The right foot forward
continued from previous page

It’s not enough simply to get pedestrians out onto the street — it is also important to keep them there. A bare empty surface is merely a space to pass over as quickly as possible. In order to encourage the kind of deep pedestrianism that makes a city come alive, pedestrians need to be persuaded to linger on the street. To do so, they need amenities.

Amenities can be both public and private. They include benches and ledges to rest on, contemplate on, eat at; garbage bins to keep the streets free of litter; newspaper boxes to provide information; lighting to keep the street life going after nightfall. The presence of vendors of food that can be purchased and eaten on the street and of street performers has been shown to encourage people to spend more time in public space. Amenities also include trees to provide greenery, shade and windbreaks to the sidewalk, and other kinds of plants to delight the eye and soothe the soul. Amenities also mean maps and good signage to orient pedestrians; clean, accessible public washing and toilet facilities; and features such as public water fountains for refreshment and public telephones for communication.

Sustaining amenities requires a city to allocate money specifically for pedestrians. It also requires a city to maintain tolerant by-laws which regulate but allow people to work on the street providing services as vendors and entertainers, rather than chasing them away in a misguided attempt to keep the streets “clean.”

Many new developments in Toronto provide pedestrian-friendly features such as wide sidewalks, trees and retail shops on the ground floor of monolithic, block-long condo buildings. Yet these areas tend to be dead, whereas older areas broken up into a multitude of different small buildings remain vibrant, despite other drawbacks. Compare, for instance, barren Bay Street between Dundas and Bloor with seedy but bustling Yonge Street, only one block to the east.

The reason is that pleasure in walking requires diversity. Even the most beautiful structure or landscape becomes oppressive if it is unchanging. Variety of experience is a fundamental requirement of all walks, anywhere — the walker needs, in the words of Toronto pedestrian activist Rhona Swarbrick, “a richly detailed environment” which will constantly stimulate the eye and mind.

Diversity means a constant variation in the appearance and materials of buildings and paths (sidewalks, plazas, parks, trails). It means mixing in the natural — trees, grass, water — to soften the hardness of the human-built. Even in parkland, happy walking requires constant variations in environments. A flat, empty field is not inviting to walkers. Diversity also means a mix of uses — different kinds of businesses, work spaces and residences, mixed with public institutions, parks, public art. On a residential street, it means variety of housing styles, personalized front lawns and decorations, with mixed-use commercial and work areas always close at hand.

Diversity of uses leads to a diversity of people. The best pedestrian areas are the ones that combine many different types of people. As Jane Jacobs points out, a mix of users — locals and visitors, residents, parents and children, shoppers and shopkeepers, workers — creates constant pedestrian traffic throughout the day rather than only at specific times. An area becomes an even better walking space if it features a mix of social classes, ethnic origins, appearances, sexualities, and age groups, such as Queen Street West, or if it showcases an element of the city’s diversity, such as Chinatown or the Church-Wellesley Village. When people walk, their experience is shaped as much by the people they share the public space with as by the buildings and environment around them.

Pedestrians are the soft threads whose constant movement knits the hard, isolated surfaces of a city together. In order to do so, it must be possible for them to penetrate these hard surfaces. The pedestrian environment must be porous, open, always providing the feeling that there are multiple ways to pass between spaces. This interconnectedness is both physical — spaces you can walk through — and visual — spaces you can see through.

These connections mean buildings whose entrances face the street, with doors and windows that are visible and inviting — large, high, often leading to destinations open to the public such as retail and restaurants. Interconnectedness also needs intermediate spaces that invite transitions — awnings, store signage, street displays, entrances and porticoes, sidewalk cafes, balconies, front yards. In parks, even a basic issue such as whether passers-by can see into the park can make a profound difference to how heavily it is used, as public space guru William H. Whyte demonstrated with New York’s Bryant Park.

Finally, interconnectedness means multiple and accessible passages between streets and between destinations. Opening up passages between a neighbourhood and its adjoining major street can make a remarkable difference.

For those whose mobility is impaired, connections must go even deeper, including features that ease their transitions between private and public spaces, or between different public spaces themselves.

A classic Toronto example of the need for connections is the Eaton Centre along Yonge Street. Originally built as a blank wall with only one mid-block connection between the mall and the street, it quickly killed its stretch of what was one of Toronto’s prime commercial stretches. Only recently was the need for connections between the building and the sidewalk realized and implemented, with the ground level stores opening second entrances onto the sidewalk, returning at least some life to the street.

