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Learning from Melbourne

Earlier this week my good friend Gabriel Fain emailed me a bunch of photos from his recent trip to Melbourne. Gabriel and I went to architecture school together here in Toronto and we often go back and forth on city building issues.

Here are the photos he sent me of Bourke Street in Melbourne:

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The comparison he drew in his email was to that of Bloor Street in Toronto, except with a few major differences: Bourke Street is pedestrian only (except for a tram running down the middle of it). It has no curbs. There’s lots of inviting seating. And the connecting cross street laneways are fully activated. He then ended by saying that "Toronto is light years behind Melbourne and Sydney in the terms of the quality of the public space.“ 

I replied and asked if I could turn his email into an ATC post. He responded by saying that he was hoping I would, and then sent me another photo – this time of one of the laneways:

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Melbourne’s laneways and arcades are celebrated around the world. What was once just residual space, became a catalyst for the revitalization of the city’s central business district in the 1990s and a major tourist destination. But all it really took was a change in thinking. It took somebody to believe that the space used for garbage collection, could also be used for a thriving culture of intimate al fresco dining.

In Toronto, I think we’re headed in the right direction in terms of our thinking, but that we’re not yet being bold enough. The recent revitalization of Market Street in my neighborhood (St. Lawrence) is a wonderful example of putting pedestrians first and a wonderful street overall. Like Bourke Street, it also doesn’t have curbs (this is how you know pedestrians matter). But it was also a prime candidate for a pedestrian-only street. Especially given that Market Lane to the north is already one (though in desperate need of renewal). 

For a number of reasons though, pedestrian-only streets are difficult to accept here in Toronto. I’ve been shot down many times in real estate meetings for arguing that we should have them in our city. Oftentimes people say it’s because of our harsh climate. But in my view, that’s all the more reason to have them. When the weather is nice, we should be enjoying our public spaces to the fullest. Why only build to the worst case scenario? Plus, they work in Scandinavia.

We’ve also done it before. In the early 1970s (when I wasn’t around), a portion of Yonge Street was piloted as a pedestrian-only mall – a remarkably forward-thinking achievement for that era of city building. So I’m confident that it can be done and that we’ll one day do it again.

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