When Councillor John Parker expressed reservations over a batch of new pedestrian and cycling proposals adopted unanimously by the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee on October 3, he said, "We're trying to manage the affairs of a large city here." In other words, City Hall's exists primarily to keep columns of cars moving.
But what if we tried a little unmanaging? "What we need is a certain amount of chaos or pedestrian priority zones don't work," said Thomas Schweizer from Burgdorf, Switzerland.
Schweizer was speaking at a workshop hosted by tarmac troublemakers Streets Are for People (SAFP) as part of Walk21, an international walking conference that took a load off in Toronto October 1 to 4 both at Metro Hall and the Design Exchange and attracted everyone from progressive civil engineers to civilly engineering anarchists.
Reminiscent of Kensington Market, which spawned Streets Are for People, Burgdorf's pedestrian priority zone arose where a culture of pedestrian autonomy already existed that that city was convinced to acknowledge. This is similar to SAFP's approach: "We have a theory of working with the system, despite the system, to spite the system," said SAFP member Kelsey Carrière.
The group has backed away from closing Kensington to cars permanently a rethink informed in part by York professor Ute Lehrer. Experience with Europe's pedestrian-only neighbourhoods made her suspicious of the gentrification that seems to follow in their wake.
"I've seen the same thing happen each time," she said. "People are driven out of the downtown core."
I wonder, though, if this happened just because the roads were transformed. How were the neighbourhoods planned? And what of mixed zoning, use restrictions and protections for rental stock? "That wasn't thought of," said Lehrer.
But my assumptions about the ultimate importance of planning were challenged.
"Streets do not need to be well designed to attract people," said UK planning consultant Tim Pharoah, who, in one session, showed numerous pictures, including shots of a Shanghai market whose electricity was near-palpable despite its apparent dilapidation.
Pharoah said context was more important: surrounding culture, city culture, the mix of uses. I'd add socio-economic factors to that list.
You can plan obsessively, but if people don't see reasons to be with each other, it won't matter. This was clear as I biked down St. George through U of T en route to day two of the conference.
There, students have a connection with their surround, feel ownership of the community and a sense of common cause, making the de facto pedestrian zone a joy to navigate no, negotiate.
Two broad visions of planning were represented at Walk21, and two roughly corresponding ideas of how pedestrians (otherwise known as people) fit in. It's a matter of whether people or plans come first. When it's the latter, it's called "revitalization."
The area around Canada Water in southwest London, UK, unfortunately saddled with "a low-end shopping mall" and is slated for full-spectrum pedestrianization. Artistic renderings at the conference show Boston's soon "revitalized' Washington Street as a pedestrian mall.
So long, discount shoe store! Hello, expensive boutiques with cryptic names! The now depressed street evolved from an earlier pedestrian mall, but I'm sure they'll get it right this time.
In contrast are the more informal interventions. One speaker had a plan for more bike infrastructure: paint. When city governments are spooked by liability issues around new official lanes, make pseudo-official ones. Lanes outlined in bright colours and filled with hatch marks (like the No Stopping marks in the business district) are a clear invitation to cyclists; on roads with critical mass, they get into the habit of claiming space, and motorists have to slow down.
Most civil engineering doesn't factor in people's ability to intervene in their environment rather than passively react. Staff from City Hall and Arup Consulting working on Union Station showed animated computer simulations of groups of people referred to as "agents" but showing little agency.
These agents could "make choices," but they seemed limited to ways of moving through a space as quickly as possible. Choices unrelated to getting to and from sites of production or consumption were missing. Are spaces designed this way going to serve people or the narrow needs of the economy?
And are we designing for the economy that actually exists or for one in which all are accommodated?
James Rojas, of the Latino Urban Forum in Los Angeles, said L.A.'s streetscape has been transformed by the growing number of Latino residents who rely on an informal economy of "illegal" markets (i.e., those that can't pay permit fees) and good old bicycles. In L.A., about 60 per cent of all pedestrian and bicycle fatalities are Latino.
"Fifty years ago, when engineers were designing bus stops, they had no idea people would be selling mangoes at them," he said. He showed photos of parking lots turned into waiting rooms for day labourers; sidewalks made into markets; parking spaces become elaborate, ever-growing shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
As it stands, walks or rides, our capitalist blind spot threatens to prevent truly sustainable planning but the idea of a city for pedestrians opens room for discourses that weren't there before.
A week of highly variable excitement was capped by the beautiful wander of Toronto poet laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco.
"Is sustainability all we're about?" he asked. "No wonder the ecosystem rebels when our speed is not that of the body, but the algorithms of the mechanical and digital."
Half the room nodded off; the other half sat up straight, electrified. He continued.
"When people have no reverence for each other, they design ugly things. When they have reverence, design becomes a gift. Gentrified communities are no more active than the brownfields they replaced. The problem is to convince people that anonymity is as toxic to the heart as hydrocarbons are to the body."
There's a kind of walking that moves the body, and a kind that moves the spirit as well. Are we designing for the latter?
I'll give Di Cicco the last word: "We will not save the environment until we find a reason to live together."