THE BLOG
08/31/2014 02:55 EDT | Updated 10/31/2014 05:59 EDT

Do You Know About Open Streets TO?

Every day all of us, no matter what skin colour, no matter how much money one has, and no matter what job we have, will use the same thing to get from place to place.

It's called a street.

We use this every day of every month and every year. Yet, how we use streets is very underdeveloped.

That is for the most part, people use it to get from one place to another, and fast. Never fast enough it seems.

In the sprint of getting from point A to B, one wonders if citizens are actually present enough to see the beauty they are walking by? That is the buildings, the architecture, the trees? Build in saying "good morning" to everyone you see on these streets and well, not sure how that idea would be received.

That said, there is a group of citizens that have wished for more of a structured opportunity to explore their cities & neighbourhoods via streets. After all, if you look at the very definition of what a street is, one will find it is, "a paved public thoroughfare in a built environment." I focus on the word public. Reading further, you see that in this definition, "a road's main function is transportation, while streets facilitate public interaction."

Public interaction, eh? Huh, well if that is the case, why is it this the first year of a very innovative happening in Toronto?

On Sunday August 31, Open Streets TO takes its second bow this month, all part of a pilot of a new way for citizens to explore their streets. The first day on August 17th was met with raves. And guess what? They did it together. Citizens from the downtown core, Scarborough, from North York, from Etobicoke, and on and on.

We were one city with one goal. Have fun while exploring our city.

And it worked.

From 8:00am to 12:00noon on Sunday, Bloor St. from Spadina to Parliament & Yonge St. from Bloor to Queen will be open to the public like never before. Great animations and experiences are planned.

We know for one thing for sure. There will be no cars.

To quote from the Open Streets TO website, this program, "...is the city's largest free recreation program, unlike any other in Toronto or Canada...a world-class program that connects our diverse neighbourhoods and people across the city...people of all ages, abilities, and social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds can come out and improve their health."

Such a simple idea took much lobbying and effort to get this approved.

Our current Mayor Ford had an issue with closing streets to cars. In the end, there was no traffic congestion on the first day of this pilot.

One wonders if Mr. Ford was in fact just concerned about the cars, or did it run deeper?

His tenure as Mayor has constantly berated us with the idea of a group called the "downtown urban elite" who lives a very different life then those who live in neighbourhoods found in the likes of Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York.

If that is in fact true, the tragedy is that he has not tried to develop opportunities for all of Torontonians to gather as ONE TORONTO with the goal of finding commonalties that no doubt would be there.

Why is this? Why as he tried to promote the very essence of the,"urban suburban divide" as gospel that seemingly can never be over turned? Running deeper, is his very existence as a political figure dependent on this sentiment breathing and growing? Scary, scary stuff, folks. Scary.

One such citizen who has done so much to bring an inclusive Toronto to life is the make it happen maven Kristyn Wong-Tam, the able city councillor from Ward 27. Her persistence and efforts to get a committed team to pull this off has been more then impressive. The "road blocks" that came her way were many, but she preserved. She understands the power of community and the benefits of collective gathering occasions and infrastructure. She promotes the idea of necessity of emotional connection in all that we do.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Wong-Tam to explore the background of Open Streets TO and what to expect.

What inspired Open Streets TO?

I was on vacation in Mexico two winters ago and my friend, Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, encouraged me to visit Guadalajara to experience first hand their Open Streets program or ciclovias as they are known in Spanish. I knew that I had to bring this innovative and inspiring recreational program back to Toronto.

Who else is doing this in the world?

A better question is which city doesn't have an Open Streets program because it seems like all the leading "world class" cities seem to have a similar program. There are over 100 Open Streets initiatives underway across the planet from Bogota to Cape Town to Paris to New York to Winnipeg. Toronto is not an early adapter. In fact, our route is a modest 5kms compared to Bogota's 121 kms or even New York's 14kms. With the support of Toronto's Open Streets enthusiasts and hopefully the future support of the City of Toronto, we'll be spending the next few years expanding and refining our program.

Is the goal for this to happen every year?

Creating an annual Open Streets TO program supported by the City is the ideal outcome. In every city, where Open Streets is funded and promoted by the local government, their residents are happier and healthier. As well, the respective mayor takes an active leadership role in Open Streets promotion and its brand is proudly displayed on city-funded banners, literature and website. Hopefully with the Pan Am/Para Pan Games coming in 2015, the City of Toronto will step up and adopt this program as their own next year.

Open Streets TO runs again Sunday August 31 in Toronto. RAIN OR SHINE.