Autumn 2004 / Feature
A Man with a Plan

Urban designer Robert Freedman wants to beautify Toronto


Somewhere in Toronto’s City Hall bureaucrats are assessing property taxes and dispatching road crews – the daily wheels in motion. Downstairs in the café on Nathan Phillips Square, Robert Freedman is talking about the big picture – the Toronto of five, 10, even 50 years from now. Freedman (BA 1984 University College, LLB 1987), the city’s director of urban design, describes a vibrant and thriving place. Once-sleepy suburban centres have evolved into bustling commercial and transportation hubs. The eastern waterfront – formerly an isolated stretch of industrial and derelict land – has been turned into an inviting oasis of parks, houses and apartments, and cultural landmarks. Unsightly arterial roads have become grand, verdant avenues with attractive mid-rise buildings and sidewalks packed with pedestrians. The mind conjures the boulevards of Paris.

Freedman returned to his hometown to head up the city’s urban design department two years ago after spending more than a decade in the United States. He works with urban designers and planners across the city to review the designs of new buildings and neighbourhoods, limiting his direct participation to developments of “city-wide significance.” He and his team, along with his colleagues in the planning division, are among the few city employees who get “to inspire, influence and shape the way the city should look,” he says.

Freedman himself has reviewed about 20 major projects, including developments in the railway lands near the SkyDome, the Fort York neighbourhood, and along the waterfront. He measures the success of every development – of any size – by how well it fits into the surrounding cityscape. He and his staff developed new townhouse guidelines, for instance, that advocate the use of back lanes. “Put garages in the back,” he says, “and suddenly you have a beautiful street – no garage doors, no driveways, all grass, all trees, all front doors.” Questioned on the need for more condo towers, he politely demolishes any argument against tall buildings. Height is not the issue; the question is whether “the height is in context.” Erect a condo tower in a neighbourhood of two-storey houses, and it’s a shadow-throwing blight. But on a wide thoroughfare, a potential “avenue of the future,” the same building is right at home. It’s a matter of proportion, he says: “Buildings as tall as the streets are wide.”

Toronto architect Bruce Kuwabara (BArch 1972) has consulted with Freedman on the proposed Toronto International Film Festival’s 42-storey Festival Tower, to be built near the downtown entertainment district. He appreciates Freedman’s jargon-free style of discussing complex issues and believes the years Freedman spent consulting on urban design in the U.S. gave him a broad perspective of architecture, urban design and city-building. “Robert insists on looking at the bigger picture for every project – not just at buildings across the street, but at many blocks in all directions,” he says. He’s skilled at “expanding the lens.”

Every life has its defining moments. Robert Freedman, who’s 43, had one quite early. The year was 1966; he was five years old and living near St. Clair Avenue and Vaughan Road. One day he watched as heavy equipment arrived and men in work clothes tramped into the nearby Cedarvale Ravine. They tore down the lush canopy of trees, felling them in the name of progress and the Spadina Expressway.

In high school, a teenaged Freedman learned how the writer Jane Jacobs and other outraged Toronto residents stopped the expressway and saved his city’s downtown. By then, he says, he had become fascinated with urban landscapes. Following the example of his father and two older sisters, Freedman enrolled at U of T’s University College and earned a BA, taking courses in history, philosophy, geography and astronomy. After graduating, he wanted to pursue a degree in architecture, but the mid-1980s, a period of economic recovery, was not a good time to be entering the field. So he stayed at U of T to earn a law degree and later articled for a firm that specialized in urban development issues. A year later, Freedman entered the architecture program at the University of British Columbia, then went on to complete a master’s degree in urban planning at The City University of New York. He always knew his interest lay in shaping cities. “In retrospect, it was one of those things where it all came together,” he says.

