Public Realm

Making downtown Yonge a post-pandemic model of safety and equity

By June 25, 2020 No Comments
Busy intersection full of people

After years of community advocacy, in 2015 the City of Toronto launched the yongeTOmorrow study to improve the pedestrian experience along downtown Yonge Street from Queen to College. By early 2020 a preferred redesign had emerged, featuring significantly expanded pedestrian space (including some fully-pedestrianized portions), improved road safety measures, a greener and more accessible streetscape, and public realm enhancements to support business. (Read all about it in this detailed post on our blog).

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But just as consultation was nearing completion, COVID-19 hit and the project was put on hold. Now, as Toronto moves from initial pandemic response towards broader recovery and rebuilding efforts, it’s time to consider how to strengthen the Yonge Street redesign — to take it beyond simply improving the pedestrian experience and towards supporting a safe, equitable COVID-19 recovery for all.

On July 2, the City Building Institute will host a free webinar to discuss the future of Yonge and people-first street design in the context of COVID-19 recovery. Moderated by the Globe & Mail’s Oliver Moore, panelists will discuss how yongeTOmorrow has taken on new meaning and urgency.

The goal to rebalance Yonge Street to better support pedestrians was foundational to the yongeTOmorrow project, but has assumed even greater import in the context of COVID-19. Renee Daoust, a founding partner at Montreal design firm Daoust Lestage, has decades of experience redesigning streets and public space to put people first. Renee will share her experience working on major public realm redesigns with obvious parallels to downtown Yonge – Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles and St. Catherine Street – and will reflect on the power of pedestrian-priority design to improve streets for all users.

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In addition to active transportation, the public realm has also been critical in supporting community during the pandemic – providing space for recreation, to connect with neighbours, and to access goods and services. Dr. Zhixi Zhuang, an Associate Professor at Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and an expert in placemaking and multicultural planning, authored a 2018 report on the power of public realm improvements to benefit adjacent university campuses. Zhixi will share insights on what a redesigned Yonge Street could mean for Ryerson, and how it could deepen the campus-community connection in the wake of COVID-19.

Mark Garner, ED of the Downtown Yonge BIA, has been working closely with businesses hit hard by COVID-19 to explore creative approaches to main street recovery. In the coming months, streets will play a critical role in facilitating safe commercial activity on sidewalks and streets (think outdoor markets and seating areas like CafeTO), and redesign plans for Yonge must address the immediate need to ensure people feel safe and comfortable to return to their main streets, while looking ahead to bigger changes in the long term.

Equity was a consideration in the yongeTOmorrow plan from the outset, and particularly important given the area’s significant unhoused population and concentration of vital harm reduction, social, and health services. But as COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable, now is the time to consider how a Yonge Street redesign could go further in supporting equity and providing benefits to all who live in, work in, and visit the neighbourhood. How to actively address the needs of the most vulnerable in our COVID-19 response has been a priority for Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, and an important focus she will bring to our discussion on July 2nd. 

Street design itself won’t solve the deep challenges facing our cities amidst COVID-19, but people-first changes to the public realm could be an important element of broader recovery efforts, helping to aid the most vulnerable, support small business, and make active transportation and public space more safe and equitable for all.

We hope you will join us on July 2 for our discussion of Yonge Street, and where we could go with yongeTOmorrow.