Corp Comm Connects

Pushing Toronto’s public space to the limit

Local non-profits at Doors Open Toronto event eager to change the city landscape
May 26, 2015
By Natalie Chu

From harvesting fruit grown on city soil to laneways and back door green space, some Toronto activists say residents should be demanding more of their public space.

“We find ourselves in a moment that the city hasn’t been anticipating,” said Annabel Vaughan, architect and moderator of the panel discussion ‘Rethinking It: Making Toronto’s Public Space Work Harder’, held at the historic Fort York grounds Sunday afternoon, May 24. Vaughan was joined by five other representatives of local non-profits eager to change the city landscape. The event was part of the city’s annual Doors Open Toronto festival.

That moment, Vaughan said, is when residents begin to consider the loss of common space in the city, and are actively looking to reclaim and transform spaces into more creative uses such as shipping container markets and ovens in public parks.

It’s this public space, she said, that is the framework where everything else in the city grows.

For panelist Laura Reinsborough, founder of non-profit Not Far From The Tree, the idea begins at a most basic, organic level. Her fruit sharing project, where volunteers harvest fruit from trees in local residential properties and donate the bounty to local social services, is entering its eighth year. A simple concept, she said, that continues to have a profound impact.

“It shifts our perspective when we eat from city soil,” said Reinsborough, who after considering the collaboration needed to harvest one tree, began to see the city not as separate lots but as a large urban orchard.

Dissolving property lines have been one of her biggest takeaways. “In those few hours of picking that private space transforms; we’re unlocking the potential of sharing in the community,” said Reinsborough, who reported this year there are 600 registered trees on 1,300 properties.

Rethinking the potential of underused space was the key to panelist Michelle Senayah’s project to transform the city’s nearly 2,400 public laneways. With the decreasing amount of outdoor space making it difficult to create more conventional public space, Senayah said it’s important to get residents engaged in the existing space.

The Laneway Project, she said, now has online how-to guides on how to green laneway space, add a mural or even throw a party.

“Use your space so it’s not overlooked,” Senayah urged the audience.

Connecting existing public space was also on the minds of other panelists: Emily Munroe of Open Streets TO, Helena Grdadolnik of the Green Line and James Gen Meers, of the Friends of the Pan Am Path.

Grdadolnik’s mission to connect the often neglected Dupont hydro corridor into a five kilometre linear park was not about adding a few flowers here and there, but about “thinking of the park as a more holistic space.”

Meers also hopes to activate a nearly 80 km existing network of trails including the Humber, Waterfront and Lower Don trails with the Friends of the Pan Am Path. Currently hosting a 14-week Art Relay festival event, Meers says using the public space is not just about developing economic activity but a chance to bring the expansive path to life and leveraging the diversity of the surrounding communities (more than 21 Wards are connecting with seven priority neighbourhoods).

“This is just the beginning,” Meers said of the project, where construction will continue into 2017. Cycle Toronto has also expressed interest in the connections.

The audience posed questions of accessibility and negotiating designated areas for cyclists and pedestrians to the panelists. Vaughan hoped the talk ultimately inspired a sense of ownership by the residents to make public space a larger, continued discussion.

“We are trying to challenge this notion of how we activate and what responsibility we have over public space; it just takes one champion to open doors and move it forward,” Vaughan said.