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Post-pandemic cities will need more open space. One landscape architecture firm says we can find it by remaking streets – starting with Toronto’s University Avenue

In Toronto, University Avenue could get an overhaul on a grand scale. The landscape architects PUBLIC WORK, the Michael Young Family Foundation and the non-profit Evergreen have a vision they call “University Park.” Their plan would convert 9.5 acres of asphalt into green space, creating a larger network that could be Toronto’s equivalent of La Rambla in Barcelona.

The proposed plan

PUBLIC WORK’s proposal would stretch from Queen’s Park to City Hall, creating nine acres of park space that would connect to a larger 90-acre network.

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This would deliver huge benefits: green space to serve thousands of hospital workers and patients from neighbouring institutions; cycling infrastructure; and a place of great symbolic power. “Public space is more important than it’s ever been,” Adam Nicklin, a partner in the firm PUBLIC WORK, said. “And this is Ontario’s street. It’s Canada’s street. It could be the heart of the city.”

The proposal would create a strip of green all the way from Queen’s Park Crescent at Bloor Street, past the University of Toronto’s downtown campus and the provincial legislature, to City Hall. “With those nine acres,” said Nicklin, “it would knit together a continuous system of 90 acres."

How? By turning back the clock. In the 1940s and 1950s, University was reshaped to accommodate subways and a river of car traffic. Vehicle lanes were added; mature trees were destroyed. The University Park proposal – based on an idea PUBLIC WORK developed while working on the city’s 2018 downtown TOCore plan – basically reverses those changes.

It would keep the same traffic flow that exists now, following the installation of bike lanes earlier this year: four lanes of car traffic and two bike lanes. But all vehicles would end up on the west side in a two-way street. The other half of the avenue, which Nicklin calls “an underperforming civic asset," would become largely green space with bike lanes. The impact on vehicle traffic, according to a traffic study commissioned by the Young foundation, would be near zero. But the effect on the city could be enormous.

PUBLIC WORK says the project would be relatively simple to construct. They estimate it could be achieved within ten years for $230-million – about the cost of purchasing five downtown acres – and would be worth it. “Parks are central to the experience and the identity of a city," Nicklin said. He is right. Such a large, continuous green space would become an instant landmark, serving local residents, workers, hospital visitors and eventually tourists.

Toronto currently lacks such a central public space. City Hall is imagining one with Rail Deck Park, which would be built over a rail corridor near Union Station. (PUBLIC WORK has been involved in planning it as well.) That’s a worthy idea, but it’s complex and expensive at an estimated $1.66-billion. University Park would complement Rail Deck, and it could be done much sooner.

It would also be a fitting response to the COVID-19 pandemic: it would improve on historic parks that already exist, making a gathering place that is greener, safer and entirely public. "The park creates a new mental map of the city,” said Marc Ryan. “Instead of having many separate pieces, you have one unified thing.” If we really are all in this together, this would be an excellent way to prove it.

Remaking streets around the world

Though the novel coronavirus has had profound social and economic effects on major cities, it has created relatively little physical change so far. But local governments have pursued a few specific types of change to support hospitality industries; reinforce cycling and walking; and create open space.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters


Eliminating parking, adding cycling networks

Even before COVID-19 hit, Mayor Anne Hidalgo was already transitioning some of Paris’s street space from car use to active transportation, i.e. walking and cycling. During the pandemic, she doubled down on that policy. In mid-October, Ms. Hidalgo announced the city will eliminate 70,000 of its 140,000 street parking spaces by 2025. Public consultations will inform how that space will be used.

The city also expanded its large network of bicycle infrastructure with temporary road redesigns. More than 50 kilometres of roadway, including the Rue di Rivoli in the heart of the city, are now open only to bikes, taxis and buses.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

New York City

Outdoor dining

In June, a city program allowed restaurants to take over street and sidewalk space to build patios. This is perhaps the largest of street-dining programs also happening in cities including Toronto and Edmonton. More than 10,000 New York restaurants have built “streateries,” and the program – originally temporary – has been extended through the winter. Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, said to the New York Times the program represents “a creative new vision of public space.”

But such quickly built structures may need to be adjusted; sidewalk patios can create barriers for people with disabilities, and many New York streateries will need to be relocated in order to accommodate vehicle and cycle traffic.

Fernando Vergara/Associated Press


Cycle lanes

Many cities, including Montreal, have invested in significant cycling infrastructure to accommodate high demand. The Colombian capital, which already had 550 kilometres before the pandemic, has been a leader; it added 84 kilometres of emergency lanes in March. Mayor Claudia López has signalled that the city plans to create a total of 280 kilometres, and aim for cycling to take 50 per cent of all trips in the city. “If we are able to use our moment … to push back against the car, it will be a great political gain and great environmental gain,” she said recently.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail


Slow streets

Numerous cities, including Montreal, New York and Milan, have adopted “slow streets” policies, calming vehicle traffic to encourage pedestrian activity, cycling and recreation. Vancouver has 50 kilometres of such spaces, largely delineated by portable barriers. The city is now studying whether and how to make these permanent.

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