Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series that investigates the emerging concept of the Naturally Occurring Cultural District (NOCD). Posts will explore the ways in which the NOCD concept could be applied to specific areas in Toronto to inform more equitable, localized forms of cultural planning.
Culture, integrated into the urban fabric, is a critical city-building force. Toronto has no shortage of incredible cultural facilities, organizations, and programs. So how can this wealth of arts activities be integrated into the public realm in a way that positively impacts the lives of Torontonians, both producers and consumers of culture?
The last post in this series focused on the Downtown Cultural Work District. Due to the area’s high concentration of creative industry workers, diversity of cultural assets and functions, and presence of both large-scale cultural facilities and smaller arts spaces, it is certainly representative of the Naturally Occurring Cultural District concept. In the 2011 report From the Ground Up: Growing Toronto’s Cultural Sector, the City of Toronto recognized the powerful potential of the Downtown Cultural Work District’s unique cluster of cultural industries and audiences, recommending that the area be formally designated as the heart of the city’s cultural sector.
This is promising news. The City is demonstrating support for the use of existing cultural assets to ensure sustainable economic and community development. But how, exactly, would such support become manifest? What does it mean to facilitate the growth of a Naturally Occurring Cultural District? How deliberate can policy and planning measures really be in supporting such cultural districts, without dictating future development in a way that detracts from the areas’ organic growth history?
One practical example of how the City of Toronto is approaching these issues can be found in a 2008 report titled Cultural Institutions in the Public Realm. The report provides a framework for implementing policies and plans that strengthen the public spaces surrounding the city’s major cultural landmarks, specifically, the AGO, TIFF Bell Lightbox, Canada’s National Ballet School, the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, the Gardiner Museum, OCAD, The Royal Conservatory, the ROM, Roy Thomson Hall, the St. Lawrence Center for the Arts, and the Sony Center.
David Leinster, Partner at The Planning Partnership, a Toronto-based planning, landscape architecture, and urban design firm that authored the Cultural Institutions report, believes that connecting cultural facilities to the public realm is central to ensuring their success. In fact, the Cultural Institutions report was produced in reaction to the shocking absence of public realm response following the City’s major investment in its downtown cultural institutions. Stunning new facilities for these institutions opened next to incomplete sidewalks and haphazard light posts.
“There was no system in place to organize these things. Something was broken. The Planning Partnership [and ERA Architects] were retained to come up with a plan that would start a dialog between those institutions and the city so that they could move forward,” Leinster said.
The report takes inventory of the wealth of large cultural institutions in Toronto’s downtown core and makes a number of recommendations on how to improve the public spaces that surround and connect these facilities. Focusing on existing clusters of institutions, recommendations include a downtown arts branding strategy, improved coordination for arts in the public realm through a liaison to the City’s urban design department, public gathering spaces to allow for flexible use by the institutions, and programming for these spaces to increase opportunities for engagement with the arts. Leinster said that, so far, the plan has been quite successful and many of the recommendations have been implemented, in part or in whole.
The Planning Partnership is currently working on another project to connect a naturally occurring concentration of cultural organizations to the public realm on John Street, from Grange Park south to Front Street. The cultural corridor project, supported by Councillor Adam Vaughan and the Entertainment District BIA, is awaiting sufficient funding and should move into the detailed design phase in the next year (Spacing associate editor Dylan Reid wrote about the project in 2011 and in 2010).
The street is home to a number of arts incubator facilities, including OCAD, CityTV, and CBC, as well as some major cultural institutions such as the AGO, TIFF, and the NFB. The historic warehouse architectural typology of the street is particularly conducive to arts and culture groups; space is relatively inexpensive, in the central city, and easily convertible to studios. Small arts organizations have been moving in rapidly. As a result, there is great momentum for change on John Street.
“We’ve been working on this project since the 2005 Secondary Plan,” said Leinster. “It’s all about providing policy direction for change in that area. John Street is moving from a warehouse district to a mixed-use district.”
Leinster said that the ideas for the John Street redesign emerged out of what was already happening on the street. “The revitalization of the public realm followed the emergence of that cultural cluster. Conversely, there is another school of thought in which improvements to the public realm are thought to spur investment,” Leinster said.
“The plan is about creating a highly flexible space that responds to the potential that is already there. The concept was to create a sort of ‘Red Carpet to the City’ that all the institutions could use in a different way. The street could be easily closed down for events – it is curbless with special lighting and fitted with special electronic systems to easily allow for stage set-up,” Leinster said. The image below, depicting John Street at Richmond, illustrates the proposed street redesign (planned trees plantings have been removed here to show paving, lighting, and curb detail).
The John Street design aims to support the surrounding arts organizations and cultural facilities by creating as flexible a space as possible to serve as an armature for the visual and performance arts. In this way, the redesign will not only animate the street, but also provide practical opportunities for the diversity of artists and cultural producers in the area to connect to and use the space. The design is responsive to uncertain futures in that it is extremely flexible, allowing it to be used and interpreted in different ways as necessary. It refrains from being too prescriptive to allow for creativity.
Leinster believes that this is an important moment for the City’s existing cultural facilities, and that the intelligent design of public space is critical to supporting the sustainable development of cultural clusters. “There is a shift in Toronto towards a pedestrian priority. This is going to have a big impact on the kinds of spaces that cultural institutions and organizations can begin to occupy. With street design, culture can become more evident in the public realm,” Leinster said.