the public” is the middle class, we should expect it to tolerate a modestly outré design and pretensions of luxury that cost a little extra. But we shouldn’t forget that what is being offered is an illusion of exclusivity. Given the vast public funds involved, we still ought to expect transit to be accessible to everyone. An important part of urban development in Toronto is now to manage such contradictions.