Last night at the Design Exchange, a crowd of 250 people gathered for a panel discussion on building a healthy and happy city. Organized by non-profit organization 8-80 Cities, the talk featured panelists Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, Spacing magazine editor Shawn Micallef, Danish architect Helle Søholt, Toronto Public Health director Monica Campbell, and Robert Wright, an Associate Professor of U of T’s Daniels school of architecture and design.
The dialogue evolved out of a base assumption: Urban geography and design shape how we travel, interact with one another, and feel about our city and selves. In other words, livable, vibrant cities are also healthy ones. With that in mind, here are some things we took away from last night’s talk:
1. Embrace our inner Italian
Søholt told the audience that “we all have a little Italian in us.” By this she meant that we are social beings drawn to interactive spaces like cafe patios and public squares. Søholt said that people in Copenhagen initially rejected this notion, arguing that this Italian cafe culture was not suited to the stoic and individualistic Danish. But as soon as mixed-use streets were built, people came out of their living rooms and the feel of the city changed.
2. Make streets, not roads
Toronto’s mayor once said that roads are built for buses, cars and trucks—unintentionally shedding light on one of our city’s major shortcomings. The panelists agreed that streets should be made with pedestrians and cyclists in mind. Among the suggestions: The controversial idea of lowering Toronto’s speed limit across the board, as recently recommended by Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer; separated bike lanes; and the need for public greenery in anticipation of the 40 per cent deterioration of Toronto’s tree canopy over the next five years due to the Emerald Ash Borer.
3. Re-imagine laneways
Toronto has an extensive and underused laneway system that currently boasts more feral cats than cafes. Søholt argued it doesn’t have to be this way. In Copenhagen, laneways are used for patios, modern-art installations, and designated graffiti zones. Wong-Tam has expressed an interest in transforming laneways, by building housing there to increase downtown density in lieu of condo towers. (The concept was also floated in The Grid‘s recent Big Ideas issue.) But there are some concerns that must be addressed: For one, City staff worry about how emergency personnel would be able to respond to incidents at locations without official street addresses.
4. Realize that there’s more to Toronto than downtown
While there was lots of talk about urban renewal last night, Micallef reminded the crowd not to forget about the suburbs. After all, Toronto is a big city and, while it’s exciting to talk about attractive designs for Ossington, areas like Scarborough, North York, and Etobicoke have specific needs, too.
5. Adhere to the first-date principle
Søholt showed the audience pictures of a few public spaces, and asked, “Where would you rather take a date?” The question encapsulates many of the principles that define a good space: You want a social environment, interesting sights to explore, and a space that is unique and memorable. Søholt pointed to the Copenhagen waterfront, which once had surface parking near the water, but is now pedestrianized with small vendors that attract large crowds in the summer. (And with more quality first-date spaces in Toronto, The Grid‘s Dating Diaries might turn out better, too.)