Finding Better Uses for Toronto's Public Laneways
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Finding Better Uses for Toronto’s Public Laneways

New non-profit, The Laneway Project, sees Toronto's 2,400 laneways as usable public space, and hopes you will too.

Toronto is home to more than 2,400 public laneways, totalling 250 kilometres. According to urban planner and designer Mackenzie Keast, they represent a major opportunity for public-space development—but we’re ignoring them. “We can’t really build new public spaces,” he says. “There’s only so much room to build and grow. [With laneways] there is an opportunity for us to reimagine what they can be used for.”

Keast is part of the leadership at The Laneway Project, a non-profit organization established in 2014 to promote the use of Toronto’s laneways as public space, and support communities undertaking laneway development projects.

The Laneway Project wants Toronto to follow the leads of such cities as Melbourne, Chicago, and Vancouver, where laneways are filling up with cafes, small businesses, and shops, and turning into pedestrian areas full of greenery. “We want to think of laneways as another level of public space, and one that can be utilized in more and more interesting ways,” Keast says.

On November 20, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., The Laneway Project will take over the Great Hall to host “Engaging In-Between Spaces,” a summit on laneways. A panel of urban designers, planners, community representatives, and public space experts, moderated by the CBC’s Mary Wiens, will discuss making laneways more people-friendly, using them as transportation corridors and community gathering spaces, and leveraging them for cultural and economic benefits.

“We’re trying to bring together all these voices who have been working on laneways for a long time,” Keast says, adding that the hope is to get the public talking about laneways as public space.

The Laneway Project has spoken with various City departments to gain an understanding of the different types of laneway spaces in Toronto, the zoning regulations that apply to them, and how they are served by garbage collection and snow removal services. “[It’s] all the nitty-gritty details for all the laneways in Toronto,” Keast says, “so that we can do all that work up front and provide advice and assistance to communities and stakeholders that might want to revitalize their laneways.”

When a member of the public approaches The Laneway Project with an idea, specific or general, for improving a local laneway, the organization will bring stakeholders together to plan and implement development and programming projects that suit the needs of everyone from area residents to businesses. They’ll also help communities find funding for the projects, whether through grant applications, government money, or private sponsorship.

Building this framework now may well pay off in the future, when accessible urban space is in even higher demand. “We think laneway development is an inevitability,” says Keast. “It’s something that’s going to come, because we’re kind of being forced into it in terms of … the number of people who want to move into the city.”

In public laneways, Toronto has 250 kilometres of untapped space. It’s just waiting to be put to good use.