Postcards for Public Places.

Sweden, Malmö

What makes your city, a great city?
Is it that cozy café down the block serving your favourite locally brewed coffee?
How about the distance from your home to that 506 bus stop which gets you to work in only fifteen minutes? Or maybe it’s that park you bike to—quite and peaceful—a break from the non-stop chaos you both love and hate about cities.

How you use, understand and read the urban fabric on a day-to-day basis; your commute to work, how you spend your leisure time, where you grab a bite to eat, where you enjoy music, art and culture—All of this is driven by the quality of an urban centre’s public domains, place-making abilities and urban design strategies.

Studying urban design in Sweden has given me an amazing opportunities to travel internationally, raising the question as to what makes many European cities like Copenhagen, Berlin and Stockholm such “model” cities?  —And as a proud Torontonian, a more important question then follows; How can Toronto transform from a great city into an even better one?

With a series of postcards highlighting a different place and public space every month, follow along on a conversation, discussing what Toronto can gain from international urban spaces—and what the rest of the world can gain from Toronto.

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StopGap – DIY Accessibility

Maybe you’ve noticed the brightly coloured ramps at the entrances to shops scattered around downtown, in the Junction & along Roncesvalles. These ramps make businesses with a step at the entrance wheelchair accessible, and also raise awareness about a problem that is both often overlooked, and easily solved. On each ramped is stencilled STOPGAP.CA.

Luke Anderson, the project’s creator, uses a wheelchair himself and so knows the city’s accessibility challenges intimately. When he started a new job at an office that did not have a ramp at the entrance Luke had to rely on a coworker to come down and set up a temporary ramp whenever he wanted to come or go. Aside from the huge inconvenience of this, they also noticed that when they had the ramp set up, other people wanted to use it too. A simple ramp could make life a little easier for couriers, parents with strollers, people with bikes and the elderly. And so StopGap was born.

StopGap will provide a free ramp, made to measure, for businesses with one step at the entrance. They are able to do this with donated materials and simple construction. Some of the ramps are made through a partnership with Dixon Hall’s Mill Centre.

When the project was just getting started, they thought they should notify the local councillors in neighbourhoods where they planned to install the ramps. After encountering red tape, and waiting and waiting for any kind of approval from the city they decided to adopt what Luke calls “a renegade type of approach”. They like to get the OK from the local councillor, or Business Improvement Association if they can – but it’s not something they rely on to get things going. Making the ramps removable allows them to avoid a whole mess of nearly impossible to obtain approvals including zoning variances (allowing the ramps to encroach on public property) and building permits, which would require much more involved and costly construction, and which in many cases would not be possible within the space constraints of a particular site. This DIY approach is a great reminder that public space is something we can all have a hand in shaping to our needs, desires and whims.

The project is growing quickly, and there are plans in the works to expand to other communities across the province and the country. Others have taken up the cause and started ramp projects in Vernon, BC and Belleville, ON. StopGap provides guides, information packages and support to anyone hoping to start up a similar project in their community.

As the project’s name suggests the ramps aren’t intended to be the ideal solution. While eliminating the obstacle of steps up into businesses makes a huge difference, there are other more difficult to solve accessibility challenges in Toronto. Transit is a big one – less than half of subway stations are accessible, and streetcars aren’t accessible at all. While this will change when the new streetcars arrive, currently neighbourhoods served by streetcar routes are no-go zones for wheelchair users. Luke explains that for someone like him getting to Parkdale or Roncesvalles is a huge pain (although the 290 licenses for accessible taxicabs approved by City Council this Wednesday will help). He also compared Toronto to cities like Vancouver and Stockholm which are both much more accessible than Toronto and provide fully accessible transit systems. “They think of everybody when they design,” Luke says. We’re headed in the right direction; The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) will aim to make all public buildings and transit fully accessible, but won’t be fully implemented until 2025. There will be many gaps that will need stopping in the meantime.

There is also a shortage of accessible housing, both in downtown and in the suburbs. The vast majority of homes (excluding apartment towers) have several steps to get up into them. This is a challenge that will only get worse, as our population ages, but we continue to design homes that aren’t suitable for the elderly or mobility impaired. Retrofitting an existing house to accommodate peoples’ changing needs as they age is often difficult and costly – not to mention far less elegant than it could be if incorporated into the original design. Thinking about the elderly when we think about accessibility challenges in general is a good way to reach more people. As Luke points out, people are more willing to accept change if they think of it as something that they or their parents may need in the future.

