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A Ryerson LIFE Institute Course

A Great Yonge Street

This will be a six session Ryerson LIFE Institute course. The first session will be on Tuesday, February 3rd, starting at 10:10 AM. Each session will run until 11:50 AM. The first two sessions will take place in ENGLG02 (245 Church Street). Change of Plans: Only the third session on February 17th will take place in VIC110 (285 Victoria Street). The last three sessions will return to ENGLG01, with the last session on Tuesday, March 10th.

Session Six: Presetation Slides (pdf)

Session Five: Presentation Slides (pdf)

Session Four: RF Presentation Slides (pdf)
SH Presentation Slides (pdf); Planning Workflow (pdf)

Session Three: Presentation Slides (pdf)

Session Two: Presentation Slides (pdf)

Session One: Presentation Slides (pdf)

Course Topics

Official Description

Informally …

Great Streets

End Points

Possible Initiatives

Course Plan

End Note

Official Description

Yonge Street is the “main street” of Toronto. It has played a central role in the history of the city and is a familiar and important thoroughfare for many of us who live here. It ought to be a recognized Great Street, but reality leaves something to be desired. This class will focus on the steps that should and can be taken to move Yonge Street towards its rightful place as a Great Street. We’ll dip into the film and video archive and invite experts to share their vision of a revived and refreshed Yonge Street. Reference material will be posted on this website (LIFEcourses.ca).

Informally …

Hundreds of millions of development dollars are pouring onto Yonge Street – it's one of the hottest real estate markets in North America. This is especially true for the portion of the street between Dundas Square and Yorkville. For many years, this was the place for parades, for protests, and for strolling on a Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon. It is still a defining street for downtown Toronto. It has the history and the historic buildings and the mind-share to be one of Toronto's Great Streets, but the on-the-street reality is somewhat lacking. If the right things are done with those development dollars (and with some additional tax dollars), that on-the-street reality can change.

The time is right to begin working towards a Great Street status for Yonge Street (between Dundas Square and Yorkville). The North Downtown Yonge Street Planning Framework is an approved first step in this direction. The Heritage Conservation District study that's currently underway could provide important support for the idea of Yonge Street as the promenade street in the heart of the city, … and protect the significant historic buildings found along the street. The Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area is focusing attention on Yonge Street as an inviting, exciting, and welcoming “place” in downtown Toronto. And in the normal cycle of Toronto street refurbishment, Yonge Street is due for a redesign in 2016.

Great Streets

The leading text in this field is Allan Jacob's Great Streets (MIT Press, 1993). In his book, Allan Jacob describes a number of streets that observers would describe as “great”. Most of the book is a description of great streets he has experienced. In the final part of the book that the author provides a list the characteristics of great streets.

The list is short, but telling. Great Streets have:

Places for People to Walk with Some Leisure

Physical Comfort


Qualities That Engage the Eyes




Quality of Construction and Design

He goes on to describe qualities that contribute to a great street:


Beginnings and Endings

Many Buildings Rather than Few; Diversity

Special Design Features; Details



Diversity Helps

In my effort to describe the characteristics that a Great Yonge Street should have, I produced the following list:

1. It is possible to walk with leisure. People are present in sufficient numbers for safety, but with enough space that they can walk at their own pace.

2. The street “walls” have been well-defined. Buildings do not loom over the street, but they do provide a consistent street definition.

3. The street engages the eye. There is a rich variety of textures, patterns and shapes along the street. Many store fronts are relatively narrow.

4. The design of buildings is complementary. The buildings along the street “work” with each other, but there is a diversity in their designs.

5. Construction materials are generally of high quality. The building show that care has been taken to use high quality materials.

6. There is a substantial “green” presence alng the street and at the entrance to side streets. Trees, plantings and hanging baskets are used.

7. There is a rich retail and recreational diversity. There are different kinds of shops and different kinds of recreation along the street (and adjacent laneways).

8. The street features great “details”. This might be a great door, or a great window, or a great bench. Great features stand out in a strongly positive way.

9. There are recognized “places” along the street and adjacent to the street. These places are destinations and locations where people want to spend time.

End Points

Yonge Street is often described as the world's longest street. Only portions of that nearly 2,000 kilometer length could hope to attain Great Street status. Following Allan Jacob's argument, the first Great section of the street needs to have clearly defined “ends”, and these ends need to be “places” in their own right.

