Support grows for a proposal to convert Toronto’s University Avenue into a park.
The center of Toronto, a city of almost three million, is becoming increasingly crowded. So how can the city answer the need for public space? By remaking streets. A scheme by the landscape architects PUBLIC WORK proposes converting half of Toronto’s University Avenue into a linear park, and the idea has gained momentum.
In November, two not-for-profit organizations, Evergreen and the Michael Young Family Foundation, unveiled the proposal, called University Park, to the public. Adam Nicklin, a cofounder and principal at PUBLIC WORK, says the design knits together a system of existing green spaces into a cohesive whole. “It’s a chance to reimagine a great street which doesn’t perform its highest civic function,” he says, and create “a 90-acre system of parks right in the heart of the city.”
University Avenue is the only formal boulevard in central Toronto, which grew piecemeal from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century. Originally laid out in 1829, it was remade in the 1940s as a car-heavy arterial road with six vehicle lanes separated by a planted median.
University Park would consolidate traffic into four lanes, turning nine and a half acres of asphalt into bike lanes and open space that would also absorb stormwater. Importantly, this new green space would serve Toronto’s major hospitals, which are clustered along University Avenue, and the newly connected green spaces would include the University of Toronto’s main campus, now being redesigned by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
The proposal builds on existing ideas in Toronto’s urban plan. In 2018, the city passed a new comprehensive initiative, dubbed TOcore, for its dense and fast-growing downtown area. That included an ambitious parks and open space plan, on which PUBLIC WORK consulted. This proposed a series of pedestrian-focused street redesigns, including one for part of University Avenue. However, those improvements have not yet been implemented.
The University Park proposal provides a more ambitious design—stretching the scheme to a mile and a half in length—and fresh political energy. “It’s a visionary idea,” says Mike Layton, the progressive city councillor who represents most of University Avenue. “There is a huge amount of potential for changing the face of the street.” And the push from outside nonprofits, which is unusual in Toronto politics, has had results. Kristina Reinders, ASLA, a senior urban designer with the city, says city staff is studying the University Park proposal and will bring out recommendations to implement it this spring.
Layton says the biggest political challenge will be from suburban car commuters, who are accustomed to using University Avenue as a route to and from the downtown core and its 500,000 jobs. But COVID-19 has altered that conversation. The city has already changed two lanes of University Avenue to bike lanes, albeit as a pilot project, and Nicklin suggests the political ground has shifted.
“We’ve been through a pandemic and we’ve seen what it’s like to take our city back from just being locked in traffic congestion,” he says. “It’s allowed us to look past that and see the city for what it is: a system and a collection of open spaces.”