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Going public: A look at how other cities use outdoor space

For this instalment of an occasional series looking at the best city-building in the world, we take it outside to see how other cities get creative about where people come together

Toronto lacks places to sit down and take a break. We don’t need fancy street furniture — basic metal chairs such as the ones in Tuileries Garden in Paris would work.

Toronto likes to call itself "a city in a park." These days, that slogan makes more sense than ever; the city is changing and so are our ideas of what a park looks like and what it's for – not just a moment in nature or a game of soccer but food, art and building community in a diverse and dense city.

Already public spaces are appearing in unconventional places. Later this year, the Bentway, underneath the Gardiner Expressway, will open to the public. The vision includes a skating trail, performance venue and public art. Nearby, Mayor John Tory has thrown his support behind the possibility of Rail Deck Park, an area of up to 21 acres that would be suspended over a rail corridor along the west side of downtown. And Rail Deck Park is just one part of the city's broad Parks and Public Realm Plan for downtown, within a new plan dubbed TO Core. With the population of downtown poised to almost double in the next 25 years, it's time to get creative about where we come together.

What might that look like? To answer the question, The Globe and Mail looked to cities where the grass is greener – and where public spaces might not have grass at all, where streets and sidewalks are seen as public space, and where there's room to sit, to eat, and to raise a glass.

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Can't beat a seat

Janette Sadik-Khan keeps a cheap beach chair as a memento from the time she closed Times Square to vehicles. Her staff had made a last-minute expedition to buy hundreds of the $11 chairs and set them out in the newly available space. People responded in droves, showing a pent-up demand to sit.

"Not just in New York but anywhere: in a city without seats, a beach chair can be king," New York's former transportation commissioner wrote in her book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.

Although Toronto is not as densely built-up as New York, there is a lack of public seating in many parts of this city as well. Advocates point to Yonge Street, south of Bloor, as particularly sparse. Even in Kensington Market – perhaps the most pedestrian-friendly area in Toronto – a serious lack of public seating was exposed once the local park was closed off for construction.

The urban goal of "sticky streets" – which encourage people to spend time – is made harder if people have no way to stop and linger unless they buy something. And a place to rest briefly is particularly important to older pedestrians, a group that is becoming larger as the city ages. Without knowing that they will be able to sit occasionally, seniors will be less likely to move about on foot, leading to poorer health.

The seating doesn't have to be grand, as Ms. Sadik-Khan learned in New York. They can be the sort of basic metal chairs found in Parisian parks. Or they can be incorporated into the fabric of buildings or plazas, where large staircases do double-duty as seating. – Oliver Moore

A 'living yard' – with cars

The Netherlands pioneered the concept of the ‘living yard,’ where pedestrians and cyclists share the road with vehicles moving at a walking pace.

When cities look to create space in areas with lots of pedestrians, invariably someone proposes banning cars. The idea often backfires, though, leading to tatty spaces that appeal primarily to tourists, with little sense of local life remaining. A more successful approach can be to work toward some kind of shared space.

The Netherlands pioneered this with the concept of the woonerf, a term that translates as "living yard." In these spaces, which date to the 1970s, there is no practical distinction between a sidewalk and a street. Pedestrians and cyclists share the road with vehicles moving at a walking pace.

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Major municipalities in other countries, including Barcelona, Spain, and Osaka, Japan, have taken similar approaches in parts of the city. Most vehicle traffic is pushed out of these neighbourhoods and drivers that do enter must move very slowly. Instead of being relegated to the margins, as in most cities, pedestrian life spills out across the street.

In all of these cases, the effect is to increase the amount of public space, while also boosting safety.

"We want these public spaces to be areas where one can exercise all citizen rights: exchange, expression and participation, culture and knowledge, the right to leisure," Salvador Rueda, director of Barcelona's urban ecology agency, told The Guardian.

Although such changes may seem far-fetched in Toronto, where many councillors still resist anything that slows traffic, a junior version of a woonerf exists by St. Lawrence Market. There is no physically distinct sidewalk, though there are rows of posts that effectively create a barrier between cars and people.

If Toronto wanted to go further, they could designate an area such as Kensington Market as a woonerf. The area has heavy pedestrian traffic that frequently spills off the sidewalk. So why not recognize that reality and have everyone share the public right of way, letting pedestrians make use of the full space while still allowing cars to drive through? – Oliver Moore

Places to go

Paris has deployed 400 small, automated self-cleaning, street-level washrooms, called Sanisettes, around the city

Paris is the City of Lights, home of the Arc de Triomphe, romance, berets etc. – and, in years past, its notorious pissoirs and primitive pit toilets. To find relief in parts of one of the world's greatest cities involved a series of potential horrors, particularly for North Americans: squatting over a hole in the ground or having to pay a strangely watchful attendant for the privilege of doing one's business.

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But Paris these days has long since expanded – and gradually made free of charge – its network of more than 400 small, automated self-cleaning, street-level washrooms, called Sanisettes. You go for free, and – provided you are not trapped inside during the terrifying self-cleaning cycle – you leave relieved and unscarred.

Meanwhile, Toronto – and to be fair many other cities, including New York and London – suffers from a chronic shortage of public toilets. Those Toronto does have are generally hard to find and they stink. And using one in the back of a doughnut shop, without buying a coffee, can earn one the stink-eye.

In Britain, the resulting public urination has long been a pressing public-policy issue. As the pubs empty at last call, pub-goers empty their bladders on street corners, damaging the country's many historic buildings. In desperation, authorities have announced legal crackdowns and started deploying new, mobile pissoir-style open-air urinals – no thank you, I can hold it – at festivals and other large events. (They have also imported the French Sanisette, but gave it a much more English name: the Superloo.)

