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People walk through Trinity Street in the Distillery district in Toronto on Dec. 18, 2017.Christopher Katsarov/For The Globe and Mail

On a cold morning before Christmas, the cobbled streets of the Distillery District were dusted with snow and full of people, ambling and chatting. There were no cars. It was one of the most pleasant places in Toronto.

So why don’t we build more of the city to be like it? Its physical form makes the Distillery quite different from other urban places in the region, and there’s a recipe here worth emulating.

An important caveat: The Distillery District is not a typical urban neighbourhood. It’s a private place dominated by tourist-oriented retail. Therefore it has a certain Disneyland-like quality.

But never mind all the tourist trappings. Forget the Santa Claus cottage and selfie-bait signs. Imagine that the design shop is replaced by a grocery store and the theatre with a pub. You’d still be left with a good urban place.

People take photographs in a light installation off of Tank House Lane in the Distillery district.Christopher Katsarov/For The Globe and Mail

People walk through Trinity Street in the Distillery district.Christopher Katsarov/For The Globe and Mail

Why? First, an aesthetically rich pedestrian experience. The streets here are paved with brick, which matches the Victorian brickwork on the distillery buildings. Their architecture, designed largely by two architects, both named David Roberts, in the 1870s and 1880s, arranges local brick into arches and corbels. That’s why these structures, despite a lack of windows, work well for all sorts of retail and food service: They are feasts for the eye.

All this is missing from contemporary building projects in Toronto and elsewhere. Neither most developers nor most planners understand the importance of architectural detail and materials. Here, they do.

Another reason: There’s lots of activity. The Christmas Market at the Distillery draws people from across the region, so the retailers, restaurants and theatre all thrive. Normally, you’d need a lot of local residents to make this work. But the Distillery has some of those, too, in a string of mid- and high-rise condo buildings. Two were built as affordable housing by Options for Homes; the rest are market.

But they all add people, who keep different schedules from the visitors and ask for different things. The lesson is clear: For a busy and active street, you need lots of people.

The area is about to get many more, through a series of rental and condo housing developments that will encircle the Distillery.

A new development known as Block 3/4/7, by architects COBE with architectsAlliance for developers Dream, Kilmer and Tricon.Handout

One to the south, by architects SHOP and Quadrangle, will extend the Distillery area southward with new plazas and finely clad retail, plus a bunch of homes.

My favourites are both rental projects by the Danish architects COBE: a string of three rental towers and a large building organized around a courtyard. Both buildings feature brick bases and skillful detailing. They will continue the Distillery’s mix of varied public spaces.

The COBE courtyard building is still seeking city approval. I hope it gets it, with all the apartments the developers are asking for. At least one third will be affordable rentals. All of them will have people to make this place better.

The courtyard building will also replace a sizable parking lot. That might hurt the Christmas market – but it’s a good thing. After all, the central magic of the Distillery is that it is a place without cars.

Rendering for project by SHoP Architects and Quadrangle: a series of rental and condo housing developments will encircle the Distillery. One to the south, by architects SHOP and Quadrangle, will extend the Distillery area southward with new plazas and finely clad retail, plus a bunch of homes.Handout

Think about it. There are almost no streets in this entire metropolitan area where you can have an urban experience, of shopping and strolling and people-watching, without having to dodge speeding SUVs.

In fact, many of the places like that on this continent are touristy markets. Granville Island in Vancouver is one; Harbourfront is another. These are descended from a set of 1950s and 1960s experiments with heritage, urban theme parks that were refuges from cars as well as suburbia.

But why not take this logic out of the Christmas Market and apply it to the city at large? What if more streets had fewer car lanes and wider sidewalks, better plantings, more places to sit? If you actually look at the major shopping streets in Toronto (never mind beyond), they are physically grim. That’s because they are built and maintained mostly for cars to pass through. Change the balance, and you get better places.

There’s even a case for going all the way car-free. Pedestrian streets have fallen out of fashion since their 1970s heyday. But as Alexandra Lange wrote in Curbed this year, they can indeed work – and “for the health of the planet, we need to make the pedestrian life easier than the windshield view.” This seems simple enough, and when you’re walking on a cobbled street with a cup of hot cider, it feels like just the medicine the city needs.