Transforming North York’s Yonge Street

It is distressing. Councillor John Filion, and North York citizens, are supporting a proposal from city staff to change Yonge Street, from Sheppard north to Finch, into a walkable neighborhood, and who is opposed?  Mayor John Tory.

Times Square was transformed into a people’s place

It is not that this is a radical plan. It proposes to reconfigure Yonge Street in North York from six lanes, three in each direction, to four lanes, two in each direction. The sidewalks would be widened to make the street more walkable and various street furniture and amenities would be added to create a more pleasant environment.

This is how John Filion sees it. The people, “deserve a main street with some atmosphere and some culture. They deserve sidewalks wide enough to sit down for a glass of wine and lunch with a friend.”

Cities across North America, are discovering the benefits of taming traffic and promoting walking communities. Andrew Picard says, “Walking is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug. It’s good for your heart, your mind and your bones.” (Globe and Mail, September 26, 2017)

It also strengthens communities and promotes commerce. It reduces crime, leads to more varied and integrated communities, and creates a better balance between commercial and residential interests. It is vibrant communities like this where people of all ages want to live and work. These are the neighborhoods that will develop and grow stronger in the future.

To quote Picard again: “If you want healthy communities, you need to create a sense of space, of belonging; you need to build inclusive, diverse spaces, where healthy runners and cyclists, parents pushing strollers, frail seniors with walkers, people using wheelchairs, street people, immigrant shop owners and pin-striped business types all feel at ease moving about and intermingling. Streets are the original and ultimate social network; you need to construct them not only for commerce, but for culture and community-building.”

As I say in my book, The New Urban Agenda, we are beginning to reinvent our cities, and it is demands to take back the public spaces – the streets, the sidewalks, the parks and all public amenities – that is the essential first step in this transformation.

In other cities politicians are leading these efforts to transform cities, but in Toronto, John Tory and Councillors like him, are still insisting the automobile has priority over the pedestrian. It is time we had politicians who want to promote livable cities and inclusive neighborhoods.

Art and the Transformation of the Public Domain

In my book, The New Urban Agenda, I wrote that we ignore the public domain in Toronto and the GTHA. Traffic has so overwhelmed the commercial streets of our cities that pedestrians are squeezed onto narrow sidewalks, and assaulted on every side.

This is a lost opportunity. Our streets belong to the public and we should convert them into a vibrant environment by calming the traffic, widening sidewalks, and giving shops and restaurants the opportunity to expand out onto the street. It will also give the opportunity to display public art on our streets and turn busy thoroughfares into interesting places where new ideas of art and design can be showcased.

I am not the only one who has thought of turning public spaces into a venue to showcase our artists. Recently I was at an event at the Daniel’s Spectrum in the revitalized Regent Park. Across the street is an installation of giant portraits of Regent Park residents by Dan Bergeron called “Faces of Regent Park.”

Public art in Regent Park. Dan Bergeron's portrait of a resident.

Public art in Regent Park. Dan Bergeron’s portrait of a resident.

I came home and searched the Internet and, sure enough, Toronto Life has done a feature on Bergeron’s portraits. You will find it here: http://www.torontolife.com/informer/toronto-culture/2015/08/12/regent-park-public-art-portraits-dan-bergeron/  This is a sample of one of the portraits taken from the Toronto Life feature.

Imagine, if you will, if Yonge Street, Queen West, Bloor Street, James Street North in Hamilton or any number of commercial avenues in the GTHA were reconfigured so that public art, such as Bergeron’s portraits, could be displayed. This would turn the simple act of walking on our streets from one where we are incessantly jostled by others on narrow sidewalks and assailed by cars and trucks, into an enjoyable, stimulating experience.

It is things like this that will help to transform our city into a place where the quality of life has priority.

Bill Freeman