WHAT AILS OUR CITIES
Why do we have slums, traffic jams and overcrowding ? A town-planning expert diagnoses our urban headaches
DR. E. G. FALUDI
as told to June Callwood
CANADA has 15 cities with a population of more than 50,000, and each of them is bedeviled by: (a) traffic snarls in the
downtown districts, (b) insufficient parking space, (c) declining or blighted areas within walking distance of the heart of the city, (d) a lack of either parks or recreational facilities and sometimes both and (e) lack of up-to-date housing facilities for the lower-income class.
The 4,000,000 Canadians who dwell in these communities know they are not living under satisfactory conditions. They show their civic pride by moving to the outskirts as rapidly as they can, leaving the heart of the city to continue its decline.
This reckless abdication has been speeded up in recent years as the centres of our cities grow progressively uglier. Its effect would be more apparent and thought-provoking if the housing shortage had not forced families to occupy dilapidated row houses in the shadows of skyscrapers, soot-covered boardinghouses on once fine streets and treeless jammed blocks of dispirited houses which girdle the factory districts.
There has been a great lack of forethought and vision on the part of the men who governed our cities. Their failure to understand that the horse and buggy might not last forever has, with few exceptions, resulted in 66-foot wide main thoroughfares across the Dominion, except in the Maritimes —there they are 55 feet wide.
When these streets are crowded with wide buses, streetcars with their doors open, scurrying pedestrians and parked delivery trucks, they constitute a road block that would stop a tank dead in its treads, to say nothing of the poor motorist.
During the latter war years, city fathers across the Dominion found that the problem, already enriched by the new industries which sprinkled themselves liberally throughout the residential districts, was going to be further enlivened by the greatest housing shortage in history. They called in the town planners, and here are some of the problems they faced:
At the whim of real-estate speculators, Toronto has been permitted, without control, to spread in spokes of new settlements, separated by large areas of undeveloped land.
Montreal’s rush-hour traffic speed is slower than a horse and buggy.
In Peterborough a locomotive steams across main streets.
Windsor’s citizens seldom see the Detroit River that flows by their doors.
About 50% of the houses in Hamilton have already declined or are in danger of declining in the near future.
Regina should have been built about 20 miles to the northeast where land and water is available to secure ideal living conditions. Her 62,000 citizens are crowded on to 900 acres of residential land while 3,000 acres of the city lie vacant.
Almost half of Kenora’s homes are without indoor plumbing because the town is built on impenetrable rock.
In the hearts of Halifax and Saint John there are slums, factories and unpaved streets.
Sprawling Calgary and Edmonton have more vacant spaces than houses, occupy more room than Toronto with its several hundred thousand more people.
I have found in my lifetime of working with cities that, like people, they poasess marked characteristics.
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What Ails Our Cities
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like Stratford which have never had great troubles and have lived the quiet life of a man with a regular and adequate income. There are cities like Winnipeg, of noble spirit and morality, where the finest object of art could not be exhibited in the art gallery if it represented a nude.
Toronto has a split personality— provincial and sophisticated. Montreal has cosmopolitan color and artistic attitudes. Windsor reflects the difficulties of the laborer with little security. Peterborough is diligent and cautious. London has the spirit of an orderly household where poverty is unknown.
In the past, town planners in Canada were engaged to groom cities for “beauty contests.” But no city could afford to spend sufficient money to provide beauty spots, and city planning was considered the art of day dreaming. Calgary is a notable example of such an unsuccessful experience. In 1913 a plan was prepared modeled after Paris’ Champs Elysées, Berlin’s Tiergarten and London’s Piccadilly and it was suggested that this be superimposed on the business district. Calgary admired this portrait of itself as the Paris of the West and had the plans published in a magnificent volume— which was laid to rest in the public library.
But times have changed. Today’s town planners are more than just beautifiers—they closely resemble efficiency experts. They study carefully the social and economic problems of a community before they recommend physical improvements. They first establish what the ultimate size of a community should be to prove the best living conditions at a tax rate the citizens can afford to pay. The popular belief “the bigger a city is, the better living conditions it can provide” has too often been disproved.
This Isn’t Europe
Today, town planners recognize that Canada’s cities can be no more like Europe’s than our way of life is like Europe’s way of life. The grand avenues, monuments and arches of Europe were built by kings and emperors to impress their visiting cousins; our main streets are designed mainly to conserve space and solely for utilitarian purposes. ,,-
In Europe the cities are static: you are born and die in the same house and when it falls down your children build on the same foundations. Few people consider, or can hope to consider, moving from one class of neighborhood to another. In Canada the cities are so fluid that noble streets like Toronto’s Jarvis can, in less than three generations, become a street of stores, hotels and boardinghouses.
