Category Archives: Beautification

Toronto Sun op-ed: Roncesvalles redo a victory for neighbourhoods

On Friday, the Toronto Sun published an op-ed by John Bowker, chair of the BIA’s Beautification Committee and the BIA’s representative in Roncesvalles Renewed. The article celebrates the unity of our neighborhood, as we prepare for the 2009-10 reconstruction of Roncesvalles. It also criticizes efforts by suburban councillors to turn Roncesvalles into a busy highway for commuters from North York and Etobicoke:

“When the automobile folks and the streetcar folks go to war over who controls the street, the neighbourhoods themselves often suffer. Streets get carved up and divided, and a pleasant main street can become a tangle of barriers, signals, lines and signs. Slow streets can become fast highways, and pedestrians learn to just keep on walking with their heads down.

“Too often the local residents themselves succumb to this confrontational mentality, filing lawsuits and sending in angry petitions. Good ideas get drowned out as polarization sets in, leading to poorer outcomes for everyone.

“That’s why I am feeling extremely proud of our neighbourhood today. I believe we have responded to these challenges with remarkable creativity, intelligence and open-mindedness.

“And so our community is poised to benefit from an innovative streetscape plan that uses new ideas to balance the needs of all users, including motorists.”

City Council votes 34-5 to approve Roncesvalles streetscape proposal

Roncesvalles streetscape improvements

Today, Toronto City Council voted 34-5 to approve a staff report proposing numerous Roncesvalles streetscape improvements, including new public spaces and accessible transit stops. This report borrows many ideas from the BIA’s 2003 streetscape strategy, and was unanimously approved by the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee a few weeks earlier, following an extensive Environmental Assessment process. From here, the approved report goes to the province, and an official EA Notice of Completion should follow provincial approval in July.

Once the EA is completed, the City will have the authority to consider various design treatments, including permanent parking lanes, new trees (using the area beneath the parking lane for a continuous soil trench), wider sidewalks and improved conditions for cyclists. These details will be worked out in a formal consultation and design process that begins this summer, led by Councillor Gord Perks (continuing an informal process that Roncesvalles Renewed and its community partners, including all the RAs and the BIA, have been working on for several years).

As host to the busiest surface transit route in all of Canada, Roncesvalles is obviously not immune to massive citywide changes that seek to adjust Toronto’s transportation priorities for the 21st century. But instead of becoming a fast highway, or being carved up and divided between motorists and the TTC, Roncesvalles is poised to benefit from an innovative streetscape plan that uses new ideas to balance the needs of all users, while preserving the vibrancy of our street:

  • While the TTC has proposed to open up Dundas West to four lanes of busy traffic (a move strongly opposed by the Dundas West BIA), the TTC has just endorsed a plan that would make similar measures impossible on Roncesvalles. Our street will forever remain a safe and pedestrian-friendly two-lane street. This has been accomplished while preserving existing traffic flow, without new traffic restrictions, while adding new provisions for cyclists.
     
  • Instead of carving up the street, the plan embraces transit by integrating it into the fabric of our sidewalk, creating a seamless transition for riders. When the new streetcars arrive, riders will be able to board at all four doors in seconds, speeding up the streetcar’s progress and improving service reliability. And for the disabled, or people with strollers or grocery carts, our streetcar stops will be the most accessible in Toronto.
     
  • Instead of placing concrete islands in the road used only by transit riders, this plan would create new, multi-use public spaces that can be used for patios, merchandise displays, “outdoor living rooms,” benches, gardens and public art, as well as by transit riders.
     
  • These new public spaces replace some parking, and yet the plan actually preserves 92% of existing street parking (95% outside loading zone hours), and removes all peak hour parking restrictions.

The streetscape proposal received much praise from City councillors for the way it balances the needs of businesses, residents, transit riders, cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. “It is a compromise that makes no compromises at all, because it satisfies all those interests,” said Councillor and TTC Chair Adam Giambrone. Councillor Bill Saundercook, who is co-chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee, said his committee “strongly endorses” the proposal. And Councillor Howard Moscoe added, “We can all benefit from the work being done on Roncesvalles.”

There is more of this work to be done, obviously, and there will always be room for improvement. The devil will be in the details, which is why community feedback is still so essential. The residents’ associations will host further meetings to discuss the developing plan. The BIA will continue to post information about the proposal, and has sent copies of the sidewalk plan to institutional stakeholders on the street. More information on the Roncesvalles reconstruction project is available here and here.

The BIA urges all businesses and community members to examine the PDFs of the sidewalk plan (part one is the southern half, and part two is the north), and please let the BIA know how the plan can be made the best possible. Where are the opportunities for new trees, benches, lighting or bike parking? How can crosswalks be made the safest possible? How can the transit stops be made inviting and attractive? Where else can the plan be improved? You can email us at info@roncesvallesvillage.ca. 

The measurable benefits of urban trees

A tree grows on RoncesvallesLocal resident and Roncesvalles Renewed member Jane Humphreys forwarded an interesting article from a recent issue of Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association. It’s called “Branching Out” and is written by James Schwab. You can read the PDF here or view it in HTML format here. The article condenses the findings of a new APA study called Planning the Urban Forest (this link has further links to other tree/urban planning resources, including a podcast from an Oct. 2008 APA symposium on the urban forest).

Much of the information will be familiar to readers of this blog, where the BIA has repeatedly urged the creation of a Living Sidewalk along Roncesvalles. This project would integrate Roncesvalles’ stormwater sewer with an innovative new tree planting system that would finally allow urban trees to grow to maturity, instead of dying within 5-10 years of age. With healthy trees, sidewalks would become massive absorption pads, sucking up huge amounts of water and reducing the frequency of raw sewage overflows into our lake. In addition, mature urban trees will provide shade, cool the street and absorb 15 times as much carbon dioxide as the same tree in a rural setting

But turns out, there are even more benefits.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide, obviously, but they also improve air quality by removing five key pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide. And the tree’s effect on air quality is enhanced further as it cools the street, since heat is a big factor in the production of ozone and smog (in 2005, there were 48 High Health Risk smog days in Toronto).

Scientists are also now seriously studying a developing concept known as “environmental justice.” For example, it is now understood that urban communities with access to natural settings tend to have better health, such as lower asthma rates. Trees also tend to make neighborhoods safer (see “Green Streets, not Mean Streets” a condensed summary of a 2001 study by the University of Illinois, which shattered a long-standing myth that trees provided criminals with places to hide, prompting many property owners to cut them down). In jurisdictions such as Connecticut, trees and parks are forming part of their social policy.

Once again, we are learning that trees are not simply decorative frills, but also have enormous environmental, health and social benefits that can be measured and valued. Trees are an important long-term investment whose worth must not be underestimated.

The Living Sidewalk is not yet adequately funded, and time is running out to get the project included in the 2009-10 reconstruction of Roncesvalles. If you would like to offer support to the Living Sidewalk project, you can email Councillor Gord Perks at councillor_perks@toronto.ca