Toronto’s Open Streets event, which takes place every summer, is an effort to bring people into the city for the day. Last year, it was in The Junction neighborhood, which has a large waterfront public space with many large parking lots surrounding it. As part of Open Streets, businesses with patio furniture lined the area to let people enjoy the activities without moving their cars.
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This year, however, the City of Toronto is attempting to undo these “eyesores” with design plans that are more likely to catch city employees’ eye, rather than prompt praise for those working to make the city better. The reasons for the design changes are narrow – it’s the brief that’s changing – but the impact could be dramatic.
Open Streets is a kind of utopian urbanism that takes place over the course of a day and is organized in collaboration with local businesses. Rather than providing a block of street with crosswalks and traffic signals that dictate how people should move, they rely on businesses to use the streets to create activities that are open to everyone. Instead of pushing vehicles on busy streets, traffic becomes secondary to making the block a fun, lively, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood.
Lured to it by everything from a healthy dose of outdoor music and food to other attractions like water rides, people without cars seem drawn to the open, collaborative space. A small proportion of participants are cars, but they are mostly left alone, with open fields and bike lanes. The Open Streets event is arguably the last chance we have to enjoy the delight of an open city – it’s an experience that goes hand in hand with the enjoyment of the neighbourhood streetscape.
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But no one cares about curbside patios if the street is clogged with cars. Can the city make the community open to everyone and provide good-quality space for local businesses to thrive and help the city attract new residents? Can they make better use of the spaces that are already available?
For our family-focused restaurant, which has chosen to take the main road in front of our building because it seems to us that parking is easier for employees, the city’s design plans are an unwelcome change. How will they manage the added traffic that will come with new and larger automobiles, garbage trucks, city buses and other vehicles? Even though downtown has long been one of the most widely used streets for summer escapes, how much more crowded will these streets be?
For us, the whole process has become frustratingly political. We no longer have any guarantee that we will be able to provide for our growing business, or have easy access to our customers. In an ideal world, we would like to be able to work with a city that values our neighbourhood as much as we do, and that gives us the same access to new residents and visitors that we currently have. But given Toronto’s recent municipal election results, it’s not clear that we will get that.
For now, this summer’s Open Streets is in the planning stages, which means that we can hold on to our patio, and that traffic will not be concerned with walking around us. It’s hard to get excited about the new design plans, and none of us really want to change the way our restaurant looks or to invest additional money into making it work. But it is important to us to be able to provide good-quality space for the rest of our neighborhood, as well as to provide a delicious meal that is accessible to all.
• Matt Elliott is the author of The 100 Best Restaurants in America, The Eater List, The New York Times Best New Restaurants, and its latest, Eat. He lives in Toronto.