The same qualities that make walking the best way to know a city — its openness, its slowness — also make pedestrians vulnerable. Pedestrians are not protected by the walls of a building or a vehicle. They cannot move quickly to get away from threats. To bring citizens out onto their streets, they need to feel secure.

Security means, in the first instance, feeling safe from assault, whether it be physical or verbal. This issue is particularly crucial for female pedestrians. While for most people this means security from criminals, for visible minorities, youths, and those exercising their right to march in protest or support of a cause, it can also mean security from authorities, whether public or private, who may harass, assault or incarcerate them for no reason.

This kind of safety benefits from a police force that is not only present, but is also well-trained and circulates at a human level, on foot or by bicycle. It equally benefits from amenities such as lighting, and connections which provide the “eyes on the street” identified by Jane Jacobs. Most crucial, however, is simply the presence of other pedestrians. Not only does the presence of many other people make a pedestrian feel safe, but the accumulated experience of interacting safely with strangers gradually removes the fear of public space that can build in those who isolate themselves in the private spaces of their home, car and office.

Pedestrians also need to feel secure from accidental injury or death, especially from cars. Wide streets, fast driving, poorly designed or inadequate crossing points will all reduce a pedestrian’s sense of security from cars and push them off the street. Intersections need to be specifically designed to enable pedestrians to feel safe when crossing.

And, as the urban designer Donald Appleyard demonstrated, high volume and speed of traffic directly discourage people from walking. Even so simple a measure as on-street parking, creating a buffer zone between traffic and the sidewalk, can improve a pedestrian’s sense of security from cars. This kind of buffer can also be provided by amenities such as cycle lanes, trees, benches and Toronto’s own ring-and-post bicycle stands.

A virtuous circle
As William H. Whyte observed, “what attracts people most … is other people.” Each of these principles make it more likely that pedestrians will inhabit public space, creating a virtuous circle that attracts more pedestrian-friendly features. But the circle can also go the other way — if any of these principles are lacking, a public space can easily lose its pedestrians, and therefore its vitality.

Toronto’s Pedestrian Charter, accepted by city council in 2002, provides an excellent basis for reinforcing and expanding walking in Toronto. Toronto’s new Official Plan, influenced by the Charter, is very conscious of the importance of pedestrians in achieving its goal of “re-urbanizing” the city. It emphasizes qualities such as mixed uses, pedestrian zones and amenities, creating connections and destinations, buildings sizes that are in proportion to the street, and safe street design, which if implemented would bring into reality many of the principles listed here.

But, as Jane Jacobs warned at the unveiling of the Charter, “The hardest part is seeing to it that the elected officials and the bureaucracy … actually respect [the Charter] and follow it in their decisions.” Toronto will only become a great pedestrian city if the needs and desires of pedestrians are incorporated systematically into every aspect of the planning and development of the city.

Densities in space
To draw pedestrians into public space and justify amenities and public transit, a critical mass of people within walking distance is needed. Density, however, is not enough. One of the most densely populated areas of Toronto is the St. Jamestown development near Wellesley and Sherbourne, yet its violation of many of the other principles listed here means that it has not created an attractive pedestrian environment.
The blind pursuit of density, if it ignores other factors such as human scale and diversity, can create a pedestrian dead zone – a real danger in current high-rise developments such as the Minto Towers at Yonge and Eglinton, or the Railway Lands at the foot of Spadina. By contrast, a suburban residential neighbourhood can potentially draw many pedestrians into the street, if it follows the other principles listed here. How many people live in an area is less important than how often those people walk out into public space.






Aesthetically speaking
The walking experience is enhanced by beauty, of course. Yet beauty is not a requirement for a good pedestrian experience. Think of Kensington Market – thriving, diverse, but there are no buildings, grand plazas or artworks that can be considered conventionally beautiful. The belief that beauty by itself can make a good pedestrian environment often be-comes an enemy of human scale or diversity, and thus kills what it seeks to encourage.
Ambitious, monolithic architecture looks impressive, but deadens the space around it. Main streets are tarted up with pretty surfaces, but suppress the vibrancy and variety that makes a street work in practice (see page 26). In fact, what pedestrians think of as "ugly" is often simply a violation of one of the elements described in this article – a blank wall without connections, a dull street without diversity, a monumental space lacking in human scale and destinations. || contact || subscribe || in this issue || stores

(c) 2005 Spacing Publishing