As Luke observes, “a little goes so far”. Little interventions like the STOPGAP.CA ramps can do so much to make our city more inclusive and to bring potential for spontaneity and exploration to people with mobility impairments. We may still be waiting for a lot of changes when it comes to urban accessibility, but when the new streetcars roll out enabling wheelchair users to start exploring new areas of the city, there will be stopgap ramps waiting for them when they do.


image courtesy of StopGap

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The Gardiner Expressway: Where do we go from here?

The Gardineer Expressway  heading east into the city center.

The Gardiner Expressway heading east into the city center.

Very soon, the Toronto City Council and Waterfront Toronto will be making a critical decision regarding the future of the Gardiner Expressway. One of Toronto’s key transport thoroughfares, the longstanding infrastructure has been showing the cracks of age for sometime now. Up for consideration are four proposals: maintain, remove, improve, replace.

The quick fix is to continue maintenance on the current structure; patch it up and revisit the issue a few years down the track. Yes, this option will be the least disruptive to commuters who use the expressway now, but where does it leave Toronto? Surely in a position where 20 years from now we are ruing the hundreds of millions spent on maintenance that would likely have been enough to pay for a better alternative. This said, the direct counter proposal to this, which would be to tear it down and bring the traffic to ground level presents equally confronting challenges. The obvious issue here is; would downtown arterial streets cope with the traffic? In short, definitely not. As a result, widening of roads that run parallel to the expressway such as Lake Shore Boulevard would become a necessity. Add to the scenario signalled intersections for streets running perpendicular to the expressway and you’ll start to remember why the overpass was constructed in the first place. Also consider that Toronto now has a hypothetical situation where its southern precincts are not only segregated by a major train route but also dozens of lanes of high-speed expressway traffic. It’s no secret that a city’s functionality is largely influenced by its connectivity. This option will allow areas on either side of the freeway to complement and interact with each other about as effectively as a wall would.

So far not so good…so what’s next? Another proposal suggests improving the current expressway not just structurally but also investing in its integration with the urban fabric. In recent years, development has finally stepped over the Gardiner and a  “south core” is now emerging in Toronto, mostly populated by condominium housing and other mixed use sites; meaning that more than ever, there is very good reason to encourage connectivity within this area of Toronto. This proposal aims to fill the holes in the urban fabric created by intensive transport infrastructure and implement strategies that encourage a flow of pedestrian traffic underneath the expressway – essentially connecting north and south. For proof of how easily the weeds, rubbish and concrete dust amongst the vast concrete pillars can be transformed, look no further than the already built Underpass Park. In use for over two years now, it serves as a taste of what could be achieved with the forgotten land underneath the expressway.

Replacing the Gardiner Expressway with a tunnel is another option currently in consideration. Take the traffic completely out of sight and create vast space in a key downtown location; a possibility that is hard to ignore. Increased land tax revenue generated by the inevitable rise in land value surrounding the former Gardiner Expressway might even chip away at the price tag enough to get traction on this proposal. However from an engineers perspective, constructing a tunnel underneath a landfill site and so close to the water table not only adds significant cost but becomes a logistical nightmare. More feasible in this scenario is the complete rebuilding of the expressway above ground.

These issues really only scratch the surface when it comes to considering the aforementioned proposals. For those interested in finding out more and getting involved, the third public meeting will be held on the 6th of February at Bram & Bluma Appel Salon. Visit to find out more and register to attend.


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Digital Explosion: Public Consultation about new LED Billoards across the city

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A new report is recommending that massive digital billboards be allowed in new districts all across Toronto.  The report calls these signs “static electronic”, even though they flash different ads thousands of times a day.  The city is hosting public consultations, to get your input! Please attend one of these sessions, to make sure your voice is heard.  (more details below..)

Public Billboard Consultations (6:30 to 9:30pm)

North York Civic Centre • Monday, September 23 • facebook
Etobicoke Civic Centre • Tuesday, September 24 • facebook
Toronto City Hall • Wednesday, September 25 • facebook
Scarborough Civic Centre • Thursday, September 26 • facebook


Background and details:

pardon_meIn 2010, the City of Toronto went through an extensive public consultation process to develop a new sign bylaw.  Based on public input and expert advice, the new bylaw restricted electronic billboards to two places:  Dundas Square and the Gardiner Expressway.

