This is the final instalment in a five-part series looking at what Ontario can do now to address systemic issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief. Read Part 4 here.
Last month, here at TVO.org, I interviewed a series of experts on big, system-wide challenges the province will be facing as it exits the pandemic. But there was so much more that could have been covered, so we’re doing it again: five more articles about specific challenges the province faces today — this time, with a greater emphasis on what can be done now. It will take many years to build new hospitals and train thousands of new nurses, but what can be done in weeks, months, or even just a few short years?
Today, TVO.org speaks with Shawn Micallef, a columnist at the Toronto Star and senior editor at Spacing magazine, about our attitude to public space — and how Toronto can become a truly outdoor city.
Matt Gurney: So, this is the 10th of these articles I’ve done, and they’ve all looked at something very specific. Big and complicated, but specific. This one is a little bit different, but I’ve read your columns about this, and I’ve seen your tweets, and I knew I just had to talk to you about a broad but vital issue: the outdoors. We’ve just lived through a year and a half of real constraint on our ability to gather indoors. And Toronto is a city where we have some beautiful ravines. Centre Island is incredible. But we’re not really a city that has ever really prioritized outdoor spaces. Every bit of outdoor space, we pave over, and then later we rip up the paving for an 80-storey condo. So, even before the pandemic began, how would you have described Toronto as an outdoors city to someone who’d never been here before?
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Shawn Micallef: I think this was changing slowly over the years, but, in general, Toronto did not embrace good public spaces, whether they were formal towns squares or parks and ravines. I mean, for a long time, places like the ravines, for decades, were seen as sort of sinister places, places that you shouldn’t let your kids go. Bad things happen there. We have a history of writers, Margaret Atwood and others, who place their stories in Toronto’s ravines. It’s emblematic, I think, of Toronto’s historical roots as a WASP culture of being a little bit private and not really living outdoors.
Just go up the 401 to Montreal, and just the first few hours of walking there, it always is so apparent how different the city approaches its public spaces. It’s kind of intangible in a way, but life is lived outdoors, whereas, in Toronto, it is kind of grudgingly allowed, even though the official position will say things like “a city within a park” and “this park is for you.” The vibe is always that, whatever we may say, we’d prefer you not spend too much time outdoors.
Gurney: [laughs] “Have a great time outdoors, if you absolutely insist.” Yeah. Montreal is a great example, because it’s also a winter city. Like, we’re not comparing ourselves to Barcelona, right? Toronto and Montreal are both miserable outdoors many months of the year, but Montreal still does it better. One of the things that I find interesting about Toronto outdoor spaces is how, to the extent they exist, outdoor spaces, public spaces, they’re normally very tailored to a function, right? It’ll be like, here’s a park, and it’s the tennis-court park. Over here, this is where we put hockey rinks. Whereas Montreal, you will have a public square, and it’s ringed with restaurants, and it’s convertible space. In Toronto, a lot of our spaces are very function-driven.
Micallef: Convertible spaces is a good way of putting it for Montreal. Our winter is miserable here, but it’s not as miserable as Montreal. And when does Montreal do their Nuit Blance, the overnight art festival? They do it in the middle of February. We do it at the end of September.
Something that was actually good in Toronto was the conversion of public golf courses during the winter to allow for snowshoeing and skiing. I went one day to the Don Valley golf course; it’s off Yonge Street and goes under the 401. It’s really dramatic. And it was like a winter wonderland. It was like it was a Krieghoff painting. There were hundreds of people sledding and skiing and just walking. I thought, wow, I’ve never seen Toronto embrace winter like this. And that was just a pivot — we just decided to do that and it was good.
And I was just thinking about this. Winter is coming again, our second pandemic winter. We could distribute fire kits around city parks a lot better. There are some fire kits in some parks you can rent and some at Ontario Place for, like, $50, so it’s not cheap. But when you go to German cities in winter, people are out and about all over, especially before Christmas. A Christmas market kind of thing. And they have these almost upright fireplaces. So you go walk around a bit, and every so often you can warm yourself at these fires. Little things like that really break down the resistance that a lot of people have to winter — if you know that you can just stand by a fire for 30 seconds, rather than being out in the cold. Toronto doesn’t do this well. The pits we do have are super-regulated. And we need some regulation to prevent clutter. But this is something we can do better.
Gurney: I don’t want to oversimplify this, but it occurs to me that Toronto is very, very young. Montreal is much older. The European cities, the ones that didn’t need to get rebuilt in the mid-20th century, are older still. Toronto had its growth boom after we’d already moved into the area of far-flung suburbs linked by private cars. But you’re talking about the German or European model, and Toronto has a hint of that, just a few acres at the Distillery. And thousands of people pack themselves in there, or used to, because it was great.
