Toronto has too much ‘public’ space, not too little

Does Toronto have too little or too much public space?

Depends on what the “public” space is used for.

This seems such an obvious answer but one of Toronto’s best urban affairs writers can’t seem to separate the private cars from the public space they destroy.

In an otherwise excellent defence of the square where younger, poorer and darker fans enjoy Raptors and Maple Leaf games outside the arena, Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume concludes that “the lack of public space in Toronto is a perennial problem.” Huh! How could a commentator, who has promoted sensible urban planning as much as to be expected in a newspaper that relies on auto ads for much of its revenue, express such confusion?

It is the exact opposite. To build a healthier, safer, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable city Toronto needs to jettison a significant share of its current “public space”.

Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that even one of Toronto’s most enlightened urban affairs writers can’t see it: Most public land is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis. What’s more, the city pays to pave, repair, police and clean land that generates little or no tax revenue.

Roadways take up 27.4 percent of the area of Toronto while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much as Toronto’s 40 percent “public” land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a handful of wonderful, old Italian cities. Homes, shops, restaurants, public buildings etc. cover the bulk of the cityscape with narrow, mostly walking oriented, streets facilitating travel. In these areas even small squares and parks are attractive since there are few (or no) noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles destroying the ambiance or taking up space. The famed Piazza del Campo in Siena is a tenth the size of Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square but feels as big and is considerably more impressive. Ten different streets, alleys and staircases funnel pedestrians into the remarkable square.

Paradoxically, Toronto’s dominant form of public land ruins large swaths of its park space and public areas. Few people want to relax in a square or park next to multiple lanes of traffic.

The ongoing effort to turn 1.75-kilometers of wasteland under the western section of the Gardiner Expressway into an appealing place to walk, bike and hang out will test this dynamic. About $25 million is being invested to reclaim an area that currently acts as a barrier between downtown and Lake Ontario. Hopefully the “Under Gardiner” project will work, but the surefire way to improve this prime piece of the city is to remove the expressway.

Probably the largest swath of public space ruined by the dominant form of public land is the area along the Don Valley Parkway. It is barely used partly because of the highway running through it.

While Toronto needs more publicly owned housing, daycares and businesses, it doesn’t need more public land or park space. It needs less area devoted to private cars.

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