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Below-grade urbanism

I came across an interesting discussion on Twitter last night about tunnels, bridges, elevated walkways, and Toronto’s elaborate (mostly) underground shopping complex known as the PATH. It’s the largest of its kind in the world.

Here’s the thing: the idea of pulling people off the street and into an underground shopping mall, runs counter to what many urbanists believe is the optimal outcome.

Below is a footnote I found in a 2006 research paper by Pierre

Bélanger called, Underground landscape: The urbanism and infrastructure of Toronto’s downtown pedestrian network.

“The reluctance of urban designers and academics to engage the
dynamics of the underground is stunning. For almost 50 years, urban
designers, landscape architects and planners have longed for car-free
pedestrian environments that are safe, secure and accessible. From a
planning perspective, the Toronto underground may be the ultimate form
of attrition of the automobile on the urban landscape: there are no parking
lots, no asphalt, and no congestion. With its mass-transit accessibility, it is
an ideal pedestrian network. This reluctance may in part be attributable to
a prevailing attitude that privately-controlled underground shopping is
undesirable, at best dismissible. As self-contained environments, they are
perceived as lying outside the so-called public domain and that they kill off
street life. As a more legitimate form of collective space, street-level
activity located within municipal right-of-ways therefore receives much
more advocacy.”

Of course, there is truth to the notion that activity gets concentrated below grade. When people visit Toronto’s Financial District for the first time, they’ll often ask: Where is the retail? And then you have to explain that it’s all underground and that we live like mole people from 9-5.

But despite this reluctance on the part of urbanists, people do seem to like it. When you’re marketing a building in the CBD, being PATH-connected is a feature, not a bug. I always joke that in the summer, I hate the PATH. But in the winter, I love it. 

There’s also a feeling of hyper-connectivity during business hours in the PATH – particularly at lunch. You have everyone leaving their desks, descending from their towers, and mixing all about in a dense pedestrian-only network. It’s unusual not to run into someone you know.

So love it or hate it, perhaps we should appreciate it for what it is: thriving city life.

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