Living Urban Block

Introduction

Toronto enjoys many of the benefits that come with it being a growing, thriving urban centre. It's now North America's forth largest urban area. It's got it all, ... diverse places to work, multiple universities, theatres, museums, concert halls and shopping to fit everyone's taste. It also faces many of the problems that accompany such buoyant growth.

The estimate is that 250,000 people lived in the downtown core in 2016. That number is projected to double in a little more that two decades. This density is having a significant impact on the lived experience of people in downtown. The sidewalks are crowded, with no relief in sight. The available public space has been estimated to be less than one square foot per person in the city's central districts. And there are very few opportunities for additional public realm space in those districts.

There is a public realm opportunity that could and should be used to improve the lived experience for people in the downtown. Many of its mixed use side streets and lanes are home to a significant number of residents. There can be thousands of residents living in condos along a single block. Selectively opening side streets to shared space designation would have a positive impact on those who live, work, study, play or shop in our downtown.

We need to take steps to retain a positive lived experience in our downtown. And technology doesn't seem to be helping. There are smartphone apps that direct drivers to side streets (and lanes) to avoid the congestion of our major roads. All too often our urban mixed use side streets are not the destination of cars, but merely a shortcut to elsewhere. Those side streets and lanes should be focused on meeting the needs of local residents. They could and should become meaningful places for those living downtown.

The side streets and lanes bounded by Bay Street, Wellesley Street West, Yonge Street and College Street would be a good candidate as Toronto's first Living Urban Block, where vehicles are not given priority. Children, seniors and people of all kinds should have equal priority with vehicles and bicycles. Toronto and other jurisdictions have used such designation on individual road segments. We should move up a notch, converting all the side streets and lanes within a that big block to shared space use. The short Breadalbane Street (between Yonge & Bay) would be an ideal first step towards Toronto’s first Living Urban Block.

Given the steady growth in downtown population, this should only be the first of many Living Urban Blocks that are established. The map provided below indicates a second Living Urban Block just north of the first block and running up to Charles Street West. The map only shows two such blocks, but many of the blocks off Yonge between Dundas Square and Charles Street would be good candidates to become Living Urban Blocks.

Lived Experience

In urban planning, one of the central questions should always be, “What will it be like to actually experience the proposed environment? What will the lived experience be for people in that new world?” Given the necessarily bureaucratic nature of planning in any major urban area it’s understandable why rules and formulas often play a dominant role. Charles Landry, writing in The Creative City (2008) wrote (optimistically) that ‘We are moving from an ”urban engineering" approach to urban development to a “creative city-making approach.”’

Urban areas throughout the world have begun to experiment with new ways to use and share the public realm that contains streets and lanes. Toronto has identified a street type that would be a natural choice for streets that are available for use by all, with emphasis on use of the public realm by pedestrians – type 2.3.13 Mixed-Use Shared Street:

Toronto’s Complete Streets Guideline (2016) provides this description:

Shared Streets are most often found in areas supported by a high level of pedestrian activity, usually in mixed-use areas in the Downtowns and Centres but can also be found in residential neighbourhoods. Shared Streets are streets that blend and blur the spaces and zones of the street – sometimes designed without curbs. Different modes share the space together, but pedestrians typically have the highest priority.”

And includes the following illustration:

 

In our imagining, shared space streets would be ideally used to create meaningful places for the thousands of new downtown Toronto residents. Edward Relph's classic Place and Placelessness (Pion Limited, 1976) provides a useful introduction to “place” ...

'A knowledge of place', Hugh Prince (1961) has written, ‘is an indispensable link in the chain of knowledge’. And in terms of the practical everyday knowledge that we need to organise our experiences of the world there can be little disputing this, for we have to know, differentiate, and respond to the various places where we work, relax, and shop. But in itself this practical knowing of places, although essential to our existence, is quite superficial and is based mainly on the explicit functions that places have for us. That the significance of place in human experience goes far deeper than this is apparent in the actions of individuals and groups protecting places. To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have to know your place. The philosopher Martin Heidegger (1958) declared that ‘"place" places man in such a way that it reveals the external bonds of the existence and at the same time the depths of his freedom and reality'. It is a profound and complex aspect of man's experience of the world"

Relph goes on to argue that too often in the modern world we provide a kind of placelessness where formerly we enjoyed recognizable places to live, relax, work, study and play. Some vital essence gets sucked out of human life in the absence of recognizable places. Further work by Relph and others identified that there are some who seek the anonymity that can be found in our often placeless downtown urban centres. That can provide a kind of invisibility cloak behind which individuals feel free of the normal constraints that come with being in a humanly recognized place.

We would opt for a balanced view of place and placelessness. Individuals should be able to enjoy limited anonymity (while engaging in legally acceptable behaviour). But everyone should have the opportunity to experience meaningful places as they go about living, working, playing or shopping. The problem with too many new urban settings is that those in such anonymous bland “modern” setting have no real opportunity to experience place.

The side streets (and lanes) bounded by Bay Street, Wellesley Street West, Yonge Street and College Street would be a good place to use Toronto’s shared space designation. All three sides streets, Breadalbane Street, Grovsner Street and Grenville Street, should be designed as mixed use shared space streets. It should become Toronto’s first Living Urban Block, where vehicles are not given priority. Children, seniors and people of all kinds should have equal priority with vehicles and bicycles. Toronto and other jurisdictions have used such designation on individual road segments. The short Breadalbane Street (between Yonge & Bay) would be an ideal first step towards Toronto’s first Living Urban Block.

As shown on the following map this should only be viewed as the first Living Urban Block within the BCCA catchment area. Virtually all the large blocks bounded by major roads are possible Living Urban Blocks.

The first two BCCA Living Urban Blocks

References