How cool would it be if you could design a Toronto city street from scratch, top to bottom? How wide would it be? How many lanes? Would it have a streetcar? A bike lane? Would the buildings along it be residential, retail, or mixed?
Last Thursday night, a group of random citizens joined city councillor Pam McConnell and other TTC and city officials for an evening (hosted by the West Don Lands Committee and the Gooderham & Worts Neighbourhood Association) to do just that. Cherry Street, which runs along the eastern border of the Distillery District, is about as close to a blank slate as you can get.
At first it seemed surprising that this many people (note, these were average neighbourhood residents, not uber-engaged TPSC types) would give up 3 hours of their evening to discuss such seemingly dull details, like whether the sidewalk should be 3.5 or 4.5 meters wide. But it didn’t take long to realize that, unlike most meetings that take place in a condo’s common room, this one had a positive, constructive, communal feel.
The meeting started with a presentation by the architects who are leading the project. They proposed, as a sort of opening bid, a 35-meter-wide street (a little bit more narrow than Spadina, for example), including extra wide (4.5 meter) sidewalks, four lanes of traffic (including a slightly widened lane for bicycles and off-peak parking, but not a full bike lane), and a streetcar right-of-way. It was a modestly impressive attempt at pleasing all interests.
Then came time for questions of clarification, and the very first one was impressive. “Has there been any thought given to the very likely possibility that cars won’t be playing a key role in our transportation mix at all 25 years from now? Why are we building any lanes for cars?” The question wasn’t asked in a confrontational tone, nor did it come from someone wearing sandals and a hemp-woven hat. It was simply a reasonable observation of the facts, coming from a normal, reasonable person.
The room nodded in agreement. Not that there was consensus that there shouldn’t be any car lanes at all, but there was at least a general recognition that private, personal motor vehicles don’t have a very bright future.
As the night wore on, the group questioned other basic assumptions, and strayed far from their own prejudices. For example, transit activists admitted aloud that they weren’t sure that a dedicated streetcar lane running for only the three blocks of Cherry Street made any sense. Drivers wondered if including cars would make it unsafe for children to cross the street and get to the planned park at the mouth of the Don river. The room wrestled with complicated issues too, such as the need to ensure that transit is accessible to the disabled, either by building platforms for the streetcars, or using buses instead, or even envisioning an as-yet-uninvented kneeling streetcar. And with every suggestion, somehow, magically, a mutual respect was maintained between participants, even as they questioned each other’s most basic beliefs about how our city should work.
The whole exercise was a pre-charrette for the real charrette (follow the link, we didn’t know what that word meant either) coming up this February 17th, where a similar group of people will spend the whole day together in workshops, mulling over these questions. And sure, Cherry is just one small street in a very big city, but its design is also an exercise in truly participatory, local democracy — the kind we always hope for. It’s also hard to talk about one street without talking about others, which means the TTC and city staff in the room got to hear all sorts of ideas about how to improve King, Front, etc.
The result is uncertain, but will almost certainly be positive. With this much democratic input and good-will, it’s hard to go wrong.
Photo by SirCharlie in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.