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We think we're a user-friendly city, but there's no iconic site to connect
If you had to meet someone in Toronto but hadn’t arranged a place and couldn’t contact them in advance, where would you go?
Does Toronto have such a consensus location?
As social scientist Thomas Schelling did in a famous 1958 experiment about New York, I recently asked readers of Spacing Wire to consider where Toronto’s quintessential meeting place might be.
The experiment is interesting because it requires participants to consider not just the first meeting place they’d think of, but where some other person with different habits or from outside the city would think to go.
As well as being central to the imagination, the meeting place should be centrally located, easily accessible, near popular destinations and a place lots of people go through (which also means you can people-watch if the other person is late). While it’s not vital, it’s an advantage if the location is sheltered in case of bad weather.
No consensus location emerged in my experiment, but there were definitely some leading contenders.
A few people chose Union Station, which is central to the transportation network (especially for people coming in from the suburbs on the GO train) and near downtown and Harbourfront.
On the other hand, it’s large, and picking a landmark around which to gather inside the station is difficult.
The clock in the beautiful great hall isn’t on the main travel routes between the GO trains, the subway and downtown, while the GO concourse downstairs lacks an attractive locale. The need for a meeting place in the station is something those preparing its renovation should bear in mind.
Another location mentioned in my survey, and good for out-of-towners, is the base of the CN Tower. Everyone knows this symbol of Toronto, and it’s easy to find. The problem is that it feels windswept and out of the way, and rather desolate outside peak tourist season.
Shopping and entertainment are among the biggest attractions of central Toronto, and the fountain at the Eaton Centre and the bright lights of Yonge and Dundas featured heavily in the responses.
Although the easy-to-find, fountain inside is technically private property, it is accessible most of the day, and loitering seems to be tolerated by mall security.
It’s another story outdoors at Yonge and Dundas. Once upon a time, the prime meeting spot was the makeshift plaza on the southwest corner by the entrance to the mall and subway.
Now that the mall has expanded onto that space, the obvious location is across the street on the corner at Yonge-Dundas Square.
There’s a bit of a roof for shelter, but you have to endure the annoying video ads.
Just a couple of blocks away from this shopping and entertainment mecca is the location of choice for civic activists, Nathan Phillips Square. Though conceived as a citizens’ gathering place, it’s not well known to people outside Toronto.
It’s also a bit too big, and the potential meeting points – Henry Moore’s Archer (not obvious unless you already know what it is), the Peace Garden, the skating rink, the doors to City Hall, even the statue of Winston Churchill – are dispersed.
The leading choice, by a slight margin, was Yonge and Bloor. This intersection truly feels like the centre of Toronto, the crossroads of its two most famous streets and two main subway lines. Known to both locals and visitors, it’s heavily travelled and close to a wide range of eating, shopping and entertainment options. One location in particular stands out – the north-east corner, where a slightly wider sidewalk gives the illusion of an active public space.
And I emphasize illusion. While this corner seems like a promising candidate for Toronto’s instinctive meeting spot, it is in reality an ugly, miserable place to wait.
The concrete walls of a Royal Bank jut into the corner like a cancerous growth on the Hudson’s Bay building, and security keeps people from sitting on the convenient-looking steps that once acted as an amphitheatre of sorts for buskers.
If we’re going to make this corner our iconic meeting place, we need to demolish this excrescence and replace it with a truly public plaza.
It should have steps where people are free to sit and watch the world go by. And it should have a special meeting spot, maybe an instantly recognizable piece of art, as well as places to sit and a roof to keep out inclement weather. Perhaps then we’d all know where to meet.