Metropolitan Toronto is a leading example of the evils of failure to control and regulate its growth. The city has exploded in all directions during the building boom of the past 20 years and recent maps show residential districts devoid of parks or facilities for employment, spread out across the countryside and separated from one another by miles of farmland.
The city has assumed roughly the shape of a star with elongate points, each of which is an autonomous municipality. The area between the Queen Elizabeth Way and Dixon Road in Etobicoke on the west could hold an additional 40,000 people; that between the Humber and Don Rivers north of the city could house about 200,000 people; and in the angle between the
eastern beaches and the spear of North Toronto an additional 80,000 people could build homes. This filling-in, which can only be accomplished by careful planning and by regulations, such as zoning bylaws, would make the city a compact semicircle on the lake.
That part of Toronto south of Queen Street contains almost all of the city’s blighted areas, the most obsolete factories and the oldest homes. Here, there is a confusion of decayed residential and flourishing business districts. However, there are also fine neighborhoods in the city—Rosedale, Forest Hill, and some of the recently developed parts north of the St. Clair-Yonge area are perhaps among the best residential sections in the country.
Civic officials have accepted the solution that some of the streetcars go underground, a plan known as the rapid transit system and that a superhighway will have to be built, partly on stilts, along the water front. Ratepayers have approved the former, but there isn’t much hurry in getting authorization for the latter.
Six major traffic projects have been approved since 1945. Some of these are already under way and some are waiting to be initiated. Rapid transit, approved in 1946, will not be started for several years because of material shortages.
A promising note in Toronto is struck by the Regent Park Housing Development—a plan to tear down a slum area a few steps from the downtown shopping district and replace it with row houses and apartment blocks around a park. It came as a surprise to everyone but the city planners to find that despite the large amount of space to be devoted to the growing of grass and children, more families than ever before will be housed in the area. The estimated cost of this project is $5,600,000. When tenders were called recently, this figure was almost doubled, but even this is a relatively small sum for reclaiming blocks of withering decline, growing steadily more decayed.
Toronto needs many more projects similar to the Regent Park housing scheme. It needs also large parks, and the beautiful ravines should be acquired for natural parks. It is hoped that some day there will be municipally controlled parking lots and a grandiose civic square.
Hamilton is another city seriously afflicted with blight. If preventive measures are not taken, 48.6% of the city’s residential area, housing 68,000 people, will deteriorate. About 51,000 people live in sections of the city which are already slipping into decay.
In Hamilton, as well as other cities, owners of blighted property often have an inflated estimation of its value, reasoning that since it is only a few blocks from the business centre it must be a potential gold mine. City assessors agree with them and the owners hang on grimly, in some cases collecting rentals that won’t meet the taxes.
Hamilton’s blighted areas crowd in as many as 85 people per acre, while in the suburbs 12 to 24 people live on an acre.
The severe housing shortage in Hamilton might be eased somewhat if road access and public transportation were provided to the mountain which rises behind the city—potentially the most desirable residential district. Although the city has provided impressive ornamental parks and acquired large tracts of wooded land, there is a shortage of playgrounds in the most populated areas, as well as of public bathing beaches and spectator-sport facilities. Also, Ontario’s second largest
city has an obsolete city ball and ait gallery and no auditorium for symphonic or dramatic performances.
It has been suggested that five blighted sections be developed for lowand middle-income class rental housing and two he redeveloped for industrial use only; that access he provided to the mountain by a tunnel; that a new city hall and cultural centre he built; that downtown parking lots he provided; and that a number of streets he widened, extended or opened to bypass the hul) around the city hall.
The problems of Montreal are those typical of any metropolis -congestion and deterioration in the central area, lack of low-rental dwellings and inadequacy of park and recreational facilities. Montreal also has its special problem — its downtown area is squeezed in between Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence. As a result its north-soul h arteries are more numerous than its east-west ones, although the heaviest traffic flow is east-west.
Mass transportation of the city’s million has become a headache. At rush hours downtown, 11,000 cars can accumulate in a few blocks. Tramways are loaded beyond capacity.
To relieve the congestion, the city planning department has prepared a preliminary master plan calling for an east-west expressway and the widening of existing major thoroughfares such as Dorchester and Sherbrooke streets. Plans for an efficient rapid transit system are also being studied.
