Our cities and pedestrian malls

Post by Eric Mang in

3 comments

Eric Mang's Toronto neighbours celebrate Taste of the Danforth with an annual street closure
Eric Mang's Toronto neighbours celebrate Taste of the Danforth with an annual street closure

Last weekend, my neighbourhood was bustling with the Taste of the Danforth. An annual event that draws about 1 million visitors who spend three days noshing on gyros, souvlaki, baklava, loukoumades, and dolmades (for those who aren’t from TO, the Danforth is also called “Greek Town” – I’m sure the menu items tipped you off. I am now hungry), the Danforth is closed to traffic from Broadview to Jones; a 1.6 kilometer stretch.

This weekend, part of Eglinton will be closed for the International Street Festival. Other events like Nuit Blanche, Luminato, Gay Pride, Caribana, Word on the Street, that all make Toronto a vibrant and cosmopolitan city, shut down sections or blocks of streets for a few days every year.

The streets are then open to the people to wander and play and watch parades – one big, pedestrian mall.

A post appearing this week on CityCaucus.com got me thinking about this again (last week, I posted a link to a Toronto Star column that demanded more public spaces for pedestrians). It seems that some find the idea of a car-free day, confined to a small area, repugnant. But as one commenter responded, every day is car day in North America, so what’s the problem with having a day or two set aside for pedestrians only?

I agree. But I can also see why some might take exception to car-free zones. First, the area blocked off must be accessible by transit, preferably rapid transit. If it isn’t served by Skytrains, monorails, subways, metros, etc, and is accessible only or most conveniently by car, then some will be irritated to the point of taking out their pent up fury on babies in strollers and on something called a “looky-loo” (my grandfather was born in 1911 and I don’t think he ever used that phrase. Zooterkins!).

Second, the blocked-off area should ideally be, particularly if the zone is to be permanent, in the downtown core; a place where only the foolhardy, exceedingly patient, or new to the city dare venture in an automobile. If one takes four wheels down to Yonge and Dundas at 5 p.m., prepare for aggravation.

Third, the car-free zone should not only be a shopper’s and latte-sipper’s paradise, but it should have green space, sitting areas, a place where you can unfurl a blanket, eat lunch, read a book, watch people stroll by, and fall asleep. It has to be a pedestrian mall in that it brings people together.

Places like Sparks Street in Ottawa and Stephen Avenue Mall in Calgary are great examples of pedestrian zones (sprawl-a-holic Calgary with a place designated for the left-right express! Zounds!). The car-free Toronto Islands, specifically Ward’s and Algonquin, are pedestrian friendly and if one pauses to listen to the ambient sounds, one is struck by the things one doesn’t hear – like cars (the same fascinating experience, since cars make noises we’re so inured to, can be felt in Venice, Italy).

Cities around the world are starting to claim more space for people, while confining cars to where they are more practically suited, such as suburbs, exurbs, rural regions and highways.

I don’t think the death of the automobile is imminent. It certainly has some practical uses, but there are many urban spaces that could easily and feasibly be claimed for the people without wreaking havoc on everyone else’s transportation plans.

We just need to elect people who accelerate to the future instead of those who idle in the past.

3 Comments

I guess I look at different things. An organic public space will attract businesses that flourish in a pedestrian only environment. When it is artificially injected you create a change in demographic, shopping habits and how the area functions. Once a year, twice a year... great. Start doing it every weekend for 2-3 months and you end up hurting someone nobody intended to hurt - the small business owner.

Take a look at your photo and see how many shopping bags you see. I see none. I see temporary vendors that arrive with little or no cost to be there picking up a good share of the money being spent that day. Who does this help?

What is the ultimate measurement of success? If you area business owner you always look for the bags!

Cities existed long before cars did. And on the whole, the cities that have been most successful are those which have held back the cars.

The great insight has been that streets in cities should not be designed to move vehicle traffic through as quickly as possible. Traffic that needs to get somewhere else should be diverted to a ring road. People who need to get somewhere else need rapid transit. The whole point of a city is to be a forum - a place where unplanned, casual meetings occur - where happenstance and serendipity are at play. Casual encounters. That is important social interaction. It also happens to be good for business but that's a spin off, not the main point at all.

I also happen to think that there is more to life than shopping. ymmv

And, by the way, Robert Moses was as much a social engineer as any other city planner - and a spectacular failure even on his own terms. His huge clearances of vibrant neighborhoods to build throughways only made the traffic worse. Much worse.

of course there is more to life than shopping - unless you are the business owner that is facing a bait and switch scenario in his chosen location.

Our cities invite and encourage (read zoning) people to locate businesses in an area based on shopping patterns, demographics, transit and how we want our city to function. That gets reflected in rents charged and property taxes paid. A business determines whether he can pay all his bills based on the information he researches about a particular location.

Is the location and business model still viable if the street usuage changes over night. How many days do you think a business can survive with 50% reduction in sales. 5-10% margin is all there is in retail at the end of the day. 5 days of snow, a transit strike, street closures can eat that margin up in a heartbeat. We just saw it on Cambie in a very extreme way.

Change the model slowly and Darwin takes over - no worries. Removing someone's profit margin by edict is not healthy evolution. No debate required about whether we need public spaces without cars or whether we all want livable regions. Only a fool would say we don't want them.

What I am suggesting is that the evolution of our streets must be logical, purposeful and respectful of all so that everyone can enjoy the outcomes.

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