On a recent visit to New York City, I engaged in a ritual I enjoy every time I'm in Manhattan - a day-long walk from the upper part of the city to the tip and back up to Central Park, during which I take frequent breaks in the many civic spaces and parks along the way. Even on a nippy day, I found all these places bustling with people, and seats were hard to find. Back in Toronto, I decide to find out how our civic spaces compare. Toronto has been called New York run by the Swiss, and the design of our own Dundas Square pays homage to Times Square. So on a beautiful warm day in May, I'm on the subway toward my first destination, the only civic centre that has the word "civic" in its name, Scarborough Civic Centre.
Getting off the LRT at Scarborough Centre station, I turn toward the city hall. The well-landscaped centre is empty. I count five people sitting on the benches. At the moment, more people are interested in going into the mall than enjoying the space.
The centre is not connected to the streets in any comprehensive way, and, like the mall beside it, is accessed mainly by car, eliminating any chance that the residents from the surrounding area will casually walk in to enjoy the space.
Mel Lastman Square is not much to look at from Yonge Street, and the square's drop in elevation makes the view from within rather dull. It's lunchtime, and about 60 per cent of the people in the square are eating. Few, it seems, are here to spontaneously enjoy the square for reasons other than using it as a landscaped canteen.
An hour later, I am in the newest addition to the roster of Toronto's civic spaces, the harsh-looking Dundas Square.
Here, on the large empty expanse of grey slabs that constitute the ground, there are a few tables and chairs. I hover around till one is available.
Looking west, I see the north end of the Eaton Centre being extended, taking over the open space in front of the entrance. That little space in front of Eaton Centre was, strangely enough, a great public space.
From teenagers waiting for a rendevous to street musicians to fiery missionaries trying to convert you to their religion, that impressive little corner always held a whirlpool of activity. That sense of excitement is nowhere to be seen - nor likely to spring up - on the newer, blander space of Dundas Square, where security guards oust so-called "undesirables."
On the south, the square makes a good connection to the buzzing patio of the Hard Rock Café. But to the north, the canopy cuts it off from Dundas behind it, and to the east, the raised floor and the concert stage create a psychological barrier between the square and the world beyond.
Nathan Phillips Square, the first grand public space of Toronto, is my next stop. I sit in the centre and, as usual, wonder what those ugly, perpetually closed-to-the-public raised walkways are for. A successful public place should be framed by life around it, not by slabs that discourage looking in and walking in from outside.
I walk south to Metro Hall Square, the park boxed in between Roy Thomson Hall and the CBC - also empty - and end up exhausted at Harbourfront. There, the civic spaces seem cut off from the city, more parks for tourists than civic space for Torontonians. Shame.
In many places in Europe and elsewhere in the world, civic spaces, whether created to celebrate a conquering emperor or pay tribute to a philosopher, have a special place in a city's growth. The arteries of the city curve and bend to accommodate them, asserting the square or plaza's primacy over cars and making a bold statement that spaces for people come first.
As such, many of these places can be seen from a long distance away, at confluences of streets, beckoning promenaders to join the great hum of life.
By contrast, the civic spaces of Toronto are placed between the grids of streets, long after the needs of vehicular traffic have been met. They look like afterthoughts that could easily have been something else, such as parking lots.
As a result, while the great civic spaces of many cities are used by appreciative crowds of citizens enjoying the collective living room of the city, Toronto's spaces are only used during concerts and public occasions - or as an alternative to the office canteen at lunchtime.