Engaging communities in the design and use of their streets

By Nadha Hassen

The next time you walk down the street where you live, take an honest look at what is in the space around you. Perhaps there is a multitude of tall trees or instead, no tree canopy at all. You could think about where your closest park is and the material underneath your feet. Are there spaces for people to come together? Are there children playing on the streets or grandparents sitting on porches? What is the state of the infrastructure? Are there benches or street lights? Is it child-friendly, youth-friendly, senior-friendly? In Ontario, there is a growing movement of individuals and organizations who want communities to be involved in designing their streets and neighbourhoods. Well-designed spaces can enable communities to re-engage with their neighbourhoods and each other. The evidence base linking the built environment to both population and individual health is strong and continues to grow. Specific features of street design and frontage can have positive effects on physical and mental health and increase outcomes such as social capital and community engagement.

Turning transportation infrastructure into social infrastructure

In the City of Toronto, 12.7% of the city’s land base is dedicated to parklands while 25% is dedicated to rights of way, e.g., streets.  The population of Toronto continues to grow, however the space for infrastructure growth and expansion is limited. It is necessary to look at our existing space allocation and the ways we use our spaces to find smarter ways of achieving multiple goals at once. Streets present an opportunity for turning transportation infrastructure into social infrastructure. Retrofitting streets has precedents in urban planning and is a cost-effective, sustainable way to promote health through improving the built environment. Streets are here to stay, but if we can maximize their use, everybody wins.

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