The Localist

Parents, send your kids to play on the streets!

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For a few hours on a couple of August Sunday mornings last summer, a new budding event took place in downtown Toronto. Picture a world without cars…. Kids playing hopscotch in the streets, cyclists whizzing by without worry of being gifted with door prizes.

From 8 am to noon, on August 17 and August 31, Toronto opened up a few downtown streets to people not in shiny metal exhaust spewing boxes. Why only from 8 am to noon, you ask? Lazy conservative Hummer driving bureaucrats (not dissimilar to Rob Ford types) at city hall and around town whined a lot, and, consequently, only a few hours on two Sunday mornings when half the city was still hungover and sleeping from partying Saturday night was set aside to test things out.

There are cities all around the world who have beaten Toronto to the punch on this event like New York and Guadalajara. The idea of Open Streets is to close streets to cars in order to encourage all citizens to partake in physical activity.

Open Streets Toronto saw two major streets closed, Bloor Street from Spadina to Parliament, and Yonge Street from Bloor to Queen. We took part in Open Street Toronto on August 31 where we enjoyed the following activities.

Stepping off the subway at the Spadina station, it was already apparent that many Torontonians had agreed to ditch their cars to embrace Open Streets.

Dozens of cyclists casually rode by with smiles on their face. Kids were drawing on the ground with chalk. A costumed mascot was dancing around. A yoga class was being led on a street corner. A group of volunteers was available to present to passer-by’s all that Open Streets had to offer. Peppered throughout the route were activity hubs where the walker or cyclist could take a break and join in another activity.

As we headed east down Bloor Street, we came across a group of children banging rhythmically on drums led by some volunteer musicians and a piano begging anyone to tickle its ivories.

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Heading further east we passed the Royal Ontario Museum (or “the ROM” as Torontonians like to call it) where a representative of the museum was conducting a show-and-tell session to a small group, giving them a taste of what life was like in the Pre-Cambrian period from which the fossil that he was proudly holding came.

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As we walked through a part of Toronto that I am not able to connect with, Bloor Street’s snooty high end shopping district, I was pleased to see it transformed into a palatable neighbourhood for Open Streets. Holt Renfrew was taking part by offering free coffee for adults, free balloons for kids, free water for dogs, and free music for me by a great Toronto street music band, The Sidewalk Crusaders.

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Hanging a right to head south down Yonge Street, it was apparent, as I gazed off in the distance, that larger crowds had gathered along Toronto’s famed street. I’m sure all the shops that line Yonge Street wish Open Street hours were extended to take advantage of the much greater than normal foot traffic they are used to seeing. Aside from sports car enthusiasts and anti-environmentalists who shun public transit out of spite, this writer cannot imagine a downside to opening up the streets to people, be it to encourage exercise or to stimulate the local economy. I can’t think of a better idea than to replace the loud motorcycles riding up Yonge Street polluting the air with soot and noise with a space where an intense game of Bocce can be played.

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As we walked further down Yonge Street, we came across a Tai Chi session. After gawking at them for a few minutes, waiting for a great shot for this article, a man invited us to join. Grateful as the invite was, we wanted to resume our walk to see what other surprises remained before this too-short event ended.

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Continuing on, we passed a soap bubble blowing station, a water bottle replenishing station, shirtless ping pong, various games for anyone to join at Yonge & Dundas square, bike valets, artists working on their oeuvre and more chalk drawing of the street for the kiddies.

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For two brief Sunday mornings Torontonians were given a glimpse into what it would feel like to live in a city that featured large-scale pedestrian zones, like what other world-class cities already have. Hopefully 2014’s successful trial will lead to more dates, longer hours next summer and further conversation about the kind of city we want for ourselves.

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