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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A new life for historic O’Keefe laneway

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Vibrant public space that encourages walking and physical activity is exactly what 8-80 Cities thinks Toronto needs right now. Some areas in the city that used to be primarily for pedestrians are now shunning that foot traffic in favour of vehicles. One such place, St. Enochs Square, used to be a hub of pedestrian activity. Now it sits, unused, underappreciated, with nothing to offer anyone passing by. That’s about to change.

8-80 Cities is an organizaton that focuses on making cities people-oriented, by promoting walking and bicycling through improving public spaces, trails and parks. Through their project “Make a Place for People,” they offered Ontario communities the chance to nominate spaces that were in need of a breath of fresh life to invite people into them. ING Direct jumped at the opportunity. Thanks to their nomination, O’Keefe Lane and St. Enochs Square are on their way to being redesigned with help from Toronto Public Space Initiative and the international urban design stars Gehl Architects.

O’Keefe Lane runs parallel to Yonge Street, near Yonge-Dundas Square. Located directly behind the Hard Rock Cafe, the Ed Mirvish Theatre, a handful of fast-food restaurants and some retail stores, the space sees more garbage and cigarette butts from breaks than it does pedestrians out for a stroll.

Nick Cluley, the Creator of Great Experiences for ING Direct Canada (yes, that’s his title), helped prepare the nomination for the lane and square. He has a personal interest in making sure the area is attractive and pedestrian-friendly: it’s the ING Direct Cafe’s backyard. The cafe is an innovative way to do banking – offering coffees and relaxed conversations instead of lines and counters. Not only is the space used by ING Direct’s staff getting to and from work, it’s also a way potential customers could be drawn to the cafe.

“The filth and under utilization of space, combined with our own business needs of driving more people to our surrounding area made this a perfect space to work with,” Cluley says.

He submitted the nomination to 8-80 Cities, who in December placed the call to communities asking for submissions for under performing public spaces. Of those, eight were selected to participate, including O’Keefe Lane and St. Enochs Square.

“It is a hidden space, seldom looked on by pedestrians, that is currently used only for mechanization of delivery and trash pick-up,” Cluley says. “By choosing pedestrians and life over dark underused laneways, the area around Yonge St. can lead in creating places for people.”

O’Keefe Lane is known for being grungy; it’s been used in several movies as “the sketchy back alleyway,” including 16 Blocks starring Bruce Willis and Johnny Mnemonic starring Keanu Reeves.

Jayme Turney, CEO of Toronto Public Space Initiative, hopes to change that image of the lane. The space, he says, could be turned into many things that would encourage the public to spend time there.

“Judging by examples of this type of project elsewhere, there’s potential here for community space, greenery, art, festivals, and small retail like coffee shops and flower shops.”

Turney says this is just the first in many projects to happen in Toronto to make it more engaging to the public, though he said this one is a good one to start with.

“There aren’t many vibrant public spaces around the area that foster much engagement or energy,” he says, “so there’s a lot of value to having it in the heart of the City there.”

Both TPSI and ING Direct will get input from stakeholders through a variety of different tours, focus groups and workshops to get as many ideas for the space as possible. The ideas will be given to Gehl Architects, located in Copenhagen, who will do a rendering and final design at the end of June, before the City begins making the necessary changes.

Other locations being revitalized by 8-80 Cities include Berczy Park, Streetsville Town Square in Mississauga and Dundonald Park in Ottawa. The O’Keefe Lane and Berczy Park are the only sites Gehl Architects will help with the design.

photos by Amber Daugherty




  1. My concern is that for Yonge Street to be car-free, this lane may be needed for motor vehicle movements. But nothing that is being done cannot be easily undone, so it looks OK.

  2. Hooray! It’s actually quite astounding that this could be redeemed. It’s a very smelly, greasy lane – delivery trucks and garbage bins. I work in the area, and it would be fabulous to have it cleaned up.

  3. Great news! One question: Why is an architect based in Copenhagen
    doing the rendering. Would it not draw more interest if we invite local artists to submit their ideas in drawing instead? Have I missed something?