Public Works: Reconsidering the Town Square
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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.