The world of town planning has just changed dramatically. People are now able to watch what’s going to happen in the future, and that’s going to change forever how key decisions are made.
Thanks to the new « advanced visualization centre’’ at Toronto’s Design Exchange at Bay and King Streets, they can sit in a small, 20-seat theatre and see on a large, curve-around screen, the future impact of current proposals. The images they see will be sophisticated computer graphics that simulate scenes from the future, based on expected trends and how those trends will be affected by the proposals.
They’ll watch how car and truck traffic will react should developments go ahead, and where gridlock will threaten. They’ll follow rush-hour crowds into subway stations to see what problems the Toronto Transit Commission will face. They’ll observe shifts in smog patterns, and how the shadows made by tall buildings will move as the day progresses.
They’ll be able to focus where they want, and on what they want — and to specify that the simulation display any time of the day or night, or any kind of weather. They’ll tour the insides of proposed buildings. They’ll actually see what a pedestrian will face when a road is widened, and compare the consequences of more and bigger highways for commuters against more inner city growth. They can place themselves anywhere in a proposed development, and see what it would look like if they stood in one spot and spun on their heels. They could go to the fortieth floor of a building and look out a window.
If we’d had this tool 30 years ago, maybe Markham wouldn’t have been built the way it has been. « Markham will never be sustainable,’’ says Luigi Ferrara, an architect, and vice-president of programs and services at the Design Exchange. In fact, he says, most of the suburban communities in the 905 areas bordering Toronto are unsustainable.
« They’re designed solely for automobiles,’’ he says, and if people could have seen in 1971 what the suburbs would have looked like in 2001, maybe they would never have been built — or, at least, not built the way they were.
« The whole 905 area was planned with no choice allowed,’’ he says. « You have to be driven everywhere. You can’t walk to the store. You can’t walk to school. The road patterns are so inefficient they make options impossible.’’ You can’t turn a house into a corner store, or a beauty shop, or a neighbourhood bar because it’s too inconvenient for people to get there.
Public transit is next to impossible because low densities make it so expensive. « And neighbourhoods are monocultures where all the houses are virtually the same. They’re oppressive. There’s no diversity.’’ They’re called PUDs, Ferrara says — planned unit developments — « and they’re built to produce (social) classes. If you want to move upscale, you have to move to another PUD, another neighbourhood. So the 905 has ended up with a bunch of ghettos separated by highways.’’
He sees the advanced visualization centre — which is a modest way of referring to a virtual reality centre — as a way to democratize decision making. « How can people participate in planning decisions if they can’t read blueprints?’’ he asks.
With the centre they can sit down and watch the equivalent of an animated movie. « So you can bring the community in to a presentation, and you can talk in a language they will understand.’’
He trusts the judgment of the public. If people had seen, back in the nineteen fifties, what kind of life the Don Mills subdivision development was going to produce, he thinks they would have demanded changes.
I agree with the trust he puts in people. If the province’s plans to endlessly expand highways were analyzed this way, so that people could see the effects of continuing sprawl, and of ever-increasing traffic, they’d probably demand a greater say in what’s being planned. That’s an opportunity I think they should have.