The importance of whimsy in public spaces

Walking through downtown Montreal on a recent trip with a few friends, we came across something a bit strange. A bunch of logs dumped along a stretch of busy Saint Catherine Street. Did some logging truck tip over and leave its cargo behind?

Nope. The logs are a piece of public art titled 500KM that includes 1,000 logs meant to be a “metaphorical representation of river driving, the 19th century method of moving timber down Quebec’s rivers.” If you need a quick nostalgia break, click here (Canadians only, please).

People took selfies with the logs. They sat on the logs. They pondered the logs. The logs were, as far as I could tell, a hit.

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But this is Montreal, the city that has perfected the art of creating dynamite public spaces that practically have a magnetic pull: you can’t help but stop and stay awhile. Whether it’s a bunch of logs or giant projections on the sides of buildings at night or light strung up overhead in a park or fog that emerges from grates beside a pathway or maybe just the delight you get stumbling across a tiny cafe in a park.

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Montreal understands the importance of whimsy—of things that are fanciful and maybe sometimes even silly. Things that are done for the sake of being just plain fun. Montreal’s public spaces, especially the ones in the downtown Quartier des Spectacles, are a playground for both adults and children.

I mean, they actually have swings that play music as you swing, which, I’m sure, you’ll find directly referenced in the Oxford Dictionary definition of whimsical.

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And Toronto? Toronto is a lot of things. It’s boisterous, fast-paced, often boastful. But whimsical? Ummmmmm. I could only imagine the liability conversations and headaches in Toronto over dumping a bunch of logs in the middle of a downtown street.

We do have our moments, though. There’s the now under construction fountain coming to Berczy Park that features little statues of dogs and even a kitty.

And then there’s Sugar Beach, which is probably one of the most whimsical public spaces in the entire city with its faux-beach filled with white sand, oversized bubblegum pink umbrellas, and candy-striped granite boulders. It’s a beach where you could imagine finding Willy Wonka suntanning.

And guess what? Both the Berczy Park fountain and Sugar Beach are the brainchild of Claude Cormier, a landscape architect out of, you guessed it, Montreal.

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Sugar Beach has become an incredibly popular space. I spent a staycation day there last week turning my own shade of pink while lying in the sun reading. It was 2pm on a Tuesday. The joint was packed.

But Sugar Beach has also been a source of controversy where its very whimsicalness has been used as a slur against it. The message? Don’t design and spend money on things that are viewed as fun or, god forbid, silly. Utilitarian or bust.

But whimsy is important, as I learned walking the streets of Montreal, because our public spaces should provide us with a counterbalance to the hectic keep-your-head-down-until-the-weekend drive of the city.

Whimsy is about making a public space an invitation to play, to become a five-year old again–that magical time when everything around us inspired wonder. It’s walking the streets of a city and feeling delighted. It’s creating a sense that the city can be a festival.

Or, on a very specific level, it’s a man in a business suit swinging next to an eight-year old on the street, both laughing at the music they’re making.

 

 

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Leveraging laneways as park connections

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Last week I went to Toronto’s first laneway summit, put on by the Laneway Project, an organization that hopes to start a discussion about the potential of the city’s more than 250 kilometres of laneways to become more people-friendly spaces.

Much attention has been paid to cities that are promoting commercial uses, restaurant cafes, and public art in their laneways, like Seattle and Melbourne. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of digging into how cities are using laneways to create a fine-grained network of linear green spaces that connect existing parks.

The network effect

Spacing Magazine’s Dylan Reid, one of the Laneway Project presenters, wrote a good piece on laneways as shared street spaces and pedestrian connections. And many cities are looking to capitalize on that potential by including laneways as part of the parks and public realm planning tools in local neighbourhood plans, or through programs or projects specifically designed to look at the potential of laneways as green park-like spaces and connectors.

Laneways not only create pleasant, fine-grained, and safe ways to walk or bike to the park, but can help extend the park itself into the neighbourhood and draw your eye to the park from other streets. The key is to prioritize improvements to laneways that can serve that connection function to an existing space.

San Francisco’s Market and Octavia Area Plan is a great example of how laneways are being looked at as connections and extensions of parks. Calling these potential laneways “living alleys,” the plan lays out where the potential improvements could be made. Many end or connect to existing parks, helping to increase open space access in an area the City says needs more neighbourhood-scale parks, but has few opportunities for more.

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And Los Angeles is also looking to use laneways as park-like connectors to existing parks and schools in neighbourhoods that are low in parkland. Jodi Delaney of the Trust for Public Land, which is working with the City of Los Angeles on the project, told the LA Times the benefits of greening laneways goes beyond just creating more park-like places, but helps to reduce stormwater run-off and the urban heat island effect.

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We haven’t quite grasped the potential of laneways in Toronto yet, but we are moving, it seems, slowly in the right direction. The draft public realm plan for the downtown King-Spadina area (I work right on the edge at Richmond and Spadina) maps out potential and existing mid-block connections.

However, it doesn’t include potential greening or park-like improvements as options, which is a shame because this area is, as city staff point out, a high-density neighbourhood low in green space and only growing in population. It’s also home to a lot of workers who just need a place to sit outside and enjoy their lunch or have a short break–something a redesigned laneway could offer.

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It doesn’t have to be complicated

It almost goes without saying, but there are different solutions for different types of laneways. It’s all dependent upon what the local community needs, the function of the laneway for vehicles and servicing, and the width and sunlight available. The Seattle Integrated Alley Handbook is a good resource for how to approach different types of laneways.

But just adding planters can do a lot for an otherwise dingy, uninviting laneway space. In the laneway behind my office building, a row of planter boxes outside helps to make it much more pleasant.

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Vancouver’s until recently apparently forgotten Country Lanes pilot project from 2002 saw several laneways introduce permeable surfaces and plantings to create a wonderful back road feel (see title picture). This is a bit like the “Ruelle Verte” program by Montreal’s Eco-quartiers, which partners with residents to improve the feel of their laneway by adding plantings and reducing impermeable surfaces (you can see a map of them here).

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It’s great to see so many of these project springing up from residents themselves who want to improve the quality of their spaces. But we also need our city planners and government to recognize the potential in these spaces and allow these types of projects to happen through supportive policies and plans.

title image from National Post’s Ben Nelms, maps from their respective plans, planter picture my own, and Montreal picture from Eco-quartiers.