i+D - January/February 2018 - 35

A Tale of Four Cities - By Brian J. Barth

(Sharing) a Wealth of Design

TORONTO: Future City

Rust Belt cities hold a special allure for creative spirits, and it's not just the
cheap rents and availability of warehouses that have been converted into
light-filled studio spaces. Something about old industrial infrastructure-
the steel, rail yards, monstrous machinery, weeds, and rubble-serves
as a fertile ground for ideas to grow. Few cities are as well-endowed with
such landscapes as Pittsburgh, which is no longer so much a steel town
as a mecca for what urban economist Richard Florida famously dubbed
the "creative class:" upwardly mobile tech- and design-savvy professionals
who flock to places with a high concentration of artists, musicians,
and freethinkers.
Where the so-called creative class goes, big tech companies follow, opening
offices designed by world-renowned architects and catalyzing a localized
economic boom that, in turn, supports a high concentration of boutique firms
and freelance designers of every stripe. Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has
gained a reputation as the Silicon Valley of the East, spawning a large roster
of tech start-ups and attracting investment from the likes of Google and
Uber. At press time, the city was rumored to be a top contender in the bid
to host Amazon's new $5 billion headquarters.
"After hitting rock bottom in the '80s and '90s, Pittsburgh has totally
reinvented itself and now attracts people from all over the world who want
to live and work here," says Kyra Tucker, director of interior architecture
programs and assistant professor at Chatham University, principal at
Kyra Tucker + Associates Interior Design, and emerging professional chair
on the board of the Pennsylvania West chapter of the American Society of
Interior Designers (ASID). "We've seen the renaissance of a lot of down-andout neighborhoods, with old factories being converted into condominiums
and spaces for upscale retailers and office tenants. It's been really fun and
edgy to be part of this as a designer."
Gentrification, of course, has a dark side, to which Pittsburgh has not
been immune. The hippest new neighborhoods often are places once
dominated by blue-collar factory workers-folks who have not only lost their
employment base, but now face sky-high rents and a loss of their sense of
community as moneyed newcomers pour in. Those communities have found
a champion, however, in the Design Center Pittsburgh, a nonprofit group
founded to "bring design expertise to neighborhoods being torn apart by the
process of redevelopment," in the words of its CEO, Chris Koch.
The Design Center's planners and architects act as a bridge between local
residents and developers, ensuring their voices are heard. "We have the
ability to talk to both sides, working to align agendas and find win-win
scenarios. We don't want to discourage reinvestment, but it's important
that we assist communities in understanding how design can play a role in
redeveloping in a way that actually benefits the neighborhood-that way they
are decision-makers in the process, rather than having it happen to them,"
explains Koch.

In recent years, Canada's largest urban area often has been found atop
"best" and "most livable" city lists. With more than half its population born
in another country, Toronto is officially the most diverse city in the world.
It also is the fastest-growing tech market in North America, adding tech jobs
at twice the rate of San Francisco. One might say this is by design.
The city has made it a priority to preserve the vibrant streetscapes of the
eclectic neighborhoods it is renowned for, while also investing heavily in
creating world-class parks, plazas, and museums. Nowhere is the emphasis
on innovative design more apparent than along the Lake Ontario waterfront,
which is now 17 years into a 25-year, $30 billion redevelopment project.
Two thousand acres of formerly industrial land, most of it owned by the
government, are being reclaimed for residential, commercial, and public
uses. The results so far are nothing short of stunning.
Christopher Glaisek, senior vice president for planning and design at
Waterfront Toronto, a public corporation set up by the government to oversee
the redevelopment effort, explains: "It's not like a traditional economic
development corporation that cities set up to dispose of unused land, where
the goal is simply to maximize the financial return. It was set up to leverage
those assets to make something really remarkable for the city. The idea is
to create a waterfront that will attract the world, and to showcase Canada to
the world." Glaisek adds his "mantra" for doing that is "design excellence."
A series of high-profile design competitions has resulted in a number of new
iconic spaces, from the undulating Spadina Wavedecks to the The Bentway.
Like New York's High Line, only upside down, The Bentway is an artistically
appointed linear park found below an elevated expressway that courses
through downtown.
Waterfront Toronto established a design review panel early on, comprised of
some of the country's top designers, including the likes of Bruce Kuwabara,
Peter Busby, and-yes-Claude Cormier. As developers bring forward
proposals for waterfront land, the panel provides stringent critiques. "They
know they need to bring their A-game for design, because they know
they're going to be critiqued by A-game designers," says Glaisek. One
of the first condo towers to go up was designed by none other than Moshe
Safdie. "That was a direct response to knowing the bar had been raised and
that they needed to make a good impression on the panel," notes Glaisek.
Toronto's waterfront redevelopment has attracted billions of dollars in private
investment and created 20,000 new jobs in what was only recently a derelict
sliver of the city. Many of those jobs are in the entertainment and tech
industries. Construction will soon begin on the Waterfront Innovation Centre,
a purpose-built tech incubator; Sidewalk Labs (Google's urban tech sister
company) has been selected to develop 12 acres of vacant land "from the
internet up"-a slogan describing its vision for the so-called "smart cities"
of the future.
Creative tech companies "are something we've actively tried to pursue,"
says Glaisek. "Design excellence is not just about putting an aesthetic gloss
on things. It's about quality of place, which is now an asset that we can
leverage to attract investment. Quality of place is our brand now; it's become
an identifier of the city of Toronto."
is a freelance writer with a background in
environmental planning and design.
He has written for a range of publications, from
Landscape Architecture Magazine
to NewYorker.com.

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