Thursday, July 7, 2011

At 20, Vaughan steps gingerly toward an urban future

If what you see is what you get, Vaughan is less a city than a set of boundaries.
So as the self-styled “City above Toronto” celebrates the 20th anniversary of its founding this year, many will be wondering what has become of the still young municipality: Is it truly a city, or the continuation of sprawl by other means?
Known largely for its nasty politics, Vaughan comprises five civic entities: Woodbridge, Kleinburg, Concord, Thornhill and Maple. The population has hit 300,000 and continues to grow at a fast and furious pace, as one of the fastest growing communities in Canada.
By some measures it is a success, by others a failure: Its people are prosperous, but its public realm is impoverished. Of course, the same could be said of most such communities throughout North America. These car-dependent cities tend to be those we drive through, not to.
And though sincere efforts are bring made to improve public spaces, the essential idea that informs the Vaughans of the world has remained untouched for decades: It is that every land use has its place (rather than the multi-purpose zoning that occurs in cities) — and every building its parking space.
Both of these are city-killers.
In Vaughan, the common denominator is the car; life here would be unthinkable without one. Parts of Kleinburg and Woodbridge have a genuine street life, but they’re exceptions. Mostly, Vaughan has the sameness one expects of a city built to suit vehicular and corporate demands, not civic needs. This is what the gods of convenience hath wrought.
Here, progress takes the form of a shift away from back-lotting, where backyards face onto the street, to street-facing houses on parallel private roads. Meanwhile, the box stores focused inwards to parking lots now have fake “windows” and “doors” on the facades, a futile attempt to make them look street-friendly, even as they look onto the extensive multi-lane highways that slice through Vaughan.
Such improvements may be marginally helpful, but they don’t change the essential problem of a city designed for cars, not people.
It’s an open question whether Vaughan can transform itself into an urban centre; that would require a radically different approach to planning. On the other hand, the subway is on its way and that will mean big change — mobility without a car.
But let’s not forget, most residents like Vaughan just the way it is, despite its bleak post-peak-oil future — otherwise they wouldn’t keep moving there.
The irony won’t become apparent for a few years, but in time the oceans of surface parking will turn out to be the saviour of a city that will have no choice but to densify to survive. These will be where that urbanization happens.
In the meantime, Vaughan continues to feel good about itself, its dozens of new parks, its community centres and, most remarkable of all, its new city hall, far and away the most elegant building in town.
Perhaps the most interesting example of local design, however, is the North Thornhill Community Centre; this large box-like structure, which includes a pool, gym, and so on, is an innovative adaptation of the suburban mall architecture that dominates Vaughan. Its light-filled spaces are organized along an internal “street” that runs through the building, like some kind of indoor city.
In its own way, this centre illustrates the condition to which Vaughan apparently aspires; it sits at the heart of the community, a gathering place for all yet strangely disconnected, even set apart.
The seemingly chaotic choreography of the city and its diverse mix of uses, priorities and interests are missing here. The desire to control evident in suburbia’s very layout, the need to keep things neat and tidy and in their place, though understandable, flies in the face of human behaviour.
Civic hygiene is one thing, sterility another.

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