Blogpost: Bringing laneways to life: a recap of Toronto’s “Laneway Confessions”

When we think about a city’s public spaces, what comes to mind? Parks? Public squares? Neighbourhood meeting places like a library or cafe?

We don’t necessarily think about the narrow spaces that parallel our main streets – the laneways that often serve as the city’s “backspaces”, holding garbage and recycling bins, used as transportation shortcuts or as loading docks for businesses. Can we rethink laneways as part of the mesh of publicly accessible spaces that forms our civic commons – a subject on which we have been exploring with the Municipal Art Society of New York and other partners? If so, what steps can we take to reimagine laneways as vibrant and attractive places where we want to spend time rather than pass through?

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Last Thursday, Toronto’s Laneway Project hosted a second annual laneway summit, bringing together five speakers from Toronto and Montreal to discuss five approaches to bringing our laneways back to life – from greening, to art, to housing. Laneway Confessions was hosted by Denise Pinto, Global Director of Jane’s Walks, who introduced the speakers and facilitated an animated discussion that drew out myriad opportunites and challenges of adding life to our laneways.

To kick things off, Elly Dowson and Christine Liber representing the Kenwood Lane Art Initiative shared their approach to laneway animation: “fighting graffiti with art”. Faced with a neighbourhood that had turned its back on laneways and garages dominated by graffiti tags, they took on the ambitious project of painting 21 murals in 21 days, using mainly donated materials. While most residents were pleased to have art added for free to their garages, some older residents weren’t so sure. However, Dowson and Liber eventually won them over with their cheerful imagery and having conversations with neighbours to explain what they were doing and why. One key element to their success was engaging early one with a local businessperson, who agreed to donate leftover paint for the beautification cause. The Kenwood lane Art Initiative is a shining example of using low-cost supplies and a “get ‘er done” approach to make visible change in a neighbourhood that lacked a relationship with its laneways.

Check out a slideshow of all 21 murals, courtesy of the artists and Torontoist.

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A burst of colour in the Kenwood Laneway (Image: www.kenwoodlaneart.com)

Next, we met Roberto Garcia from Écoquartier Rosemont - La Petite-Patrie, the Montreal district with the highest numbers of green alleys. In fact, this year alone, 15 new green alleys opened up in RPP, bringing the borough’s total to an incredible 81. It was fantastic to hear from a Montrealer’s point-of-view, given that it was a mainly Torontonian crowd. Toronto could certainly learn a lot from the grassroots approach taken in RPP and other Montreal boroughs: Garcia shared many photos showing residents of all ages literally digging up the concrete to open up spaces for planting and play. It was also an interesting contrast from the other presentations in that there was a strong greening focus: Montreal ruelles vertes use greening as a catalyst for public space animation, whereas in many of the Toronto examples, greening was a secondary focus.

If you’re inspired to visit some of Montreal’s incredible network of ruelles vertes, visit this interactive Google map

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One of the many green alleways in Montreal's Rosemont-la-Petite-Patrie borough (Image: www.soverdi.org)

Howard Tam of ThinkFresh Group then presented a contrasting approach to that of laneway greening: fostering a micro-enterprise bazaar to animate laneway space behind the iconic, soon-to-be-demolished Honest Ed’s building (the redevelopment [proposal would more or less maintain the building footprint). What exactly would that bazaar look like? ThinkFresh’s proposal would set aside ground-unit space in the mixed-use redevelopment (led by developer WestBank Corp.) in Toronto’s Mirvish Village for small businesses in order to incubate “emerging and socially innovative retail ideas”. With the city’s thriving culture of creative small businesses, yet rapidly increasing commercial rents, having a dedicated spaces for retail start-ups would be an asset to Toronto’s cultural and economic development. The kind of fine-grained retail proposed by ThinkFresh would give commercial tenants the flexibility to have access to a public-facing storefront in addition to office space and shared community space to build networks and develop fresh ideas. We are excited by the idea of using this method to revitalizing laneways as it integrates historic forms of public space (the open marketplace) with emerging socially-oriented businesses.

It will be interesting to see how ThinkFresh builds on the work they have done with Market 707 – a street food and retail market based out of shipping containers near a local Community Centre – to enrich the Honest Ed’s redevelopment.

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ThinkFresh's proposed layout for the Honest Ed's site, incorporation micro-retail units (Image: www.thinkfreshgroup.com)

Next on the packed agenda was Jo Flatt from Evergreen, who shared insights about laneway housing to this group of laneway enthusiasts. Given the interest in many Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto, for creative solutions to downtown housing shortages, it was great to hear about Evergreen’s progress in Toronto’s University of Toronto neighbourhood. Housing is perhaps one of the most contentious uses of laneways, as it tends not fit into current zoning regulations, despite being in line with Official Plans that suggest that growth be directed to infill development (in other words, adding “invisible density” to already built-up neighbourhoods with servicing in place). Evergreen is taking a grassroots approach to building support for and consensus around the shape that laneway housing in the U of T neighbourhood could take, by partnering with local residents and affordable housing advocates. They have already made progress on designing three prototype laneway houses that could become a model for efficient urban housing that complements the architecture already in place.

We are confident that with Evergreen’s expertise in housing and an engaged group of residents, these prototypes will lead the way on shifting policy to allow for more flexible forms of housing. Click here to read more about Evergreen’s Housing Action Lab: which is working towards increasing the supply of affordable housing through intensification.

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One example of a laneway unit in Midtown Toronto, built on a compact 40′×18′ lot (Image: www.superkul.ca)

Last but not least, Al Smith and George Millbrandt from the St. Lawrence Market Business Improvement Area (BIA) put on a funny skit showcasing just how many city departments and community partners must be involved to get a laneway project going. With a focus on expanding the public realm in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood – a vibrant area anchored by the bustling St. Lawrence Market, yet lacking the kind of infrastructure that can bring laneways to life – Al and George shared a practical perspective to getting all players on the same page by clearly communicating the benefits of opening up these hidden public spaces. The renderings they shared of what St. Lawrence’s laneways could look like one day were inspiring.

A promising development: Sixty Colborne, a new condominium being built by Freed Developments will include a publicly-accessible laneway!

Laneway revitalization is already happening in Toronto's St. Lawrence Market neighhourhood - pictured here is Market St. (Image: www.denbosch.ca)

Do you know of any other approaches to laneway revitalization? Working on a laneway project of your own? Please share with us by email, Twitter, or Facebook, as we are keen to continue learning about this subject!

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