After my walk around Flemingdon Park (and being questioned by the police for taking photos), which I described in yesterday’s post, I decided to walk over to neighbouring Thorncliffe Park. It is a similar, also somewhat isolated towers-in-the-park development, with a diverse population of about 15,000, and the local residents said there is a good sense of community between the two “Parks”.
The two communities are physically close — it’s hardly more than a 5-minute walk — but they are separated by an unpleasant, though safe, bridge over the Don Valley. The pedestrian walkway is protected from the very fast traffic by a barrier, but the walkway is very narrow, with traffic rushing by on one side and a beautiful view but vertiginous drop on the other.
On a rainy day, I discovered, there was a further obstacle at the entrance to the bridge’s walkway — a puddle in the road so deep that the splash from cars speeding by carried right over the barrier and would soak a pedestrian from head to toe. I had to time my passage carefully to make sure there was no traffic coming behind me when I passed this point.
A local community activist told me that cycling across the bridge is a nightmare, which I can well imagine — the lanes are narrow, traffic fast, and there are lots of buses.
It seems to me that this is a location that really needs a separate pedestrian/cycling bridge. It’s the connection between two large and closely intertwined communities — Thorncliffe Park students cross to get to the high school, while many Flemingdon Park residents shop in the East York Town Centre mall in Thorncliffe Park. The bridge is on the proposed route of the Don Mills rapid light rail transit line, so it may be that the bridge will be upgraded or replaced at some point. When that happens, there needs to be a wide, dedicated bridge for cyclists and pedestrians that is separate from the roadway.
As well, it seemed logical to me that there should be a pathway between the two communities going down into the valley, intersecting with the Don Valley trail there, crossing the Don on a little bridge, and then up again into Thorncliffe. It could be done quickly and wouldn’t cost all that much to build, and would make a pleasant connection between the two communities and with the ravine between them. It could work particularly well as a route across the ravine to the high and middle schools from Thorncliffe Park, at least in the fall and spring. I didn’t check, but I expect students have already created informal paths into the valley over the years.
As I noted earlier, Thorncliffe Park is built in a “U” shape with a series of tall and mid-sized towers wrapping around a series of amenities in the middle – the East York Town Centre mall, an elementary school, and a park. Connections can be made both along the “U” of Thorncliffe Park Drive, and through a pair of pedestrian pathways crossing each other in the middle of the “U”. The elementary school, located right behind the mall, has 1,900 students, making it the largest elementary school in North America. It was extensively rebuilt and expanded recently, but it already needs additional portable classrooms as well. Residents noted that its constant need for expansion was eating into the limited available recreational space for the school.
The new addition is on the right, and you can see portables on the left.
Some of the tall slab buildings are unfriendly to street, with the walking entrance set a long way from the street and not facing it. Others are much more street-friendly. The one below is particularly good: it faces the street; is close to the street, without a large setback; and the entrance is oriented towards the street with a specifically pedestrian entranceway up the steps. Its main drawback would be the huge shadow it casts over the street because of its orientation on the south-east side of the community (visible in the Google map I link to above, although not an issue on the rainy day I was there).
Walking around the community gave the impression of much better interconnection between residential buildings and facilities than in Flemingdon Park. The north-south pathway through centre of the community went directly to an entrance to the mall, creating a pleasant pedestrian link. Note the way that where the path crosses the mall driveway, design elements have been used to give pedestrian priority — the pedestrian pathway is made distinctive and dominant with bricks, and raised so that the pedestrian path is at an even grade, but cars face a bump.
The pedestrian access to the mall from Thorncliffe Park Drive (the “U” street) on the east side, however, was not very friendly, with no pedestrian paths across a wide parking lot, making the mall less pleasantly accessible for people living in the tall buildings on that side of the community.
One last thing I noted before catching the bus was an example of a direct pedestrian path. The well-used track visible across the median goes straight as an arrow from a mall entrance to the transit station across the street — even though there’s a signalized intersection less than 20 meters away to the east (to the right in this picture). It’s hard to stop pedestrians taking the most direct route.
Although Thorncliffe Park is reasonably coherent in terms of internal walking, it remains desperately isolated from the rest of the city in terms of walking or cycling access beyond the community. There is lots of transit — several frequent routes to various destinations. But if you want to get somewhere yourself without a vehicle, the routes are are pretty unpleasant, especially long, barren and busy Leaside Bridge (although last night a friend told me it isn’t too bad for cycling). Although lots of transit ensures the community is not really isolated, the difficulty of getting out of it by yourself made it feel psychologically isolated to me. The building of the Don Mills rapid transit route may provide an opportunity to also establish much more pleasant cycling and walking infrastructure along the Leaside Bridge south towards the Danforth, westwards along Millwood towards Leaside itself, and into and across the Don Valley.