I’m part of a group championing a neighbourhood proposal to apply the “shared space” road model to some of the side streets to the west of Yonge Street in downtown Toronto (pdf document). The proposal makes sense on a number of levels. This article presents some of the background material on which that proposal is based.
Until well into the 20th century, our streets were shared by all. The films of street life in the early 1900’s show an almost random and chaotic mix of people, street cars, carriages, wagons and the occasional automobile (Market Street, San Francisco, 1906). Our streets were shared, with pedestrians having every right to walk into the street. Then the popularity, the number and the speed of automobiles increased.
City planners worked hard to make our streets safe and convenient, first for automobile and then for pedestrians, with bicycle riders receiving almost no attention. That automobile focus was how streets were viewed during the second half of the 20th century. In the 21st century we’re being forced to confront a new reality. Space in our more populous cities is running out, certainly downtowns have dramatically increased in population. In larger cities it’s not uncommon to find thousands of residents living along short downtown blocks. Residential towers are rising to 50, 60 or even 100 floors, with 10 or more residential units per floor. There can be a thousand or more residents in one of the tall towers.
Toronto prides itself in being a city of neighbourhoods. It has taken great pains to protect the nature and scale of the areas it calls neighbourhoods. All of its designated neighbourhoods are low-rise, with only dozens of people on a typical neighbourhood block. In that traditional setting, it’s easy to identify with personally important places in a neighbourhood. Fifty years ago, Edward Relph (in Place and Placelessness, Pion Limited, 1976) named the anonymity that was all too present in many downtown tall residential towers. He correctly called them “placeless”. There is now a rich literature about the importance of “place” in grounding a personally meaningful social reality.
Traditional neighbourhoods almost automatically provide a sense of place for residents. For 30 years my wife and I lived in one of those traditional neighbourhoods, in our case it was the Bloor West Village neighbourhood. Our modest house was on a winding, well-treed residential street, a short walk from the local subway stop. Sixteen years ago we moved downtown to the fringes of the Church Wellesley Village. When we furst moved here, there was a natural sense of place, with the shopping along Church Street providing a natural place anchor for the neighbourhood.
There have been fairly radical changes in the area in the last 16 years. The downtown population has soared. Now some 250,000 people reside in downtown Toronto, and that number is expected to double in the next few decades. In parallel, retail has undergone some fairly wrenching changes. Big box stores and online shopping have seriously challenged local retail. All the new people in downtown mean that it’s economically attractive to locate large outlets in areas where formerly there were few or none. To give one personal example, when we moved downtown, there was one supermarket within easy walking distance, and five merchants selling food in the Church Wellesley Village. Today, there are fice supermarkets within easy walking distance, and one remaining food merchant in the Village.
Planners and preservationists are fond of arguing for steps to protect the physical structures that were used by “main street retail” and “village retail”. But that kind of general but local retail is largely a thing of the past. There are local retail successes, but they are almost all focused on a particular and distinctive kind of retail experience. The neighbourhood or community retail presence that provide a sense of place to areas of downtown are not sustainable or economically viable. At the same time, small groups of short downtown side streets are acquiring as many residents as were found in traditional low-rise neighbourhood, but they have not been recognized as downtown neighbourhoods of the future. The city had been content to let them develop into more and more placeless places.
Our urban social fabric is under increased stress. It’s visible just walking the downtown streets. The growing placelessness of too much of our residential downtown doesn’t help. The social fabric that supports us all (to a greater or lesser extent) is seriously weakened by the relative absence of places for downtown areas that can be home for thousands of people. It’s not healthy. We have it within our power to do something about this absence of place in high-rise neighbourhoods. We can and should transform selected downtown side streets into shared streets. This article is an argument for just such change.
A number of cities throughout the world have experimented with changing the priority assigned to different street users. The automobile and other motorized vehicles get moved down in priority, sometimes being eliminated during some or all of the day. Not only is it legal to walk into, on or across such streets, but the other users are often required to give way to pedestrians in the street. The effect is to give back part of the public realm occupied by lanes, streets, roads and avenue. It’s a re-balancing of how the public realm is used.
Shared streets have been variously called as pedestrian priority, shared space, naked streets, or the Dutch woonerf (living street). There are two different approach to achieving the desired sharing:
A) Suggestive: None of the “rules” are changed, but the physical street is redesigned to suggest the shared space logic that is intended to govern how people on foot, on bicycles or in vehilces are to behave. Some shared streets go so far as to remove all road markings. Everything is to be governed by what is suggested by the altered physical design.