Micallef: I guess you could say that’s our European- or Montreal-style neighborhood, the Distillery District. But even looking at the postwar landscape of Toronto, there are so many areas that have now become really dense with apartment buildings and condominiums. Scarborough city centre, the Mimico area along the lake, Etobicoke Centre — a few dozen of these kinds of centres — with people living apartment lives.
So I think some of the energy, that Distillery Christmas market energy, could be applied to some of these clusters where there’s a density of people, but there isn’t the same kind of embracing opportunity in public space. I think you’d see people come out. The last Nuit Blance before the pandemic opened a zone in Scarborough City Centre, and it was jammed. Thousands of people came out. I’d never seen people come out in Scarborough in a public space like that. And it was wonderful to see.
Gurney: Something that was interesting to me in the pandemic, and we’ve been talking about Toronto, mostly, but this applied right across the province, was how when COVID hit, and we realized pretty quickly that the outdoors was much safer, but we didn’t do any major pivot. You’ll remember a few months ago, there was a real letdown for barbers. We’d talked about letting them open … and then we didn’t. And I was so frustrated. Not for myself; my hair-care needs are minimal. But for them. Let them work outside! Move classrooms outside! We did it with patios but stopped there. Do more! We had this huge, safe thing to do, and we barely looked at it.
Micallef: My hair-care guy, and I am also getting into minimal-needs territory, just set up in his backyard. It wasn’t part of any official plan, but he had the space; it’s a tiny space. He would close down, and things were very strictly prohibited, during the deepest lockdowns, but otherwise he did it all winter long. He put a little kind of weird space heater outside and decorated it nicely and didn’t use water much during the winter, but it worked well enough. In a looser regulatory environment, or a looser entrepreneurial environment, the CaféTO patio initiative might have spread more. Even so, there were organized exercise classes in parks. But, even then, they were at risk of getting a ticket from a bylaw officer — because you can go on the website, the city’s website, and get a permit to do outdoor exercise. But I don’t know how. I haven’t heard any stories of them being hassled. But, come on. Put some loose parameters around it: don’t go into the dog areas; don’t go into the kid areas. And let people exercise outdoors.
Gurney: Well, you’ll remember stories at the beginning, before “essential exercise” was an official thing. A guy in Toronto doing chin-ups in the park got a ticket. There seemed to be a real effort by Ottawa bylaw guys to embarrass their city. That did seem to get better eventually, as the message got out to stop. But that, I think, was a gap between what the politicians wanted or knew was wise and what the bylaw guys were doing on their own initiative.
Micallef: The laws are still on the books. It allows an overzealous bylaw officer to harass people even today. This summer, I went over by Marie Curtis Park, on the Mississauga border. Lots of families and people. Totally multicultural. It’s a really neat beach. And there were four or five dark uniforms — bylaw guys just sort of standing around, doing surveillance, waiting for someone to do something wrong. It just seemed like this unnecessary show of bylaw force.
And we saw earlier in spring the drinking-in-the-park controversy, which is going on everywhere. Cities now have the ability to allow this, thanks to the province. You might as well just make it legal. Instead, Toronto, in a torqued way, kept the law on the books and said police and bylaw officers won’t be enforcing. But people are at risk of having their day ruined. And even on the way to the island, back in July, even though the local councillor had said it was fine, private security was asking people if they had alcohol in their bags. The politicians need to make it clear that this is legal and take away the authority to harass people.
Gurney: You’ve seen where I’m going, because this is the next on my list here. Drinking in parks. A few months ago, Toronto absolutely beclowned itself. It was embarrassing. The city’s parks and rec guys actually had to take down a tweet that was just getting killed out there for lecturing people about not drinking in parks. And it was interesting, because it was some of the city’s most progressive councillors that were on the wrong side of this issue, pleading for more time, saying we needed a chance to figure out how to do what is routinely done the world over. Shawn, you know me: I’m a generic-issue white dude. WASPs like me roll off assembly lines by the thousands. I’m not going to get hassled by a cop for having a beer in a park. But we know, for a fact, that other people can’t be as confident. And we were leaving those people vulnerable.
Micallef: It was absolutely not progressive to put non-white people who get harassed a lot more at risk by keeping this law on the books.
This is an issue of ideology. A lot of progressives have this sincere belief that everything has to be regulated. They are not comfortable with looseness. And I think that part of the progressive view kicked in and overrode everything else.
If we had actually gone forward with allowing it, officially, I suspect you would have gotten something like what’s happened in Vancouver or Calgary, where they’ve done weird things like designate a handful of parks and a handful of areas in the parks, almost like how the Liquor Control Board designate parts of restaurants where you are allowed to drink. In Ontario, famously, at some bars, you can’t go from one level up a flight of stairs to another level, because the stairs aren’t cleared for alcohol. So, in Canada, we’ve seen examples where it became an overly regulated thing.
