Yonge Street has always held an important place in Toronto. It splits the city into east and west; it features our very first subway line; and it’s the first street that newcomers learn about when they arrive in this great city. But like other great public spaces in the world, is Yonge Street a true reflection of Toronto and its people? It’s a question being asked by planners, social activists and citizens alike.
As part of the Yonge Love community consultation, Downtown Yonge BIA (DYBIA) wants to know what you think makes Yonge Street a great public space? Share your opinion in the comments or with our Share form by clicking here.
What is public space?
“Public space is about more than formal parks and squares, it is about streets and sidewalks and laneways, too.” says Leigh Sherkin, Planning and Development Manager at the Downtown Yonge BIA (DYBIA).
“It’s also shared. Everyone uses the same sidewalk as everyone else in the City. It is therefore, critical social infrastructure because good public space connects us to each other.”
Plus, as Sherkin notes, public space is one constant in a changing city.
“As buildings redevelop and change over time, the public spaces remain in place. Their quality and design is critical to how someone feels in a city. And because they are relatively constant, they play a vital role in connecting us all to our city’s history,” she says.
Artist and civic activist Dave Meslin takes it one step further and argues public spaces like Yonge Street require greater attention from our city builders:
“No-one is tearing down buildings to create more public space. So we need to figure out how to work with what’s already here.”
So, what should public space be like?
Public space is a dynamic and instructive social indicator, and should be designed with an understanding of how it serves its communities.
“Public space should inspire organic interaction between people; it should be defined by the community it represents,” says narratologist, urban placemaker and site-specific researcher Jay Pitter.
“Most of all, it should reflect the people that live and work here.”
Meslin, who started the Toronto Public Space Committee and co-founded Spacing magazine, agrees and argues a city as diverse and inclusive as Toronto claims to be, should have public space that is welcoming for all.
The question that Yonge Love wants to ask is, how does Yonge Street stack up?
Yonge Street has always been vibrant, busy and dynamic. For decades it has been a place where people come to connect. Since the beginning, it was the City’s High Street, and Torontonians came from all over the City to work, see the latest products, shop in new department stores, and be with the crowds.
As a result, Yonge Street hasn’t been for any one group of people, but rather for the whole city to share. Celebrations for V.E Day in 1945 happened here on Yonge Street; parade routes and even protests all take place here. That importance has remained. In 2010, when Canada won our first gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, people spontaneously gathered at Yonge-Dundas Square to celebrate.
If the Leafs ever win the Stanley cup, you can bet Yonge Street will host the all-night celebrations.
But detractors say that the street – and Downtown Yonge as a whole – has over time become too commercial and too anonymous. They point to billboards, brightly-lit signage and promotional activities that do not reflect the character of Toronto or its communities.
Meslin argues the challenge lies in being first and foremost reflective of a diverse community. That could mean ensuring a high level of community content on the billboards around Yonge-Dundas Square. Or it could mean allowing postering in designated areas of Downtown Yonge, to encourage public expression and creativity. Another option is activating micro-retail in laneways, public spaces that are largely untapped and unused.
And, of course, public space is a waiting canvas for public art.
His second aim for public space is that it must enable mobility and movement – for all different types of transportation.
Widening sidewalks and advocating for the pedestrianization of Yonge Street are options currently under discussion. Meslin advocates for the needs of cyclists too.
“An inclusive city accommodates car drivers, but also makes other types of transportation equally accessible,” he says.
After all, says Pitter, it is an extension of neighbourhoods and should be used for exactly that – neighbourhood activities – like yoga or tai chi classes on Yonge Street, or a community garden.
“Yonge Street has always had to be pretty flexible and dynamic to serve a diverse City,” says Sherkin.
“It’s been a platform for a mix of retail, live music, theatre and arts, restaurants, offices, residents, social agencies, and students. It’s given Torontonians lots of different and diverse reasons to spend time here over the years. That’s what has made it so iconic.”
So is it a great public space today? Maybe. Maybe not. We certainly see the number of pedestrians increasing each year as residential towers are moving in and offices are relocating downtown. And because of that, the need to build an inclusive Yonge Street for the whole city is stronger than ever.
The question now is how do we ensure Yonge Street remains important for everyone? How does it serve the whole city as it has done in the past?