B) Enforced: All of the “rules” are changed, often starting with a speed limit that can be as low as 8 km/hr. The 8 km/hr limit is the natural speed of a pedestrian walking rapidly. Parking is sometimes changed from curb-side parking on both sides of the street to angle parking on one side of the street. Obstructions can be used to force lower speed travel.
Often shared streets will use a combination of suggestive and enforced approaches to achieve the desired sharing. What and how the various options will work depends of how the users of he shared street will interpret the change that have been made to the street. That, in turn, depends on their being a widely enough shared understanding of visual clues to provide a basic uniformity in how people will endeavorto use the shared street. Given the social diversity found in today’s Toronto, it would seem imprudent to rely too much on suggestions that not everyone would understand in the same way.
The ideas behind shared streets have been used in a number of different settings. Two or three settings stand out as the most common ways in which the ideas are used. Retail streets are often shared to make them more attractive to pedestrians, and hence to potential shoppers. A number of European cities have barred all vehicles during shopping hours. More locally, Ottawa has taken that approach with downtown Sparks Street, (“North America's first Pedestrian Promenade, Sparks Street has become a year round pedestrian friendly destination with special events, boutique retail, dining,.”).
At the other extreme, shared streets can be strictly low-rise residential. Informally, winding low-rise residential streets are often practically shared – drivers instinctively recognize that they oten need to give way to pedestrians. That happened informally along the Bloor West Village residential street on which our house was located. In the face of increased traffic on low-rise residential streets, traffic “calmbing” measures are often installed – speed bumps are often a first calming device. When that’s not enough and the level of traffic just gets too much, more formal sharing approaches are required.
In this context it’s useful to point out that the many of the new smartphone driving apps are exacerbating the traffic problem on downtown side streets. Everyone wants to find the ideal short-cut they can use to get through or across the city. At the same time as major cross-town streets are filling with cars, more and more of these roadways are being dedicated to use by public transit. In North America this is most often seen as dedicated bus lanes. The combined impact of driving apps and dedicated transit lanes encourages drivers to try the side-streets. The informal sharing that happen in many older residential streets is under threat.
There is a third common type of informal street sharing. Curving, narrow roadways through park like setting often are effectively shared streets. It would be physically dangerous to drive fast along such streets – curves are not banked and passing must be approached with caution. People are often just wandering about. Sharing the roadway seems to come naturally. Were this informal sharing to come under threat (a just discovered short-cut), more formal approaches would be warranted, but that doesn’t seem to be a major problem, at least not in North American cities with which I’m familiar.
There’s something new that needs to be considered, at least in downtown Toronto. The city sees itself as a city of neighbourhoods, and a city of diversity. Areas designated as residential consist primarily low-rise single-family dwellings. Areas with any meaningful commercial activity are treated quite differently by Toronto planning – they’re “mixed use”. The city’s website states that “neighbourhoods” have a population of at least 7,000. That’s the population to be expected in 7 to 10 downtown residential towers. And that number of towers could fit into 2 or 3 short downown city blocks. But there had been no way for Toronto to recognize such an area as a “neighbourhood”.
The American Enterprise Institute offers this neighboruhood comment:
“Americans who live in closer proximity to community parks, libraries, restaurants, and theaters are more content with their neighborhood, more trusting of others, and less lonely ...”
There is every reason to believe much the same would be true in Toronto. A straight foward translation of this might be recast to read:
People who live in closer proximity to personally meaningful places are more content with where they live, more trusting of others, and less lonely.
It’s the local connection; it’s the personal grounding that’s socially important. All of this happens naturally in a traditional neighbourhood. The new dense tower infill areas in downtown Toronto are significantly lacking in such neighbourhood places. Efforts have been made to add green space throughout the downtown, with some limited success. Ontario does allow a municipality to require that 5% of the land used for residential purposes be set aside for parkland purposes (see this comment). That 5% guideline makes sense in a new single-family residential area. It would mean that a small 5-lot park would be created for each block of 100 housing units. The result would be that every1,000 residential units should be entitled to the equivalent of their own 50-lot park.
Ah, but ... The 5% rule when applied against a high-rise residential tower lot grossly under provides parkland for all of the new neighbourhood residents. In downtown Toronto changing the rule so that every addition 1,000 residential units required the creation of space for an additional local 50-lot parkland addition would be prohibitively expensive. The space for the equivalent of one suburban lot in downtown Toronto would typically be priced in the millions. And it’s not just the cost; the land for such extensive new parkland just isn’t available in downtown Toronto.
