The right foot forward

What's needed to make Toronto a great pedestrian city?

by Dylan Reid
photo by Adam Krawesky

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Pedestrians are essential to the life of a large city. When we talk about how “alive” a city seems, what we mean is the number of pedestrians in the city’s public space. The cities that are widely considered to be the greatest to live in or visit, such as Manhattan or Paris, are those one can walk around in for days with pleasure. If Toronto is to fulfill its long-standing desire to be one of the world’s great cities, it has to bring its citizens out into the street — not only in a few prize downtown locations, but throughout the city.

What makes pedestrians distinctive is that they are open and slow. These qualities enable walkers to truly experience and interact with their urban environment. As Janice Etter of Toronto’s Pedestrian Planning Network points out, “when you’re walking you have time to look.” Encased in a vehicle, we are separated by a shell and travelling too fast to experience the city — we can see it, but not absorb it. It is on foot that we can get the tactile sensation of how a city works and fits together. Equally, only on foot are we open and accessible enough to interact with the other people who inhabit our city and so learn to feel comfortable and secure with them. Without walkers in its public spaces, an urban environment retreats into the private spaces of home, car and workplace, becoming merely a series of isolated silos that do not form a coherent whole. It is walking that knits the structures, spaces and people of a city together.

There are two obvious purposes to walking in a city — for transportation, in order to get to a particular destination; or for pleasure, in order to look at interesting sights or to get exercise. These two purposes can be combined. We might choose a particular route to our destination because it is more attractive. Or we might select a destination for our pleasure walk in order to give it some structure.
But there is also a kind of walking in the city that transcends these two purposes. It is walking as a way of living the city, without a single purpose or destination. It includes being out on the street to see and be seen, to shop or eat or drink at multiple locations which you may not even have in mind when you set out, to cross paths and hang out with friends, to do chores or explore new spaces as the opportunity arises. Other forms of transportation, even bicycles, bring you to specific destinations or achieve specific goals. Only with walking can you browse a city, interact with it, and truly get to know it.

We can think of this kind of walking as deep pedestrianism. It is when a city spawns this kind of walking that it begins to achieve greatness, because this is when its inhabitants and visitors appreciate it as an integrated whole, not simply as a place to accomplish tasks. To achieve this state, it is not enough to simply have a few pleasant walks, whether a pretty shopping street or a lovely nature trail. Nor is it enough to simply plan residential areas within walking distance of useful destinations, such as retail or employment. In order for deep pedestrianism to thrive, the city as a whole must be integrated into a great pedestrian experience and must seek, not just to tolerate, but to seduce pedestrians into its public space.

But how do we create this great pedestrian city? What follows is a list of some of the most essential elements that attract pedestrians into public space.

Pedestrian Space
Pedestrians need to be welcomed with a defined zone that is specifically for them. At its most essential, that means sidewalks on streets and paths in parkland. To really bring pedestrians out, this pedestrian zone has to be spacious and well-defined.
Obstacles on sidewalks affect this pedestrian space. Sandwich boards, poorly sited garbage cans, uncollected garbage, dog crap, or unplowed snow restrict and discourage walkers.

A fine example of how a bit of extra space can draw pedestrians is the wider sidewalk on the north side of Queen Street West between SoHo and Spadina, which is always bustling with activity. An example of the damage a lack of space can do is visible one block west, at Beverly, where the relatively new Caban building was built to a narrow sidewalk. Instead of using the opportunity to expand the thriving pedestrian zone, this building perpetuates a little dead area that people hurry by between the wider spaces on either side.

Too many of Toronto’s sidewalks, if they exist at all, are narrow, suggesting pedestrianism is no more than tolerated. The most basic step the city can take to encourage pedestrians is to build sidewalks where there are none, widen sidewalks where they are narrow, and enforce setbacks from the street, enabling wider sidewalks, in all new construction. Under pressure from pedestrian activists, the city has already embarked on a project to add sidewalks to the 130km of major roads where they are missing; a good start, but there is much more to do. To really stimulate walking, the city can create true pedestrian zones, temporary or permanent, building on the encouraging model of the car-free Kensington Market and Church Street that will begin this summer.

To get people out on the street, you need places for them to go that are within walking distance. The destination could be as humble as a post box, as practical as a store, or as diverting as a pleasing walk in a park (see Popsicle Test sidebar).

The city can encourage the creation of destinations by systematically encouraging shopping, work and residential areas to exist within walking distance of each other. The city can also stimulate walking directly by strategically seeding the city with destinations such as municipal services (libraries, schools), parks and other attractions that are easily accessible by foot.

Human Scale
Pedestrians are, by definition, human sized and move at human speed — so a pedestrian-friendly city has to be built in dimensions that are specifically suited to a human on foot. There are well-understood, balanced proportions between sidewalk, road and adjacent buildings that create the most attractive environment for pedestrians.

The most common enemies of these proportions are the wide empty spaces of the suburbs, where every destination seems too far to walk to, and massive tall buildings that overwhelm the space around them. The “avenues” and “centres” strategy in Toronto’s new official plan, in which major streets and core areas in the suburbs will be made more urban through denser buildings closely linked with improved pedestrian zones, could go a long way towards expanding the area of Toronto that is built to a human scale — but the city will have to systematically enforce zoning to ensure that the balance is not tipped the other way, towards overwhelming buildings that are equally out of proportion. North York’s dire “downtown” on Yonge between Sheppard and Finch is a cautionary example of what can go wrong.

Of course, cities themselves are by definition beyond human scale — it is impractical to walk all the way across them. To bring cities back to a human scale, one needs regular, reliable and fast public transit, to bring distant parts of the city within reach of someone on foot.

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Popcicle Test
To test whether there are sufficient destinations for pedestrians, Dan Burden of Walkable Communities, Inc. has proposed The Popsicle Test: At every location there must be some destination worth walking to, close enough that if you walk there to get a popsicle, you could walk there in comfort and walk back without it melting. Since Burden lives in sunny Florida, the test is quite a stringent one.





What can Toronto do to become a better pedestrian city?

The problem is far too complex for one thing to make a difference, but how about two things, just for starters? Increase urban densities and improve public transit. The main reason Toronto isn’t more pedestrian friendly is that we lack the compact form and density of European cities, as well as the cheap, efficient, and accessible systems of public transit that such forms support. The City’s plan to increase densities along main streets is a start, as are proposals for transit right-of-ways, but driving and parking must become much more expensive and unpleasant to break the addiction to private cars.
Barbara Rahder,
Associate Professor
Faculty of Environmental Studies
York Univeristy

‘Walks to the Water’ One of the great pedestrian divides in Toronto is the inhospitable passage from the established part of the city north of Front Street and east of Yonge Street, the Esplanade and Mill Street to the central waterfront. While it is physically possible to cross these relatively short distances on foot on Cherry Street, Parliament, Sherbourne, Jarvis, Yonge, Bay, York, Spadina, Bathurst and even on Strachan, not one of these walks is inviting. In fact they
are downright discouraging and bleak. Eventually they may be improved by redevelopment along the routes, but at the current rate this could take forever. Why not show a positive sign now and make modest investments in making these into great ‘Walks to the Water’ with improved paving, lighting, street furniture, planting, signage, and public art?

Ken Greenberg,
Greenberg Consultants Inc. || contact || subscribe || in this issue || stores

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