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Toronto takes a hard look at how people are using its public spaces

If you're walking the streets of downtown Toronto this summer, someone may be watching you.

Volunteer observers will be out there, not to judge your fashion sense, but to understand what you're doing on the sidewalk, in the street or in the park. It's part of an effort by the city's planning department to study how we use the "public realm" – those spaces that belong to us collectively – and imagine how we might use it better.

Led by Gehl Architects, a globally prominent design and planning firm, the "Public Space Public Life" study will feed a plan to shape new and existing parks and streets for a denser and more pedestrian-friendly future.

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This month, and then again in November, observers will watch about 15 spaces across downtown on a weekend and a weekday. What are people doing there? Are they lingering, moving on, jaywalking? Do they look bored?

This data will allow planners to improve these spaces and better understand all of this activity.

Gehl's office always starts its work by watching the city's residents carefully.

"Our process is always highly consultative and ethnographically rooted," Gehl's Jeff Risom explains. "Learning from tests, learning from how people react, and then making small steps in the same direction to effect big change."

But don't let the earnest Scandinavian tone lull you. When Gehl comes to town, sometimes eggs get broken and tasty omelettes get made. Look at New York: The bike lanes and new pedestrian plazas that transformed that city's streets over the past decade – and went from screamingly unpopular to beloved – came with advice from Gehl.

Now the firm, run by the 79-year-old Danish architect Jan Gehl, is working with sharp Toronto landscape architects Public Work and traffic consultant Sam Schwartz to look at downtown – from the Don River to Bathurst, the waterfront to Dupont Street – and take stock. "What's our experience of being here in Toronto?" asks Adam Nicklin of Public Work, which is leading the planning effort. "What is our understanding of the public realm? We need to start thinking of it all as a network, and from that, ask: 'What do we need now?'"

The study will look at the downtown but have implications for the rest of the city as well. Do we need wider sidewalks and narrower car lanes, for safety and gathering space? Seating in a particular spot? Cafés in parks? Better use of ravines such as the Don Valley? Reclaimed spaces such as Project Under Gardiner, which Public Work is designing?

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The public space plan is part of a larger initiative that the city's planning department calls TOCORE. It's a enormous effort to rethink downtown from every point of view: urban design, community services, transportation, water and power, and public space. It's 15 years overdue, but today, under chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, it is well under way.

Such big-picture thinking is desperately needed now. Planners estimate that the downtown, which has about 250,000 residents, will continue to absorb a huge share of the city's growth – it could house 475,000 by 2041.

Toronto "never lost its commitment to downtown," says Gregg Lintern, the city's director of community planning. "And so far," from the 1980s to today, "we've enjoyed the benefit of having a lot of infrastructure in place."

But that's over. Toronto's core needs more: water mains, libraries, schools, "all the obvious stuff," as Lintern puts it.

And parks and public space, he says, "are a crucial piece of the puzzle."

Why? Because those people who choose to live downtown are generally living in small spaces, and – by necessity and also by choice – they spend more time in parks. Parks have always been people's living rooms; now there are more people who could use them. With the coming growth in downtown "we're going to have a lot more visitors in those parks," says Richard Ubbens, the city's director of parks. "We've got to have more of those spaces, and we've got to redesign them to be sustainable."

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These are facts. The need is already visible: At Sugar Beach or Trinity-Bellwoods or Canoe Landing, you can see heavy wear on fields and facilities. Downtown's newest big park, Corktown Common, is lightly used but is already starting to show the effects of inadequate city maintenance. The city's planning and parks departments are both starved for cash.

This is where Gehl's habit of collecting data comes in handy. It generates numbers.

Right now, Toronto is a city that counts the minutes drivers spend commuting and pays big bucks to shorten them. Meanwhile, too often City Hall ignores the huge social needs of the dense and fast-growing downtown; and loses the social and economic payoffs of building a more walkable, greener and (yes!) more beautiful city.

All those things – transportation modes, the design of streets, the design of city blocks, and of parks and squares – are intricately connected to each other. The social and economic life of the city relies on all of them being healthy.

"Urban design can't solve all the world's problems, but it's also not a cherry on top," Risom says. "It is just like schooling and health care and all the things we have long been spending money in cities. It is necessary."

And the sort of urban design they advocate favours pedestrians and the human scale. It's what Jan Gehl described to me, in an interview last year, as "a people-oriented, humanistic model." His home city of Copenhagen has adopted an agenda to improve "the people-landscape," as Gehl put it, "to make the streets safe and appealing for people to walk and to bicycle."

If all this sounds familiar, it should: Gehl lived in Toronto briefly in the 1970s, and he learned a lot from Jane Jacobs. Here in the city where she spent 35 years, we have forgotten some of her lessons. It's time we hit the streets and learned them again.

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