Two lanes of Yonge Street are now shut to cars and open to pedestrians, and they’ll stay that way for the next month. The Grid’s Edward Keenan and David Topping debate about whether that’s good enough.
David Topping: It’s pretty great that two lanes of Yonge Street, between Gerrard and Queen, are suddenly pedestrian-only. It’s one of those ideas that’s been tossed around ever since the last time Toronto did something like it, and Yonge Street—well, it’s Yonge Street. It deserves it. What I’m not quite sure about is whether it deserves what it got with Celebrate Yonge, which is mostly a few blocks of Muskoka chairs and picnic tables sitting in the road, protected from traffic by a line of nice-looking street planters.
It’s temporary, I know, but it really shows. I walked the length of the pedestrian-only stretch a few times yesterday morning, and was struck by how ramshackle and uninviting most of it looked, and how little I found myself wanting to find an excuse to stay. If the point is to plant the idea in people’s minds of opening up Yonge Street more to pedestrians, this really can’t be enough, can it?
Edward Keenan: I think it’s a start—and what I hope it’s the start of is an experiment. When I visited yesterday around 11 a.m. and stuck around through lunch, it looked a little underused. But near Shuter Street, where ING has done a lot of landscaping and put stones on the closed road so it meets the sidewalk, people were stopping to take pictures of themselves sitting on the grass and logs that had been set up. And some of the restaurant-operated patios were full. But those were also the places where the expected behaviour was most prescribed. I’m really interested, as the month goes on, to see how people use or don’t use the areas that are just kind of open right now—where a couple of chairs are the only street furniture.
In my cover story about the CNE last week, I talked to urban planners who suggested that a provisional experiment—a kind of intentional temporariness, quick and cheap—was a really desirable step in opening up the possibilities of a space. Because people can show the planners how they’d like to use the space—if it’s available—through what they do, and anything that isn’t working can be changed pretty quickly. But I think it might take a few weeks before people get used to the idea and start trying to do anything. That’s why I liked that the chairs and tables and things were all movable, and the spaces were malleable. It gives the experiment some moving parts so people can try things out. Or so I hope.
DT: Knowing Toronto, though, quick and cheap is how it might stay, if it stays at all.
Look at Gould Street, east of Yonge on Ryerson campus, and Willcocks Street, between St. George and Huron on U of T’s. They both started off as experimental, temporary pedestrian-only “zones,” and stuck enough that they became permanent earlier this year. Which, again: great. The roads they took over still look like roads, though, because they still fundamentally are. They’re still paved over, you still have to step off of a curb to walk through them, and it’d take all of a day to turn them back into the kind of downtown side-streets that we’re used to seeing plenty of cars on. I can’t throw a $24.99 plastic kiddie pool on my deck and call it an infinity pool. If Toronto wants pedestrian-only streets, or streets that accommodate pedestrians better, it needs to actually remake streets for pedestrians. That means ripping out concrete to plant trees. It means making bigger sidewalks that are actually sidewalks. It means getting rid of curbs. It means spending some money.
EK: Well, I think the big thing is that whether it should stay or not is an open question. I wouldn’t take it for granted that pedestrianizing Yonge Street—or any other street—is inherently desirable. I think making it a better place to walk and shop and live and travel through and to is the goal, and I think that’s the goal in every neighbourhood, really. But how to do that is different in every place, and I think trying things out is a worthy way to see what works and what doesn’t.
Anyhow, I agree that as things become permanent—on Gould or Willcocks or Yonge or wherever—new infrastructure should and will eventually be built, obviously, but I think it’s healthy enough that permanent changes are made after we’ve had a long chance to experiment and see how the space will be used. It’s kind of like desire lines in park planning: rather than paving pathways where you hope people will walk, you just let people navigate on their own through the park; after a while, the paths they’ve worn in the grass tell you where the paved pathways should go. You respond to the actual uses people want from the space, rather than your projections of how they should behave.
I think that’s the point of the Yonge month-long trial thing: to start seeing how things work, then moving some pieces around to see how they work again. And, at some point, when everything looks like it’s working great, that’s when you start talking about making it last.