Which Canadian big city has the best flag?

The meeting earlier this year of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) Big City Mayors’ Caucus, and subsequent media coverage, had me wondering about the designs of municipal flags. In many cases they are the result of local, modern design competitions; in others they are simply the municipality’s coat of arms plastered on a coloured banner.

So, out of the municipalities represented at the FCM’s Big City Mayors’ Caucus, which has the best-designed flag? Here is my ranking, based purely upon my own design opinion:

1. Quebec City
The simplicity of the design really works here. I might have selected a different symbol to represent a city with so much history, but the ship is well-designed and simple enough to be recognized from a distance.

2. Regina
Again, simplicity works wonders for a flag. A crown is the perfect symbol for this city, and the colour combination is great.

3. Halifax
I had this at the top of my list originally– I really like the flag, but the arrows do not belong here. I love the bold-looking kingfish as the centrepiece, and something about the muted colour combination really works.

4. Calgary
CalgaryInstantly recognizable as Calgary. Some might find it a bit hokey, but I think Calgarians are reasonably proud of this one.

5. Hamilton
The dimensions of the flag are the same as the Canadian flag. Designed by Bishop Ralph Spence, who is apparently Canada’s leading expert in Vexillology (the science of flags). It’s certainly better than steel-plant smokestacks, which is what I think of every time I think of Hamilton.

6. Surrey
Anything with a beaver is cool in my books. This is a well-executed flag, for one that includes smaller symbols.

7. Vancouver
I was going to rank this higher, but the symbols on the shield feel incomplete and not nearly bold enough. An axe and a paddle are neat symbols of the city’s past (and present, for that matter) and they should be more prominent.

8. Toronto
Something about this flag design has always bothered me. I’m not sure if it would be better if the bottom of the “T” and the maple leaf were centered. As much as I like the idea of using Toronto’s city hall to make a “T”, I feel that Toronto has a lot more symbols that could have been used instead.

9. Montreal
I think this is an example of one that actually looks better on a flagpole. I appreciate the symbology of the various plants, however they are poorly rendered which muddles an otherwise good flag.

10. Ottawa
Really just a corporate logo placed on a flag (placed well, but still). It’s a decent logo, but I would prefer something more representative of Ottawa’s long history and Capital status.

11. London
A pretty typical rule suggests that good flags don’t have text on them. I agree with this, but I like London’s city logo so much that I had to push this further up the list, despite the text. Wouldn’t the tree look good along with green bars on each side?

The rest of this list comprises flags that desperately need a re-design, in my opinion.

12. Windsor
The so-called “City of Roses” wants you to use that nickname so badly they have two roses on their flag. The Windsor has some pretty cool symbols– plenty to extract from there. (The stylized “W” or the crest’s rose would be a good place to start).

13. Mississauga
Lose the text and it’s OK– but still not great for the country’s 6th-largest city, and one with such a dynamic economy.

14. Edmonton
Luckily Edmonton has a great coat of arms. It’s history as a trading post should be celebrated.

15. Saskatoon
What is with the weird stenciled graphics? Also why is the coat of arms so small? You’d have to be right in front of the flag to know what is symbolized.

16. Winnipeg
Meh. Just nothing inspiring about this.

17. St. John’s
So much to celebrate and symbolize in St. John’s. Hell, put a silhouette of Signal Hill on a white background and it would be better than this.

18. Brampton
Like Mississauga, I’m actually shocked this is Brampton’s flag. How many farms do you think are left in Brampton? Granted, nothing comes to mind to distinguish Brampton from its other bland, suburban neighbours, so maybe this is all they’ve got.

19. Laval
I love the 70’s rec-room vibe of this– I sort of want to go play Tetris now. As a flag though? No.

20. Kitchener
This Ontario city tore down its historic city hall, but saved the clock tower, and now use it as a corporate symbol. The flag sucks. Surely we are far enough away from the world wars (when the city changed its name from Berlin to Kitchener) that we could use some German-related symbology (black, red, and gold perhaps?)

