The future of Yonge Street as public space

If parks are our backyards in the city, then streets are our front porches. Unfortunately, many of our streets don’t live up to their potential “front porchiness.” Take Yonge Street in Toronto. This street regularly has so many pedestrians crammed onto its tiny sidewalk that it’s impossible not to spill out onto the roadway. And that roadway? Well, it often looks like this:

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That’s a recent rushhour on a Thursday evening at 5pm. There’s something wrong with the distribution of space in that picture.

Luckily, Yonge needs to be ripped up for water main work. When we put it back together again we’ve got an opportunity in Toronto to create the kind of street Yonge really wants to be: a place and destination, not a thoroughfare or artery. I’ve never been so pumped for water main work.

Last week, I was part of a panel discussing the future of Yonge Street and its relation to community identity. The gist of the event was to understand how a re-imagining of Yonge Street could enhance, protect, and stimulate the street as a community building space.

It all coincided with the release of a report by the Downtown Yonge BIA (which hosted the event along with Yonge Street Media) that was the result of a community engagement process meant to find out what people loved about Yonge Street, what they hated about it, and what they hoped it could become.

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The results are not necessarily surprising. People said they wanted a street that provides more space for pedestrians and cyclists, retains its local fine-grained retail character, celebrates diversity and welcomes different users, and is greener.

Some points that came out of the panel discussion:

We should look beyond the boundaries of the street

There are many public spaces, laneways, parks, and side streets that branch out from Yonge Street and tie different neighbourhoods on either side of the street together. There’s College Park, Yonge-Dundas Square, Ryerson’s Gould pedestrian plaza, and the set of three linear parks just southeast of Yonge and Bloor to name just a few.

Any design of the street should also include how the street connects with and relates to these other public spaces, so the opportunity is seen less as a single street and more as a web of open space working together. Some of these other spaces may be tiny, but they can be greater than the sum of their parts when all tied together.

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This is especially important around College Park, which is set for its own redesign and opens up right onto Yonge Street. Right across is two other small parkettes which were recently spruced up. Something really cool could be done here where fingers extending out from each set of parks meet the street. (In the map above, College Park is for some reason shown in grey, but it’s the circular internal park on the westside of Yonge with the walkway coming out to Yonge.)

Let’s not lose the fine-grained character of the street

One of the major points of conversation at the panel was about the main street character of Yonge and whether that would be lost in the rush to redevelop the street with larger, taller buildings like Aura. One of my favourite parts of Yonge is between Bloor and Wellesley because this part of the street, while not necessarily the most beautiful, is studded with small, eclectic retail stores with funky signs and bright storefronts. It makes for an interesting stroll.

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We can use planning tools to try to retain the narrow retail storefront character of the street by controlling how big groundfloor retail can be (so we don’t get just chain retail and drug stores). But the issue is affordability. Sure, we can create those smaller retail spaces, but can the indie businesses we like afford the rent?

We have residential rent controls in Toronto, but nothing similar for small businesses. Perhaps it’s time the Province looked at tools like this to allow cities like Toronto to provide some certainty to smaller, local businesses who fear huge rent increases will push them out.

A street is a linear strip, but it needs punctuation

I hope that in the design of the street we think also about a few punctuation points along the way that can act as little public gathering spaces or focal points. Currently the street doesn’t really have many places for people to stop and gather or sit for awhile and just take in the action.

One spot that functions like this and recently opened is the Ryerson student learning centre building, which includes a great set of outdoor stairs that has become an instant hit as a spot to sit and people watch. I only wish the stairs wrapped around the Yonge Street side a bit more.

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We need a street that is adaptable

During the Q&A session, someone asked the question why the dialogue around Yonge Street was about wider sidewalks and not making the space completely pedestrianized. It’s a good question. For me, exciting spaces in a city are not necessarily ones where the car is entirely banished, but where the car is demoted to the lowest rung on the ladder. I like the hustle of Kensington Market because cars are allowed there. Same with the North End in Boston.

I hope that we design a Yonge Street that privileges people walking and cycling, but is built flexibly to allow the street to change depending on the need. Granville Street in my old hometown of Vancouver is a good example. It was redesigned in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics to have wider sidewalks, but also flexible spaces that can accommodate parking when needed or be used for people.

