By Kim Perry
First, my disclaimer. I unequivocally declare that I adore Toronto! You’d be hard pressed to find an authentic Torontoian who doesn’t. After all, we are the center of the Canadian Universe (just ask any Vancouverite).
However, I’ll be the first to admit, when it comes to pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, frankly, Toronto sucks!
With delicious food choices from anywhere on the globe to our beautiful parklands and a festival for just about anything you can imagine, Toronto really is an incredible city. If you are a sports enthusiast, clubber, or shopaholic, we’ve got you covered. Into the ballet or live theater, or would rather go ice-skating? In Toronto, you can find all this and everything in between. With increased infrastructure for cyclists, a relatively low crime rate, and a population that constantly apologizes, there is very little to complain about (unless of course you have caught wind of our “Ford Nation fiasco”). But even the best city should not rest on its laurels. After visiting Mexico City, a.k.a. Distrito Federal (D.F.), it is clear that when it comes to pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, Toronto can stand to take a few lessons from Mexico’s bustling capital.
We estimated that the walk from our hotel in lovely Polanco to the Historic Center of Mexico would be quick, easy, and straightforward. While it was straight, we certainly underestimated the distance. Accounting for the fact that it was August in the heat trap of Mexico City, with temperatures reaching nearly 90 degrees, the expected hour and twenty minute hike would be anything but a breeze. With a 6-year-old in tow questioning every darn third step, “Where are we going?” the journey could have been pure torture.
And then we were rescued!
Once recalling the old adage about the journey and not the destination, we slowed down and realized that there was a lot to take in along the way. The busy street of Paseo de Reforma runs diagonally through the city and as though the street were created with a variety of uses in mind (not merely a thoroughfare for vehicle traffic) it is lined with grand sculptures, unique installations, and historic plaques. The large installations were just too tempting for our son to avoid climbing on and when we paused, we found a ton of unique views to snap photographs of. The beautiful pedestrian-friendly streetscape was our salvation in what became a three and a half hour journey.
Nonetheless, this is a fraction of the reason that Mexico gets my vote for best streetscapes. Under the blazing sun, we found it necessary to stop often to rest and hydrate and always found somewhere to sit and relax without having to leave the street or become a patron at one of the establishments. The sidewalk on this major street is wide, with plenty of space for pedestrians to navigate and plenty of options for seating. Some of the resting spots were incidental, like curbs, retaining walls for gardens, or steps of monuments. But there was also a huge assortment of public spots specifically dedicated to taking a load off. The seats were not haphazardly placed and are carefully designed and arranged. Some seats are creative and artistic, some functional, and some designed for groups of people to linger and enjoy each other’s company. In any case, they have created an inviting, pleasant, and convenient streetscape.
By contrast, imagine walking along Bloor or Yonge Streets in Toronto. From above, this must resemble an interpretive dance, as people shuffle around each other, at times having to stop dead to allow others to pass. Now imagine needing to stop and have a seat to look at a map or have a snack. On the streets of Toronto, I find this nearly impossible. Before you say it, YES, it is true, Toronto has many sculptures, plaques, and benches, too, but perhaps out of fear that people will become too comfortable in the streets or maybe to discourage homeless people from being visible, places to sit are few and far between, unless you happen to be near a park.
In the downtown core of Toronto, “incidental” seating is typically on private property and is generally not welcome. Private landowners even go to great lengths to police this matter. At this year’s Pride Parade, a security guard directed my son to get off the ledge he was resting on as we waited for the parade to start. City planners and decision makers perpetuate this mindset by making use of “hostile architecture.” That is, where there are benches and public seats, they are generally uncomfortable and are designed to discourage prolonged resting. All of which contributes to Toronto’s being less people- and pedestrian-friendly than Mexico City.
I dare you to compare. I would even hazard a guess that the number of available spots to sit on Paseo de Reforma alone exceed the public sidewalk seating options in all of downtown Toronto. This main street of D.F. has managed to integrate function, beauty, and design to achieve an exceptional streetscape.
So, if you are planning a trip to Mexico City, make sure you save time to leisurely meander along Avenida Reforma. You won’t be disappointed. And, if you are a city planner in Toronto, take note! In this crucial period of redevelopment is an opportunity to make our streets more pedestrian-friendly. Who knows, if we can manage to increase our sidewalk width, we may even acquire space for wandering mariachi bands to accompany the many new burrito eateries that seem to have popped up on every other Toronto street.
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