Marc Ngui: Envisioning a lively, sustainable future for Toronto in 2507

In the early 2000s I was a certified apocalypse nerd. 9/11, climate change, mass extinction, the blackout of 2003, and the spectre of multiple pandemics (SARS, bird flu) created a palpable sense of anxiety about humanity’s prospects for the future. It eventually became apparent to me that this obsession with apocalypse was a dead end. The dystopian visions that permeate popular culture bring awareness to our problems but offer nothing in the way of solutions. The really meaningful challenge for the imagination is envisioning possible positive futures, and that if one looks in the right places, the building blocks for these positive outcomes are being revealed in myriad aspects of human endeavour.

This realization is the motivation behind “Memoirs from the Distant Future,” a comic I created for GreenTOpia, an anthology about imagining a more sustainable Toronto published by Coach House Books, a venerable Canadian indie press. You can download the entire comic from my website.

Toronto is a very young city. In 1864 it was still a small town, with a city grid of about eight blocks and mostly wooden buildings and dirt roads. One hundred and fifty years later, it is a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis undergoing a lengthy building boom, arguably one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and growing at a rate of 100,000 people per year. It seems to me that residents of mid-nineteenth century Toronto looking at modern Toronto would probably be even more astounded and bewildered than residents of modern Toronto looking at my vision for five hundred years in the future.

Working on this project was a great opportunity to explore a few of my favourite things: comics, design, architecture, urbanism, and eutopian** visions. I wanted to create a fabulous vision of the future and have it grounded in some solid ideas and real experiences. Here are some of the geographic, scientific, biological, and historical stories that make up the foundation for the future I imagined in “Memoirs”:

Page 2, Panel 1: The Gardiner Gardens 

The Gardiner Expressway is an elevated highway that runs across the southern edge of Toronto. It is a contentious piece of infrastructure. Detractors of the expressway object to the barrier it creates between the core of the downtown and the waterfront. Its presence over the past five decades has resulted in the haphazard development of a large swath of the urban core. The space between the elevated highway and the lakefront was traditionally uninhabited industrial and railway land, and in the 1970s massive condo developments were built directly on the lakefront, cutting off public access to much of the shoreline. Meanwhile the extreme Canadian winters have taken their toll on the exposed concrete structure of the highway and certain parts have begun to crumble and fall into traffic. Sections of the expressway have already been dismantled, and its future is currently being debated at City Hall.

Ngui Page 2, Panel 1

Page 2, Panel 2: The Don Delta / St. Lawrence Neighbourhood / Jane Jacobs 

The Don River is one of two major rivers that flow through Toronto. In the early history of the city, it was treated as a sewage conduit, and its natural delta was turned into a channel that ran through heavily polluted industrial lands. In the 1950s, conservation attempts began to rehabilitate the river and preserve the historical buildings that are situated on its banks. When I was writing “Memoirs” in 2007, there were no definite plans for the development of the land at the mouth of the Don. Today, some of that land has been developed as the site of the athletes’ village for the 2015 Pan Am games.

The St. Lawrence Neighbourhood is a densely planned community from the 1970s. Its design was heavily influenced by the work of author and activist Jane Jacobs, who lived in Toronto from 1968 until her death in 2006. Her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) is a highly regarded critique of postwar urban design and development in North America.

Ngui Page 2, Panel 2

Page 3, Panel 1: Wetlands water purification

The idea that wetlands are effective natural filters for sewage has always been fascinating to me. I was first introduced to this idea by a project to rehabilitate the Don Delta while at architecture school.

Ngui Page 3, Panel 1

Page 3, Panel 4: Urbiology 

This is a portmanteau of urban and biology.

Ngui Page 3, Panel 4

Page 4, Panel 1: Systems biology / University of Toronto

Scientists identify new areas of research as they explore the boundaries of their disciplines. Many of these new disciplines build on the knowledge and practice of previous disciplines, creating hybrids like biochemistry and biophysics. Advances in data processing abilities have introduced the possibility of studying more complex interactions using computation. Systems biology is one product of these advances.

The University of Toronto has an extensive scientific research program (including systems biology) as well as a school of architecture, so it felt natural to imagine these two disciplines hybridizing in the future.

Ngui Page 4, Panel 1

Page 4, Panel 3: Stigmergy / architecture school

Stigmergy is a term that comes out of the study of eusocial insects. It refers to a form of collaboration or self-organization in which the collaborators respond to signals in their environment rather than direct communication. It could be useful concept for understanding and designing complex communal living scenarios.

The project of building a structure to hold a large metal ball bearing was taken directly from one of my first year architecture school design assignments.

Ngui Page 4, Panel 3

Page 5, Panel 3: Garrison Ravine Arcology

An arcology is a massive, self-contained, self-sufficient, sustainable city originally devised by the visionary architect Paolo Soleri. Garrison Creek is one of Toronto’s lost waterways. The creek has been channeled into a sewage-type tunnel and the ravine has been mostly filled in, but its presence can still be felt in a series of odd valleys and pits that run through downtown Toronto.

Ngui Page 5, Panel 3

Page 6, Panel 1: Amphibians

Frogs, toads, and their amphibious cousins are sometimes used as indicators of the overall health of an ecosystem because they are particularly susceptible to toxins in the water, on account of their highly permeable skin.

Ngui Page 6, Panel 1

Page 6, Panel 3: Artisan neighbourhoods 

I created this comic while visiting Hanoi, Vietnam. This panel was inspired by the artisan streets of Hanoi, which consist of tall, narrow buildings where craftspeople work in shops on the ground floor and live two or three floors above. Each street houses artisans working in the same material; there are streets for bamboo, lacquerware, metal cabinets, bag makers, tailors, etc.

Ngui Page 6, Panel 3

Page 7, Panel 1: Night market

In many cities and towns in Asia, temporary “night markets” pop up in the evenings. Night markets are a combination of flea markets, farmers’ markets, and food courts, and they disappear completely by the next morning. This dynamic use of public space really brings a city to life and suggests one way to deal with lack-of-space issues in rapidly densifying cities.

Ngui Page 7, Panel 1


**I think it is important to make a distinction between “eutopian” and “utopian.” Both terms refer to ideal places, but eutopia means “beautiful place,” whereas utopia means “no place.” I use “eutopia” to avoid the implication that building an equitable and happy society is impossible.







One response to “Marc Ngui: Envisioning a lively, sustainable future for Toronto in 2507”

  1. D.R. Dean Avatar
    D.R. Dean

    Thanks for introducing this to me.