21. Gatineau
Boring. Just boring.

22. Longueuil
Hard to call this a flag, really. Maybe they just decided anglophones had such a hard time remembering how to spell it, it would be good to have a handy reminder.

That’s my list– what do you think? Are there any other really good Canadian municipal flags?


Complete Streets and Dutch Junction design

To most observers of Toronto politics, it was very surprising to see councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the Public Works committee, come out (apparently on his own initiative) to advocate for a road design concept called complete streets. The Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) defines complete streets as:

Complete Streets provide safe access for all road users including pedestrians, cyclists, public transit users, and motorists of all ages and abilities.

Given the councillor’s many storied run-ins with cycling advocates, his “ally” status of Mayor Rob Ford, and the generally suburban, auto-oriented prism through which he views transportation, it was indeed a surprise. I am not yet sure of his motivation, but Minnan-Wong is one of those local politicians that doesn’t necessarily stick to one side of the political spectrum.

Regardless, the formulation of Toronto’s complete streets guidelines is a positive step. Whether it leads to any real changes in the way that engineers design our streets is another matter. We are still in the hopeful phase.

It was while this news was appearing that I stumbled upon the video below explaining what blog Bicycle Dutch calls “Dutch junction design”. It is something I noticed throughout the Netherlands when I visited the country last September. Even as a visitor, unfamiliar with the Dutch signal system, it was very intuitive to use. The most danger I felt through these junctions was the potential for a collision with an aggressive cyclist!

A frequent excuse of road designers in Canada regarding European cycling infrastructure is, “well yeah, but we can’t do that here– we don’t have space”. This may be true on some roads where we have decided that driving and parking lanes are crucial. But what is most attractive to me about this concept is this: if you have room for bike lanes, you have room for a Dutch junction.

Evidently, there are some other aspects of the design that would have to be implemented at the same time, in order to make it function properly. Most notably, the video below explains how the signals are timed appropriately to maximize cyclist safety and minimize auto-cyclist collisions. It also occurs to me that this only works at an intersection of two bike lanes– a pretty rare phenomenon in Toronto.

[Edit: OK, I thought of a few, that could at least be pilots for this approach: Gerrard & Sherbourne; Wellesley & Sherbourne; College & Beverely/St. George; Harbord/Hoskins & St. George. Tried to think of/ find some suburban bike lane intersections, but the only one I could think of is a T-intersection– Conlins & Sheppard. Help?]

I think it’s a pretty useful design to keep in mind as we move toward complete streets in Toronto.

Old Urbanism

One of my daily website visits is a photo blog by Toronto photographer Sam Javanrouh. The photo blog contains thousands of photographs in and around Toronto, often highlighting the vitality of the city.

The daily photo for 25 November 2012 struck me (see it here). At first it seems like an everyday “slice” of a Toronto street– a retail/residential row-building, likely built in the early 1900s. But I  began to contemplate the photo beyond first impressions, and, being an urbanist, thought about how this building got to be where and how it was. What conditions allowed or prescribed for its 3-storeys? What caused the builder to decide to build right up against the next building? What realities contributed to retail being on the first floor and apartments on the 2nd and 3rd? (or was it even originally this way?) Why did the builder decide to use brick instead of other building materials available at the time? Why does it appear that the 3rd floor windows were replaced with modern vinyl window frames, while the 2nd floor windows remain apparently original? What motivated the architect to include small architectural details above the windows and a decorative cornice along the roof’s edge?


Queen Street East, Toronto (Google Maps)

Given that zoning by-laws are almost exclusively an early-to-mid-20th century phenomena, it is unlikely that municipal regulations had much to do with this building’s design. And yet, this is the type of decidedly urban structure that planners in the 21st century are striving to encourage. How do we re-create the conditions that allowed this type of building to be constructed throughout the city? Is it an absence of planners that allowed this to happen, or is there a role for planning departments in encouraging this type of development?

It’s got me thinking.

Can the current condo boom create quality neighbourhoods?

From today’s online Globe and Mail:

“The problem,” he says, “is that the downtown core, where a lot of tall buildings are being constructed, is not an area I would want to live in. It is not an issue of height and density, but of neighbourhood quality.”

