Designing spontaneity into a public square

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For generations of young Torontonians, the corner of Yonge and Dundas was everything their mothers ever warned them against - which was, of course, part of its appeal.

But now the dollar stores, sleazy movie houses, and other fixtures are coming under the wrecker's ball as the way is cleared for Dundas Square.

This is to be a new kind of public space for Toronto, "an urban savanna," as its designers, architects James Brown and Kim Storey, describe it. In simplest terms, the square will be a small (one acre) open space surrounding the Dundas subway station.

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In more elevated terms, the square is intended to be a celebration of urban life. Some 60,000 people stream out of the station every day, Mr. Brown observes. Their arrival up at street level into an attractively designed space can be "a magical moment potentially, if you engage that - an exciting little moment," he adds.

It's a way to take the "passages of routine" in city life and "make those experiences a little more intense," says Brown. Among the details: flush-with-ground-level water jets and lots of seating.

"The place will be eminently sittable," says Kim Storey. "You want people who just come and hang out."

This space will be paved with green striated granite, intended to suggest an outcropping of rock. The stone surface will bow upward at a 2.5 percent grade, so that someone ambling across it will be aware of a slight incline.

The square is about urban civility but there is something slightly subversive about it, too. "We wanted to allow for planned activity, but also for spontaneous gatherings," says Ms. Storey, suggesting that political demonstrations, for instance, might find a home there.

This is the kind of space Toronto doesn't have much of. It strikes many here as an idea imported from Europe. "Protestant Toronto is terrified of its public spaces," says Brown.

Many people here remember how after one of the Blue Jays' World Series victories a few years ago, joyous baseball fans took to the streets to celebrate - only there wasn't really any place for them to go.

With Dundas Square, there will be a place to go to celebrate.

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