In a growing trend, Toronto residents are taking public safety into their own hands
Regal Heights residents are redesigning intersections and 6th graders in Leaside have created a startup to make streets safer.
Oliver Wong, Arnav Shah and Quinlan Birmingham crossing the street in Leaside
In late November, local resident and civic activist Dave Meslin caught all of Toronto’s attention when he rallied 10 neighbours to redesign the intersection at Springmount Avenue and Regal Road in the Regal heights area. With nothing but some chalk and leaves, the group was able to reveal approximately 2,000 square feet of surplus space in just two hours.
“We didn’t want to be reckless. The point wasn’t to do something that would put people in danger, quite the opposite. We wanted to make sure that what we were creating actually made sense,” said Meslin.
The group did their research. They examined other intersections, taking note of the appropriate turn radius and curb-to-curb width, and made their measurements. They did so with one goal in mind: to gain public support to convince the city that the intersection needs a rethink.
In this case, the project was well-received. Councillor Cesar Palacio, of Ward 17 Davenport, said he will put forward a motion asking city staff to conduct a study on the feasibility of redesigning the intersection at the next Etobicoke York Community Council. If someone had complained about their design the group could have faced a hefty fine from the city.
“You are breaking the law if you don’t abide by municipal bylaws and can be penalized,” said Tammy Robbinson, spokesperson for the City of Toronto.
Despite the group’s good intentions, Meslin acknowledged they were in violation of city bylaws.
“I think there is a fine art to bending rules.… Even though it technically wasn’t permitted, because it was temporary and because we were doing it carefully and it would make the street safer for a few days, I was comfortable taking on that legal liability,” he said.
It also wasn’t the first time the group had knowingly flouted city bylaws.
“We’ve got a bit of a history in the neighbourhood of working with the city when it's appropriate and going rogue when that’s appropriate.”
Meslin argued the do-it-yourself approach to urban planning allows residents to have more say in how their community evolves.
“I think there is a growing disappointment with what our democracy offers right now.… Government remains this kind of medieval structure that’s not very responsive,” he said. “Decisions about how neighbourhoods look and feel and how we invest local resources should be up to neighbours who actually live there.”
In Leaside, three Grade 6 students from Northlea Elementary and Middle School have begun a startup called the Crosswalk Company to make local streets safer for pedestrians.
Oliver Wong, Arnav Shah and Quinlan Birmingham, all 11, have installed bright orange flags, containers and instructions at Rumsey Road and Donlea Drive, near their school; Broadway Avenue and Hanna Road; and Donlea and Sutherland Drive since August of last year. The concept is simple: pedestrians hold up a flag as they cross the street to make themselves more visible to drivers.
The city lowered speed limits in the area in recent years, following the death of six-year-old Georgia Walsh after she was struck by a van at McRae Drive and Millwood Road, but the boys wanted to do more.
“Seeing as the Georgia Walsh incident happened just three years ago, we thought why don’t we try to fix this problem,” said Arnav Shah.
The three sell their kits for $120 to cover the cost of the materials. Patrick Rocca, a realtor in the area, recently paid for a kit to be installed at Broadway and Laird Drive, and Oliver Wong said Northlea Elementary has also approached them about the potential to scout out three additional intersections nearby.
“So we’ll have seven intersections in Leaside once we get those four new ones up, plus it would be starting in a new neighbourhood, around Blythwood Junior Public School,” Oliver Wong said.
In Rosedale, a stop sign on the corner of Glen Road and Binscarth Road is another activist success story. After residents living near the intersection convinced the city to remove the sign in September of last year, another group concerned with pedestrian safety took to the street to protest the decision. The daily protests drew a lot of media attention to their cause and the city eventually withdrew the plan to remove it.
In December, a city staff report concerning the proposed budget for Toronto’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan (RSP) suggested using crowdfunding to help pay for the program.
Residents would be able to donate up to $50,000 and choose which safety measure they would like to see their money go toward.
Although the thinking is somewhat in line with Meslin’s own chalk and leaves experiment, he noted the concept of crowdfunding for necessary infrastructure ensuring pedestrian safety can be problematic and anti-democratic.
“It’s a bit of a slippery slope because then the wealthier neighbourhoods get better infrastructure,” said Meslin.
Councillor Joe Mihevc, of Ward 21 St. Paul’s, said public safety should be seen as a necessity.
“If the word ‘safety’ is in it, I think it should be a basic requirement of government,” said Mihevc.
However, he admitted it’s much easier to get a project funded by the city if some private dollars are brought to it.
“In a cash-strapped municipal system, where people are resistant to raising taxes, this becomes a necessary evil,” he said.
In some cases, residents have already paid out of pocket for pedestrian safety projects in order to navigate around the city’s red tape.
Last summer, 73-year-old Adi Astl spent $550 to build a wooden staircase to Tom Riley Park near Bloor Street West — replacing a steep path where many of his neighbours had fallen — after he was told by his councillor that it would cost the city $65,000 to $150,000. The issue garnered some serious media attention, and as a result, the stairs were replaced by the city for $10,000, way below the estimate.
Mihevc lauded residents like Meslin who are taking a proactive approach to public safety and urban design and said he expects to see more examples of community involvement across the city in the days to come.
“People are pinching corners, they’re renaming laneways, they’re doing public art,” said Mihevc. “It’s a whole new approach to public space.”