Saturday, May 4, 2013

ReThink London: smoke and mirrors

[I've posted this but I don't have a copy editor. I believe my figures are all correct but if you notice an error please leave a comment. I will not be insulted if you correct me. Thank you.]


ReThink London is falling flat. If you are looking for new thinking, move on. You won't find anything new at ReThink London.

After months spent investigating what Londoners want from their city, city planning director John Fleming can do no better than spout truisms. Londoners want quality infill he says. Did he think they wanted poorly done infill? Londoners want compact growth. This is a surprise? Did he expect a lot of folk would tell him they wanted sprawl? Londoner want great public spaces. Of course, they do. Who dreams of poor public spaces?

I read the ReThink London discussion paper, Building a Mixed-Use, Compact City, very carefully. It left me puzzled. I had lots of questions.

Soon this will be housing. Suburbia is but a short walk away.
The report tells us in 1961 the city annexed large tracts of land in order to sustain growth. Byron and Oakridge were just two of the areas taken over by the city at that time. A decade later, the 1971 official plan determined London could accommodate a population "in excess of 500,000" thanks to those annexed lands.

Yet, by 1992 the city was in annexation mode once again. Almost the entire Township of Westminster found itself obliterated by the expanding city. According to the ReThink discussion paper, today we’ve developed all of the '61 land—all of it! We're expanding into the '92 territory and yet the population of London is only at 366,151 (2011 census). We didn't even come close to housing 500,000 before we ran out of land.

  • What kind of plan misses the mark by such a wide margin. A damn poor one I'd say. 
  • If the plan wasn't poor, it certainly wasn't followed, not even remotely. We need to know more. 
  • Who was responsible for the screw up? If it was the city planners, did they make some basic math error? It is important for us to know. We don't want this happening again.

Moving on, let's look at some of the facts, figures and forecasts contained in the recently released discussion paper. The planning department presented Londoners with three scenarios illustrating three different approaches to London's future growth in the next 50 years.

The planners see London with an additional 190,000 residents. An increase in London's population of 54.6 percent. My math tells me that this works out to a population of 556,151. Now, let's look at the scenarios.

The compact city

  • 30% single detached houses
  • 35% townhouse and mid-rise
  • 35% high-rise
  • city covers 420.57 square kilometres (Today's figure.)
  • population is 556,151

Hybrid pattern of growth

  • 50% single detached houses
  • 23% townhouse and mid-rise
  • 27% high-rise
  • city covers 420.57 square kilometres plus additional 10.98 sq. km for total of 431.55 sq. km.
  • population is 556,151

The sprawling city

  • 70% single detached houses
  • 15% townhouse and mid-rise 
  • 15% high-rise
  • city covers 420.57 square kilometres plus additional 64 sq. km for total of 484.57 sq. km.
  • population is 556,151

The report didn't calculate the population densities for the various scenarios but allow me.


Persons per sq. km.

  • Compact: 1322.4
  • Hybrid: 1288.7
  • Sprawling: 1147.7.31

So what does this tell us? If you are like me, you have nothing to compare these numbers to. Let's do a little research. Let's look into the densities being achieved in the popular communities in the GreaterToronto area.


Persons per sq. km.

  • Toronto: 4149.5
  • Mississauga: 2,439.9
  • Brampton: 1967.1
  • Richmond Hill: 1838
  • Kitchener: 1602.1
  • Waterloo: 1542.9 
  • Markham: 1419.3
  • Oakville: 1314.2

Tower in Mississauga.
If our city planning department was willing to emulate Oakville, London would not require more farmland. Oakville is said by many to be one of the finest places to live in Canada. The compact city density doesn't sound out of line at all.

If our planners took an approach more like Mississauga's, London could handle better than a million residents. This is more than twice the population our city planners have set as their goal.

What is going on here? What am I missing? When planning director John Fleming chatted with The London Free Press he talked of compact growth. So where's the compact growth in these figures?

ReThink assures us that our future will be "exciting, exceptional and connected." Did you actually expect to be told that the city planners were guiding London into a dull as dish water, unexceptional and disconnected future? Check out the apartment tower on the left. That apartment building is Mississauga's exciting, exceptional future in the flesh. It is one of The Absolute World Towers, known 'round the world as The Marilyn Monroe Towers because of their sensuous curves.

London's wild dreams bring back memories of another time and another place where civic puffery took centre stage and facts be damned. Where? Detroit! In the mid '60s Mayor Jerome Cavanagh made a short film promoting his withering city, once the fourth largest in the United States, Detroit was already about 15 years into its decline. The film was called: Detroit, City on the Move.

London: exciting, exceptional and connected. Only in ReThink London's dreams. It may come to pass, but it may not. At the moment, ReThink London talks a good line but that's it. Until the planning department and the city council get on the same page, this long trip, as John Fleming calls it, may end badly. If you doubt me, think of Wonderland Road South—the new gateway to the city.

Nothing threatens good dreams for tomorrow like bad moves today.

In some cities, apartments are found above stores like the above. Not in London.

If you think I am being too hard on the ReThink London process, I find myself thinking along the same lines. I want to pullback, go a little lighter. And then I look at the picture below showing one of the new developments in London the planning department finds praise worthy. I look at this picture and I know I am hitting the mark. 

What an awful structure. Nothing exciting or exceptional here. Now, move down the street a few metres and all that changes. Or look across the street at the restored pottery guild building. The structure shown above is a stain on London's urban fabric.

In keeping with the conversational aspect of ReThink London I contacted them and e-mailed them the following message:

My recent blog post has been getting more than the usual hits. It is a criticism of ReThink London. I'd love to hear your defence. Hey, this whole thing is about conversation, right?


p.s. I'm posting this message at the bottom of my post.

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