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The top five public spaces that bring us together

Public space has been a big thing in this city since the Toronto Public Space Committee started protesting billboards and defending flyers in the early part of the last decade. It got even bigger in 2003 when Spacing magazine started writing about it, and poor old Eye Weekly founded its City section. It would be fair to say that by this time, anyone who's interested in the idea of public urban spaces knows as much as they'd like to about their importance and their role in urban culture and politics.
But what about the spaces themselves? In theory, they're all great and crucial and whatnot. But some rise above merely functional, giving Toronto back to Torontonians in especially significant ways, ways that make Toronto more itself. Here are five.
Queen Street
If you wanted to get particular, you could say Queen Street is not so much a public space as the city's greatest collection of public spaces. But that's just what makes it so important. I'm a fan of cities and I've travelled to a lot of them, all around North America, South America, Europe and Asia. I have yet to find a street that's anything like our Queen. With the exception of an unfortunate dead zone around the site of the old Woodbine racetrack—caused by poorly conceived street-level retail encased in a mausoleum of precast concrete—Queen's a street that is eminently, gloriously filled with stuff.
A list of the neighbourhoods it's birthed, nursed and sustained is a list of much of what makes Toronto a great city: The Beach, Leslieville, Riverdale, Corktown, Moss Park, Queen West, Trinity Bellwoods, West Queen West, Parkdale and Roncesvalles. And if you define it by the route of the Queen streetcar, you can add Mimico, New Toronto and Long Branch to the tally. The best way to experience it? Walking, as novelist Ann Ireland demonstrated back in 2003. No other street I know of anywhere in the world rewards a day-long walk as consistently as Queen. It's a literal cross-section of the city, and you don't have to enter a single private space to get the full force of it.
Yonge and Sheppard
To those of us who've spent our Toronto lives south of Eglinton, Yonge and Sheppard can seem like the back of beyond. But if you draw a circle around the GTA and put a pin in the very centre, you'll stick it right at this formerly dreary and currently madly hopping intersection. What was once mostly private—offices and the utilitarian shops and services that catered to the workers—has turned, by virtue of the large influx of residents occupying or about to occupy the new condo towers like Emerald Park, the Hullmark Centre, into a very public space, with people meandering where once they would move purposely from office to Tim Hortons to office to dry cleaners to subway station to home.
This pattern is only going to proliferate as the towers both at the intersection itself, and within a kilometre radius—places like Metro Place and Diva—continue to rise and fill up. Some, like the ward's councillor, John Filion, say the development's coming too fast.
The Guild
Toronto has never had much of a memory. Buildings have always risen and fallen without leaving much of an imprint. But this decade, with its internationally unprecedented growth, is making it worse than ever. What was on the site of the new Four Seasons before they started building? What about the Minto towers at Eglinton? More than other cities, Toronto needs reminders of where it's come from and what it was.
Which is what makes The Guild, a park tucked away in a grassy section of Scarborough, such an important place. Beginning just after the Second World War, Rosa Hewetson and her husband Spencer Clark, owners of the 88 acres, started collecting physical details from buildings that were being torn down in the rush towards modernity. In 1978, the fragments were sold to the provincial government, and as of 1996, they've been the city's responsibility. The Guild can seem like a Romantic poet's theme park, or a vision of a Logan's Run-esque post-apocalyptic future, depending on your mood and how you spent your teens. It'd be great if the city saw fit to continue adding to the collection, but even as it is, it serves as a hard drive of our urban memories, randomly accessible by all.
Evergreen Brick Works
Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to make any other city envious of a disused brick quarry and factory in the middle of town, a derelict space too cut off by geographical obstacles and its own industrially messy topography to be anything other than a perpetual orphan. But the gracious rehabilitation by du Toit Allsopp Hillier, Claude Cormier, Diamond and Schmitt and ERA, and the manic popularity of happenings like the Toronto Underground Market have made the Brick Works a master class in adaptive reuse, something this city had already proved itself a prodigy in with the Distillery District and Liberty Village, among many other one-off examples. The Brick Works, even with its continuing access difficulties, is proving itself to be the place Torontonians come to celebrate their cultural and social maturity.
The Waterfront
Like Queen Street, the Waterfront contains multitudes. But unlike Queen Street, Waterfront represents a concerted effort by the city and its developers to raise the status of public space to match the esteem in which it's held by this generation of urban enthusiasts. The Corus Quay building by Diamond and Schmitt and Quadrangle Architects, and the new George Brown campus by Stantec and KPMB, are showpieces. But's the parks and installations that really shine, none more than Underpass Park. As far as I or anyone at Waterfront has been able to figure, it's the first time the usually widowed space under a road has been recuperated so deliberately and officially.
Sugar Beach is another innovation. Urban beaches have been hot since Paris started putting one up along the Seine in the summers, but Sugar Beach goes further than any of the current generation of mid-city oases by not trying to pretend it's anything other than it is: a lovely spot to sit, read or relax in the middle of a big, formerly industrial city. The unapologetic view of the factory across the channel is a bold antidote to the all-too-common malaise one could call Urban Dissociative Disorder, the sort that drives ratepayers to militate against towers that will throw shadows. We live in a city. Cities are good things, and there's nothing wrong with looking them straight in the face.
But like Queen Street, it's the whole Waterfront, running east to west across the chronically mishandled bottom of our city, that makes up the real public space phenomenon, an antidote to the disastrous privatization of the central waterfront in the 1980s that marks a shift in city thinking and civic action that bodes nothing but well for this developing city.
Bert Archer is Yonge Street's Development Editor.
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