For years, he lived out of a suitcase while working for Urban Design Associates, a consulting firm in Pittsburgh. He helped to design neighbourhoods in Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis – about two dozen U.S. cities in all. Along the way, he was exposed to America’s greatest urban architecture and its worst inner-city blight. Freedman managed several urban design projects in Virginia and recalls working to redevelop “one of the most notorious, crime-ridden public housing projects in Portsmouth.” It took years of planning, unwavering political resolve, and a lot of money, but the barracks-like “super-blocks” of the Tidewater, Virginia, area were finally knocked down and replaced with a pretty neighbourhood where there are parks and trees and houses and front porches. Shortly before he moved to Toronto, Freedman and a colleague returned to Tidewater. They were taking photos in the neighbourhood when an elderly lady stepped off her porch to ask who they were. When Freedman replied that they’d designed the project, “she came out and hugged us.” She simply could not find words to thank them.

So what does make a city beautiful? “It’s a huge question,” Freedman says, drawing a long breath. Beauty starts with the little things: cleaning up the litter and hosing down the roads. Then you need more street trees, more flowers, and you must maintain all things green and paved. Beauty includes both the look and the context of what gets built. “You need wonderful signature buildings, you need great background buildings, you need a variety of scales and height, and you need beautiful streets,” he says.

Creating beautiful streets means planning the street “furniture” – ensuring the light standards work with the bus shelters, the recycling containers with the newspaper boxes. Among North American cities, Chicago and Vancouver excel at this; Toronto has not made it a priority. Asked for a local example of a beautiful street, Freedman points to St. George. The former “great divide” of the U of T campus was widened to four lanes in the 1940s. “They cut down all the trees and it was a miserable place for many years,” says Freedman. In the mid-1990s, the street was narrowed to two lanes and completely landscaped, with long rows of trees and more grass. A public square was constructed at Sidney Smith Hall, walkways were widened and cobblestone sections added. Upon his return to Toronto, Freedman could not believe the improvements. “It made a huge, huge difference. St. George keeps coming up as a great example of street improvement: ‘Why can’t we do more of this?'”

Cost is a major stumbling block. Revitalizing streets and installing new street furniture are expensive. To rebuild St. George, U of T pulled together about $4.5 million from university and government funds and private donations, including a $1-million gift from city planner Judy Matthews (BA 1978 Trinity College). Freedman has a yearly budget of $1.3 million for capital projects for the whole city. Told this, Kuwabara is aghast, “That’s nothing!” “Without money and the ability to invest in the public infrastructure and spaces,” he says, “[Freedman] doesn’t have any tools.”

Surprisingly, Freedman doesn’t take such a pessimistic view. First, there is money to be found in the city’s budget. But he needs to spread the effort to “beautify” among many city departments. To have new trees planted along streets that are being fixed or repaved, for example, he’ll make a case with his colleagues in the works department, or urban forestry services. That’s a small start. Second, he’s heartened by the growing interest in improving the city. It started with the adoption, in 2002, of Toronto’s “official plan,” a visionary document that charts the course of the city’s development over the next 30 years. Then, last fall, David Miller (LLB 1984) became mayor, promising to make Toronto “clean and beautiful.” Miller has now joined a chorus of mayors from across the country demanding millions of dollars in federal aid – a so-called “new deal” for cities. Freedman comments that politicians and citizens are waking up to the economic imperative behind Toronto’s appearance. “It’s not for beauty’s sake alone,” he says. “People feel good about, travel to and invest in cities that are physically appealing to be in.”

From his U.S. experience, Freedman is an unabashed believer that if enough voters want something badly, politicians at all levels will help find the money, or will create programs to raise the money. But at the local level, he admits, it takes exceptional resolve to first rally the citizens. Freedman is cautiously hopeful that Miller will make a “clean and beautiful” city his mission.

Perhaps there’s a family trait at play as well in his optimism. Wendy Freedman (BSc 1979, MSc 1980, PhD 1984), his eldest sister and a renowned astronomer, uses the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the age of the universe in billions of years. Freedman’s mind is also never far from the long view. He’ll note that, in terms of the ages of cities, Toronto is just a baby. “We’re still one of the best cities in North America. And to be in the city when there is a ton of development going on – to be able to help shape how that happens in a small way,” he pauses. “It’s exciting.”

Beverley Jones is a pseudonym for a writer in Toronto.


Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, Not for Publication
optional, eg: BSc 2008

Next story in this issue: »
Previous story in this issue: «