Tag Archives: automobiles

Time to junk the cars and use public land for housing

Who could possibly be against doing something that would be both good for the environment and improve housing affordability in our biggest cities?

By turning public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles into social/co-op/rental housing it is possible to put a dent into runaway climate change while improving housing affordability and urbanity.

Radio Canada recently reported on a 14-storey co-op set to be built just behind the Bell Centre on the southern edge of downtown Montréal. The Coopérative Montagne Verte will have 136 units, which will make it the largest housing co-op in a single building in Montreal. Having received a piece of city land, the co-op will be financed in equal measure with public funds and a long-term mortgage. If all goes according to plan, hundreds will gain access to affordable housing in an area with easy access to employment and services by foot, bike and mass transit.

In discussing the barrier to building more co-ops Radio Canada claimed, “the scarcity of land in Montreal is also an important issue.”  This is absurd. In fact, one of the city’s principal problems is the abundance of public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis (40 per cent of Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions are from transport.)

Near where the Coopérative Montagne Verte will be located, for instance, is a highway that has gobbled up a large swath of the city centre. Thousands could be housed on the public roadway and adjacent areas destroyed by it.

In what would be a more straightforward cars-for-shelter exchange, Boulevard René-Lévesque is wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Thousands of family sized social/co-op/rental units could be built and it would improve the city for its inhabitants and the planet. While it may seem radical, this move would simply be a return to before buildings were demolished to widen the street in the 1940s and 50s.

Other car spaces in the city centre could easily be turned into affordable housing. The three blocks of McGill College between Cathcart and Sherbrooke and a number of other non-through streets between Sherbrooke and Saint Catherine on the western edge of downtown could be reclaimed for multi-story dwellings. To the east, avenue du Parc Lafontaine between Sherbrooke and Rachel is wide enough to build a row of smaller units with a narrow street on each side.

With housing affordability an even bigger issue in Toronto and Vancouver there would be much to gain by turning public roadway into co-op/rental/social housing there. The land destroyed by the centrally located Gardiner Expressway could house thousands. Rather than spending $3.6billion to fix the monstrosity, Toronto could subsidize co-op/social housing on this prime piece of public real estate.

Proof that cars-for-housing exchange is not pie in the sky, Vancouver’s city council voted to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts at the eastern edge of downtown. Their plan to build thousands of housing units (30%“social housing”) is better than the status quo, but not ambitious enough. The city should eliminate the boulevard that is part of the current plan and turn it all into a car free social/co-op/rental housing oasis. Ideally located for getting around by foot, bike and Skytrain, the area reclaimed for housing should also be extended along Georgia Street into downtown.

A whopping 27.4% of Toronto is roadway (another 13 per cent is parks and open spaces — a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled streets). I was unable to find the exact proportion of Vancouver and Montréal devoted to roadway, but a significant share of those cities is also devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles.

We need to build an environmentalist/urbanist/housing rights coalition that would push to turn swaths of this land into social/co-op/rental housing.

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Toronto has too much ‘public’ space, not too little

Does Toronto have too little or too much public space?

Depends on what the “public” space is used for.

This seems such an obvious answer but one of Toronto’s best urban affairs writers can’t seem to separate the private cars from the public space they destroy.

In an otherwise excellent defence of the square where younger, poorer and darker fans enjoy Raptors and Maple Leaf games outside the arena, Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume concludes that “the lack of public space in Toronto is a perennial problem.” Huh! How could a commentator, who has promoted sensible urban planning as much as to be expected in a newspaper that relies on auto ads for much of its revenue, express such confusion?

It is the exact opposite. To build a healthier, safer, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable city Toronto needs to jettison a significant share of its current “public space”.

Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that even one of Toronto’s most enlightened urban affairs writers can’t see it: Most public land is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis. What’s more, the city pays to pave, repair, police and clean land that generates little or no tax revenue.

Roadways take up 27.4 percent of the area of Toronto while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much as Toronto’s 40 percent “public” land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a handful of wonderful, old Italian cities. Homes, shops, restaurants, public buildings etc. cover the bulk of the cityscape with narrow, mostly walking oriented, streets facilitating travel. In these areas even small squares and parks are attractive since there are few (or no) noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles destroying the ambiance or taking up space. The famed Piazza del Campo in Siena is a tenth the size of Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square but feels as big and is considerably more impressive. Ten different streets, alleys and staircases funnel pedestrians into the remarkable square.

Paradoxically, Toronto’s dominant form of public land ruins large swaths of its park space and public areas. Few people want to relax in a square or park next to multiple lanes of traffic.

The ongoing effort to turn 1.75-kilometers of wasteland under the western section of the Gardiner Expressway into an appealing place to walk, bike and hang out will test this dynamic. About $25 million is being invested to reclaim an area that currently acts as a barrier between downtown and Lake Ontario. Hopefully the “Under Gardiner” project will work, but the surefire way to improve this prime piece of the city is to remove the expressway.

Probably the largest swath of public space ruined by the dominant form of public land is the area along the Don Valley Parkway. It is barely used partly because of the highway running through it.

While Toronto needs more publicly owned housing, daycares and businesses, it doesn’t need more public land or park space. It needs less area devoted to private cars.

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