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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

New Toronto Public Realm Office off and running

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Last year, the City of Toronto decided to set up a “Public Realm Office” that would be a one-stop shop in charge of managing the city’s sidewalks and pedestrian spaces (in the City’s words, “manage the Coordinated Street Furniture Program, develop pedestrian initiatives, and implement streetscape and other beautification projects on a City-wide basis”). This decision was the end result of a long campaign by pedestrian activists to have a single, well-resourced office in the city take charge of the city’s neglected sidewalks.

In the past, multiple offices and agencies were in charge of their own bits or aspects of the sidewalk, and did their thing with no sense of coordination. The problem really came to light when the Harbord Village Residents’ Association (HVRA) tried to get the city to widen and beautify the sidewalks of College Street between Spadina and Bathurst — a modest little stretch, yet it took them years and talks with many different city agencies before they were able to implement their plan. The HVRA then translated their experience into a campaign to have a central office manage sidewalk spaces — a campaign that is finally paying off.

The new office will be part of the Transportation Services Division, and will be funded by the advertising revenue from the Coordinated Street Furniture Program (which may seem a little ironic to those people who do not think that street-furniture advertising enhances the pedestrian experience). It will also absorb the Clean and Beautiful City Secretariat, and sidewalk- and pedestrian-related staff and functions from other parts of the municipal government.

While the street furniture program has been functioning for some time now, the rest of the Public Realm Office has been on hold for quite a while until a Director was selected. The good news is that a Director has now been chosen, and the better news is that it is Elyse Parker, a city planner who was formerly Project Manager with the Clean and Beautiful City Secretariat, which has implemented several good programs in recent years, including the Boulevard Transformation Project (featured in the latest issue of Spacing). It’s good to see someone with proven experience in improving pedestrian spaces in the city take on this role. The appointment means that the Public Realm Office can finally start to get organized, put together its staff, and get going on its mandate to improve Toronto’s pedestrian realm.

Photo by FOTO FOOD.



  1. This is good news. Having worked with the City on a few sidewalk issues and beautiful city stuff, I’m happy to see the creation of this office. My colleagues at the local resident assoc have worked with Ms Parker and have nothing but glowing things to say about her commitment and knowledge of public space issues.

    Mr Clark is right to be skeptical of this agency’s success but as I have witnessed the culture change going on within City Hall’s transportation and urban design departments, there should be at least some hope that this new office can make it work. It may not work out 100% perfect but this is part of Toronto’s maturation into a city with a dynamic understanding of public spaces.

  2. Toronto is uglier and dirtier. Perhaps the graffiti capital of NA. I fail to see the good news.

  3. Glen: What does graffiti and the public realm office have to do with each other? Graffiti is an issue all unto itself and something that will never, ever be eliminated. And graffiti is much more nuanced than to be lumped in as one big, bad thing. Its like someone saying they hate music: they probably like some music, but certain forms of it they dislike.

    And your claim that we’re the graf capital is ludicrous at best. Obviously you’ve never walked extensively thru San Francisco or LA or Chicago or almost any American big city. And “dirtier and uglier” than what? You usually make nice, well-rounded arguments here on the blog, so this seems out of character….

  4. Matthew,

    To quote the C&B web site, “The Graffiti Abatement Program was created as part of the Mayor’s Clean and Beautiful City Initiative”.

    Certainly that portion of the program has been a dismal failure. It has been awhile since I have been in San Fran but Chicago’s downtown is a lot cleaner. I don’t recall any streets equivalent to Spadina or Queen W. that looked as bad. Same goes for a handful of other cities. Same for NY.

    I guess that it was not really fair of me to make such a blanket statement. I am just frustrated by the comparison of Toronto with its former self. I don’t think that it could be argued that Toronto is cleaner than it was twenty years, or even ten years, ago.

    As far as the nuances involved, I actual do appreciate some of the work. It is the tagging, or unapproved works that I disapprove of. I could show you 100 tags around your HQ before anything worthy of admiration.

  5. Glen, you need to visit more cities. Graf is everywhere in NYC, Chicago except perhaps a few of the main tourist drags there (5th ave, Michigan, etc) — the places where everybody goes when they go there (without going any deeper) and think is representative of the whole city.

    There is no graf along Mink Mile in Yorkville. Same relationship.

  6. I don’t know, I covered a lot of streets. From N. LaSalle to the lake and from Lincoln Park to the river. A did not see anything resembling Spadina’s graffiti problem. North of you, the Robertson bld., all the way to college it is hard to spot a single building that has not been vandalized.

  7. This is strong news. Elyse Parker is one of the good guys. But I wonder: does she have a mandate to deal with arms-length agencies like TTC and, especially, Hydro? They are responsible for much of the ugliness in town.

  8. A new office to “manage” the City’s sidewalks and public realm spaces? Too bad the office wasn’t set up BEFORE we all got those mega-sized recycling bins from the City. Try walking through a neighborhood on a recycling/garbage night and it’s like running an obstacle course, especially so in winter.

  9. Where the Toronto Public Realm Office is located?

  10. Diane, I always thought it would be nice if the Public Realm Office’s office was like Lucy’s advice desk/stand in the peanuts comic strip.