Shared streets could and should be used to partially compensate for the place deficiency of downtown Toronto. Today, too often downtown side streets are used as little more than short-cuts to get through or across downtown. Side streets on which pedestrians are given priority can almost instantly become personally meaningful places for the thousands of people who will be living on those downtown streets. Some of the money that would have been required by the 5% guideline could be used to visually distinguish these new shared streets. New residential development could be encourage to include place-retail in their first floors. And it could all be made to happen on a temporary basis during construction of new residential towers.
All changes to the public realm in Toronto will meet some opposition. It seems as thought there are users for every square centimetre of pubic realm, especially in downtown Toronto. That is certainly ture of every road and lane. Someone will be disadvantaged by any change to our roads or lanes. This particularly true for changes which reduce automobile use of those roads or lanes. The approach the city followed on King Street is the same approach that should be followed when making side streets off downtown Yonge Street pedestrian priority. First install temporary change. Live with those change to determine the overall impact of the changes. Only then, and with supporting evidence from the temporary installation, commit to permanent changes.
It would seem only prudent to connect temporary road changes to changes that will inevitably happen when new towers are under construction. For street sharing there is even a strong economic argument in favour of changes which precede sales and occupancy of new residential condos. Moving to a pedestrian priority street has got to be more attractive that moving to a street used by drivers as a short-cut across or through the downtown. That increased attractiveness would translate into faster sales and higher prices. The same kind of argument would apply to a new rental tower. Finding new proposed residential towers along the side streets off Yonge Street isn’t difficult.
Grosvenor Street running west off downtown Yonge Street is particularly attractive as the first pedestrian priority side street. There’s no directly connecting street on the other side of Yonge (Alexander Street if noticeably off-set). There is a condo tower located on the south side of Grosvenor at Yonge that is now (late 2019) at early stages of construction. Projects are being discussed for the north side of Grosvenor at Yonge and for two residential towers to be located just east of St. Vincent Lane. The street is destined for major changes in the near future. There will also be construction crews working on the street for the next several years. It would not be too much of a stretch to imagine one or more of those crews providing maintenance and support for temporary changes made to support the sharing of Grosvenor.
The location of the central YMCA on Grosvenor Street already guarantees that pedestrian will be present throughout the day and well into the evening. As can be seen on the map, the Downtown Inner Green Loop runs naturally across Grosvenor, up the Opera (East of Bay) Park to what will be the new Dr. Lillian McGregor Part between Breadalbane Street and Wellesley Street West. It would be the most natural thing in the world for pedestrians to use a shared Grosvenor Street, equipped with new coffee stops and restaurants, to reach the Downtown Inner Green Loop. The elements seem well aligned to make Grosvenor Street between Yonge and Bay as the first pedestrian priority street in this area. Start with a temporary installation during all of the construction, then move to make it permanent after the idea has proved its worth.
There is a broad range of references that could be cited. The citations below are offered as an initial way into that literature. Dig and you will discover endless facts and opinions about places, shared streets, Toronto, and the implications of establishing pedestrian priority neighbourhood side streets in dense urban areas and elsewhere.
VIDEO: "Poynton Regenerated"
The story of how removing traffic control at a very busy intersection in a small UK town dramatically improved life in the town, ... and traffic flow. (15 minute video)
MASTERS PROFESSIONAL REPORT: "Taking Back our Streets"
This is a master's thesis from UC, Berkeley, 2016. It provides a useful overview of the entire field o shared streets, ... including a useful section of how to design accommodating those with disabilities (48 pages)
SIX EXAMPLES: "6 Places Where Cars, Bikes, and Pedestrians All Share the Road As Equals"
Relatively brief overview of six different shared street examples from the US and the EU.
