Placemaking – One GUNDE at a Time

Photographer: Ev Delen

By: Fabienne Chan
Posted on: June 7, 2016

Before delving into #SitTO action, I’d like to highlight the term, “placemaking”. Placemaking is one of those things that’s hard to define, but easy to point to. To me, placemaking is the process of creating an identifiable gathering-place that strengthens the social infrastructure of a community. For those interested, here’s a link to the Project for Public Spaces’ four pillars of placemaking (sociability, uses and activities, access and linkages, and comfort and image).

Depending on where you go in Toronto, there’s either too little space or too much spacial nothingness. An easy example of the former: the sidewalks of downtown Yonge Street on Saturdays is crammed with pedestrians, leaving little room for strolling and enjoying the walk itself – you’re forced into the pedestrian flow and stopping gets you dirty glares. Of the latter, I’m referring to barren open spaces, like Nathan Phillips Square:

Spatial nothingness at Nathan Phillips Square. Photo courtesy of Ev Delen.

European cities are an excellent example to point to: on sunny days you’d find locals and tourists alike lounging outside on chairs and benches, perhaps reading a book, socializing with friends, or just taking in the scenery and people-watching. Public seating has “staying power” that turns corridors into destinations.

This lack of public seating in Toronto was brought up repeatedly amongst a group of urbanists on Twitter, and soon (out of frustration?), the hashtag “#SitTO” was created, identifying places in our city that could really use some public seating.

As with many urbanist projects, the idea really took hold after an initial group met over beers (probably local and/or craft). A game plan was quickly made to buy 20 inexpensive GUNDE chairs from IKEA, spray-paint them #SitTO, and plant them in various spots around the city. Thanks to one of our own, Danny Brown, we decided to collaborate with 100 in 1 Day to synergize with other city-building efforts.

So on Saturday, June 4th, the 11 of us set out armed with GUNDEs, a few folding tables and a camera crew to demonstrate the power of chairs in six spots around the city. Our first stop was Nathan Phillips Square and within 15 minutes of setting them down, we had our first sitters from the public – whom we lovingly referred to as “Organics”.

If only we’d had more chairs! Photo courtesy of Igor Dragovic.

Families, young people, and dog-walkers alike embraced the chairs and tables, at first hesitant to approach new furniture but soon enough, people were customizing the chairs and arranging them to their own liking. We quickly learned that our initial plan to stay at each spot for 30 mins could have benefited from staying longer as we discovered people required more time to adapt to and approach new objects.

Our second stop was at TD Plaza at King Street and Bay Street – it was the perfect people-watching spot at the centre of towering office buildings but as we approached, we were already making bets on how long it would take for security to come out and kick us off. After all, it was private property belonging to one of Canada’s biggest banks, underutilized or otherwise. Luckily, we managed to set up, sit in the sun, and have a handful of passers-by notice us and our hashtags without running into into any security issues. But this wasn’t the case for our next stop.

#SitTO at TD Plaza. Photo courtesy of Jonah Letovsky.

At Union Station, we had a slight kerfuffle with security. Within minutes of setting down chairs, security personnel confronted us, citing issues with safety hazards and filming permits on private property. Attracting “undesirables” was the main reason why there was no public seating at Union Station on Front Street, meaning that they essentially took away public seating for 1,000+ people to deter a few homeless people. It’s not uncommon – this is the single biggest argument cited against public seating in North America. But upon clarifying the property line, we moved chairs a few feet north of the clock tower and #SitTO prevailed.

“Organics” enjoying a place to gather. Image courtesy of Alex Mather.

En route to our next stop, we made a rest stop on King Street across from the Princess of Wales Theatre. We noticed a handful of people sitting on the ledge – some in a group, some on their phones), and it hit us that this was the perfect spot for #SitTO and not making an impromptu stop would be an absolute waste. Several factors contributed to its potential as a seating space: (1) shade; (2) proximity to greenery; (3) prime people-watching location; (4) nearby food stand; (5) colour-coordination (coincidental) with the poles. Those on the concrete ledge were quick to take up our offer to move to proper street furniture and Organics quickly came in and out. As you can see from the comparison below, this might’ve been our most successful site yet.

Prime public seating location on the south side of King Street, across from the Princess of Wales Theatre. Photos courtesy of Stas Ukhanov and Alex Colangelo. 

After another stop at Queen Street and Peter Street where the “hugging tree” is, we headed over to McGill Parkette, a recently renovated park across from Aura Condominiums which we had agonized over for dropping the ball on public seating. Our last stop was the perfect break along a strip of Yonge that had one of the highest pedestrian traffic levels – again, within minutes of setting up, people were occupying chairs facing the street, giving them front row seats to the urban ballet on Yonge.

McGill Parkette underwent a renovation in mid-2015, but seating was not part of the plan. Images courtesy of Fabienne Chan and Joshua Nelson.

The #SitTO crew learned a lot that day about how people interact with their urban surroundings and criteria for prime placemaking potential. As we sat in McGill Parkette, we were already bursting with ideas for our next #SitTO project. We’ve seen an outpour of support from the media, the public, and even the Chief Planner for our $250 urban intervention and all it took was a can of pink spraypaint, some stencils, 20 GUNDEs, and a whole lotta heart. I think I speak on behalf of the 12 other urban-nerds when I say we’re incredibly excited for whatever our next #SitTO project will be. 

Do you know somewhere that could really use some public seating? Tweet or instagram it with #SitTO and get the conversation going.

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