This quote is from Peter Clewes, superstar residential condominium architect in Toronto. The fact that he is discouraged from living in one of his own projects speaks volumes.

The condominium design market is ever-evolving in Toronto, and five years ago the podium + tower design (a.k.a. the “Vancouver Model”) was embraced almost to the point of exclusivity. Planners, developers and architects are still realizing that there is more to the design of a tower than just the form:

“People don’t really look up and take notice of tall buildings,” said Mr. Witt. That’s why he and Mr. Clewes told the panel that it’s usually the first 50 feet of a tower that really matter. Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB Architects, whose recent projects include the TIFF Bell Lightbox, concurred. “It’s not about height, but how you organize tall buildings vertically,” he said.

So the podium is still crucial to the street-level perception of a tower, but it is now about subtle design cues and populating the podium with a good mix of uses:

The solution lies partly architectural designs that complement pre-existing structures, Mr. Clewes added.

If developers are building a tower in a commercial neighbourhood such as Bloor Street east of St. George, he suggested designing a building that fits into the continuous street wall. On the other hand, Charles Street, which is on a more residential zone, requires different treatment with landscaped lawns, he said.

Some interesting discussion points contained within the article. Read it here.

Sheppard East: No subway, but lots of speculating

Leafing through the Toronto Star on the weekend, I couldn’t help but note the number of new residential condominium projects being proposed for Sheppard Avenue East. While this is not particularly out of the ordinary for condominium boomtown Toronto, it is noteworthy because these projects are all happening east of the existing subway network– that is, on areas of Sheppard that would have been served by the Sheppard LRT.

Whatever you think of the great LRT vs. Subway debate– I happen to think it’s completely overblown– it might be fair to say that developers (and buyers) are speculating based on future transit plans. With Rob Ford still promising to build a subway with private money, and TTC Commissioner Karen Stintz vowing to use federal money to extend the subway to Victoria Park, perhaps developers are smart to build here.

Should they be? Are they speculating on future LRT or Subway? Are there other factors at work here? Sheppard is a major transportation corridor even without higher-order transit, as the first major arterial road north of the 401. Because of this, every resident along Sheppard has easy access to the most important highway in Ontario and perhaps the country. The fact that the highway struggles to bring anyone to their destination in a timely manner is of little importance. It is the concept of the amenity, not the quality of the amenity itself. That said, there are other amenities on Sheppard Avenue East, including nearby Fairview Mall and the existing Sheppard subway.

Here are the condominium projects that I know of at this point:

  • Monarch Group’s Heron’s Hill site (2 towers)
  • Tridel’s Alto at Atria (2 phases)
  • Remington’s 8 Chichester (affordable housing joint-build)
  • Gemterra’s LOVE Condominiums
As well as a few of those near Sheppard:

  • Tridel’s massive Metrogate
  • Tridel’s Argento (Don Mills/401)
  • ELAD Canada’s Emerald City (Don Mills/Sheppard)

It remains to be seen if all of these residents can be accommodated on the already-congested Sheppard Avenue East. Will new residents create a renewed push for higher-order transit? Will new congestion limit the ability of developers to sell units here?

Whatever the case, Sheppard Avenue East’s under-capitalized lots and great amenities likely means there are more projects to come.

On the Pharmacy and Birchmount bike lanes

Last week, the City of Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, voted in favour of this motion. It adds some separated bike lanes downtown, but also removes bike lanes in Scarborough at the behest of the local councillor, Michelle Berardinetti.

Ms. Berardinetti made traffic congestion her main campaign issue in the recent municipal election, which may or may not have delivered her a victory over the incumbent, Adrian Heaps. Like Rob Ford, she feels that her victory symbolizes widespread local agreement with her issue of choice (for Ford, it was subways vs. “streetcars”). Perhaps this is so– but I can think of other reasons. (“Traffic congestion is bad” is to local political rhetoric as “God Bless America” is to American political rhetoric). Activist Dave Meslin has a good perspective on Pharmacy and Birchmount lanes here. (Unfortunately his very reasonable amendments were not adopted by committee members.)

