Let’s All Celebrate Yonge!

By: Kristen Morith

Take a guess where this photo was taken.

If you’ve been downtown on Yonge Street lately you’ve probably noticed something a little bit different. Following the success of temporary pedestrianization projects in New York (Times Square, Broadway and Gansevoort Market, to name a few) Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (BIA) have created a temporary pedestrianization project called “Celebrate Yonge.”

By closing down two lanes to traffic from Queen to Gerrard Streets, where there was once parking and speeding cars, “Celebrate Yonge” makes new space for patios, parks and public seating. There’s a lush park at Shuter Street, in front of ING Direct, complete with boulders, huge trees and a fort; eight pubs and restaurants have extended their seating out into patios on street, creating lots of great spots to sit and have a beer and watch the city go by (thanks to the recently changed liquor laws); Muskoka chairs sprinkled throughout the project give tired tourists and shoppers to stop and rest; and a life-size game of chess in front of Swiss Chalet draws quite a crowd.

This board game craze has gotten out of hand.

Coming just one year after the release of Ken Greenberg and Marianne McKenna’s Yonge Street Planning Study and put together largely with donated time and materials, this project is a quick and inexpensive trial-run for long-term pedestrian improvements in the area, such as widening the sidewalks on both sides of Yonge Street.

Why Yonge Street? Yonge Street is undeniably Toronto’s “Main Street.” Ken Greenberg’s planning study notes that Yonge Street has been Toronto’s main north-south corridor since 1794 and a major shopping destination since Eaton’s opened in 1869. It also doesn’t hurt that people outnumber cars on Yonge Street two-to-one and the street carries more pedestrians than any other street in the country.

For three years in the early 1970s parts of Yonge Street were pedestrianized during the summer with great success. News articles report that it attracted 50,000 people to the area each day and pleased business owners. Many Torontonians remember it fondly, however increased crime is said to have led to the end of the experiment.

So, what’s the big deal? Using paint and planters to temporarily extend the sidewalk has never been done before in Toronto! Sure, you say, there’s a patio with planters and seating up by Yonge and Eglinton on Orchard View Blvd. and the University of Toronto has another space like it – BUT in both of those instances the streets have been completely closed to traffic. Here, traffic continues to flow right alongside the cafes, planters and seating.

Note the movement of cars to the right.

Coming from New York City, I wasn’t quite sure how Torontonians would react – would they flock to hang out quite literally IN the street or, being fonder of open spaces and cottage life, steer clear of the project altogether? When similar projects went up in New York, space-starved New Yorkers were milling around the newly created public spaces as soon as workers put out the first traffic cone. Torontonians have proved themselves no different, happily embracing the new space and flocking to sit in the street.

That’s all well and good but what happens next? The BIA, City and consultants are conducting extensive traffic and pedestrian counts as well as surveying business owners to see how the project is working. If all goes well, we can look forward to continued pedestrianization of the area.

If you go:

“Celebrate Yonge” extends from Queen Street to Gerrard Street. It runs from August 17th to September 16th.

And for more photos of the street, take a look here on Flickr.

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