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Granville Street photo from City of Vancouver

One block (show above) is designed to be car-free entirely for events and special activities.

Then there’s Bell Street in Seattle, which was redesigned as Bell Street Park recently. The new street is curbless and designed to feel like one public space, so it can easily turn into a plaza when shut off from traffic. It also included larger pedestrian space, gardens, and seating.

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Bell Street Park photo from City of Seattle

A street that can adapt to different needs depending on the season or special events is one that will serve us much farther into the future than one designed rigidly.

Design is not the end, but the beginning

Often I think we get hung up on the design part and forget that the point of design is to create spaces for us to use as individuals and communities. We come out to meetings to rally around wider sidewalks and more benches and more trees, but what’s not usually a part of this process is discussing how we can remain engaged afterwards.

What is the role of community members in the management or operation of a public space? If creating a lively street is a priority for people (as the survey indicated when they said they wanted more pop-up style activities) then we also need ways for people to help program and animate it afterwards.

Perhaps an advisory committee or “Friends of” group created around Yonge Street could help provide a focus on animating and programming the street. This group could work with or include members of the BIA, which already does some great programming around music in College Park and Trinity Square.

Whatever form this takes, let’s make sure that our thinking about Yonge Street doesn’t end the day the ribbon is cut, but continues to evolve and grow.

title photo by Gadjo Sevilla from Flickr

 

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Visiting (almost) every park in Ward 14 with Councillor Gord Perks

When you walk for 13 kilometres over 3.5 hours and visit 17 parks with a City Councillor, you learn a lot (you also get really, really hungry.)

Over the last 11 months I’ve been visiting parks in each ward of the city. I’ve seen about 70 parks in 39 wards (five wards left!), but until Councillor Gord Perks from Ward 14 offered to take me on a tour of parks in his ward, I hadn’t tried to cover all the parks in one ward. It seemed like a fun idea. I wore comfortable shoes.

After our first park walk day was rained out, I met Gord in Baird Park near the Junction. I was in the middle of reading an interpretive plaque, when Gord strode up and handed me a map he had printed off of the ward. We were going to start at the top and work our way down.

The shape of Ward 14 is an interesting one. Along with Ward 18, which is its mirror-opposite in shape, it looks like a pane of glass broken on a diagonal. We started up in the narrow tip of the ward, but made our way down towards the lake and then criss-crossed through Parkdale for a bit.

Here are five of my favourite bits and pieces from the walk:

New public spaces created out of leftover places

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Whenever I walk down Roncesvalles (one of my favourite streets in Toronto), I always saw the triangular piece of land outside the Starbucks at the top of the street where it meets Dundas West as a lost opportunity. So I was happy to see construction work well underway to create a new garden and seating area. Gord said funding came from the War of 1812 fund and the space will be a “peace” garden. Some inventive funding for what looks like will be a nifty new public space.

Then there was this little plaza space created on TTC property where local residents come help take care of the plants. A good place to watch the trains.

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The town square that community built 

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Sorauren Park is an all-around great park and hosts things like the amazing annual pumpkin parade to which I have—and I can’t believe I have to admit this—never actually attended. But one of the cool things in the park recently is the creation of a Town Square, which now hosts events like the regular farmer’s market. The building in the far background is an old factory that is on the books to be converted to a new community centre. A very active community group, the Wabash Building Society, has been a key part of these new spaces.

What may be Toronto’s smallest community garden

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There were a lot of itty bitty parks in Ward 14, but Melbourne Avenue Parkette was probably the smallest. It’s a skinny, deep park and right at its back is what I’m sure has to be the smallest and cutest community garden in the entire city. I’m not sure what the official numbers are, but it seems to me that Ward 14 has probably the most community gardens out of any ward in the city. Almost every park we went to had some garden space.

Park as street art museum

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My favourite park we visited was easily Columbus Parkette—a space I had biked past several times but never really given a look. This park is surrounded by garages on three sides and several years ago Gord pulled together a bunch of street artists as part of the city’s graffiti abatement program to paint murals on the garages that face the park in a bid to beautify the space and make it feel safer. The result is a wonderful collage of different styles that really brightens up the park. My favourite was definitely this wolf:

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A park that joins a high and low-income area 

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We often talk about parks in the city as being the public spaces where everyone in the city can mix and mingle. Spencer-Cowan Parkette is a good example of that. A sliver of green space that connects two streets together—Cowan and Spencer Avenues—this park acts as a kind of joint connecting the wealthier residents of Cowan in their houses on the west side to those living in mid-rise low-income apartment buildings and co-ops on the east side.