But when you go to European cities, there’s the model. It has already been tested, right? If there are problems, you deal with the problem instead of trying to prevent it with regulation ahead of time. We already have laws that would address public drunkenness, disturbances, and the like.
Gurney: This isn’t a fun thing to talk about, but it’s part of this whole thing. What comes in must come out. If we’re drinking in parks, we need a place to pee. And you’ve been writing and tweeting about this a lot. Why are usable public washrooms so rare in this province? Officials have been telling us, we’ll get bathrooms open, and this is true of water fountains, too. This is basic stuff: a place to get a drink and then a place to pee because you had a drink. This seems beyond our ability.
Micallef: Each time the councillors and the mayor made big announcements. “Look at what we are doing for you!” Like, even last week — and this is now, what, six or eight weeks after it came up? It was June when they announced they were going to open the water fountains and said they’d need a few weeks. It’s August, and in some areas, a bit off the beaten path, you’ll still routinely find ones that don’t work.
And if the civic leaders, the staff and elected officials, truly wanted us to be out in public, they’d have deployed “Porta Johns” in every public space, not just the big ones. Right now, in High Park, there’s a whole army of them, which is good. But you would have one or two everywhere, and hopefully an accessible one for people with mobility issues. Everywhere. In every public space.
I’m sitting in my office right now in Little Portugal, overlooking an alley. And in the last 18 months, numerous times, I’ve seen a parent come through here with their toddler in the bushes next to some of the parked cars and broken glass so their kid can go pee. Because there’s nowhere to go to the bathroom. So it’s not just about opening the meagre washrooms that we have. They should have been deploying Porta Johns. That would have been easy. The city can unleash its unlimited resources when it wants to, as we’ve seen with park encampment evictions. Porta Johns would have helped a lot of people.
Gurney: My kids are a bit older now, but I remember those days. And we’ve travelled around. Toronto is particularly nightmarish to find a washroom in. Let’s talk about a success, though. We’ve covered a lot of bad news above. We’ve dramatically expanded patios in this city. And I love it. The city is so much nicer for it.
Micallef: The city is so much nicer! You go down the Danforth, which was always five lines of traffic. A cement canyon with meagre trees on either side. You go there now, there are these big patios; the bike lanes have pushed out. A lot of the owners have decorated their patios in their own way. They have interesting walls or planters … it’s such a different thing. A green, lush street. I really hope people like it and fall in love and manifest political pressure to not let things go back. You know, it’s interesting. We talked before about Toronto being overly regulated. But we’re still very much a merchant city, as opposed to a more artistic city. This is a city that exists to make money. And that was the impulse that got the patios and cafés going: How can we get these people making money? We did it right.
We keep going back to Europe. Walking around Amsterdam, a restaurant won’t have an official patio, they’ll just put like a few tables out, maybe even across the street by a canal. And we saw that a little bit with CaféTO stuff, especially when a restaurant had a little side yard or something. And that was the most interesting thing, I thought — the unofficial stuff. The city would officially rope off some parking lots or road space for an official patio, but one or two tables popped up.
It’s important to not have stuff creep into rights-of-way and block people in wheelchairs or with mobility issues by blocking sidewalks. That can happen and has to be stopped. But it was interesting to see the grey area — where people expanded just a little bit but did it responsibly. I wonder if that will stay or if Toronto’s officiousness and those antsy bylaw officers will spring back into action. We saw that just last week. Someone complained about a canopy over a patio, and the bylaw guys got involved, and it took a public outcry and intervention by the mayor to beat them back. So I honestly don’t know.
Gurney: You know, that’s interesting. We’ve both been covering politics in this city and this province a long time, man. We’ve seen a lot of weird stuff. But there is something that does give me a weird sense of hope. Are the politicians more easily shamed now? We spoke before about parks and rec having to delete a tweet that was just wildly tonedeaf after a huge public backlash and how the progressive councillors were scrambling … and I don’t know if that would have happened 10 years ago. Are we actually getting to a point where public pressure will actually force them, against their own desires, into making useful, good changes?
Micallef: I think so. A lot of these issues are “niche” — that’s maybe not the perfect word, but there are a lot of issues where there isn’t a group of people who are passionate about it, and that makes it easier for the politician to avoid it.
Whereas these public-space issues, maybe because they are so universal — not just the drinking thing, because not everyone drinks — but everyone has to go to the washroom. Everyone wants these amenities to exist in public space. And when they weren’t there, and when they felt politicians were letting them down and in the city government there wasn’t any action, there was outrage from a wider demographic than on a lot of political issues, and that couldn’t be easily ignored.
