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A central median on University Avenue, looking north from Queen St. W, with the South African War Memorial in the centre in Toronto on Nov. 5, 2020.Patrick Dell/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes, getting to the future means walking into the past.

In the 19th century, Toronto’s University Avenue was a stately promenade. Chestnut trees framed the wide street, which stretched north from the then-much-smaller city. It was an elegant, linear park.

But after the Second World War, it was remade on the altar of the automobile. The trees were cut down and pavement swallowed up the park. It effectively turned University into an eight-lane highway. In the centre of traffic, planners marooned a narrow and forlorn and useless strip of green, with unloved seasonal flowers and unvisited historical monuments.

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The new-old idea for University? Go back in time. Redesign the space, from Bloor Street all the way south towards Lake Ontario, to be more like the park it once was. The central principle? Put people, not cars, first.

The design would move cars to one side of the avenue, reserving the other side for a new park. It would begin at the Royal Ontario Museum, extend south past Queen’s Park and a cluster of hospitals, and near its southern end would connect with green space at Osgoode Hall, and City Hall.

Dubbed University Park, its ambition is sizeable, but its costs are not.

PUBLIC WORK's proposal would create a strip of green from Queen’s Park Crescent at Bloor Street, past the University of Toronto’s downtown campus and the provincial legislature, to City Hall.Illustration by PUBLIC WORK

The avenue was recently reconfigured for bike paths, leaving two lanes of traffic in each direction, plus parking. The University Park redesign would retain that much roadway for cars, so the impact on traffic impact would be negligible. In the bargain, 9.5 acres of asphalt would become park space, creating a connected stretch of 90 acres of green.

Done right, it would be Toronto’s La Rambla.

Price tag? An estimated $230-million.

That’s a fraction of the estimated $1.7-billion required for the proposed 20-acre Rail Deck Park over western downtown’s railway lands.

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Unlike Montreal and Vancouver, 19th-century Toronto never set aside space for a large downtown park. It’s a gap in the quality of life in the increasingly crowded heart of Canada’s largest city. But it can be remedied through creative solutions, including reclaiming some of the vast amount of space dedicated to the car.

Over the past week, The Globe and Mail published a series of stories on the future of cities, including how cities and suburbs can be better designed in the years ahead.

This spring and summer, the coronavirus pandemic pushed city halls across the country to make more room for cooped-up people in need of outdoor space. The result – streets turned over to pedestrians and cyclists; new plazas; patios in parking spots – was a big success. And that should only be the beginning.

Thinking about cities is changing, and ideas such as the 15-minute city are on the rise, aimed at designing urban life so that all of a person’s daily needs can be met, on foot or bike, within a quarter hour of home. And big improvements can come from small, affordable ideas, like how Toronto a few years ago dramatically increased the speed and popularity of the King Street streetcar, the busiest surface route in the city, with a few simple street changes. This fall, Toronto swiftly rolled out priority lanes for its top bus routes. Change does not always demand a gargantuan budget or a multidecade timeline.

DO NOT PUBLISH Nurses walk along University Ave. outside of the Toronto General Hospital, on October 8, 2020.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

The demand for green space is abundantly clear. For example, Ottawa’s National Capital Commission closed many of its parkway drives to cars at various times this year. It found that more people, from walkers to cyclists, used the “closed” roads than when they were open to cars. Toronto and Vancouver discovered the same.

This summer in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, foot traffic in parks at times was more than double the normal.

Creating a new park in the core of an old city sounds impossible. But all that asphalt is an opportunity. Four years ago, Paris closed a three-kilometre stretch of riverside expressway on the right bank of the Seine. The mayor called it a “reconquest of the Seine.”

In the summer of 1968 in Paris, the student slogan was “Under the paving stones, the beach!” It was meant metaphorically. But in Toronto today, it could be real. Beneath the pavement of University Avenue, there lies a park. It requires only a little imagination to see it.