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Woman of the Week: Meg Davis

Meg Davis loves to witness change in a neighbourhood. It’s her passion — to watch a vibrant community evolve over the years. As Chief Developent Officer of Waterfront Toronto, Davis gets to see this kind of transformation on a daily basis.

Davis has worked for Waterfront Toronto for the last 10 years, and says the change within the neighbourhood is heartwarming.

“When I arrived here we had a couple small parks and wave decks, which were stunning and beautiful and got a lot of attention, but we hadn’t built a building yet,” she said. “In the last 10 years we’ve built an 18-acre park in the West Don lands, Pan Am athletes village, condos in the West Don lands, [and] East Bayfront. People are starting to build down here and one of the things we have started is programming. Cultural events, the sugar shack program, partnering with Luminato — we are really animating the waterfront.”

The waterfront, a 46-kilometre stretch of Harbourfront property along Lake Ontario between Etobicoke and Rouge River, is constantly transforming. Waterfront Toronto is a public advocate and steward of this revitalization process. It was created by all three levels of the Canadian government with the purpose of overseeing and implementing strategies to transform the area.

One of the things Waterfront Toronto stresses is the difference between redevelopment and revitalization. Redevelopment, Davis explains, refers to the selling of land to the highest bidder, regardless of what they plan on doing in the area.

“Revitalization means achieving public policy objectives such as reducing urban sprawl, providing transit, reducing carbon emissions, contributing to economic vibrancy, addressing affordability and providing excellent public realm and architecture by leveraging public land,” she said.

It’s this kind of urban development that Davis is passionate about. Her love of urban planning was encouraged by a geography teacher in high school, whose lesson plans focused on urban affairs. “It really grabbed me. I took as many courses like that as I could,” she said.

Her education is mixed. She has an Honours Bachelor degree from Western University in urban development, a Master’s in business Administration from the University of Toronto, and recently completed an Executive Leadership Program. She started her career as a junior planner with Bramalea Limited, focusing mostly on real estate. From 2005 to 2007, Davis acted as Director of KPMG Canada, focusing on public-private partnership projects, including $1 billion long-term care facilities and the sale of Highway 407.

“I love the physical aspect of it,” she said. “I love to see things come up from the ground and take shape. For me, the use of P3s were a unique opportunity to see how the government and the private sector could come together.”

This is especially true of Toronto’s waterfront, which Davis describes as essentially “one big P3.” Waterfront Toronto is putting a large emphasis on affordable housing within its neighbourhoods, and using that as a foundation for planning.

“You can have affordable housing and expensive condos, [but] if you don’t provide the public spaces, it’s not a place anybody wants to live,” she said. “You can’t squander the opportunities – being by the water is unique in Toronto and you have to make it a complete community.”

As Chief Development Officer, Davis is responsible for leading the development of all lands controlled by Waterfront Toronto. She is particularly proud of the Pan Parapan Am Games Athlete’s Village in the West Don Lands, which was transformed after the games into affordable rental housing, vibrant retail properties, student housing, market condominiums, and public art. Davis says it advanced revitalization of the neighbourhood by over five years.

“We are really animating the waterfront. I think the transformation is huge,” she says.

Davis helps co-chair the Women’s Leadership Initiative ULI Toronto. They are working on a speaking series that will help promote the voices of women in real estate, which she says is still a heavily male-dominated industry.

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Rail deck park is still on the table, but how to fund it?

Rail Deck Park is still on the table for Toronto, as the city debates whether the one billion dollar price tag on the 21-acre park is plausible.

Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat moderated an urban planning symposium, held by the Urban Land Institute Toronto (ULI) Tuesday, that discussed the implementation strategy for the controversial park project. In the fall of 2016, the city announced they would prepare a strategy to build a park between Bathurst St. to Blue Jays Way. The Rail Deck would use airspace above the railyard in downtown Toronto and close up a gap that divides the downtown area and makes it less walkable.

The park is controversial because it is incredibly expensive to build, estimated at one billion dollars as a starting point. That price tag doesn’t include the cost of purchasing the air rights over the rail deck, which is a necessity. A developer has already signed an agreement for air rights over the space and isn’t willing to go down without a fight. The city will have to work hard to obtain the space to create a park in downtown Toronto. It is a worthwhile venture though. It would be one of the city’s last chances to create a large green space downtown as open space becomes increasingly rare.

According to a November Forum Research Poll of Toronto residents, 51 per cent of respondents supported the proposed park and 38 per cent opposed it. Not surprisingly, 46 per cent of respondents felt that the space should not be paid for with public dollars. Though there are several issues remaining on how to budget the rail deck park, Keesmaat has confirmed there is already $350 million invested from developers that is earmarked for public space.

The Rail Deck Park is an ambitious, but worthwhile project. Green space in the downtown area promotes healthy tourism and is relatively simple to upkeep. It also provides Torontonians with more outdoor space, and a carbon sink in the middle of an area full of pollution. Hopefully, the rail deck park can become Mayor Tory’s legacy, and it will be enjoyed for generations to come. Until then, it will be interesting see if the funding can be found.

What makes a city great?

I doubt anyone could point to just one feature that makes a city a great place to live, instead  a great city depends on thousands of small parts that collectively make it a success or a failure.  Toronto has some terrific features but also some big challenges. We sit beside a huge fresh water lake, but because of our location climate change has a harsh impact on us — from ice storms to floods — and scientists are predicting that extreme weather conditions will increase. Toronto must look for ways to  fortify our city for the weather to come, and for the increase in population that is expected.

But let’s get back to one of the small features that cities around the world are using to improve the quality of life for their residents — Trees. Not only do trees improve air quality, produce oxygen, and combat the greenhouse effect, they cool the streets, conserve energy and save water. Given all the positive impacts of having a large and healthy urban tree canopy (over 50% coverage) where does Toronto sit in comparison to other cities in North America?

Below are the top ten cities in North America and their percentage of tree and bush coverage:

1.     Atlanta -52%

2.     Nashville – 49%

3.     Pittsburg – 42%

4.     Halifax – 41%

5.     Albuquerque – 38%

6.     Washington D.C – 36%

7.     Minneapolis – 34%

8.     Tampa – 32%

9.     Austin – 31%

10.  Portland – 30%

Toronto isn’t even on the list of top ten, but we sit at a measly 26% tree coverage   —  we can and should do better!

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Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see   
A poem lovely as a tree.   
   
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest   
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;   
   
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;   
   
A tree that may in summer wear   
A nest of robins in her hair;   
   
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;   
Who intimately lives with rain. 
   
Poems are made by fools like me,   
But only God can make a tree.

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www.itreetools.org/Canopy/resources/Tree_and_Impervious_Cover_change_in_US_Cities_Nowak_Greenfield.pdf

·http://www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/UrbanForestsInCanadianCities.pdf