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Hypothetical City

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Toronto is not a vertically-oriented city. Yes, the CN Tower is tall, but if you leave the radius of a few key blocks, you don’t run the risk of a strained neck. Cranes hover high above the city in a handful of spots, but it would take a lot before Toronto could hold a candle to New York and Tokyo. Then again, in those cities of endless skyscrapers, building up is a solution to problems of limited space and expensive real estate. It’s one thing to yearn for international prestige, but does Toronto really require upward expansion?

The answer is yes, according to the Upper Toronto project. Upper Toronto proposes shifting the entire city to the sky, leaving its present-day incarnation to lie fallow below. The city of Upper Toronto would leave behind all the problems of its lowly counterpart. Commute times? Slashed. Public services? Improved. The increased proximity to the sun might even make things warmer. Best of all, Upper Toronto wouldn’t be too expensive to build, mainly because it exists only in the minds of its creators.

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Upper Toronto is not the gargantuan planning blunder it may appear to be at first. Instead, it’s a chance to use an impossible concept as a framework for Torontonians to ask important questions and actively engage with urban affairs. Still, it’s tempting to imagine what might occur if the sky-borne city were actually constructed. “Workers dropping wrenches from Upper Toronto, landing in baby carriages!” exclaims Jacob Zimmer, director for the Small Wooden Shoe theatre company and conceptualist behind Upper Toronto.

The project is also the brainchild of Tim Maly, founder of the architecture blog Quiet Babylon and coordinator for the Upper Toronto team. Sasha Plotnikova, who is involved in the project’s organization and management, is a recent graduate in urban studies from McGill University. Since kicking off the idea in early 2011, the organizers have been hosting consultations in public libraries, allowing people to come forward and voice their opinions on the shape that Upper Toronto should take. After the year-long consultation stage, the organizers will synthesize citizen recommendations into a central plan. Architects and designers will work to create a visual representation of the hypothetical city. Then, the proposal will be presented in condo centres, public spaces, and arts festivals, just as a real development plan might.

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At the project’s conclusion, the organizers will encourage Torontonians to write to their city council representatives to recommend the construction of Upper Toronto. Ambitiously, the organizers have planned for this to be carried out over the course of five years.

Why aim for the impossible, when the ultimate result is a simple letter to a city councillor?

“Upper Toronto, as something that we have no intention to do, is a useful construct,” explains Zimmer. “The science fiction, terrible, ‘city-in-the-sky’ idea needs to include all the people who live in this Toronto.” By creating a sphere free of expectations, financial restraints, or current government, people can unreservedly imagine what would constitute an ideal city. In the process of real-life discussions and consultations, people can begin to ponder how positive changes can be brought about in their day-to-day urban environment.

For Maly, “The whole point of the consultations is for us to learn about people in the city in ways that we don’t know about… It’s really important we don’t end up proposing a city that appeals to, you know, middle-class creatives who live within four subway stops of Yonge and Bloor.”

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Maly and Zimmer are conscious of the downtown–suburb dichotomy and share a desire for Upper Toronto to avoid such a stark contrast. Talking from the office of Small Wooden Shoe located in the Junction, Maly, Zimmer, and Plotnikova laugh at the absurdity of the idea that the neighbourhood is far from downtown Toronto. “It’s the place to be!” jokes Zimmer. Maly, more serious, adds, “When you look at a full map of Toronto, and zoom out to the full GTA, my stomping ground is this embarrassingly small area.”

The issue of transportation provides an apt example of the disparate interests requiring reconciliation in Upper Toronto. “If I had been the sole person in charge of Upper Toronto three years ago, Upper Toronto might have been very, very bike friendly… But there’s a certain kind of privilege and being well-off that allows you to like biking,” laments Maly. “You have to live relatively close to where you work, right? You have to live downtown, probably. You have to have groceries close to where you live, and you have to have the kind of time in your day that you can afford to go to a grocery store or a fruit stand every couple of days, instead of a big shop every week or two weeks, because you just don’t have time.”

“We still haven’t talked to anyone who is like, ‘Yeah, I drive everywhere!’” Maly continues. “I need to talk to that person.” Zimmer proposes a solution in the form of a consultation with a group of taxi drivers: “What is their understanding of the city?… What is the city in the sky that a taxi driver would think of? It’s going to be really different than mine and might be really different than a commuter’s.”

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Upper Toronto may actually be more pragmatic than other utopian movements, as Zimmer makes it clear that they’re not aiming for proclamations of “every road should be bike-only!”

The consultations for the project thus far have not been clustered south of Bloor. A recent one took place at the North York Central Library — although the organizers are quick to point out that Yonge and Sheppard isn’t that far from downtown when viewed on a larger scale. Nonetheless, the organizers were impressed with the diversity in age and cultural background of participants but were surprised to discover that everyone had arrived by TTC. “People who are going to access a library — or a service at a library [that’s] about a science fiction city — also aren’t drivers,” muses Zimmer. “There are some general things we’ll also probably find are points of agreement.”

For its most recent consultation, which took place on October 30, Upper Toronto moved further afield to the Fairview Library in Don Mills. Hearing Zimmer and Maly talk excitedly about the design of Ward 33 (the area around the library) demonstrates the breadth of their vision and enthusiasm for urban issues throughout the GTA. Hoping that this consultation will allow different voices to emerge, they wax on about the ward’s mix of subdivisions and high-rises and how stores and restaurants are all contained in a complex called “The Peanut.”

