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public spaces

St. Clair Ave. between Bathurst and Dufferin.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

How does a city know if a significant change to its public spaces – for example, the construction of major new surface transit lines, such as those planned for Eglinton and Sheppard East – has succeeded?

It's a surprisingly elusive question, as the ongoing fight over the St. Clair West right-of-way demonstrates. Fully two years after the project's completion, critics continue to insist that the dedicated streetcar line has led to shuttered stores and traffic jams. Proponents, in turn, point to the arrival of new businesses and rising real-estate prices. But both sides tend to rely on anecdotes and examples.

According to city data obtained by The Globe and Mail, St. Clair West has seen a decline in vehicle traffic, an uptick in transit usage, and fewer accidents since the line was completed in 2009. Planning department figures also show a growth in recent years in construction and development activity from Yonge to Keele Street.

Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21 St. Paul's West) last week asked the Toronto Transit Commission to hire an outside consultant to conduct an analysis on the impact of the changes along the St. Clair West corridor, looking at trends in ridership, operating costs, accident rates, storefront rentals, patio licences and parking. The TTC will report back on how it plans to proceed in May.

But some other cities, including Copenhagen and Melbourne, have gone one large step further in determining the effect of such changes, by systematically measuring a wide range of fine-grain public-space indicators – everything from the number of cafes and street benches to the demographics of local park users and the way people window-shop. What's more, these cities have repeated such surveys every decade or so, using the resulting trend data to correct planning mistakes and undertake additional improvements.

Seattle, in 2009, became one of the first U.S. cities to commission a so-called "Public Life/Public Space" study as part of a broad strategy to boost pedestrian activity in its downtown, deploy new streetcar lines and improve connections to the waterfront. "We wanted to be much more data-driven, in terms of outcomes," said Barbara Gray, who served as project manager for Seattle's pedestrian master plan.

Such surveys – typically conducted by teams of clipboard-wielding students – are the brainchild of the Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl, who developed the car-free zone and bike-path network in central Copenhagen in the late 1960s.

At the time, the city's historic core was highly congested, and Mr. Gehl – who now runs a planning consultancy – realized that the way to make a case for removing cars was to use hard data to show municipal politicians and local businesses that the shift led to better pedestrian experiences.

Camilla van Deurs, an associate at Gehl Architects, said the approach is based on techniques traffic engineers use to measure and model car volumes in order to make a case for more investment. "Once you've counted something, it matters."

Mr. Gehl's methodology also evokes the classic 1980 documentary, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, by urbanist William Whyte. Using time-lapse footage of several New York plazas, Mr. Whyte showed why some attracted pedestrians and others didn't, and what could be done to draw a crowd (e.g., putting out tables).

As with Mr. Whyte's work, Mr. Gehl's meticulous surveys focus not just on quantity but also quality – for example, not just the raw volume of pedestrians walking on a given street, but also the time they spend on a park bench, in front of store windows or at a cafe. "The real indicator is the stationary activities," Ms. van Deurs said, noting that pausing pedestrians not only indicate amenable public spaces, they also generate more retail activity in those areas.

Over time, the accumulated data reveals interesting trends when compared to the so-called "base line" conditions captured in an initial survey. In Copenhagen, she said, successive studies by Mr. Gehl showed that for each street parking spot the city removed, four more people came into the car-free zone.

In New York, Mr. Gehl's team scrutinized traffic at Times Square in 2007-2008 and found that 400,000 pedestrians passed through the area each day, but only 65,000 vehicles. That conclusion motivated New York transportation officials in 2009 to convert a swath of road space to a plaza with tables and chairs. A follow-up survey six months later revealed an 84-per-cent increase in the number of pedestrians who chose to hang out in the square.

The city of Melbourne, for its part, has been relying on Mr. Gehl's public-space surveys since the early 1980s, using successive results to restrict traffic, widen downtown sidewalks, plant street trees and convert once dingy alleys into a lively laneway network with small-scale retail. The result: The number of downtown cafes has jumped from 2 to 617 in three decades, said Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8 to 80 Cities, who has worked with Mr. Gehl in Melbourne.

Those data-intensive public space upgrades appear to have produced more than just cafes, he added: Once Australia's perennial second city, Melbourne now sits atop The Economist's urban livability rankings.

Special to the Globe and Mail