Why We Need to Develop Toronto's Laneways
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Why We Need to Develop Toronto’s Laneways

The Laneway Project is revitalizing and repurposing public spaces with the help of local residents.

Building planters in a Toronto laneway. Photo courtesy of Michelle Senayah.

Building planters in a Toronto laneway. Photo courtesy of Michelle Senayah.

In Toronto, more than 100 hectares of downtown and midtown land are occupied by laneways—more than two-thirds the size of High Park. That’s the first statistic Michelle Senayah raises when addressing City committees and Council members.

These laneways boast untapped potential, she says, because they remain underdeveloped.

That’s why Senayah and Ariana Cancelli co-founded The Laneway Project, an initiative to revitalize laneways throughout Toronto. The organization seeks to make these spaces multipurpose public areas that will increase connectivity—transforming these seemingly dead places into vibrant community hubs.

It came about when Senayah and Cancelli realized no other initiatives had fully addressed the use of Toronto laneways. The pair specializes in urban planning and design with an emphasis on community engagement. Laneways allowed for the perfect synthesis of community involvement and urban development. “We just started discussing how laneways aren’t used for optimal purpose,” Senayah explains. “It seemed like a no-brainer to make better use of our laneways, especially with Toronto’s population growing like it is—we’re intensifying rather than spreading.”

Downtown Toronto’s population is growing exponentially in a contained space, causing population intensification. In the past decade, more than 45,000 new residents entered the downtown core, with 41 per cent of residents walking or biking to work.

These statistics indicate that connectivity between neighbourhoods needs to improve. Public space in any capacity can no longer be underused. “In the last few years we’ve shifted into a new phase of our growth,” Senayah says. “Our population density has reached a certain level, so our idea of development has to change with this.” This means urban development must actively engage with local residents to revitalize existing public space, which The Laneway Project’s aims to accomplish.

A laneway in the Junction. Photo courtesy of Katrina Afonso.

A laneway in the Junction. Photo courtesy of Katrina Afonso.

Specifically, the group wants to repurpose and utilize Toronto laneways in order to increase walkability and connectivity. The project fosters community involvement, aiding residents who wish to revitalize their laneways by holding community events, endorsing local businesses, creating green spaces, and supporting artists with mural projects.

The ultimate goal of the organization is to develop laneways and in turn strengthen and enrich communities. As public space becomes more precious in the city, individuals and groups will want to come together and develop these ignored areas.

“This is something Toronto is ready for—the city has an appetite for it,” Senayah says.

The Laneway Project also invites various communities to pitch ideas on how to redevelop the spaces. The pair have found that community engagement benefits connectivity and neighbourly relationships. “We have a call for laneway nominations and then people self-select and get in touch with us, because they see the opportunity for their own community,” Senayah says.

And community consultation is key to the organization, forging reciprocal partnerships between developers and local residents. As Toronto continues to grow, these partnerships will become vital in creating livable and accessible public spaces. “We always make sure communities tell us if they want that project in their community,” Senayah adds. “That’s imperative.”

Taken at the Bloordale Laneway Crawl. Photo by Katrina Afonso.

Taken at the Bloordale Laneway Crawl. Photo by Katrina Afonso.

This past year, the organization undertook improvement projects in partnership with two local communities. They worked with community members to develop a vision for their laneway and then make that vision a reality.

One of these projects is the CCBG Laneway Project—unofficially named for its surrounding streets, Collahie, Cross, Beaconsfield, and Gladstone in Little Portugal. It was nominated by a group of local residents and selected as one of the two project sites from 28 applicants. Many community members believe the CCBG laneway lends itself to be a more active and engaged community space.

In 2015, the residents created a working group, which consists of local residents to provide input at project meetings and inform other community residents of the ongoing project. Alana Cundy, a member and community leader of the working group, has been living in the neighbourhood for three years. She says the project is enhancing the already existent participatory spirit of the residents. “What’s really exciting is tapping into the potential of the space and integrating it into the entire community,” she says.

The overall vision for the project is to have a green space, a gathering place where year-round community events and casual recreation can occur, and to add murals and improve property maintenance to beautify the laneway.

The various projects will begin this year, but overall the CCBG laneway is a long-term development plan and will need the collective efforts of all individuals in the neighbourhood. “We have a really resourceful and skilled community,” Cundy says. “We don’t have a large group, but it’s amazing what few people can accomplish. A little can go a long way. It’s our job to make it better than the way we found it.”

By taking dead space and making it active space, Torontonians can create a more flexible and varied network of public areas. These multidisciplinary projects support various artistic and business sectors creating a fully engaged community.

“Smaller streets and laneways create a connected public realm,” Senayah says. “As professionals in urban design, we have the technical knowledge but we don’t have the intimate knowledge of neighbourhoods, which is where [residents] come in. You’ll be surprised by how much you can accomplish—it’s creating a laneway movement.”