Canada’s Largest, Wealthiest City Finally Embraces Streetscaping!

Video produced and posted to YouTube October 2, 2013 by

Finally, Canada’s largest and wealthiest city has embraced the principles of design excellence, the power of building beautiful and streetscaping!

With a population of 2.79 Million Toronto ranks as the fourth largest city in North America just recently surpassing Chicago.  Its per capita wealth and steadily growing economy make it one of the wealthiest places on earth. 230

Photo: Toronto City Hall 2015, AJG

Toronto is the Canadian dream made manifest.  Canadians have long professed ideals like multiculturalism, peace, order and good governance as central to our world view.  While Toronto, or indeed Canada is no where near perfection and there are many more kilometers to go before we rest, it has become a very successful society.

The dynamism of Toronto and its explosion of culture and creativity, come from a society that has successfully channelled its wealth into good quality education and health care where people can grow and express themselves in great freedom and relative tolerance.  The streets of Toronto reflect this success.

The streets of Toronto also, of course, reflect the failures of the Canadian story.

Canada’s Achilles heel is an unholy trinity of complacency, compliancy and bureaucracy.  Canadians are far too quick to think all is OK and running smoothly in our society, when in fact there is always room for significant improvement.  Whether the challenges are wait times for health care, homelessness, poverty or even more significantly the deplorable state of our First Nations Communities, Canadian complacency is at the heart of this never ending drama.  Mix this complacency with our compliancy and lack of demanding better from our public officials, as well as the relative power given to the bureaucratic class, and we can explain many of our societal shortcomings.

Canada’s healthcare system, for example was recently rated as number 30 in the world!  All western European countries fared better than Canada, yet our very expensive system continues to trail others in efficiency, quality and speed of care.

The money we throw at First Nations communities never seems to bring any improvement.

Perhaps we need a bigger vision.


Photo: Tree through broken pavement, Toronto 2015, AJG

Despite the cumbersome and burdensome nature of our governmental structures, despite the many billion dollar boondoggles, bureaucratic budgetary bickering, inter governmental squabbling and public sector problems that never seem to get fixed, Canadians have burst through these constraints, grown our society and bloomed into a great and wonderful place to call home.

As with the beautiful tree pictured above bursting through the constraints of bureaucratic concrete, we just need to broaden the vision and do some streetscaping!

In several articles posted on streetscaping has been suggested as the ultimate shovel ready, skill diverse, geographically dispersed infrastructure project.  Streetscaping is not just “making a street pretty” as some critics might suggest, it is a larger vision that seeks to improve economic development by building better, greener and safer.

Creating better public spaces fosters further economic growth from private sector investment, and helps to put more people to work on the streets providing pride of place and accomplishment.


Photo: Bathurst Street, Toronto 2015 AJG

Toronto has not always embraced this ideal.  In fact the deployable state of many of Toronto’s streetscapes reflect a public sector vision, or lack thereof, that seems to embrace mediocrity, lowest common denominator and do-it-on-the-cheap thinking.

Visionary urbanist and Torontonian Jane Jacobs saw this in the 1960s. “The official spirit of Toronto is stamp out fun, pompous, impressed with mediocrity if its very very big and expensive”

From CBC TV’s “The Way It Is” program, circa 1969, urbanist and author Jane Jacobs comments on late 1960s Toronto and Montreal and on how they have been planned and built.  Posted to YouTube by Michael Klassen

Toronto used to know better.  During the 19th century beautiful tree lined streets graced this young and growing city.  Various urban design movements or “civic art” movements as it was called, made their way to Toronto.  University Avenue was designated as the great ceremonial boulevard terminating on Queen’s Park and the Provincial Legislature.

Toronto College Ave 1876 2012717-college-be-1876

Image:  Toronto College Avenue, 1876

Toronto University and Queen 2012717-uni-queen-1913-f1231_it0769

Photo:  Toronto University Street at Queen Street, 1913, City of Toronto Archives.

Chicago’s City Beautiful Movement came ashore in Toronto with the building of Lakeshore Boulevard.  It was built in the first decade of the twentieth century as a tree lined waterfront parkway providing walking trails, vistas and promenades.