So I think that that’s the kind of thing that sparks fear in any politician and can get them to move. We’ve been doing Spacing magazine now for 18 years, and public space has seemed like a niche thing. But the pandemic has been showing a lot of people that it’s actually a critical thing. In this city, in particular, the city has changed. We live in crowded dormitories, so much of our life is now outdoors in these spaces. There are a lot more people living in apartments now who don’t have the backyard. And the pushback I think made the politicians sit up a bit and maybe take notice.
Gurney: That’s really interesting. So my first interview with this series was with Mike Moffat, about housing, and, right at the end, we just briefly touched on the social impact of this. I didn’t include it in the transcript, because it was really just a comment or two and then we moved on, but I kind of regret that now. Because, yeah. You’re right. And what Mike — and I said just briefly — is that if we don’t fix the housing problem, that’s going to have huge social and political consequences. You can’t have a healthy democracy where people who bought a house before a certain point in time are basically guaranteed to become multi-millionaires, and people who didn’t will never have a chance to own and will spend all their money on ever-climbing rents. That will eventually produce social and political instability, and that can get really ugly.
And, in this pandemic, we’ve had some broad categories of people living very different experiences: People in tiny condos or apartments, with basically no outdoor amenities. People in houses with backyards the kids can play in or you can relax in. And then also those people who either had a cottage or had someone with a cottage or a farm, and they could just leave the city entirely. I think we are lucky this wasn’t more disruptive than it was.
Micallef: Toronto was historically a city of backyards. And even though there have’ been slab apartment towers since the ’60s here, the population of people living high above without their own plot of land has increased exponentially. If you make nice parks, and you make them comfortable and welcoming, not hostile in any way, clean and functional and with services, people will see those as their backyards, and that antipathy will come down.
Last summer, not as much this summer, but a little, we’ve had photos from low angles showing crowded beaches. Really shaming those people. But where do people without backyards go? Where are they supposed to go? I think, hopefully, there’s been some learning there. I finally watched Joker last night. What you just described, the no-backyards versus the backyards-but-no-cottages versus the backyards-and-cottages … well, I hope we don’t see that.
Gurney: [laughs] Me, too! Okay, here’s a big question for you: What can we do — and fast — to fix this, before we’re eating the rich?
Micallef: You know what? There aren’t a lot of seats in Toronto parks. Now there are Twitter activists called #SitTO. They would have little demonstrations, not quite protests, pointing out there aren’t enough places to sit. The recent renovation of Queen’s Park, the city-owned part, is a great example of how to do it. There’s so much seating there. It’s not hostile if someone wants to stretch out and lie down. It was just done right. I haven’t had too many park drinks with people, but the idea that you can go somewhere and find a bench is not a given. So you have to go somewhere and bring a blanket, assuming you’ll be on the ground. So we could easily deploy benches.
Signage is important. We don’t do it well. I was in Hamilton recently on a trail, and I kept getting thrown off. The trail wasn’t marked. These aren’t the formal parks but the somewhat wilder spaces. The parks, we’re pretty lucky. They generally do a good job with signage. Not everyone is so adventurous that they’ll just take off a path, so we need signs that say, “This trail is one kilometre and will take you here” so that people feel comfortable trying it out. There’ve been some efforts in the Lower Don Valley in Toronto to get better signage.
And also? Food. Something to eat! Getting a bite or a drink or a coffee isn’t easy. We do have some interesting mid-century concession stands that are interesting. But the vendor contracts are … uhh … not very exciting. [laughs] And we prohibit little pop-ups. We need more options. In Berlin, a guy had a three-wheel bike, and he had a wonderful coffee machine. That was wonderful. Little things like that. Toronto has a weird relationship with commercial things encroaching into parks, and that’s a good thing to be wary of, but we have to find a way to help pop-ups, small contractors or small mom-and-pop startups. We don’t need a Tim Hortons hut in the middle of High Park. But we can think more about this — an interesting pop-up stand will make people happy.
Gurney: I was just at Woodbine Beach. Wife, kids, dog. We’re walking around, and there’s, like, a hot-dog cart, a Pizza Pizza, and a trailer that actually seemed to have a lot of options but had a huge line, like a hundred people. So when we got hungry, we left. Right? It just wasn’t logical to stay. One last question: Whether it’s a conservative politician who hates change or a progressive that in theory would love it but would accidentally regulate it to death, how can we get these victories pushed through? How can we find a hundred more successes like our patio expansion, which is so exciting because it’s so rare?
Micallef: Challenge the culture of no. I think each citizen has to push back against the culture of no. My rule of thumb that sort of crystallized over the pandemic is: some councillors — and, again, some are on the left and some are on the right — if you want the washrooms open, some councillors and staff just tell you right away why it can’t be done. We have to tell them that’s not acceptable, and if there’s something we can’t do, we need to figure out what we can do. That’s what I think it will take.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.