There are a number of possible ends to a future Great Street section of Yonge. Two places stand out as good potential end points. Dundas Square has become a clearly recognized place in downtown Toronto. It would be one of the natural end points. To the north, the the Bloor-Yonge intersection (and the entrance to Yorkville) is a candidate northern end of an initial Great Street section. Dundas Square to Yorkville is about the length that Allan Jacob would recognize as a natural Great Street candidate.

This target stretch of Yonge Street has the strong advantage that there is intense development pressure between those end points. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be invested in this relatively short strip of Yonge Street between Dundas Square and Yorkville. There would be a clear commercial benefit to developers were that section of Yonge to be recognized as a Great Street. The adjacent neighbourhoods have endorsed the vision of this stretch of Yonge becoming a recognized Great Street. “All” that's required is to find a way to make it happen.

Possible Initiatives

There are a large number of steps that could be taken to move the stretch of Yonge Street between Dundas Square and Yorkville towards Great Street status. The following items are all potentially important in furthering that objective.

Planning Framework – A planning framework for this stretch of Yonge Street has been developed and approved by City Council. The framework is being challenged at the Ontario Municipal Board. This framework needs to be defended in the strongest possible way – it's a key step in the right direction.

Road Diet – The use of the public realm should be rebalanced. Today, there are considerably more pedestrians than automobiles along the street. The balance of the public realm should be adjusted to reflect the actual use of the public realm – the sidewalks widened and the traffic lanes reduced.

HCD Designation – A Heritage Conservation District study is underway. The area should be designated an HCD, protecting the historic buildings found along the street, and protecting the social role that the street has played in the life of the city and its residents.

Yorkville Plan  - The portion of Yorkville immediately east of Yonge is due for a massive overhaul. A gaggle of new residential towers will be going up. New pedestrian places are to be developed. The plans call for that large block to become a luxury "place".

Laneway Retail – One of the continuing challenges as a street improves is to protect the presence of interesting retail, most of which is not a part of a major chain. The laneways could provide alternative and affordable retail spaces adjacent to the street. This may be one of the best ways to protect interesting retail for Yonge Street.

11 Wellesley Park – There is a commitment from the city and from the developer (Lanterra) that a significant portion of the “Opera Lands” will become a public park. The retail to be located in the base of the building to be erected on the site should contribute to “interesting” retail, as should new retail opportunities on the adjacent laneway.

Downtown Yonge Overway - There is, today, a small chain of three unconnected linear parks above the route of the Yonge Street Subway. With a little bit of creative energy and a modest investment, the three linear parks could be connected and extended four blocks south – with a Yonge Overway running from Charles to Wood.

This is only one preliminary list of possible changes that could work to strengthen the status of this section of Yonge as a Great Street. This list has ignored the new retail and new public use space that will accompany the construction of new buildings along the street. There's a lot planned for Yonge Street between Dundas Square and Yorkville. If every major new multi-million dollar building does its part, Great Street status is almost guaranteed.

Course Plan

There are to be six sessions in the course. This list of session topics is a preliminary effort to map out how the material on A Great Yonge Street will be convered.

1. Introduction (February 3rd)
Yonge Street has a long and storied history. The first session of the course will provide a general introduction and review some highpoints of that history.

2. Great Streets (February 10th)
People have been writing about Great Street for well over a century. Toronto has examples of existing and planned pretty good streets. Mostly this session will examine Great Street features.

3. Forces at Work (February 17th)
If we are to have a Great Yonge Street, we must work with the existing forces shaping the street. This session will examine thoses forces, from demographic changes to the OMB.

4. Planning Environment (February 24th)
We'll review the formal planning process in Toronto and walk through the 501 Yonge proposal. The second half of the session will be a panel discussing the role of residents.

5. Development Prospects (March 3rd)
There are some 15+ new condos planned for this stretch of Yonge Street. A brief overview will be provided. That will be followed by a development industry panel discussion the opportunities and possible resident's roles.

6. Toward a Vision (March 10th)
Making a Great Yonge Street happen requires a vision and the will to move towards that vision. The final panel will draw on seasoned and thoughtful experts who will talk about their vision and our possible role.

End Note

What happens in this course will depend on a number of factors, only some of which can be known at this time. What will class participants want from the course? What role will members of the class want to play? What new proposals will come forward or be approved before the course ends? What will come of the OMB challenge to the planning framework? What, if anything, will emerge from the HCD study now underway? What new studies will be launched by the city? And, finally, who will agree to participate in one of the possible panels?

Bob Fabian




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May 6 – June 10 (6 sessions) Time: Wednesdays, 10:10 a.m. – 11:55 a.m. Location