Now, just three years later, a new report is recommending that we open the floodgates, and allow electronic digital billboards across the city.  Specifically, the recommendation would allow digital billboards in all Commercial and Employment districts.  Considering that these billboards can be seen from 2 km away… this represents a huge part of the city.  The report also recommends that Astral Media should be allowed to install digital advertising boards in every bus shelter in Toronto.

iogoA recent IPSOS Reid poll found that  55 percent of those surveyed believe the city needs to do MORE to control the use of electronic billboards.   In addition, only 17% think it’s acceptable to have them in residential areas – yet the recommendations would allow massive digital billlboards within 250m from a residential premise, and smaller digital boards on residential bus shelters across the city.

We’ve heard from a number of people who live with bright changing signs outside their condo windows that kept them awake at night. Yet the city has made no effort to consult these residents, to review the impact of these signs before subjecting more people to it.

Then there is the issue of driver distraction and road safety:

Digital billboards are designed to attract your attention away from the road – that’s the business model.  ASTRAL Media’s website even boasts that “More than 80% of motorists believe that digital displays are eye-catching.”

cruzeIn a recent report by Jerry Watchtel, eight studies are reviewed from the USA, Australia, Canada, England, Israel, Norway and Sweden.  The studies demonstrate both a correlative and causal relationship between digital billboards and traffic accidents. Perhaps the most compelling of these is the Israeli study of 2010 for the National Roads Authority which has been peer reviewed. In this “real world” experiment billboards were at first visible and then covered to determine their affect on motorists. The results were a 60% reduction in total crashes with a 39% decline in injury and fatal crashes and a 72% reduction in collisions resulting in property damage.

Based on these eight studies the 2013 Wachtel Report concludes verbatim that:

“Every study in the past 5 years has produced consistent findings – that roadside billboards, especially digital and video, cause significant levels of driver distraction.”

“These distractions result in poorer speed control and lane positioning, and may increase crashes in demanding situations when unexpected events occur.”

“Roads with high visual clutter make it hard to extract critical driving information – especially for older drivers.”

“Unlike in –vehicle distractions, experienced drivers are just as susceptible to such distractions and adverse behaviors as are young novice drivers.”

Here in Toronto, a recent IPSOS Reid poll found that 52 percent of those surveyed find electronic signs distracting while driving – that’s almost 3 times that as many as for traditional signs.

The evidence that these types of signs are dangerous continues to accumulate.  We believe the city should implement a moratorium on any new electronic billboard applications, until more data is available about the safety implications.

We hope you can join us at one of these upcoming events:

Public Billboard Consultations (6:30 to 9:30pm)

North York Civic Centre • Monday, September 23 • facebook
Etobicoke Civic Centre • Tuesday, September 24 • facebook
Toronto City Hall • Wednesday, September 25 • facebook
Scarborough Civic Centre • Thursday, September 26 • facebook

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TEYCC Billoard Proposal

The Toronto Public Space Initiative successfully advocacted to defeat and stall a large number of billboard proposals at TEYCC, including LEDs and vinyl billboards.

TPSI is concerned about billboards because they can have negative impacts on neighbourhoods, public space, property values, and traffic safety in some cases, among other concerns.

Specifically, the January 10 2012 TEYCC meeting heard proposals for 20 new billboards (not including both sides) that would have required variances from the Sign Bylaw to be installed. Essentially, the billboard company ‘Strategic Outdoor’ was requesting that they be given formal permission to ‘get around’ the letter and spirit of the Sign Bylaw that regulates billboards and mitigates many of the concerns that TPSI and communities have with regard to billboards.

Fortunately, thanks to our advocacy efforts, the 3 LED variance requests (more if you count additional sides) were rejected by TEYCC, and finally City Council on Feb 6 2012.

It is the current understanding of TPSI that the remaining vinyl billboard variance applications were deferred at the TEYCC February 14 2012 meeting to allow the Committee time to receive legal advice on the matter, as the company behind the proposal may have threatened legal action against the City should its proposals be rejected due to what may have been a procedural error on behalf of the City in the initial stages of the application which would have allowed it to guard itself against such action. In the opinion of TPSI this appears to be a underhanded manipulation of the law by the company behind the billboard proposals in an effort to thwart Council’s will.

The TPSI Advocacy Division continues to monitor the situation.


For a full list of the billboard variance applications see this TEYCC meeting agenda, and see items TE12.99 to TE12.119

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O’Keefe Laneway and St Enochs Square

TPSI and ING DIRECT partnered to complete a community design project along with 8-80 Cities and Gehl Architects.

