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Toronto Will Toronto’s sidewalk wars become a messy debate of the past?

Old Colony Road near Bayview and York Mills is a charming street of spreading trees and stately houses, but the road surface itself is Third World, so full of potholes and crumbling asphalt that drivers slow to a crawl.

The mess is the result of a struggle, common around Toronto, over a surprisingly hot issue: sidewalks. About one-quarter of local streets don't have them. Most homeowners like it that way. Try to build a sidewalk on their street and you can expect a yowl of indignation. Serious repairs on Old Colony have been on hold while residents argue with city hall over a plan by officials to put in a sidewalk when they rebuild the road.

Homeowners usually win the sidewalk wars because the local city councillor almost always takes their side. But if city officials get their way, all of that is going to change. A resolution passed quietly at a city council committee last month that would do away with a requirement to go through the councillor and community before putting in sidewalks. When the city is rebuilding a street with no sidewalks, installing them would become automatic, or "as of right."

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Walking and accessibility advocates are delighted. Michael Black, co-founder of the pedestrian advocacy group Walk Toronto, says it is simply "nuts" that residents oppose getting a basic urban amenity such as sidewalks. "People who believe in walkability just can't believe it's happening in the 21st century," he says. He accuses anti-sidewalk campaigners of "sitting in their living rooms looking at all this greenery and pretending they're out in the middle of nowhere," then jumping in their cars and "turning Toronto into a huge car sewer."

To those who live on Old Colony Road, that is nonsense. About two-thirds of the residents in the wealthy enclave of 56 houses signed a petition against sidewalks. Locals argue that nobody walking on the gently curving street has ever been hurt.

Long-time resident Robert Eisenberg says the street has a "lovely, leafy feeling" that he and his neighbours cherish. Yet when the city presented its rebuilding plan in November, all three options included a sidewalk in some form. "They told us it's their way or the highway," he said.

Old Colony Road runs east off Bayview Avenue a few blocks south of Highway 401, dead-ending at a synagogue. Officials say a sidewalk would make the street safer, more walkable and friendlier for people with disabilities. Residents reply that it would ruin the rustic character of their street and threaten beloved old trees.

It is the kind of culture clash that has often broken out in Toronto since the central city and its suburbs became one in 1998, combining a downtown of walkable streets and trundling streetcars with sprawling outer neighbourhoods where the car is still king and people treasure their quiet, shaded streets.

Traditionally, the coming of sidewalks has been a sign of urban progress. Under Toronto's first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, city council decided to borrow £1,000 to build a wooden sidewalk on King Street so pedestrians could avoid the muck of the unpaved roadways. Today, Toronto has more than 7,800 kilometres of sidewalks.

But as Toronto sprawled into surrounding farmlands during the post-Second World War era, many roads were built without sidewalks. A 2014 survey found that in North York, 25 per cent of streets had no sidewalks, in Etobicoke and York 22 per cent, and in Scarborough 20 per cent. In Toronto and East York, it is just 10 per cent.

City hall's efforts to promote sidewalks in sidewalk-free neighbourhoods have been a flop. The city's policy is to seize the opportunity to build sidewalks whenever a street that doesn't have them is being reconstructed – dug up and remade. Residents invariably fight back. Fiona Chapman, the city's manager of pedestrian projects, says that only once in five years has a city councillor given a simple green light to new sidewalks on a local street.

"They are really ugly conversations," she says. "Every neighbourhood screams up and down and councillors rightly conclude there is no consensus."

Ms. Chapman tries to persuade residents that the city can design sidewalks that won't compromise the character of their street and destroy all the trees. "I don't want people to feel we're just going to get in there and pave paradise, as Joni Mitchell would say."

She also argues that sidewalks help get kids to school safely, help seniors "age in place" in walkable communities, help counter obesity and inactivity by making walking and cycling easier, and, finally, help the disabled navigate local streets. With new provincial accessibility legislation in effect, she went to the city's disability committee and got authorization to do away with the old consultation process.

But the sidewalk wars may not be over yet. The measure still needs to pass the public works committee, then city council. That means councillors have to sign off on something that could make many residents hopping mad. Scarborough Coun. Gary Crawford, for one, doesn't like the idea. He says that "to not have the input of the community, I don't think is beneficial."

Residents are fierce about the look and feel of their streets, and with reason. It is the upside of NIMBYism – a passion for preserving what is good. Sermons about urban walkability don't cut much ice in communities such as Old Colony Road. It is their little oasis and they are determined to keep it just as it is.

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