Meanwhile, the city is in immediate need of thousands of low-rental homes and additional public open spaces for, despite the large natural park on Mount Royal (480 acres), the city must have more parks.
Tax Exemptions Hurt
In the Maritimes are found Canada’s most discouraging problem cities because of lack of prosperous taxpaying industries to help foot the bill for improvements. In Halifax, for instance, 54% of the land is completely tax-free. This includes parks, institutions, churches, railways, cemeteries and federal buildings. The city is almost powerless to do anything about its 55-foot wide streets, some of which are tilted at close to impossible angles, or its ugly slums and factories in the centre of the city.
Master plans have been drawn up for the city which recommend 20 new thoroughfares, including an ambitious but urgently needed four-lane elevated highway from the Dartmouth ferry entrance in the heart of the commercial harbor district , northwest to Gottingen Street near the Cunard Street intersection. Most of the district the elevated will pass over is hopelessly blighted.
Saint John, N.B., is equally drab and depressing with all its worst features concentrated in the centre of the city. It contains hair-raising traffic hazards —two streets bear all the traffic, wending their narrow way over half a dozen grade crossings and two hot tieneck bridges. There is a level crossing on the main street right in front of the Union Station.
The city proposes a viaduct to bypass this and new scenic highways approaching the city are planned. The hoped-for slum clearance points up another of Saint John’s miseries — suitable building sites are so scarce in the steep rock centre section that more than half the worst slums are built on land unfit for redevelopment.
Moat of Windsor’s troubles stem from the unreasonable expectations of growth which its citizens entertained after the last war, until the time the city was in financial difficulties in the
early ’30\s. From 1931 until 1940 only 128 new houses were huilt. The acreage of registered hut unopened subdivisions today is more than the total developed parts of the city.
On about four miles of river front in Windsor there are not more than a few hundred-foot strips where citizens can see the world’s busiest inland waterway. Railways and factories block all access to the hanks of the Detroit River.
Windsor’s most serious traffic problem is in a class by itself, verging on the international. Traffic entering the International Tunnel on the Detroit side of the river exits in Windsor right in the congested business district.
Windsor found to its delight that about 75% of the items on its master plan could be accomplished by legislative action alone, without turning over a penny. A lot of city-owned vacant land can be set aside for housing and park purposes; and green belts to separate industries from residential areas.
By using some of its own vacant land and acquiring some from private owners, the city also hopes to build a parkway along the river front. A delicate point, and one which the city now hopes to solve completely, is the pall of smoke which hangs over the city. A zoning bylaw is before the council to regulate the use of land and the buildings for the future.
The prairie cities, particularly Regina, suffer from being built on the wrong sites. Pioneers of the West, realizing the economic advantages of transportation, laid out their townsites on the straight line of the railways. If Regina had been built about 20 miles northeast, in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley, its two chief defects, lack of water and flat, uninteresting topography, would have been avoided.
Of the 8,847 acres within the city limits, only 901 are used for homes and, for some incomprehensible reason, most of the houses are squeezed together on narrow 27-foot lots. In addition, only 11% of the homes in Regina can he considered “sound,” the rest are in danger of deteriorating, or are already in some stage of decline, according to a survey made in 1946.
Only a third of the city’s streets are paved; almost half are graded earth and
the rest are gravel. There is parking space downtown for 180 cars, instead of for the 800 to 1,000 which cruise around on an endless quest for a space. Seven residential areas, representing about 40% of the population, have no adequate playground facilities.
Winnipeg plans to make its metropolitan area into a social and economic unit rather than a political one. The Winnipeg Town Planning Commission proposes breaking the city up into about 50 villages of approximately 5,500 to 6,000 people, to be known as neighborhoods, in an effort to promote neighborhood pride and enterprise. This plan is now under consideration.
The plans also include less idealistic projects, such as clearing up the traffic jams on the city’s broad and widely advertised Portage and Main Streets by widening the side streets which empty into them; the developing of a major street system and transit system and a few more recreational areas and parks.
Edmonton sprawls its 95,000 (1941 figures) luxuriously over 42 square miles, as contrasted with the 35 square miles occupied by Toronto’s 700,000 and the 50 square miles that Montreal’s 1,000,000 permits itself. This means that the city’s utilities are uneconomically spread out and a transportation problem is created.