TWELVE EXAMPLES: "Shared Streets – A Flexible Approach for Streets as Civic Space"
Examples from the US, the UK and the EU of shared streets, one page per example. Plus an overview of the constrains under which US shared streets must live. (21 pages)
VIDEO: "A Trip Down Market Street 1906 San Francisco"
Filmed four days before the great earthquake struck destroying much of San Francisco. It's a visual example of how our streets used to work. (10 minutes)
GUIDE/STANDARD: "Urban Street Design Guide"
The US National Association of City Transportation Officials published this street design guide (only 193 pages), and a more comprehensive "Global Street Design Guide" (426 pages) This guide is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.ca/Street-National-Association-Transportation-Officials/dp/1610914945. The more comprehensive guide is available for download: https://globaldesigningcities.org/publication/global-street-design-guide/
PROVINCIAL NORM: "Pedestrian Priority Streets"
This provides a 10 page overview of how Quebec approaches pedestrian priority streets (in English). A useful, albeit brief, introduction to the whole field, with a Canadian flavour.
TOOLKIT: "Streets as Places Toolkit"
Project for Public Spaces is a US non-profit that advocates for "places" that people will enjoy, that will encourage and reward participation, that will draw people. This is their "streets" websit
Lurking in the background throughout this piece is the conviction that a recognizable pedestrian place could be socially important for downtown Toronto. That, in turn, is directly tied to the question of the important of place for human well-being. And that raises questions about what constitutes a place and how are places best brought into existence. Unfortunately, there is little agreement in the literature about what, exactly makes a place. There is however general agreement that places can be both personally and socially important.
Tim Cresswell did provide a relatively brief 150 page text: Place – a short introduction (Blackwell, 2004). He begins by talking about how place is used in everyday speech:\
"Think of the ways place is used in everyday speech. 'Would you like to come round to my place?' This suggests ownership or some kind of connection between a person and a particular location or building. It also suggest a notion of privacy and belonging. 'My place is not 'your place' – you and I have different places.' 'Brisbane is a nice place.' Here 'place' is referring to a city in a common sense kind of way and the fact tht is nice suggests something of the way it looks and what it is like to be there." (pages 1 & 2)
One point I take from this is that place often (or always) is connected to at least one person. Geographers are fond to distinguishing improsonal space from place that need human presence to exist. It's people who make a chunk of space into a place. All of this lacks the objective rigour that would be expected of a scientific examination of the world. Place is imprccise, with fuzzy boundaries. And places naturally nest and overlap.
Canada is a place that I call home. Toronto is also a place that I call home, as is downtown Toronto. Interestingly, while Toronto is a part of Ontario and Ontario is a part of Canada, I have much less place attachment to Ontario than I do to either Canada or Toronto. And when shared streets are established west off downtown Yonge Street they will be places of importance to me, overlapping with what many of us hope will become the Downtown Inner Green Loop.
But why should a city care about making places that will be important to the people in the city? To some extent, we are all grounded in places that are personally important. We are also grounded in the social groups with which we interact. Appropriate places can both connect us to a part of the geo-political reality that surrounds us, and provide places where we can interact with others linking us into the social fabric that is a part of our important places. Local places ground us in a humanly satisfying way. They also connect us to a social fabric and provide us with a way to access the social capital that can be available for our use.
An argument could be put forward that the modern world allows us to disconnect from the local places that were so important for our ancestors. We can now connect with others who may share no physical places with us. Our social fabric can literally extend across the globe. But it's not the same thing. There is a multi-dimensional connection when people physically interact. Yes, I can talk to associations in California or Kansas or London, but those conversations are all focused around what might be a quite narrow band of common interests.
What, if anything, do these ruminations tell us about desirable characteristics of side streets that are to be shared? At a basic level, positive social interactions are more likely to develop when there is no pressing threat of being struck by a moving vehicle. Pedestrians need to be given the highest priority use of a shared street. That means that cars, trucks and bicycles must all give way to pedestrians. A person walking briskly might achieve a speed of 8 km/hr; that would be a good speed limit for cars, trucks and bicycles.
Part of what should happen is that people will interact when they are in the shared street. Which means that it would be desirable to provide both events to draw people and stores that cater to regular needs, e.g. coffee shops, cafes, bars even. The best "programming" will be the informal interaction of people who are just present in the place, but explicit programming could help. It would make sense to try a variety of pop-up retail options. A farmer's market would be more naturally placed in an actual park, e.g. Dr. Lillian McGreggo Park between Wellesley Street West and Breadalbane Street. But other retail options could be tried on shared streets.
A shared street isn't guaranteed to become an important place for the thousands of new people who will be locating in the many residential towers that will fill the side streets off Yonge Street between College and Charles Streets, but Toronto would be well served in an attempt to ground all of those new people to the area. Helping them create personally important places out of shared streets is an effort that could pay big dividends for developers, for the city and for local residents.