Walkability in Toronto

Mayor Nathan Phillips and wife Esther claim Bay Street in Toronto on February 27, 1960.
Mayor Nathan Phillips and wife Esther claim Bay Street in Toronto on February 27, 1960. In his autobiography, Mayor of All the People, he noted that the street was empty on a Sunday morning.

Christopher Leinberger’s report on walkable urban places surveys only U.S. cities. Richard Florida has lived in most of the cities in the top 10 ranking, and he believes that only midtown Manhattan can compare with Toronto in terms of walkability. He moved there several months ago to create a research center at the University of Toronto. Every time I’ve been in the GTA since the move was announced last July, I’ve heard lively discussions of Florida’s ideas about creativity and the creative economy. Toronto seems to be as impressed with him as he is with the city:

In Toronto, we can walk to everything. The grocery store is two blocks away. Coffee shops and restaurants and more specialty groceries maybe a ten minute walk. The university maybe a 10 minute bike ride. Everyone walks, rides their bikes (yes in the cold) or takes public transit. My wife wants to sell her car, she says we can get along easily with one. My colleague Kevin Stolarick got rid of his. If you need to take a “car”, cabs come in a matter of minutes and are super-efficient. And our neighborhood is filled with families with kids. The same can be said of many, many European cities. More on this in Who’s Your City.

Some American cities are more walkable than others, but US cities pale in comparison to their foreign competitors on this score. Why might this matter?

Well, if Jane Jacobs and Robert Lucas are right, the creative-knowledge-driven economy gets its greatest productivity boost from clustering and agglomeration. The more clustered, the more dense, the more face-to-face interactions and random collisions the greater the rate of innovation, the greater productivity growth.

I agree. I’ve walked a lot in several of Toronto’s “walkable urban places” (Leinberger’s term for the relevant parts of cities that are walkable, rather than entire municipalities), including the Beaches and the university neighborhood that Florida writes of. The walkable place I know the best is the core downtown district centered on Nathan Phillips Square.

Ms. Modigliani and I call this civic treasure “Grandpa’s Square” because Nate was her grandfather. That’s Nate and his wife Esther in the photo at the top of this post. When the photo was taken in 1960, he was mayor of Toronto, and he could stop traffic on Bay Street with one expansive gesture. Visible in the photo background is the Victorian-era clock tower of Old City Hall. If ever you want to hear a tale of life’s little setbacks, ask Ms. Modigliani about the time she did NOT get to present flowers to the Queen in front of this clock tower.

I have my own tale about walkability and Nathan Phillips Square. In the winter of 1999, not long after Mayor Mel Lassman declared a snow emergency and requested assistance from the Canadian Army, I spent a day tramping around the Beaches. then I walked most of the way along Queen Street to Grandpa’s Square. I hadn’t planned to walk that far, but I couldn’t figure out where the regular trolley stops were. Mounds of snow still obscured some of them. The sidewalks were mostly clear, though, so I walked until I figured out how to stop a trolley. So two criteria in a blind flaneur’s walkability index: (1) street signs that are logically and consistently placed; and (2) predictable and dependable transit schedules. With both criteria, a little or a lot of snow shouldn’t stop the show.

A few blocks of Queen Street East seem, well, seedy. But I never felt unsafe walking there. Why? There were plenty of other people on the street. Jane Jacobs observed this truth about the life of cities long ago, and I believe her. It may sound simple (call it a tautology then), but (3) the presence of other pedestrians makes a place walkable.

I was pretty cold and tired when I reached Grandpa’s Square. I thought I was hallucinating when I heard what sounded like a mechanical mockingbird on steroids. I’ve heard cardinals in some lakeshore neighborhoods in the winter, but never a mockingbird. I followed the sound to a Bay Street crosswalk, then it dawned on me… duh… it was an audible traffic signal! It was placed there for blind flaneurs like me. I didn’t have to ask for it. I didn’t have to rattle a tin cup or wave a white cane. I found it and figured it out all on my own. So two more criteria in my personal walkability index: (4) accessibility features are intuitive; and (5) the walkable environment is rich with serendipity.

I have more to say about walkable urban places in the GTA, particularly old and newly-urban Oakville neighborhoods that I know best. For now, maybe all this can be reduced to one criterion: in a truly walkable urban place, you don’t have to be the mayor to stop traffic.

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3 Responses to Walkability in Toronto

  1. ms modigliani says:

    Hey Mark,

    That’s my favourite photograph of my grandparents. I love the wide open arms of my grandfather, Nate, aka “mayor of all the people,” and the smiling confidence of my grandmother, sitting on the edge of the desk, decked out in her wool and mink trimmed suit. She was a cutie…and those two were so in love with each other all their lives.

    A few years ago, I created a tribute to my grandfather. Titled “The Two Loves of Nathan Phillips,” the video tells the story of the night before the 1955 mayoralty election, when my grandmother fell down the cellar stairs in their mid-city home. In critical condition in a Toronto hospital, my grandmother underwent brain surgery to relieve the pressure in her skull from the fall. Here’s the story link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIjhy-ndKgo

    Ms M

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Thanks, Ms. M. I thought about your video while plying the treadmill at the gym (hmm… if I *worked* in a walkable city maybe I wouldn’t have to ambulate while going nowhere) . Great minds think alike!

  3. Pingback: a blind flaneur

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