This year, Jane’s Walk Toronto introduced a special focus on the “inner suburbs” — the former suburban municipalities that were absorbed into the Toronto megacity with amalgamation.
I’ve had a strong interest in the inner suburbs for a while, in part because of my interest in pedestrian issues, but I also have much to learn about them. The inner suburbs are where the biggest challenges of making Toronto a walkable city lie, and consequently also where the greatest opportunities for transformation exist.
So, on Saturday May 3, I joined the Flemingdon Park Jane’s Walk. Flemingdon Park is not really all that distant from downtown, but, with its neighbour Thorncliffe Park, it’s the first of the “suburban” city layouts as you move north and east of the centre of the city, with winding streets and a mix of tall slab buildings and townhouses, beyond the more traditional layouts of Leaside and The Danforth. It also feels very isolated, cut off from surrounding neighbourhoods by ravines, the Don Valley Parkway, and industrial areas. It’s a huge community of 25,000 people in one square mile, making it one of the densest communities in North America, and more than half of households don’t own a car, so it should be a promising location for a lively walking life. Its inhabitants are very diverse in background and income.
The turnout was remarkably good for a rainy day — well over 30 people came out, a mix of local residents and visitors, with several current and former local politicians. The walk was led by David Lemire, Executive Director of the organization Flemingdon Neighbourhood Services.
The first thing we saw was the central mall, where the grocery store had closed down in the Fall of 2007, despite the community’s large population. The local residents contrasted the situation with Thorncliffe Park across the ravine, where the mall is thriving and there’s more of a community feel. They said that the contrast was in part the result of different planning — Flemingdon Park is broken up into different sections by a hydro zone, ravines, the DVP, and erratic street layouts. The mall itself feels like it’s in its own separate zone, cut off by busy roads and empty spaces, not really connected to the community. In Thorncliffe Park, by contrast, the towers are built in a “U” shape directly around the mall. Access to the mall is easy and direct, a reasonably pleasant short walk from all parts of the community.
Flemingdon Park is making some progress on pedestrian issues — the local councillor, John Parker, noted an improved pathway built through the development beside one of the schools, in a rare co-operative effort with the school board, and described plans for paths across the hydro zone to link up the southern section with the mall and the north part of the community.
But although in theory the community is compact enough to be a thriving pedestrian space, there seemed to be a lot that needed to be done to get there, and it was frankly hard to see how it could be done. Many of the tall apartment buildings don’t face onto the road, and their perimeters are lined by fences. In some cases, there is no separate pedestrian access to the buildings — pedestrians have to walk along a driveway without sidewalks to get to the building’s entrance.
A stretch of road along Grenoble Drive which is lined with an arena and an elementary school on one side, with townhouses and tower blocks full of people on the other, nonetheless feels isolated and cold, because none of the buildings provide an open face onto the sidewalk.
(It’s true that it was a rainy Saturday, not the most conducive situation for a big pedestrian presence — but we saw almost no-one at all on the streets beyond the mall, whereas in Thorncliffe Park on the same day there were quite a few people walking on the streets and paths).
A bit further, on Gateway Drive (south), local resident and activist Louis Fliss pointed out a ravine heading south, fenced off and full of garbage. Simply putting steps and a path into the ravine could link up with the rest of the Don Valley path system, creating regular foot and perhaps cycle traffic that would discourage using the space as a dumping ground.
It was striking how little access the community had to the ravines all around it.
At a reception at Flemingdon Neighbourhood Services after the walk, I met local community organizer Ali Baig, who told me about another pedestrian problem. The local high school, Marc Garneau Collegiate, is on the other side of Don Mills Road from the rest of the community. One of its main entrances is directly across Don Mills from a 7-11. Students tend to cross mid-block, despite several lanes of fast traffic with a blind spot coming up a hill to the south, and despite being less than 100 meters from a traffic light.
But what else are they going to do? There is no sidewalk leading from this entrance to the school to those lights, at the main intersection of Overlea and Don Mills! Students coming out that entrance would have to walk along a muddy track to get to the lights. To top it off, there’s actually a bus stop (not heavily used — rush hour only) along this stretch of road as well, with only a muddy patch on which to wait or disembark. (There is another entrance to the school facing north on Overlea, but it would be a detour from the south-eastern entrance).
To deal with this problem, the city has only put up “do not cross” signs. Apparently that means students can be fined for crossing mid-block at these locations (I am going to have to investigate this issue). Locals want an actual barrier on the median to keep students from crossing — but that won’t be much use unless there’s a usable route to the intersection. The irony of the situation is that this traffic problem is directly in the view of the City of Toronto’s Traffic Management Centre, across the street on Don Mills, which is responsible for managing traffic issues and controlling most of the streetlights in the city.
It’s also worth noting just how unpleasant the Don Mills and Overlea intersection is for pedestrians, with very wide roads and heavy turning traffic. This intersection creates a separation between Flemingdon Park and the community’s high and middle schools.
As I was taking photos of this situation, I was stopped by a very polite policeman who began to question me about my activities. He asked me why I was taking photos, what I was taking photos of, asked to see the pics on my camera, and then asked me for identification and ran my ID through the police data system. He explained that there was a “sensitive building” in the area that they had to be careful about (he had been called specifically because someone in that building saw another participant in the walk taking photos with a professional camera). I’m guessing the building in question was the Traffic Management Centre (its location is not a secret).
The polite policeman is checking my ID in the police car while I wait under the shelter of the 7-11’s roof. In the background is the unpleasant intersection of Don Mills and Overlea, where multiple lanes of traffic separate the community from its schools.
Perhaps they’ve seen the remake of The Italian Job and are afraid terrorists will cause traffic congestion chaos in the city in pursuit of their dastardly schemes. It was pretty surreal — being stopped for taking photographs of public places felt very “eastern bloc before the wall came down” (except that the policeman was, as I said, really polite). Police stopping people for taking photographs or videos in public places seems to be a trend (incidents are being tracked in Boing Boing’s civlib category).
The locals who I’d talked to said that there was a strong sense of community between Flemingdon and Thorncliffe Parks, so after the policeman returned my ID I decided to walk over to Thorncliffe to see what it is like.
Tune in tomorrow to read my impressions of walking around Thorncliffe Park.