March 11, 2016
by Elsa Lam
The redesigned Queens Quay, with the WaveDecks visible at right, is a vibrant contribution to Toronto’s public realm. Photo: Nicola Betts
I’ll often go out of my way to see a notable building, and sometimes even detour to glimpse a construction site. Recently, I’ve been swinging far south when I cross downtown Toronto by foot, bike or transit. Not for a building—but for a street.
The new Queens Quay is perhaps one of Canada’s finest streetscapes. Not long ago, the waterfront road was a confusion of traffic lanes along both sides of streetcar tracks. Pedestrians were relegated to cramped and cracked sidewalks.
Now, the streetcars have a separated right-of-way to the side of the cars, whose share of the road has been cut down to one lane in each direction. The extra room is used for a two-way bike trail and widened sidewalks. This emphasis on the pedestrian realm is transformative: in the warmer months, the boulevard is full of people strolling between the parks, galleries, theatres, concert venues, boat cruises, restaurants and shops that line this 1.7-kilometre stretch of Queens Quay.
“When we reopened Queens Quay, it was just filled with pedestrians, on a scale the waterfront never was before that. There was pent-up demand for that space,” says Chris Glaisek, vice president of planning and design at Waterfront Toronto, the agency that commissioned the renewed street.
Adds Glaisek, “When we first set out to do this, people said ‘you can’t do anything about Queens Quay—the street’s too small.’ That was the perception. It was really through design that we solved the problem and came up with a whole different idea [of how a street could work].”
The inspiration for the ambitious streetscape is decidedly European, which stands to reason: Rotterdam studio West 8 designed the street with Toronto-based DTAH. Back in 2006, the firms won an international competition to rethink the street, along with its adjacent public realm.
Beyond pedestrian-centric planning, the new boulevard is full of design touches that make it worth a return visit. Rather than standard-issue concrete slabs, the sidewalks boast a pattern of maple leaves in two-tone granite, continuing an underfoot motif started in an earlier Waterfront Toronto project to the east. (Pavers are used rather than cobbles, resulting in an even surface that passes muster with the mobility- challenged.) Granite bicycle logos are also worked into the paving scheme. To prevent collisions, a strip of rough stones provides tactile separation between the bike and walking trails.
They’re still at their teenaged twiggy stage, but a double row of London plane trees has been planted along the boulevard’s south side—a pollution-tolerant species that, when mature, will boast a magnificent canopy. Under the surface, a Silva Cell system of plastic crates protects root systems from soil compaction, giving these trees the potential for a longer lifespan compared
to regular street plantings.
Another project by West 8 and DTAH—the dock-inspired WaveDecks—provides bursts of fun alongside the street. Swooping up and down in curved lines, these wood structures multi-task as urban sculptures, benches, public amphitheatres and play spaces. “We needed to widen the sidewalks, and everyone assumed that we would create a flat plane. Instead, West 8 and DTAH created a landscape out of it,” says Glaisek.
The stunning results haven’t been without pain. The street was under construction for three long years—and when it reopened, there was an awkward adjustment period, with cars turning into streetcar lanes and at least one physical altercation between a pedestrian and a cyclist.
Signage and traffic signal adjustments helped, and ultimately, Torontonians quickly adapted to this new street type. Now that we have it, public demand for more streets like this is sure to follow. Toronto, like many Canadian cities, came of age in an automobile-focused era, and our car-centric streets reflect that. But as Queens Quay shows, streets can be transformed‚ through design, into strong contributors to the public realm.