Open Streets Toronto paves way to a better city: Hume

City officials should recognize positive impacts of street-closing event, which brought out throngs of people Sunday despite being over by noon.

Almost before it began, Toronto’s first Open Streets was over. Held bright and early Sunday morning, it was a huge success. The problem was that many Torontonians slept through most of it.

The program, started in Bogota 20 years ago, has spread to 100-plus cities around the globe. The idea is to close major urban arteries to cars and open them temporarily to pedestrians and cyclists.

Open Streets Toronto, which ran from 8 a.m. to noon, was just getting going when it had to shut down. Organizers sought permission to close Bloor (between Parliament to Spadina) and Yonge (between Bloor to Queen) from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. But that was too much for city transportation officials; they would only agree to noon, and even then, reluctantly.

Although the deck was stacked against the event, it clearly resonated with Torontonians. People turned out in droves to wander streets that for a few short hours belonged to them. Aside from the sheer novelty of the experience, Open Streets was an exercise in social integration. As activist, Gil Penalosa, president of 8-80 Cities, put it, “Rich and poor, young and old, fat and thin, they’re all here.”

Though many merchants were too dozy to take advantage of the occasion, there were exceptions. Holt Renfrew on Bloor was handing out coffee and doughnuts. The Royal Ontario Museum offered artifacts from the Forbidden City exhibition, but couldn’t start until 10 because of union rules.

Things didn’t get rolling until 10:30 or later, which left less than two hours to enjoy the day.

In typical Toronto fashion, city officials couldn’t say no to an event so obviously positive, but neither could they bring themselves to let it run another 120 minutes. That was more than they could allow.

Of course, Mayor Rob Ford was opposed. “This is absolutely wrong,” he huffed on cue, “I do not support it.”

Not so, for the other main mayoral candidates. Olivia Chow and David Soknacki both promised more of the same if elected. John Tory, there to see for himself what the fuss was all about, was also impressed. But, like the city’s in-the-box bureaucracy, Tory doesn’t seem to understand that filling the streets with thousands and thousands of pedestrians is an antidote to congestion, not a cause.

These stretches of Yonge and Bloor would surely have been travelled by more people during Open Streets than the rest of the day when cars and trucks were back. That’s good for business, community-building, human health, civic engagement and, yes, traffic. Incidentally, the 300 volunteers, unlike mandated paid-duty cops, were helpful and happy to be on hand.

Cities that fail to learn the lessons of Open Streets leave themselves profoundly out of touch with the facts of 21st-century urban life. Toronto’s timidity, conventionality and lack of imagination shouldn’t be confused with prudence. This is a big city trying to escape from the small town in which it’s trapped. Not only does the future look scary, Toronto might have to play a role. Then what?

Which brings us to Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Toronto Centre-Rosedale), who steered the project through the intellectual desert at City Hall and brought it to life.

“The transportation department said our program was too ambitious,” Wong-Tam recalls, smiling wryly. “They wanted something more modest. There were other challenges, too, educating city staff, making retailers aware … We asked if we could close Bloor from High Park to Main St. They said no.

We asked the TTC to open at 8 instead of 9. They said no.” That Wong-Tam prevailed against such overwhelming institutional inertia speaks of another Toronto, one that’s waiting for its chance.The next Open Streets will be held Aug 31.

By: Christopher Hume August 18, 2014

Join our mailing list.

Hear about how we are creating cities for all.

You have Successfully Subscribed!