Toronto Lakeshore_Boulevard_Winter_1925

Lakeshore Boulevard, 1925 City of Toronto Archives

But as time progressed and utility companies came to dominate public streetscapes, design excellence and indeed beauty itself took a back seat to “utility”.  Even while great European cities and leading North American Cities like New York, Chicago and Montreal embraced the beauty of tree lined streets and undergrounding utility lines, Toronto continued to allow the diminishment of its public spaces.  When Lakeshore Boulevard was updated in the 1950s above ground utility lines replaced the former graceful Victorian lamps wired underground 50 years earlier.

Series 372, Subseries 58 - Road and street condition photographs

Photo: Lake Shore Blvd. 1951, City of Toronto Archives

Many of these fixtures are still in place today.

Bay Street Toronto 2014

Photo: Bay St. Toronto, 2014 AJG

Bay & Queen Street Toronto 2014

Photo: Bay & Queen St, Toronto 2014, AJG

Queen Street Toronto 2014

Photo:  Queen Street, Toronto 2014, AJG

Many of Toronto’s streetscapes today look like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla just finished stringing their orgy of ugliness.  (Note Thomas Edison advocated for underground utility lines and he introduced his electrical system in 1879 with elegant lamp posts wired underground.  Also New York undergrounded its utility lines in 1888 after the Great Blizzard of 1888 ripped down New York’s newly strung, ugly and unsafe utility lines which had brought the great metropolis to a standstill.)

See post “History of Streetscaping” for more detail.

Toronto civic leaders did not seem to understand the importance of building beautiful.

The simple fact is people like to spend time in beautiful places.  Business investment often follows streetscaping because these better, greener more beautiful places attract visitors, then those who wish to serve the visitors, soon those who want to live close to these wonderful places and voila, a beautiful successful neighbourhood is born.

Of course Toronto has many wonderful and pleasant streets where citizens live and play.  As Jane Jacobs said in the YouTube video linked above, “Toronto is a very refreshing city…all full of romanticism and quirks and surprises and ingenuity in the way outdoor space is used..” 065

Photo:  Toronto 2015, AJG


Photo:  Toronto 2015, AJG

While official Toronto may have missed the importance of green streets and streetscaping, private residents understood the value of trees providing shade and shelter to their homes and backyards.  Blistering hot summer days are cooled by the towering trees reducing the urban island heat effect.

Recently TD Bank put some hard numbers to the arboreal asset. TD Bank estimates ” the 10 million trees that make up the City of Toronto’s urban forest are valued at over $7 billion and provide an additional $80 million of environmental benefits and cost savings each year.” 

See full report below.

Fortunately things are changing.  Street by street and block by block Toronto is rebuilding.  One of its latest improvements came to its “front door” at Union Station.

Toronto’s new “front foyer” on appropriately named Front Street welcomes visitors disembarking from trains, subways and entering the city on the newly opened express train from Pearson Airport.  In this application a “shared street” or integrated street approach was used.  This technique includes low profile curbs and special paving to integrate the sidewalks and traffic lanes.  This also provides traffic calming as cars must slow down for pedestrians entering the street.  Also these low profile curbs accommodate pedestrians and their bags and baggage.


Union Station, Front Street Toronto 2015, AJG


Bank Towers on Front Street, Toronto 2015, AJG

Toronto’s greatest streetscaping success story, however, is unfolding on its spectacular waterfront!

Waterfront Toronto is leading a fantastic design-excellence based renaissance and creating of one of the world’s great waterfronts along newly streetscaped Queen’s Quay.

To the Waterfront, published to YouTube Nov 5, 2014 by Waterfront Toronto

Queen's Quay New Street Car

Queen's Quay Bike Path Queen's Quay Wavedecks


Videos produced and posted to YouTube by

All following photos were taken in June 2015 by the author.