Certainly, errors were made in the way in which the bike plan has been implemented in Toronto. This is especially true in areas where residents are skeptical of their worth on high-speed, high-traffic arterial roads. Too often, lanes were built without connections to other cycling infrastructure, or built in short spurts where works crews were already working on the road. (It is also a result of a city unwilling to fully commit to true cycling infrastructure, like bike boxes and separated lanes).

Ms. Berardinetti’s main beef with the bike lanes seems to be that they were built with a “lack of community consultation”. Yet yesterday, fellow councillor John Parker (a member of the PWIC, who moved the motion to remove the Jarvis bike lanes) wrote a blog post for the Toronto Star’s cycling portal to justify his decision regarding Jarvis. In it, he writes:

Since 2001 the city of Toronto has had a comprehensive bike plan that envisions a network of bike lanes throughout the downtown area. It was drawn up after widespread consultation [emphasis mine] and was prepared by the city’s transportation services department together with Marshall Macklin Monaghan, one of Canada’s leading engineering firms.

For one councillor, it appears that consultation on the Toronto Bike Plan was sufficient (Jarvis lanes are not in the bike plan– hence Mr. Parker was using the Bike Plan as justification to remove the lanes). For Ms. Berardinetti, the fact that the Birchmount and Pharmacy bike lanes were planned from 2001 and finally painted in 2008 is, it would seem, irrelevant. That City staff have found that the Pharmacy and Birchmount bike lanes have had no effect on local traffic (pg. 15) is also lost on Ms. Berardinetti.

Pharmacy & Birchmount, the first bike lanes listed in the Bike Plan for Scarborough

The costs for removing these lanes is estimated by staff to be $210 000. That may not seem like much in a budget of $9-billion, but in Rob Ford’s Toronto, every penny counts, and is counted (supposedly). Ms. Berardinetti is hoping that the bike lane removal can be synchronized with pending road repairs, therefore resulting in no additional cost– however, the repairs are not proposed for the entire length of the lanes. If this synchronization fails, the councillor will have to explain to her constituents (“taxpayers” in the verbiage of the day) why she wants the city to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove infrastructure. She might also have to explain how her previous commitment to sharrows, in place of bike lanes on Birchmount and Pharmacy, fell off the agenda. This from the previously-linked Toronto Sun article:

“As for those bike lanes, rather than paint them over immediately, she wants to tackle them when the roads are resurfaced.

When that work happens, Berardinetti said she wants to see the dedicated bike lanes removed and shared lane pavement markings (sharrows) painted within the car lanes.

“I’m not against bike lanes,” said Berardinetti, an avid cyclist. “They had a mandate of laying down so much (bike lane) tread a year instead of having a concrete plan.””

Sharrows, while problematic, seem like a compromise here (though it still does not make a whole lot of sense to remove bike lane for sharrows). Will Ms. Berardinetti remember her previous musings? Or will council decide to kill an already-built portion of Toronto`s Bike Plan?

PWIC’s decision goes to Council on July 12-13.

Thoughts on cycling from North York to Downtown

Yesterday I challenged myself to ride downtown and back from my new home in the Sheppard and Don Mills area. Since I moved in a month and a half ago, I have been contemplating what route would be best and how long it might take. I was also thinking of how arduous the trip back might be–uphill the whole way, I thought.

Thanks to the internet and modern technology, I was able to figure out what the most efficient way downtown would be. I also considered the safety factor and the amount of riding on trails vs. roadways I was comfortable with. After some consideration, I came up with this route.

You will notice that about half my ride was on Don Mills Road, essentially a hilly six-lane north-south highway. I studied some of the ravine trails, as well as the Toronto Cycling Map, but I found most of the connections to be complicated and a bit out of the way (further complicated by the fact that the Leaside Rail Trail is not yet complete– a key connection for this route). Hence I decided to take a risk on Don Mills, with the knowledge that there are “HOV”/Priority curb lanes (meaning only taxis, bicycles, motorcycles, buses and cars with 3+ occupants can use it). It should be noted that these lanes are only in effect during rush hours (7am-10am and 3pm-7pm, Monday to Friday).