“These consultations need to be a good night out,” Zimmer points out. Spending a night discussing an imaginary city needs to be fun in order for people to get involved. The subtle performance aspect of the project is evident when people get excited and are ready to leave their disbelief at the door, with the help of introductory “spiels” and discussion facilitation. “Theatre to me is when two groups come together: one group who mostly knows what’s going to happen and one group who mostly doesn’t. That describes the consultations.”

However, public consultations are only one part of the project’s plan. “The roads should be designed by engineers,” explains Zimmer. “I have some opinions about how I interface with roads, but I don’t know what the best practices are in the world.” As a result, consultations will provide direction for Upper Toronto, but architects and designers will decide the city’s eventual shape. “We can inject some imagination into the process [of design and upkeep] that is mostly about maintenance and slow change. It’s an imaginative intervention into that day-to-day process.”

Preserving this creative impulse is key for Upper Toronto. Sometimes consultation participants can become fixated on single specific topics, getting sidetracked from the broader picture of the city. Maly acknowledges, “We need to figure out what the right balance is between honouring their needs and presenting a shocking new way of conceiving the city.” Plotnikova observes that it has occasionally been difficult to “get people to think in a science fiction way. And people are really stuck because there are so many problems with city politics now, with Rob Ford in office. For people, it’s hard to understand the value of imagining a new city when the city we have is already so problematic… We do want something that’s more imaginative than just small changes to people’s immediate environments.”

Although Mayor Ford’s reputation has a tendency to overshadow other urban issues, Zimmer stresses that he had been toying with the idea that would become Upper Toronto since long before Ford’s election. Upper Toronto is not an attempted escape from the reality of Toronto, but rather, a celebration of all it can be.

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“[The current] consultations are actually working backwards from my desire to do a presentation where we sell Upper Toronto to the population and then ask them to write to their city councillors asking for a referendum,” explains Zimmer. The original concept stemmed from the early 2000s celebratory age of “Torontopia,” but Zimmer was afraid that it would be too easy to create a play or performance on a topic that was ironic in a straightfoward way.

“I’m interested in those developer proposals as a theatre director,” says Zimmer. “The theatre project for me is this presentation of the city, in which people get up on stage, with models and videos and policy documents, and sell the people on the idea of this city that is a terrible idea … except that it’s really good. When I first had this idea, what I didn’t want was for the city to be a bad idea. Building a city in the sky and forcing everyone to relocate there is a bad idea on so many fundamental levels.”

The performance becomes far more complex if the plan of the city has been carefully developed to the point that its creators can stand behind it. As Zimmer explains, “It can be wild and crazy but also generated from an interesting place that has diverse input.”

“The key word there is ‘sell,’” Maly adds to Zimmer’s description of the final proposal. Despite the complete unfeasibility of the project, the proposal should be attractive, and those consulted should feel they have a stake in it. The goal is “to make the familiar strange. Even if they’re not like, ‘Oh, this idea I had in this consultation for Upper Toronto could be applied, but in a non-floating sky way,’ … [They may] walk out and see a street corner, and they’ll go, ‘Huh, I wonder how that can be designed better,’” Zimmer elucidates.

The foundations for Upper Toronto are longstanding, even though the project has not taken shape in its current form until now. Zimmer acknowledges the inspiration drawn from the mid-20th century French art movement, the Situationist International, for its ideas on the construction of public situations as an alternative to mass-produced forms of entertainment. Another reference point is the Situationist’s concept of psychogeography, where the city becomes radically reconfigured and inseparable from the experience of an individual walking through it.

Maly points to the work of Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys as another inspiration. Personally involved with Situationist International, in 1959 Nieuwenhuys began his work on New Babylon, a series of plans and paintings for a city of the future. Captured in colourful, semi-abstract fields of intersecting planes and grids, the city was a plan to avoid the trappings of contemporary society in order to fully embrace experiment and leisure.

While a physical plan for the raised city has yet to take form, Upper Toronto does possess its architectural forerunners. Maly recounts the bizarre story of 1890s Seattle, raising its downtown by two stories in order to avoid flooding. “Sidewalks had a lot of glass bricks in them so that light could still get down to the old sidewalks, and so, there was a long period where there was literally an underground economy there.”

Even more fantastical urban landscapes can be found everywhere from the towers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the self-contained vertical city modules in early versions of SimCity. In non-fiction, Chinese architect Ma Yansong is responsible for the rounded, twisting Absolute Towers currently under construction in Mississauga, but his studio has also produced plans for Beijing 2050. This hypothetical design features cloud-like bulges of glass and steel supported by thin pillars above Beijing’s central business district.

There’s a connection between the mind-defying beauty of Ma’s designs and the wonder and possibility found in Upper Toronto. Ultimately, the project is about using casual and entertaining events to forge new ways to conceptualize and interact with the urban environment. “Upper Toronto is explicitly about being as pleasant as possible, and yet in this funny way, I think we get to challenge people without them entirely realizing that’s what is happening,” says Maly. “You don’t know this yet, but 20 minutes from now, you’re going to be having an impassioned but not totally antagonistic argument with someone who you’d otherwise never talk to about how police should interface with gangs.”

“People sort of take their cities for granted, and especially their built environment,” adds Plotnikova. “People won’t voice their opinions until there’s a problem. I feel like Upper Toronto has immense potential to get people thinking about just their everyday lives in the city, whether or not they are problematic, and how to improve current situations, even if what they have is what they think to be a good life. So I think imagination can lead to civic engagement.”