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Public Works: Reconsidering the Town Square

What Washington D.C. can teach Toronto about great public spaces.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

One of the major themes of urban design in the 21st century has been the return of the “town square.” Modern city centres have long been places associated with heavy gridlock and commercial development, but trends like holistic sustainability and community development have revived the notion of the agora—a central space, whether literally a square or not, for city dwellers to congregate, recreate, and communicate.

In 2012, architecture, planning, and design firm Gensler launched “The Town Square Initiative,” a challenge to its designers to “unearth and re-imagine” public space in major cities around the world. Hypothetical designs were thought up for Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Chicago, and many more. But perhaps the one most applicable to Toronto was devised for Washington, D.C.

In tourism pamphlets and establishing shots for House of Cards, it’s clear Washington has a lot of great public space. The iconic National Mall alone is over three kilometres of public square. Why, they could probably fit, like, a million people there. The city’s grid, designed in the 1790s, is famous for its wagon-wheel configuration. Roads angle out like spokes from circular centres, creating a bevy of small, round, or triangular plots of land, many of which have been put to use as public space.

But, as D.C. has developed from a modest government town into the heart of a thriving greater metropolitan area that is a home to 5.8 million people, the centralized spaces that have served the city for centuries have become less accessible to a large number of residents. The Washington Post declared the National Mall too big to serve as a proper community space. One assumes it might be overly touristy, too. How much community-building can take place in a spot where half the people are just trying to find the Air and Space Museum? And, as for the vaunted 18th-century city grid, it “disintegrates along the city’s southern borders, where it collides with the Anacostia and Potomac rivers,” Gensler’s Carolyn Sponza writes. That means none of the neat colonial-planned public space for Washingtonians outside the city’s core.

Toronto has had a similarly difficult relationship with major public space. Ninety years ago, University Avenue was slated to be our landmark, our National Mall. That dream died with the start of the Depression.

More recently, we’ve been given Dundas Square, a concrete pad with a long and troubled history. Some people have gradually come to like it. And it has, indeed, become a successful setting for concerts, festivals, demonstrations, and other large-scale events. But day to day, it’s still bleak, grimy, and underused—and associated (rightly or wrongly) with horrific incidents that have occurred both in the square and the surrounding area.

There’s also the problem of its location. Much like Washington’s centralized public space, which is criticized for being inaccessible to many of the D.C. citizens, Dundas Square is awfully far from the neighbourhoods where so much of the city’s residential growth is happening—in the east (Leslieville, Cabbagetown) and west (Roncesvalles, Parkdale) ends. The same could be said of other “town square” candidates like Nathan Phillips or Maple Leaf Squares.

Which raises an interesting question: Can a single public space effectively serve a modern metropolis?

While some Washingtonians complain that their existing public space is not public-friendly or easily accessible, others counter that new town square–like areas are being built across the city, albeit in outlying areas and on a smaller scale. And maybe that’s a better model for Toronto to embrace.

We’re already partway there, after all. Our big advantage over Washington is that, unlike the American capital, we’ve made pretty excellent use of our urban parks. Christie Pits, Dufferin Grove, Kew Gardens, the Sunnybrook sports fields—from downtown to the suburbs, there are countless public parks that bring Torontonians together for recreation and socializing. And if you’re looking for the “town square” to be a space shared by many different demographics, the ideal might be Trinity Bellwoods Park—with or without the booze.

Toronto hasn’t perfected the big all-purpose town square yet. But in smaller sites across the city, we’ve developed public spaces that unite citizens and create interaction. Maybe it’s not quite the agora, but it seems to be working out pretty well.


  • Paul Kishimoto is still my favourite talk on public space—especially around 5’15″, where he talks about “public space worth caring about”, “outdoor public rooms”, and the idea of an “active and permeable membrane”.

    Does Yonge-Dundas have one of these? We can look on Google Streetview:
    —No. It’s surrounded by roads, full of cars.
    —On the other side of the road, to the west, are entrances to Sears (really, to nothing, at the moment), the Eaton Centre, and H&M.
    —To the north: a cineplex/mall entrance.
    —To the south: a jeweller, the Hard Rock Café.

    Of these, only the Hard Rock is doing anything close to useful, since they have a patio. For an improvement, one might close the access road, extend the HRC patio area across it, and reconfigure the ground floor for at least three more cafés (with equal size patios, covering the former street) side-by-side in the same building.

    For the other sides of the square, street closures would also allow people to be drawn directly into the square, and the ground-floor space on the north and west sides could be repurposed for uses that supported the presence of people (instead of sucking them out to sell them movies or clothing).

    These would make it a much nicer place to be for many people, but a few (the neighbouring retail chains and some drivers) might complain, and so we do nothing. Some even talk about removing the scramble intersection, when it should be expanded.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    There’s no shortage of parks in this city. There’s also a rather large park and community centre just two blocks west of Yonge on Eg.

    • TheSotSays

      Gee thanks!