Life in the Laneways
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Life in the Laneways

The Laneways Project seeks out innovative ways to use the city's overlooked spaces

Toronto has 250 acres of what are considered “untapped public space.” If that seems like a lot, it’s a figure comprised of smaller spaces you probably don’t pay much attention to—laneways.

The city has more than 2,400 laneways spread out across its many neighbourhoods but concentrated in its downtown core, and the Laneway Project aims to make the most of these frequently neglected spaces. The project’s mandate is to work “with Toronto’s communities to create a network of vibrant, safe, people-friendly laneways across the city.” They help communities start their own laneway projects, implement demonstration projects, and work with the city to create laneway-friendly policies and procedures.

These goals brought together several dozen urban-minded individuals gathered Thursday night for the second annual Laneway Summit. Entitled “Laneway Confessions,” the group heard from speakers involved in laneway initiatives across the country, and learned how they might transform their own neighbourhood.

Laneway projects often start small but can have a big impact. Christine Liber, of the Kenwood Laneway Art Initiative, described how she and her neighbour Elly Dawson chose to combat the seemingly constant tagging happening in their St Clair West neighbourhood. Partnering with a local independent paint store, they offered to paint their neighbours garage doors for free. To date, the pair have painted more than 40 doors in their three-block neighbourhood. None of the painted doors have been re-tagged, since they have been painted though she said that if it that did happen they would simply “paint it again and again.”

Speaker Robert Garcia brought “laneway greening” into the conversation. In his Montreal borough, residents are looking to expand their greenspace in laneways, sometimes with projects as simple as digging up planters; he showed photos of projects such as a laneway ice rink, perfect for a two-on-two game of hockey.

Laneways can also provide opportunities for micro-retailers. Howard Tam of ThinkFresh Group is currently working with developer Westbank on the Honest Ed’s redevelopment plan. Tam spoke of the micro-retail potential in the area and across the City as a whole. Micro-retail can provide opportunities for local entrepreneurs to get their start without the cost and commitment of an actual storefront. He cited Market 707 as an example of an ongoing Toronto micro-retail success story.

Laneway housing can also help build neighbourhood density without mid-rises nearby. Together with the University of Toronto, Evergeen is planning potential laneway houses for the Huron and Sussex neighbourhood. While laneway housing has faced its obstacles in the past—there’s a prohibitive cost for the city to provide basic services to a laneway household, and the fire department frequently opposes plans—the proposal has received support from residence groups and councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina).