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Plan to Build 15-Minute City for 80,000 People Wins Design Award


Published October 25, 2022

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View original Treehugger article here.

The reimagining of Toronto's Downsview Airport has won a WAFX Award, which "celebrates international proposals which embrace cutting-edge design approaches to address major world issues ranging from tackling the climate emergency to building community resilience."

Downsview was the Canadian home to de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited. Over a thousand wooden Mosquito airplanes were built there during the Second World War, and the last plane flew out of Bombardier's testing facility at Downsview in June 2022. Now it is being converted into housing and work space for 80,000 people in a true 15-minute city.

The project, designed by Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen and Toronto's KPMB Architects, with Copenhagen's SLA as landscape architect, is huge at 520 acres and in the middle of everything, with subways, rail lines, and highways at its doorstep. Bits of the airport lands were previously chopped off for transit yards, while other bits were sold for expensive single-family housing years ago, and they are not making that mistake again. Another big section became Downsview Park. It would have been nice had this all been master-planned decades ago, but at least they are doing this last bit around the actual runways properly and seriously.

There are lots of green spaces and connections to Downsview Park to the west. Rasmus Astrup, partner and design principal for the project’s lead landscape architects SLA, explains:

"In Downsview we introduce a whole new hierarchy for how to design our cities and our communities. By putting nature first, we create a new way of living in Toronto centred on biodiversity, climate resilience, local identity, and strong community. We call this design approach 'City Nature'. City Nature is a both/and approach to urbanism that weaves landscape and nature together with architecture. In Downsview, this approach is essential to creating a sense of place and individual identity to the vast site."

The Framework Plan for the development reimagines the runway as the element that ties it all together.

"The Runway will act as the site’s primary pedestrian street and the spine of community life and social infrastructure. Unlike anything in Toronto, but inspired by great pedestrian spaces around the world—like Curitiba’s Flower Street, Qinghuangdao’s Red Ribbon Park, and Copenhagen’s Stroget—The Runway will be the focus of community life and a new regional destination for Toronto. The Runway will consist of the main 2.1-kilometre north-south runway, as well as the 890-metre east-west taxiway. It will be a predominantly car-free, universally-accessible corridor that links parks, community facilities, and transit."

"Like a vine growing along a cable, the reimagined runway will organically grow to become a vibrant and resilient pathway connected to [a] new and existing neighbourhood,” says Kevin Bridgman, KPMB partner and the firm’s leader on the project. “The Framework Plan puts nature and people first, followed by density and the built form.”

The buildings around it will be mid-rise rather than high, "designed to mitigate winds and shadows, creating comfortable settings year-round." This is unheard of in Toronto, where the pedestrian realm is ignored.

Henning Larsen writes: "Future neighborhoods will make space for both local intimacy and urban vibrancy, where the magic of community life spills into and enriches public spaces. Inspired by the '15-Minute City' concept, everything residents and workers need will be easily accessible with a short walk, roll, bike, or public transit ride."

The Framework Plan calls for "a new density model for Toronto, one that changes perceptions about what great city building is by balancing density, sustainability, and liveability. The proposed approach to density will create a compact piece of city with ample amenities at a comfortable scale that uses mid-rise buildings generally and towers as urban design accents."

This is what I have called the Goldilocks Density—"dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch."

There is barely a car to be seen in any of the renderings, and that is not just artistic license. "The mobility strategy is based on three goals: creating complete, connected, and walkable communities; facilitating active transportation to local transit service; and leveraging connections to key employment and growth nodes through regional transit connections. It is a paradigm shift in the context of Toronto planning, and necessary in light of climate change and equity imperatives, to prioritize active modes and transit over private vehicle movement."

There are extensive bike and pedestrian routes proposed, and there is already terrific transit, but for bikes to be really useful, the city will have to do some significant bike networking to the south.

There are roads for cars proposed, but they are "complete streets" designed to safely accommodate all modes of movement. It will be interesting to see how they extend Dufferin Street through the site. "Sufferin' Dufferin" is a car sewer from top to bottom; it is the only street in Toronto where I feel it necessary to ride my bike on the sidewalk. They have to turn it into a complete street right down to Lake Ontario.

Regular readers may remember our annual homage to waffle slabs. I am pleased to see that they are retaining a former military warehouse as a mixed-use market, preserving the existing waffle roof structure "to promote heritage and sustainability."

It's a project that will take decades to build, but it is the most exciting proposal that I have ever seen come out of this city. As Henning Larsen's design director for North America, Michael Sørensen, notes, “The city is an inevitable fact of the future. So, in order to ensure not just quality of life for future populations, but also the conservation of nature, it is essential that the relationship between city and nature is both/and, not either/or. Downsview is a commitment to that vision.”

It deserves that WAFX Award.

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