The mandate of this blog is to create an online archive of information about Roland Caldwell Harris, the City of Toronto works commissioner between 1912 and 1945. He held that position longer than any other individual, before or since. But Harris was much more than a long-serving bureaucrat. His legacy is apparent throughout the old City of Toronto.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

R.C. Harris and the City of Toronto's First Formal Attempt at Planning

    After Toronto council shot down the architecturally ambitious 1929 plan civic improvement plan (which called for the creation of several grand avenues and circles downtown), the aldermen in early 1930 asked city staff to come up with an in-house version. A committee of senior officials -- headed by R.C. Harris but including the city architect, the commissioner of parks, assessment, and finance -- got to work pulling together a document that focused almost entirely on improving traffic circulation. 
     The result was the May, 1930, report of the Advisory City Planning Committee, entitled, "Street Extensions, Widenings and Improvements in the City of Toronto." It was presented at a special meeting of council on May 14, with Bert Wemp, a Toronto Telegram editor, in the mayor's chair.
    The plan, the report explained, was based on projections that the city would grow to 1.5 million residents, thereby necessitating improvements to the street system, transportation, public recreation, zoning and “aesthetics." "[P]rimarily the need for planning is the outcome of the accumulation of people in one area and the daily movement of those people following their daily avocations.”
   The Report, and the accompanying map, proposed a detail series of road widenings and extensions, as well as new streetcar routes. The commissioners, well aware of the penny-pinching inclinations of the elected officials, explained that they sought to  avoid expense by connecting  disconnected roads. The result, the report said, may not represent the gold standard in design, at the new streets will nonetheless be efficient. 
   This passage, better than any other in the report, outlines the balancing act confronting ambitious officials as they sought enduring long-term solutions to the city's growth pressures without running afoul of council's deep aversion to borrowing: 

“…the plan is essentially utilitarian in character, and no special attempt has been made to create vistas or sites for the display of architectural features which are characteristic of cities aiming at aesthetic preeminence. Toronto has many fine buildings so situated that their beauty can not be properly appreciated, and is generally lacking in focal points where other fine buildings may be suitably displayed. While fully realizing the importance of this phase of the city planning problem, we feel that the utilitarian side must receive first consideration, with the reservation that the main thoroughfares laid down on the plan, in general portray principles only and are subject to survey on the ground, and that in their final developments the question of aesthetics should not be overlooked [italics added].”

     Among the proposals: building a parkway connecting the north end of Jarvis to the corner of Mount Pleasant and St. Clair; linking the east-west sidestreets in what we know called Riverdale and Leslieville to form Dundas East; extending Duplex Avenue north from Balliol up to Yonge Blvd. All were built, mostly to expedite car travel out of the increasingly congested core to new suburbs in North Toronto, Moore Park and the east end. 
    Many more of the ideas in the report, however, never made it off the drawing board, including an extension of Church Street/Davenport north through the Nordheimer and Cedarvale ravines; an extension of Victoria Street north to Bloor; an extension of Bay Street all the way up to St. Clair Ave., and a series of diagonal roads traversing what is now western Scarborough.   

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