A decade ago, Toronto was promised its own flashy Parisian waste-management solution under former mayor David Miller's deal with billboard company Astral to provide the city with new "street furniture" in exchange for advertising rights. Mr. Miller even inaugurated – not that way, just by cutting a ribbon – the first German-engineered, $450,000, coin-operated self-cleaning toilet to open for business here back in 2010.

Originally, 20 such marvels were planned across the city, but that number was later scaled back to just three. But don't great cities need great places to go? – Jeff Gray

The edible city

Vacant lots, public squares and other disused land in the picturesque German town of Andernach have been turned into a urban farm.

Toronto just voted on a limited pilot project to test the viability of backyard chicken farming in certain wards, but in many other cities, urban agriculture is accepted as a fact of life.

Vacant lots, public squares and other disused land in the picturesque German town of Andernach, a city of 30,000 about 80 kilometres south of Cologne on the banks of the Rhine, have been turned into a urban farm through a decade-old project managed by the municipal government.

Chickens lay eggs, sheep graze and local volunteers – along with a paid seasonal crew of formerly chronically unemployed or migrant workers – harvest a wide variety of crops including beans, lettuce and tomatoes. Vegetable gardens surround the walls of the town's medieval castle ruin. Grape vines climb up buildings.

It's one of a growing number of similar experiments in Europe and elsewhere that some say could see large amounts of food produced sustainably within city walls. (It is also simply a fact of life in many cities in developing countries.)

Andernach's program makes use of plots of land that might otherwise be left empty or be planted with ornamental flowers instead of crops that can be eaten. Signs tell passersby they are free to pick what they like. And in addition to free food, proponents say it helps connect city folk with nature.

"It's hard for townspeople to experience nature, so we've decided to bring nature back into the city," Lutz Kosack, the town's botanist, told The Wall Street Journal last year. – Jeff Gray

Park and eat

Everyone knows that every good house party ends up in the kitchen. But that principle doesn't carry over to Toronto's parks and other public spaces; food service in and around parks is rare. The crowds on Centre Island get franchise pizza and pop. Good luck finding a snack for your kids, never mind a glass of wine, in your neighbourhood park. It doesn't have to be like this. A few local activists – the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park, and Sabina Ali and the Thorncliffe Park Women's Committee – have shown there are opportunities to grow, cook and serve healthy food in parks and bring people together.

But those efforts have required lobbying, political will and volunteer labour. Why not, instead, echo London's system and open up the parks to some sort of commerce? The city's 3,000 parks include hundreds of restaurants and cafés, from low-key snack booths to high-end restaurants. The city's leasing process balances financial return with measures of how well the restaurateur will serve the community. There are opportunities for a city government such as Toronto's to favour neighbourhood entrepreneurs, emphasize local food production and serve public-health goals – not to mention bring some empanadas or goat curry to spice up the public realm. – Alex Bozikovic

River revitalization

Los Angeles has begin a $1-billion revitalization of the Los Angeles River, something Toronto needs to go with the Don River.

Los Angeles grew up along a river, but that waterway has almost vanished in the modern city – built into a concrete channel, treated largely as a storm sewer and seen as a location for car chases. But the City of Los Angeles has a vision for the entire 82-kilometre expanse of the river, which involves the architect Frank Gehry – and a restoration is already under way, with more than $1-billion (U.S.) devoted to greening the river and connecting it to the communities around it. That took political will and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has made it a central theme of his administration, a project that can "transform how Angelenos connect with the natural world," addressing water management, parkland and environmental justice.

Toronto has a similar opportunity in its ravine systems, which are the city's most important natural features. Specifically: right next to downtown, along the Don River, lies 480 acres of public land, largely unused, historically and ecologically crucial. The river passes not just affluent Rosedale, but also very close to Regent Park and empties out in the Port Lands, which will be home to tens of thousands of residents.

What to do with it? There's a vision, developed by top landscape architects and the local non-profit Evergreen, for a Don River Valley Park; yet this idea has been languishing for more than two years. What stands in the way? Money and, particularly, political will.

A real park here would require some money (albeit a tiny fraction of the $1-billion (Canadian) being floated for Rail Deck Park) and it would ultimately demand a rethink of the roads, ramps and city works yard that help cut up the green space of the valley. A bold move here and funding for the new ravine strategy created by city planners could give Toronto a massive new park that redefines its view of itself. – Alex Bozikovic

Page from the past

Inventive public spaces are grand. Look at the warm sand and pink umbrellas of Sugar Beach down on the waterfront; or the marvellous new urban park, the Bentway, that is taking shape under the Gardiner Expressway of all places. But some of the world's best public spaces are still the old ones, with spreading trees, bordered lawns and a pond for the ducks and swans to dabble in.

The formal squares of Georgian or Victorian times are as pleasing and as functional now as they were when ladies with parasols and men in top hats promenaded there. Take a stroll under the soaring plane trees of Russell Square in London's Bloomsbury district. Heaven. Or watch the world go by from a bench in St. Stephen's Green, that green island in central Dublin. Separated from the bustle of the city by an iron fence and planted with plane, sycamore, hawthorn, weeping ash, holly and laurel trees, it has a playground, a bandstand, an ornamental lake, even a garden for the blind with fragrant plants identified in Braille.

There is no reason modern cities can't learn from the parks of the past and create something equally humane. Unfortunately, we often botch it. Toronto has two fine old squares in the King-Spadina neighbourhood. One, Victoria Memorial Square on Wellington Street, has been nicely done over after falling into disrepair. The other, Clarence Square, at the other end of Wellington Street, now has a big, ugly, fenced-off dog park on one side, ruining its symmetry. What a waste. – Marcus Gee

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