Monday, December 7, 2009

Yonge-Dundas Square - Friday October 16, 2:30 pm

Yonge Dundas-Square is located at the southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas streets. It was built in 2003 as part of the City of Toronto’s plan to revitalize the downtown core. The square is surrounded on four sides by buildings covered by billboards and video advertisements which extend upwards for several storeys. On the north side of the square are moveable tables and chairs underneath a long canopy made of concrete and wood. Next to this are a ticket booth and an entrance to Dundas station. A covered stage dominates the east end of the square, and the south side is lined by 5 small trees. At the west end of the square is a tourist information booth.

Today is cold and windy, but the square is full of people. Many people have moved chairs into the sun. Students and elderly people are reading, talking on the phone, and watching the activities taking place in the centre of the square. Other people cut quickly across the square. Today an NBA/Raptors promotion is taking place, which consists of a basketball free throw competition. An announcer asks people where they are from, and talks about prize giveaways. A crowd of about forty people, comprised mostly of teenagers and young men has gathered to watch and enter the competition. A few white tents are being set up by workers near the ticket booth. The square is filled with the sounds of people talking and laughing, brakes squealing and idling buses and cars on Yonge Street.

What I noticed immediately about the square is how passive everyone is. Apart from the people shooting basketballs at the NBA promotion, no one seems to be involved in any activity that directly relates to the square itself. In particular, the crowd watching the basketball free throw looks almost zombie-like. Over the course of about thirty minutes, more and more people with bored expressions wander over to watch, and the crowd grows. The people crossing through the square head mostly in the direction of the Eaton Centre and do not appear to notice their surroundings. Several of the people sitting at tables are talking on the phone and face outwards, away from the square. The different activities taking place at this site are separate and distinct, and other than people working (the NBA announcer, the men assembling tents) no one seems to have a concrete purpose for being here. The square is not central to their activity; everything they are doing could be done anywhere. There is nothing inherently special about the space – it acts as a backdrop against which other activities are acted out.

The lack of greenery in the square is apparent. The trees here are not very tall, and are mostly blocked by NBA signs. A few flower arrangements sit on the south and west sides of the square, and seem to be for aesthetic purposes only. The use of water at this site is interesting. There are two angular concrete drinking fountains. Their inorganic shapes are in keeping with the sleek design of the square. On days when the square is relatively quiet, jets installed in the ground shoot beams of water high into the air to make the square appear less empty. My relationship with the square, like most of the other people here, is passive. Although I am actively writing notes and taking photos, I am watching other people. The lack of scripting is what is most prominent about people’s behaviour here. Upon entering the square, it is rarely clear what is happening. Nothing acts as a guide except the movement of other people towards the square. I suspect that many of the people who came over to the NBA free throw did so because they saw a crowd, not because they wanted to know more about the Raptors, or because there were signs directing them.

In “Orthodox Planning and The North End”, Jane Jacobs describes the stereotypical modern downtown core, claiming that “extraordinary governmental financial incentives have been required to achieve this degree of monotony, sterility and vulgarity”. This quote matches my observations about Dundas Square, which for a space full of people, is surprisingly devoid of life. Jacobs argues that city planners and architects have gone to great lengths to learn how cities work and what is good for people, but often just piggyback off old ideas without observing how their plans play out in real life. A design on paper is very different from one in action. I have often wondered if the planners behind Dundas Square have ever had to spend a day there, and what their reaction might be to the way their design is being lived out. Jacobs visited Boston’s “slum” North End neighbourhood, and discovered that although residents were poor, they were statistically healthier than people in other parts of the city, and appeared to be happy, creative, and inventive. The reality of life in the North End defied everything that urban planners had been taught about what makes a city a healthy, positive place, and to maintain this view, they had to ignore the obvious reality that the North End was not a bad place. Jacobs emphasized the importance of both “the science of city planning and the art of city design, in real life for real cities”.

Our class discussions about the criteria of international cities and about Alex Inkeles’ qualities of a modern person may serve to explain why Dundas Square was built the way it was, without greenery and without imagination. Dundas Square is often described as “Toronto’s Times Square”, and the aesthetic similarities are obvious, particularly the giant ads and billboards that frame both spaces. Dundas Square seems to be part of an attempt to make Toronto an internationally acclaimed city. The Square’s design is not particularly original, or Torontonian, or even Canadian. It does not take into account the natural climate of Toronto (it is a frozen wind tunnel in the winter). But it meets the criteria of an international city – New York, London, and Tokyo all have large public squares that feature prominent ads. Dundas Square is just a small-scale imitation of those spaces. In terms of modernity, the concept that nature cannot coexist with modern, sophisticated design, is reproduced in the square’s design. The related ideas that nature is not inherently useful, and has to be economical in order to serve a purpose, are also reflected. The notion that “modernity” is a quality that is, and must remain separate from natural spaces, is very outdated. Organic and sustainable design and building practices are becoming increasingly popular, and the politically correct “norm” in design. Unfortunately, the planners of Dundas Square did not attempt to create a relationship with nature.

Yonge-Dundas Square is not constitutive of a human-nature connection. Nature is clearly secondary to the design of the square. Its main purpose is to function as a container for unrelated activities – concerts, promotions, performances, small markets. It is also a space from which people can - or rather, cannot avoid to - observe a plethora of advertisements. Nature serves a purely aesthetic/utilitarian role in the square. As part of a post-modern project, nature is obliged to be incorporated. Once construction of the square was complete, trees and pleasing flower gardens were added after the fact – organic elements are in no way integral or central to the function of the square. Drinking water, a basic connection to nature, is obscured by modern design. Water is also used (or arguably wasted) as a space-filler. Historically, town squares have drawn people outside to enjoy nature and each other’s company. While some people seem to enjoy the sunshine at Yonge-Dundas Square, in and of itself the space is neither a destination nor a particularly good example of urban nature.

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