A Healthy City
Alberta’s other city, Calgary, with 90,000 (1941 figures) people on 40 square miles is a healthy city, almost free from blight and with commerce and industries which make it impervious to crop failure. Its centre, however, is as congested as the other big cities, with narrow streets, traffic snarls and insufficient parking areas. The residences, as in Edmonton, are interspersed with large vacant spaces, resulting in inefficient services.
Because of the mild climate which permits lower construction costs, Vancouver has the highest percentage of owner-occupied homes in the country. It is second to Hamilton in the amount of park space per capita. This is due almost entirely to the gigantic 1,000acre Stanley Park. Three of the heavily populated older sections of the city have no park facilities whatever.
Vancouver’s narrow streets illustrate the penalty cities pay for size—traffic congestion. The city needs new bridges, better transportation facilities (22% of the city is beyond a quartermile range of buses or streetcars) and some room to park downtown.
Vancouver has needed a civic centre and has talked about it for the past 35 years. The city aiso needs seven public buildings—library, museum, art gallery, auditorium, vocational school, administration building and federal building.
The reason a city hall is not included on this list is that in the mid-30’s the late Mayor McGeer grew exasperated with Vancouver’s astonishing ability to stall and proceeded with a milliondollar structure on a site in a park which he fancied and which was miles away from everything.
Timmins Sets the Pace
Amid all this hemming and hawing, the mining town of Timmins presents a good example of looking to the future. Timmins expects its population of 28,000 to grow to 40,000 in 30 years and has already provided sewerage and water for the expected influx. Although at the moment Timmins has no parks, plus the usual congested downtown section, housing shortage, parking problems and blighted areas, it has not consigned the remedying of these sore spots to some time in the future, but is busily engaged in cleaning them up now.
Kenora suffers from having as poorly selected a site as Saint John. A resort town of 8,200 which attracts annually at least 25,000 tourists, it is built on rock. People are still building on the impenetrable rock, passing up the sandy soil northeast of the town.
The town dumps its sewage, untreated, into Kenora Bay and Laurenson’s Creek, and a strong off-lake wind backs it into the residential and business areas. The town hall is a firetrap and Central Park is boggy. The Trans - Canada Highway runs through the main street and the main residential street. Otherwise, Kenora is in fairly good condition.
Town planners hope to encourage building in the direction of sanitary facilities, to build a sewage disposal plant, redirect the Trans-Canada Highway, drain Central Park and do something about the town hall.
The smaller centres are preparing more effectively than the big cities for the increase in population which is expected to boost Canada’s total population to around 15 millions in 1971. Stratford surveyed its housing condi-
tions in 1945 when only 500 veterans had returned and began building a community called Avondale. The city now claims to have a rented home available to every family moving there in the next five years.
Peterborough faces an ambitious improvement program, but its young population (40% of the people are between the ages of 20 and 44) and material resources make its success almost certain.
The city has the distinction of being one of the few cities in the world where a railway crosses the main thoroughfare. The city has 76 level crossings within its limits — something of a record.
Its CPR and CNR stations are obsolete. The downtown area has the usual traffic tie-ups and lack of parking space, plus a shortage of business frontage. Only 15% of the streets are paved and 72% of the residential district is either declining or in danger of doing so.
Peterborough plans to eliminate its main street level crossing and persuade the railway companies to move several miles of their tracks elsewhere. The two stations may be one day replaced with a Union Station built on the site of the present CPR station. Of course these are the dreams of planners only.
Summing up, Canada’s cities are in urgent need of improvement. Town planners have suggested: cleaning out and redeveloping slums and blighted areas; setting aside lands for parks, industry and residences with ironclad bylaws to ensure that they will be so used; controlling the haphazard fringe development by regulations; widening streets and constructing traffic arteries capable of handling tomorrow’s traffic as well as today’s; isolating industrial areas; and providing additional and up-to-date commercial airports.
At the moment public interest in improvement is greater than ever before and luckily it corresponds with the cities being in a better financial position than ever before. All our cities are going to expand. Estimates say that in 30 years Greater Toronto’s population of 900,000 will go to a million and a quarter, Regina’s 62,000 will be close to 80,000, Vancouver’s population will go from 375,000 to 600750,000, and Hamilton’s from 175,000 to 215,000.
Not enough cities are cleaning house in preparation for the citizens they know are coming. Thirty years from now, if the dust on the master plans remains undisturbed, our cities will be economically beyond rescue. It is up to the city councils to begin to take action before it is too late. ir