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An actually green Green P parking lot

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OK, so this is a parking lot, not a park, but hear me out. Considering how much space we still devote to paved surface parking lots in Toronto, the idea behind this one is important. Gardens and landscaping around its edges introduced more green into the neighbourhood and the permeable paving allows stormwater to infiltrate into the ground rather than run off into a stormwater sewer drain somewhere. If more of our Green P’s were actually this green it would be fantastic.

Thanks so much to Councillor Perks for taking the time to show me around the ward.

Here’s a list of the parks we saw:

  • Dundas-Watkinson Park
  • Baird Park
  • Chelsea Avenue Playground
  • Ritchie Avenue Parkette
  • Colombus Parkette
  • Sorauren Park
  • Charles G. Williams Park
  • Grafton Avenue Park
  • Beaty Boulevard
  • Close Avenue Parkette
  • Close Springhurst Parkette
  • Spencer-Cowan parkette
  • Masaryk Park
  • Melbourne Avenue Parkette
  • Dufferin-King Parkette
  • Rita Cox Park
  • Lamport Stadium Park

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This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

Dynamic new linear public space coming to Toronto

Today, an exciting and ambitious public space project was announced in Toronto. Linking 7 communities by reimagining the dramatic space underneath the western leg of the elevated Gardiner Expressway, this new project will transform land that is now derelict and unused into an active 1.75km public space. The working title is Under Gardiner, but a new name will come. It will create 10 acres of new public space in downtown.

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It’s also exactly the kind of creative public space project that is necessary in cities as built-out as Toronto where finding land for new parks is difficult. The days of buying up a chunk of land and building a park for new residents are virtually gone in the downtown. But with this challenge comes an opportunity to look at our existing city spaces with fresh eyes and find the potential in areas we may have ignored or dismissed before.

In April of this year, Park People (where I work) released a report called Making Connections, which focused on exactly these kind of creative public space opportunities for intensifying cities. In that report, we specifically called out the space underneath this section of the Gardiner as an opportunity to be viewed as a “dynamic open space, not a concrete barrier.”

Here’s a picture we took at the launch of the report, which was held at the Fort York Visitor’s Centre which opens up underneath the Gardiner (and the site of the new Under Gardiner project.)

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Now, with a generous donation from one of Park People’s board members, Judy Matthews, and under the guidance of another Park People board member, Ken Greenberg, as well as essential partners in the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto, this vision, designed by Public Work and set to open in 2017, will become a reality, .

The Under Gardiner touches on almost all of the 8 guiding principles for a new way of planning parks and open spaces that we outlined in Making Connections (which you can read in more detail here.)

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Crucially, and most obviously, the Under Gardiner “discovers” new space right in the heart of the city by flipping what we normally see as dead space into something that can thrive and attract people. The barrier becomes the connector. And this project links many different communities and existing green spaces together, acting as the backbone for a network of existing and planned parks from Garrison Common to Canoe Landing Park.

One of the most exciting things about the Under Gardiner is how programming is presented as a key part right from the very beginning, whether children’s activities or an ice skating trail or concerts or art exhibits—the possibilities for bringing this space to life are endless. Good design is important, but creative partnerships and programming are what make places like this alive for years. This space will be an on-going, evolving project, not one that is done when the ribbon is cut.

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Finally, the Under Gardiner project is the result of a collaboration between many different partners and the pooling of a large private donation to build the space with City funds for operations and maintenance. It also calls for a collaboration between different city divisions as this space is not a traditional “park” and blends many different areas from parks to transportation to culture to tourism.

Already there have been comparisons to New York’s High Line and Miami’s Underline, but this is a completely unique project in a space that is distinctly Toronto.

Sign-up here for updates on the project, including upcoming consultations, and be sure to follow Under Gardiner and Park People on Twitter for more.

Renderings from Public Work.