The curbside priority lanes on Don Mills Road (Google StreetView capture)

I started out from my home around 5:30pm, meaning the priority lanes were in effect. For the most part, riding along Don Mills was not too bad– cars respected the priority lane and traffic came in bursts from stoplights. Though I would not take my teenage siblings for a ride along Don Mills due to the safety factor, it was efficient and usable enough for me. The only complaints I have would be the large potholes, sewer grates and aggressive taxi drivers that made me uncomfortable at select points.

Following Don Mills from Sheppard all the way down to its unceremonious end at the Don Valley Parkway, I made the mistake of not turning off Don Mills at the Ontario Science Centre. Don Mills south of Overlea Boulevard becomes a four-lane undivided expressway, with cars racing down the hill towards the Don Valley Parkway at speeds upwards of 80 km/h. South of Overlea Boulevard you also lose the priority lane, and so you are squeezed up against the curb (no sidewalks on the west side of Don Mills, either). Finally, at the foot of a long hill, I found the entrance to the Lower Don Trail system that I had identified on my computer at home. However, that entrance (mostly for cars) was a dangerous left turn for a cyclist to make. I was stopped at the side of the road for a good 3 minutes, waiting for a suitable gap in the four lanes of traffic– but it was far too difficult. Fortunately, I rode 100m further south and there I found an entrance to the trail. Safe and sound, off the wild Don Mills Road.

The Lower Don trail is wonderful. Mostly flat and a suitable width for two-way traffic, I zoomed downtown on the second leg of my journey. I saw all sorts of people on bicycles– mid-aged gearheads, families with children, elderly couples, and casual cyclists. While the trail was busy, not once did I get stuck behind pedestrians or joggers while waiting to pass. My only complaint on this portion of the trip were the number of portions where the trail narrowed significantly– especially a portion where it appeared an embankment for the DVP was being rehabilitated. A narrow two-way trail and construction fencing made for some danger.

I was also struck at how the straightened portion of the Don River had the potential to be just like, if not better than, the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. As I cycled, I looked to my left and saw a neighbourhood (Corktown) full of old brick warehouses and shiny new condominiums peering over the DVP towards the Don. It occurred to me that if it weren’t for the tangle of infrastructure (the DVP ramps, rail line, hydro corridor), the chain-link fencing, rusty wall along the Don, and the non-landscaped foliage, this would be a tourist magnet.

Finally, after some confusing detours through the under-renovation East Bayfront area, I reached my destination– Sherbourne Common and Sugar Beach. I cannot write enough about how brilliant these new public spaces are (and Sherbourne Common isn’t even finished yet!). The parks offered brilliant new views of the Toronto skyline and out to the Harbour. While the incomplete Common was not very busy, Sugar Beach was bustling with kids playing in the splashpad, a couple taking wedding photos, hipster women reading books, and groups of people leisurely sitting and chatting. A brand-new restaurant just opened in the Corus Quay building had an enormous patio that has yet to be discovered by mainstream Toronto. As a planner, I really appreciate this type of city-building– creating well-designed public spaces first, and letting the private investment follow.

Sherbourne Common. (My photo)

After a half-hour respite on the beach, I set out on my way back. Knowing the first half of my trip would be flat (contrary to the second half), I really pushed my speed on the trail. I found the trail that took me up to the Ontario Science Centre rather than trying to battle the hill on Don Mills. Still, I knew I would have to conquer a massive hill coming out of the valley, and so I did, up from the Science Centre’s service yard. I made it about three-quarters of the way up before my legs gave out.

Long hill at Ontario Science Centre (Google StreetView capture)

After a five-minute rest, I set out up Don Mills Road, without the safety of the rush-hour priority lanes. However, traffic was light which allowed me some relaxed riding. As I struggled up the last big hill to cross over the 401, my legs cramped up. I got off my bike, walked the rest of the hill, and stopped briefly to enjoy the view. A ride I will surely do again.

From Don Mills bridge over the 401, looking west. (My photo)