The first photo shows the just completed Queen’s Quay streetscape.  All the elements of streetscaping are present including tree planting and undergrounding of utility lines.  This application also included the installation of a dedicated cycle lane, dedicated transit line with minimalist overhead wiring, and very broad granite sidewalks and curbs.  The trees were planted in special silva cells which provide large root chambers where trees can grow and mature properly.  Also wooden waterfront “wave decks” and many other design elements make this streetscape a truly spectacular urban setting.


Queen’s Quay is certainly an example of “premium” or indeed very expensive streetscaping. The ambition for Queen’s Quay was to create one of the world’s great streetscapes.  It appears they have succeeded in spectacular fashion!

In the following photograph stone masons are completing a section of sidewalk by dry-laying two-colored granite blocks in a maple leaf design.  Their pride and skill is certainly evident in their workmanship.

310 The finished two colored design.

267 A template of maple leafs was also used at cycle lane stops and yields. 316 Additional white granite was used to create bicycle lane signage embedded in the sidewalks. 313 The completed masterpiece. 328 Sustainability was also a key design criteria.  Here a storm water swale directs water run-off from the asphalt cycle lane, down into underground rain wells used to water the street trees. 275 The Dutch design firm West8 who won the design competition for the Toronto Waterfront, also created these wonderful “wave decks” along several points of Queen’s Quay. 270 A wave deck visible from the waterfront boat docks. 325 Fixtures and furnishings are the fifth element of streetscaping.  Here a classic Ontario cottage country touch of Muskoka chairs along the busy waterfront, provide a wonderful place to sit, relax and enjoy the view. 282 Another couple of iconic Canadian images along Toronto’s waterfront. 319 317 Drinking fountains are always excellent streetscape fixtures in any application. 308 Multiple kinds of seating create wonderful people places in a green garden setting. 299 A chance for a patron to enjoy a shaded spot and the complimentary Wi Fi. 297 Signage and wayfinding are necessary requirements in good streetscaping designs. 295 Toronto’s shiny new climate controlled streetcars whisk along Queen’s Quay’s dedicated transit line. 330 Outdoor bars and restaurants are opening all along the new waterfront promenade. 340 Hundreds of millions of dollars of new mixed use private sector investment is under construction along the newly streetscaped Queen’s Quay.  These cantilevered sections obviously play on the waterfront and industrial crane metaphor. 335 Lamp posts and lighting are especially important fixtures in Streetscaping.  In the following 5 photos, the new yellow cedar lamp posts mounted in cast aluminum tree-bark motif bases, are truly wonderful finishing touches.  Waterfront Toronto and Design8 chose this cedar as it ages quickly into a lovely grey.  Then the grey lamp posts blend in wonderfully with the maturing trees. 332 276 346 347 345 Here residents and visitors enjoy sun or shade at wonderful Sugar Beach on the new waterfront promenade. 349 And finally, the trees are growing and creating a wonderful shaded canopy along the waterfront promenade.  This section was completed a couple of years prior and the completed effect of the trees, greyed lamp posts and granite sidewalks is apparent.

Congratulations Waterfront Toronto on this truly inspired streetscape! 344 Toronto has embraced the many benefits of streetscaping.  Billions of dollars of new investment is appearing along these truly wonderful people places.  Whatever the cost of streetscaping, the return on this investment is spectacular.

Here are links to the next couple of streets being planned for renewal.

John Street cultural district reconstruction:

Dundas west and especially the front of the Art Gallery of Ontario streetscaping:

TTC plans for the new relief subway line will offer another truly wonderful opportunity to streetscape dreadfully neglected streets like Queen Street.

Congratulations Toronto for building design-excellence, world class streetscapes!

Build beautifully, build beautifully!

Author:  AJ Good,

2 Comments on “Canada’s Largest, Wealthiest City Finally Embraces Streetscaping!

  1. I like your website. :-) You have, however, made an error. With about 10 million inhabitants, Chicago’s Metropolitan Area is still North America’s 3rd largest. The City of Chicago has a population of 2.6 million, which the City of Toronto has recently surpassed Look it up 🙂

    • Dustin, thank you for your comment. You are correct and I edited to only the City population which is now 2.79 million. Chicago’s Metropolitan Area is still bigger than Toronto’s!

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