Last week, the City of Toronto relaunched yongeTOmorrow, a project to design a people-first future for Downtown Yonge Street from Queen to College. The recommended design puts forward a bold vision that includes significantly expanded pedestrian space, improved road safety measures, a greener and more accessible streetscape, and enhancements to support area businesses. The plan has the potential to create an exceptional main street that meets the everyday needs of the neighbourhood’s many diverse users and also offers a premier destination for events, celebrations, and visitors.
And now, after months on hold due to COVID-19, the yongeTOmorrow redesign has taken on new meaning and urgency: the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated existing risks and inequities in urban environments, including on city streets. As the consultation process restarts alongside Toronto’s ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts, now is the time to ensure that Yonge Street’s redesign not only achieves its original goals to improve the pedestrian experience, support area business, and enhance safety, but goes further to support a safe and equitable COVID-19 recovery.
Rebalancing Road Space
Improving the pedestrian experience has always been a core goal of the yongeTOmorrow project. But over the past few months, physical distancing measures have made Yonge Street’s narrow sidewalks and insufficient pedestrian space all the more apparent, while the rise of curbside pick up, open air retail activity, and patio dining has pointed to the need for an expanded and enhanced public realm in this busy commercial corridor. Meanwhile, increasing reliance on parks throughout the pandemic has highlighted the neighbourhood’s lack of quality, welcoming, and accessible public space.
The experience of COVID-19 has amplified the need to reallocate road space on Yonge Street to prioritize pedestrians and respond to diverse user needs. And with a new ActiveTO bikeway now in place on University Avenue, offering safe and efficient access to downtown and connections to nearby cycling routes, Yonge Street is posed to become a unique, pedestrian-priority space.
Neighbourhood, campus, and main street recovery
The public realm has been critically important throughout the pandemic — parks have provided essential space for outdoor recreation and connection, new active transportation infrastructure has enhanced mobility and eased pressure on transit, and main streets have adapted creatively to continue to provide local goods and services. In the coming months, streets and public space will continue to play a critical role COVID-19 recovery and rebuilding, supporting health, recreation, mobility, and business.
Designing a unified streetscape with space for seating, cafes, and greening to support local businesses, residents, and the campus community has always been a central goal of the yongeTOmorrow project. And now we know that a well-designed and well-programmed public realm can also help to manage the day to day challenges of the pandemic, and offer users the confidence they need to return to main streets. In the short term, by enhancing the public realm and making it work better for a diverse range of users, yongeTOmorrow could support neighbourhood recovery – bringing activity back to the street, its businesses, and the campus. And in the long term, it would put in place critical infrastructure to support the future livability of the Downtown Yonge neighbourhood and the Ryerson campus.
Equity has been a key tenet of the yongeTOmorrow project from its outset. But today, as COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable, it is critical that this principle is reaffirmed. The Downtown Yonge neighbourhood has a significant homeless population, many of whom have been deeply impacted by COVID-19, and a concentration of vital harm reduction, social, and health services. Recognizing this, the future design and operations of Yonge Street must offer safety and benefits not only to local home- and business-owners, but to all those who spend time in the neighbourhood.
Changing the physical form of the street will not solve the deep inequities and safety challenges that exist in the neighbourhood. But taking this moment to adopt a nuanced definition of safety and livability and to consider how the redesign could truly put people first, could be an important step. The resulting redesign could offer aid to the most vulnerable and make active transportation and public space more safe and equitable for all.
A new vision
Temporary public realm activations — including CurbTO sidewalk expansions, CafeTO temporary patios, and ActiveTO bikeways on nearby streets like University — have rolled out across Toronto and Yonge Street as part of the City’s COVID-19 recovery efforts. So today, as the City refines the yongeTOmorrow plans, we are in a position to actually see some of the proposed design strategies in action. These temporary activations offer unique opportunities to test, measure, and evaluate the impacts of some of yongeTOmorrow’s proposed design and operational changes — including lane reductions, expanded public realm, and enhanced pedestrian space.
Over the coming weeks and months, temporary public realm changes in the area should be monitored closely; impacts on accessibility, movement, and congestion could offer valuable lessons to inform the refinement of the yongeTOmorrow design, and to demonstrate the potential of the longer-term, broader redesign plans.
Overall, the experience of COVID-19 has reiterated the importance of the original goals of the yongeTOmorrow project: supporting the comfort and safety of pedestrians, ensuring equity and accessibility for all road users, and facilitating success for local business. The recommended design concept has the potential to respond to shorter-term recovery and rebuilding needs along Yonge Street, and at the same time underpin the future livability, prosperity, and sustainability of the neighbourhood as a whole.
The City of Toronto will host an online public consultation event on September 16th, where the yongeTOmorrow recommended design concept will be presented for feedback before consideration by City Council this December. You can review the consultation materials, register for the consultation events, and complete an online questionnaire on the project website.