View Larger Map

The innovative project sought to revitalize the O’Keefe laneway and St Enochs Square between Yonge and Victoria St., near Yonge-Dundas Square by transforming the derelict space into a vibrant public space through a community design process.

Successful precedents in Melbourne, Australia, suggest that these overlooked spaces can become hubs of pedestrian friendly community activity, incorporating greenery, public art, festivals, and even small scale retail such as coffee shops and flower shops,  supporting density and economic development.

The community consultation project is now complete. Those interested in seeing the results should contact 8-80 Cities directly. Unfortunately, construction is expected to keep the laneway closed until at least 2015.

This project is partially funded by the Ontario Government.

ING DIRECT nominated O’Keefe Ln/St Enochs Sq to be part of the 8-80 Cities Make a Place for People project that aims to renew 8 locations in Ontario through a community-design process. The laneway is one of two sites chosen to work with celebrated Danish architecture firm Gehl Architects. The final community-led plan for the space will be made publicly available and include visualizations and recommendations based on input from various groups. The overview of the Make a Place for People project is here:

8-80 Cities Make a Place for People project

ING Direct
Gehl Architects


ON Gov
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Real Estate Services Billboard Proposal

Thanks to TPSI advocacy and the foresight of numerous Councillors the January 30th 2012 Growth Management Committee amended a Real Estate Services staff proposal to put out an RFP to secure a third party agent to review the City’s current sign/billboard locations and contracts on City property, and to identify additional sites for outdoor advertising on municipal properties, without involving Council in the final decision making process.

TPSI was concerned that the passage of the proposal as it was would have lead to a proliferation of additional billboards, including LEDs, without proper oversight by Council, public consultations, or community and safety standards to screen them.

TPSI was also concerned about the financial arrangements of the proposal, which requested authority to hire a consultant (an advertising company) for $150,000 to secure additional advertising on City property and to pay for this budget increase with ‘projected’ revenue increases of $150,000 from additional advertising. The City currently generates approximately $137,000 from signs, calling into question the validity and feasibility of the projected revenue increase without a massive influx of new billboards. In addition, there appears to have been a lack of comparison between the minimal revenue increase (theoretically only in future years after the consultant is paid) against billboard ‘costs’ to the community, residential property values, traffic safety, future development, and the aesthetic appeal and desirability of the city to residents, visitors, and tourists. That is, if any additional revenue would be generated at all.

TPSI secured the following amendments that help to mitigate the troubling proposal. While not perfect, the amendments are positive. The TPSI Advocacy Division will continue to monitor developments on this matter.

4. City Council request the Chief Corporate Officer, prior to exercising the authority given in Recommendation 1, to bring forward the RFP  scope of work to the Government Management Committee for review and approval.

5. City Council direct that the number of locations be limited to 29.

6. City Council direct that the proposed RFP contain the following provisions:

a. The intent is to review and renew the existing sign agreements to achieve the market value.

b. Any proposed changes to the existing portfolio be in compliance with the Harmonized Sign By-law.

c. The strategy provide opportunities for public consultation and input from local Councillors. 

7. City Council direct that the successful vendor shall agree not to take on any client who is applying for a sign on City property while under contract to the City, or for two years after completion of the contract.

8. City Council direct that any further locations be forwarded to the Government Management Committee for approval.

9. City Council direct that the final report of the consultant be presented to the Government Management Committee for discussion.

Government Management Committee Agenda Item GM10.8

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Dundas Roncesvalles Peace Garden

TPSI is partnered with the Dundas Roncesvalles Peace Garden Group to support the creation of a new public garden at the corner of Dundas and Roncesvalles, in Toronto’s west end. The Peace Garden project has the potential to beautify and green an otherwise under-utilized section of public space at an important gateway to the community while recognizing local history and heritage.

Please visit the Official Website for more information, photos, and opportunities to get involved.

The Dundas Roncesvalles Peace Garden Group is a committee of the Roncesvalles-Macdonell Residents’ Association and community partners including the Roncesvalles Village BIA, the Roncesvalles Historical Society, Roncesvalles Rewnewed, the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto, and the Toronto Public Space Initiative.

The Project has the support of the City of Toronto’s Museum Services, Public Realm Services in the City of Toronto’s Transportation Department, local Councillor Gord Perks, the Binational Peace Garden Trail Network, and the Metis Fiddler Quartet.

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