2018 Will Redefine Toronto's Use of Public Space
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Public Works: How 2018 Will Redefine Toronto’s Use of Public Space

This year, Toronto could see spaces reimagined in a way that will serve as inspiration for other cities.

This year will be an important one for Toronto when it comes to the use of public space.

Finally, we’re getting creative when it comes to reimagining Toronto’s limited space, thinking beyond the expected, with vibrant public spaces in unconventional places. This year, we’re doing things like putting skating trails underneath a major city highway, turning shipping containers housed in a former slaughterhouse into a diverse marketplace, and creating lively, pedestrian-centric streets based on direct feedback from citizens. If all goes well, Toronto could see spaces reimagined in a way in 2018 that will serve as an urban planning inspiration for other cities.

By now, everyone is talking about The Bentway, Toronto’s new favourite date night spot, family activity, and one of the most inspiring uses of an otherwise drab piece of a major public infrastructure the city has seen as of late. The land under the Gardiner Expressway near Fort York has been transformed to a year-round public space project that includes a skate trail that opened on January 6. While it will expand in the future, the first leg of the figure-eight-shaped skate trail stretches 220 metres from Fort York, east of Strachan, to Bastion Street, near June Callwood Park. If all goes according to plan, it will eventually run from Strachan to Spadina avenues. In the warmer months, the spot will feature performance spaces, gardens, pop-up markets, and a dog park.

The Bentway is one example of how we can create impactful community spaces in high-density areas, especially at a time when an increasing number of families are raising kids in downtown condos thanks to sky-high real estate costs. By rendering the underbelly of the forever-controversial Gardiner Expressway less of a daunting divide between Lake Ontario and the downtown core, it may also entice more people—both tourists and locals alike—to take advantage of Toronto’s now-blossoming waterfront as its revitalization continues (making up for lost time and the fact that we messed it up so badly in the first place). This recent transformation includes things like the 2015 revitalization of Queen’s Quay and the re-imagination of the once defunct Ontario Place, which currently sees the former amusement park transformed into a winter-long event that features everything from photo-worthy light art installations to film screenings.

A short walk from the waterfront, Toronto will welcome a new marketplace that’s made entirely of shipping containers. Housed in the former (infamous) slaughterhouse at Bathurst and Front streets (28 Bathurst Street), Stackt Shipping Container Market will be a multi-functional shipping container marketplace that will feature restaurants, retail, showrooms, studio spaces, an outdoor cinema, and a craft brewery, among other elements.

The spot will offer brands pop-up spaces with flexible lease lengths, in addition to companies who will stay for the entire two and a half year duration. While Stackt isn’t the first shipping container project the city has seen—Market 707 at Dundas and Bathurst streets came before it back in 2010 to dish up affordable shipping container-made street food and goods—it is the most diverse and ambitious.

Stackt not only helps propel local businesses by acting as an incubator, it also highlights the potential to transform buildings in transition into interim public space projects (something I advocated for late last year). The space will be leased for the project for two and a half years until the City moves forward with plans to turn it into a park once given the go-ahead from the province—another positive move at a time when roadways consume 27.4 per cent of Toronto space, while open spaces and parks cover just 13 per cent.

The King Street pilot is one way to prioritize transit on Toronto’s streets. Photo by Sean Marshall from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

On the topic of small businesses, earlier this week, King Street’s business owners made headlines when they retaliated against the controversial King Street Transit Pilot Project, claiming the now eight-weeks-in project was harming their business by reducing both traffic and, subsequently, revenue. While that’s clearly not a positive byproduct of the experimental project, the City’s response is a hopeful and progressive one. On Tuesday, Mayor Tory launched a competition to design the curb lane public spaces on King Street in an attempt to draw people back to the street.

The “Everyone is King” competition welcomes submissions from students, local businesses and BIAs, design professionals, community groups, and, frankly, anyone else who is interested. This spring, the ideas and designs will come to life in the form of temporary public space installations and destination parklets. As part of the competition, King Street businesses can propose extended patios.

In the meantime, throughput the winter, public spaces along King Street will be given more character with things like art installations, warming stations, ice sculptures, and performances. While the King Street Transportation Pilot Project is not without its numerous challenges (and backlash), the good news is that it highlights the emergence—and importance—of innovative design competitions in the city when it comes to the use of public space.

The King Street Transit Pilot Project isn’t the only street-transforming initiative on the agenda. In May, we can expect the release of the anticipated Re-Imagining Yonge Street report. As the downtown core continues to swell, eyes now turn to what to do with the bland, uninspiring, office building and condo-filled stretch of Yonge Street between Sheppard and Finch avenues. The idea is to make this North York strip more of a pedestrian-friendly destination spot (a far cry from what it is now). Part of the proposal involves expanding the sidewalk and boulevard widths, the integration of local parks and public spaces, a landscaped median, and the introduction of bike lanes. The public input was welcome, and citizens had until December 29 to offer their two cents on the issue via an online feedback form.

The point is that we’re finally prioritizing the pedestrian and viewing Toronto sidewalks as public spaces to enjoy (or “sticky streets,” as they’re called), rather than merely transportation arteries—and that’s a really good thing.

Especially at a time when elevators will increasingly replace backyards for kids growing up in Toronto, we need to be creative, versatile, multi-functional, child-friendly, and accessible when it comes to public space (and that includes sidewalks). The population is only going to double in the next couple of decades and the perpetual condo construction isn’t slowing anytime soon. Naturally, disruptive initiatives like the King Street Transit Pilot Project won’t be without inevitable pushback and hiccups. But accessible activities and art, community building, and new spots for creative play among urban kids offer a greater good.

We’re on the right track with things like the creation of innovative, child-oriented spaces like Underpass Park in the River City condo development, Canoe Landing Park at CityPlace, and The Bentway—and this needs to continue. With the proper use of public space, fuelled by a design process whereby everyone from local artists and parents, to politicians, developers, and planners have a seat at the table, we can transform Toronto like never before.