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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

At the crossroads

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The sum of Toronto's intersections is one giant intersection. We know that the Huron people portentously called this patch of land "the meeting place," and those first meet-ups didn't stop, even after the Hurons weren't allowed to name things around here anymore. And as Toronto has grown and changed rapidly over the most recent decades, from a sleepy provincial backwater to the metropolis it is now, many more of us have found it a good place to make camp as well. Toronto has become an intersection of everything: of architecture (cute Victorian next to glass high-rise), of people (Croatian living next to Serbian next to Tamil next to Korean), of classes (Saabs and rooming houses on the same block), and even of flora (southern coniferous and northern deciduous forests meet here too). All these intersections are probably why they film so many movies here, and maybe why we have such a hard time simply defining what this place is.

When we think of our city — when somebody says, "What is Toronto?" — we might get an image of something big and iconic at first, like the CN Tower, but then it's likely we'll think of an intersection. We have the city mapped out in our heads by intersection, even if we don't realise it.

Some of our neighbourhoods have names, but we have a habit of identifying places by crossroad, like apartment rental ads do in the newspaper. It's more precise. We know what Queen and Lansdowne feels like, and it's different than Queen and Roncesvalles, yet it's all Parkdale. But at the latter intersection, another world starts to collide with Parkdale: High Park. Right here, in the impossible tangle of streetcar tracks and traffic lights, two very different neighbourhoods start to compete for our attention as the crappy Coffee Time and McDonald's kitty corner look on.

Trying to decide what is Toronto's main intersection is an invitation to a long and protracted battle. History is no help, as it's hard to remember where the first Toronto intersection was — maybe it's Davenport and Poplar Plains, or perhaps somewhere near Fort York, or maybe Parliament and Front — but it almost doesn't matter anymore because the city has grown so huge and gobbled up so many other original meeting points that they all blend into our idea of this city. Now places like Weston and Lawrence, Islington and Lakeshore and Yonge and Sheppard — all village centres at one point — are just part of the megacity.

But by looking more closely at some of Toronto's intersections, even a random assortment, we can better understand what this always-hard-to-define place is about, because it lets us focus on places where the different parts of our city start to overlap and bump into each other. They are places of inherent comparison.

Right now Toronto is at a sort of crossroads itself. The city is planning on welcoming a million new residents in the next decade or two, and the civic choices we make now will have lasting effect on what kind of city Toronto becomes. With more people involved, an environment that seems more fragile than it did ten years ago, and the need for serious public investment on a massive scale, the stakes are high for our city. So let's poke through some of Toronto's intersecting layers and get snapshots of the city from some unlikely perspectives. It might help us figure out where we are now, and where we need to go next.