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:


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.


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.

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.

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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