Orphan Spaces: Retail and Commercial

Danforth from Westlake to Victoria Park

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Contribution to charrette Orphan Spaces: Retail and Commercial, presented by Design Exchange in partnership with Clean and Beautiful City Secretariat, Toronto

URBAN RENEWAL KIT

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Learning From Disney World: Implementing Ideas from “The Happiest Celebration on Earth” in Your Everyday Urban Spaces

We visited Disney World in Florida recently and, as professional manipulators of built space and amateur lovers of everything urban, we arrived at a startling realization: Disney creates spaces that work. With all their neon-illuminated, stucco-clad, kitsch-inspired surroundings, they offer a unique sense of place that fulfils its most basic but also most important purpose: to create a sense of belonging, a sense of being a part of a wider community of human beings.

We are led to believe that what people want from Disney and what Disney is delivering to them is a “package”. A “package” of entertainment, a “package” of fun, of adventure, romance, or horror; in any case, what counts is the whole experience, in all of its sensory and spatial aspects.

Why, then, can’t we replicate that same sense of fun and excitement in our urban spaces? We believe we can, and our solution is simple. We are offering the following “Urban Renewal Kit”, consisting of several basic components/ideas (soon to be available in your local Urban Depot store), designed to improve your local square, street, block, or neighbourhood, and to create an irresistible urban “package” where tourists and locals alike would love to congregate.

With the example of Danforth Avenue, between Westlake and Victoria Park, we will show you how simple and easy it is to create an urban space that stands out and creates an unique sense of belonging, something you can truly call your own.

Please note that one small, but important difference exists between Disney World and Danforth; in Disney World, the Walt Disney Corporation owns everything. And with single ownership comes a single-mindedness of purpose, for better or for worse. Although we might be inclined to give the City of Toronto bureaucrats a bit more power in deciding the fate of our built environment, we do stop short of suggesting that they should resort to expropriation of private property in order to make their work in creating a clean and beautiful city easier. So it is possible that the end result of this exercise would have to be a somewhat compromised, but welcome solution, one that is influenced by conversation about the quality and intent of urban spaces and the community contribution to urban aesthetics and policies.

The parts of the “Urban Renewal Kit” are listed in no particular order, with some cost and installation assumptions and brief explanations of how they might work. Some of them are illustrated in more detail in accompanying panels, where the possible areas of implementation are shown, and others are almost self-explanatory. None of them are extraordinary or even complicated; while the creation of extraordinary architectural spaces requires feats of heroic proportions (and larger than life architects), great urban spaces need only a common will, time and perseverance.

Here are the “parts”:

Sidewalk Canopies Cost: Medium Installation: Medium
Install sidewalk canopies along both sides of the main street, connecting and unifying various styles and sizes of buildings. Canopies to be made of light steel construction, covered with semi-transparent white plastic. Covers could be supplemented with semi-transparent solar cells to power the integrated wayfinding and store signs. Canopies protect from the elements (rain, snow, sun, wind, etc.) and are used as a visual identifier of the separate sections of the neighbourhood.

Street Canopies Cost: Low Installation: Easy
Install fabric canopies across the main and side streets (think of the main shopping streets in Seville, Spain), at varying intervals, stretching the light gage cables from second or third storey opposing buildings. Street canopies to be 20 to 40 feet in length with similarly sized open spaces in between. Fabric to incorporate colors and limited number of corporate logos, coordinated with location of sidewalk canopies.

Raised Crossroads Cost: Low Installation: Medium
All side street crossing to be raised to the same level as sidewalks and paved in the same way. It adds to the security of pedestrians and slows down motorized traffic.

Sidewalk Patterns Cost: Low Installation: Medium
Install pavement pathways in dark brick laid in a simple fish-bone pattern, in contrast to the white canopies above. Define edges of streets with flower planters, in white or very light grey concrete, similar to those existing throughout Toronto.

Movable Parks Cost: High Installation: Difficult

Movable Piazzas Cost: High Installation: Difficult

Movable Playgrounds Cost: High Installation: Difficult
Reclaim intermediate recessed spaces between the buildings along the street. Convert parking spots along the property lines to public use. Offer incentives for creating community spaces and forget the parking count. Reinvent those spaces as parking lot gateways and incorporate them into the sidewalks, with simple and usable street furniture to separate parking from the street. Use prefabricated concrete modules with built-in planters and vegetation (park module), benches (piazza module), or play equipment (playground module).

Street Gates Cost: Low/Medium Installation: Low/Medium
Define space. Install simple fence posts on the street corners or elaborate archways over main intersections. They signify importance and define boundaries of space. Any self-respecting city and neighbourhood should have gates to define its borders.

Water Features Cost: Medium Installation: Medium

Public Art Cost: Low Installation: Low
Anywhere, even in the smallest places (think of Alexander the Great in the Greek part of Danforth), including murals on underutilized facades.

Coloured Facades Cost: Low Installation: Easy
Paint building facades in similar colours (blue to green, or red to orange to yellow) in order to distinguish the blocks and unify various building styles. Tread lightly here and offer façade improvement grants; you’re dealing with private property and public pride.

Kiosks Cost: Low Installation: Easy
Install kiosks and lockable vendor stands (think of vendors along the banks of river Sienne in Paris, France) on available empty areas between buildings and at parking lots along the property lines (new piazzettas and squares), to add content and life to the neighbourhood. Create possibilities for lower income families (present in large numbers in this community) to start their small business.

Parking Trellises Cost: Low Installation: Low
A parking lot without urban furniture is a crime. Allow for the replacement of certain percentage of parking spots with planters, tree islands and information booths, require some parking spaces and walkways to be covered with trellises, encourage change of levels to create dynamic spaces.

Green Walls Cost: Low Installation: Medium
Plant shrubs and climbers along streets between sidewalks and roadways. Climbers to be supported by wires stretched on light steel frames installed parallel to the street. This can be installed with or instead of sidewalk canopies.

Public Washrooms Cost: Medium Installation: Medium
To create truly memorable local attractions, install free-standing public washrooms. Sponsor design competition to select the most daring and exciting ones; possibilities are so much greater than with the bus shelters.

Wire-mesh Buildings Cost: Low Installation: Low
And the last, but the most important: plan for the future. Create a vision of how the streetscape should look like in the next twenty years and stick to it. Plan for three-storey (or four, or even better five-storey) high buildings on both sides of Danforth Avenue. All buildings lower than the ideal goal should have the illuminated wire-mesh building outlines installed, showing the future height of the building and creating a visual imprint of the future. It will help us all visualize what the street might look like in the future and what we can hope for.

Where to start?

Create a central focal point, ceremonial, social, public square. Proposed location is the intersection of Main Street and Danforth Avenue, appropriately renamed "Danforth Main Square". Sociability is the basis of activities in a neighbourhood. Events in a square make social life joyful and meaningful; people interact not in terms of specific roles in life but as complete human beings.

What to do after?

Purchase a number of parts, based on the budget available.
Install.
Enjoy.
Repeat whenever money becomes available.

Sincerely,
The Danforth Team