There was an article in the Toronto Sun this past Sunday about the best way to save the soul of a city in trouble because citizens are worried the city “has begun to go down the dark road of social mistrust.” There are a number of factors that contribute to this including the government’s insistence that Canadians need a government willing and prepared to fight violent crime, even though crime rates have been in decline for years. (Stats Canada puts the crime rate at a 30 year low) Consider the public’s obsession with crime dramas–how many different ‘CSI’ and ‘Law and Order’ variants are out there?
Another often overlooked factor is how the very structure of the city can have a real impact on the way citizens relate to each other. Blank walls, improper lighting, and giant parking lots can have a big impact on how safe a city feels. Matthew Blackett puts forth the suggestion that any number of the city-owned Toronto Parking Authority’s 150 surface parking lots could be converted to public squares. Most downtown public parking lots are only used/full for about eight hours a day; the rest of the time they are wasted space. A better use would be for the city to move the parking underground and convert the surface space into a public square or other public use facility.
Public squares (as long as they are not in shadow most of the day) tend to attract people who like to linger and people watch and, by extension, stimulate economic growth around their periphery. They also increase interaction between city residents and, by extension, trust and a feeling of community by allowing the public to spend time around each other. They serve as a place to stop, to consider the city around us, rest, and converse with those around us. The redevelopment of Younge-Dundas Square is a great example of how a public square can be created without losing parking spaces simply by moving the parking below grade.
It doesn’t even have to be below in some cases. In the city of Suwon, South Korea, I came across a very imaginative parking structure that was in an area with slope. There was a pedestrian bridge the width of 4 lanes that started on the higher terrain and crossed a major street connecting on the lower side to a ‘parkade park’ (if you will). The parkade park was a two storey parking structure that fronted on to the next street over and was clad in stone to look like a castle base, but had a park on the top level which provided a respite from the noise and traffic two storeys down, creating a peaceful oasis in a very busy commercial area (too bad I didn’t have my camera.)
While some might scoff or complain about the expense of burying parking lots, the idea represents a win-win situation in the long term for cities as conversions like this offer the opportunity to build increased parking capacity by adding levels and increased parking space means increased parking revenue.
Public squares are pretty scarce in North America, but used frequently in most European cities. Most are from past eras when cities were not designed with private transportation in mind. Where we in the new world have the advantage is that we don’t need to reverse engineer parking into active public squares. It is just a matter of converting a parking lot into a space that both enhances the city and provides more parking for those who would like to use their cars to get there.
Guerrilla Gardener’s operate under cover of night, moving in and acting as ‘agents of mass beautification’ planting flowers and other types of greenery in neglected medians and vacant spaces. They have to operate under cover of night as what they do is considered illegal, contravening bylaws that prohibit the modification of municipal lands and spaces. They lob seed bombs and plant flower mines.
In Montreal there is a guerrilla gardener turning a former railway yards into a Roerich Gardens. In case you are unfamiliar with what a Roerich Garden is, its what museums and cultural institutions planted in 1935 to mark schools, museums, and cultural landmarks to prevent them from being destroyed during aerial bombardments. The plant artist is trying to draw attention to the fact that while the medow (which is listed for redevelopment) doesn’t appear to be an active public space, plenty of people use it and enjoy it. Plus she is doing it for “sheer visual pleasure.” source.
There are people around the world who take otherwise neglected pieces of land and turn them into spots of urban beauty. I mean really, one can not argue that our cities don’t need more plants. The Guerrilla Gardening hompage is run by a Londoner and started off simply as a blog about the illicit gardening missions he undertook and has since evolved into a resource with notes on Guerrilla Gardening missions around the world. This is one movement that I fully support and would hope that our city officials would recognise the value of letting these “agents of mass beautification” go to work unhindered. Besides its city beautification that cities don’t have to foot the bill for, how can they say no to that?