Looking westward down Graffiti Alley with art reflected in puddle

How one organization is revitalizing Toronto’s laneways 

From pubs to playgrounds, there’s no end to what Toronto’s forgotten alleys could become

As an urban designer working in Toronto, Michelle Senayah became increasingly aware that there was an entire class of space in the city that was basically slacking off. The majority of Toronto’s 2,400 laneways just kinda sit there doing nothing. Where they were once useful— when stables needed mucking out, or as delivery routes for coal—now pedestrians often avoid them, especially at night, when the only people who purposely skulk in dark alleys or lurk behind dumpsters are the bad guys in superhero movies.

“It struck me as a bit weird because something that crops up regularly in the news is how there’s not enough space in Toronto,” Senayah says. Surely this was on someone’s radar. But, after looking into it, she discovered that no one was paying much attention to these forgotten spaces. And so, in 2014, Michelle and Ariana Cancelli co-founded The Laneway Project, a planning and place-making non-profit that focuses on bringing new life to Toronto’s laneways. They work with communities, with developers and with the city to design laneway improvements and create laneway-friendly policies.

“We have a good problem in Toronto, in that this is a place that people want to be,” Senayah says. “We have a lot of new populations coming into downtown, but as a result we’re seeing already dense neighbourhoods intensifying, putting strain on public space infrastructure.”

So here’s a legit question: why are we bemoaning Toronto’s lack of space when there are hundreds of kilometres of perfectly good, publically owned land that could be put to use? We could have patios in there! We could have parkettes! Farmers markets! Festivals! Houses! Micro-businesses! Tokyo and Melbourne do it—why not us?

We just need to be smarter about how we regulate these spaces, how we plan them, design them, construct them, use them.

The answer is that there’s no reason Toronto can’t do it, too. Senayah says that historically, planning perspectives have treated urban land as if it couldn’t serve two purposes at once (say, a service function like garbage pick-up and a community function like a park) and that this kind of thinking led to a decline in mixed-use areas in the 20th century. Currently, there aren’t very many revitalized laneways in Toronto (we’re talking less than a dozen), but Senayah is optimistic that that’s about to change, because city policy is changing. The city of Toronto’s 2017 Complete Streets Guidelines, Proposed Downtown Plan, and Official Plan Urban Design are all rethinking the way laneways are used.

“We just need to be smarter about how we regulate these spaces, how we plan them, design them, construct them, use them,” Senayah says. Sure, laneways provide a service function, but they can also be good pedestrian routes through the city, spaces for kids to play, areas to be greened. “With strategic improvement, it’s not going to break the bank to bring these spaces up to standard,” Senayah says.

The Laneway Project has identified eight “no-brainers” for improving the laneways in our city: beautification and creative expression; pedestrian friendly lighting; greening; encouraging developers to beautify laneways during infill projects; well-maintained paving; traffic safety measures; waste and traffic management; and effective maintenance and care. Modest acts like these will lead to more pleasant public space, and that ultimately fosters community. Who wouldn’t want to spend an evening drinking microbrew with their neighbours on stools at a laneway pub?

Herewith, six shining examples of revitalized laneways in Toronto.

Bright Lane featuring prominent graffiti reading King West

1 Bright Lane, near the intersection of King and Portland, is a pedestrian-only space. The laneway has seating, lighting and bike racks, and garbage is stored out of the way in the adjacent buildings. Two business—Pizzeria Libretto and Brightlane, a co-working space—have their addresses on the laneway.

red brick wall in Farquhars Lane looking north toward Front Street

2 Although it’s still a work-in-progress, Farquhars Lane, off Front Street near Church Street, is being revitalized with the help of the local business improvement association. A multi-storey mural is in the works and, permit pending, a nearby restaurant is planning to launch an outpost come summer 2018.

Green planters and colourful streetart in Croft Lane

3 The laneway housing on Croft Street, a few blocks east of Bathurst Street near Harbord Street has been grandfathered in. The Laneway Project, in concert with the David Suzuki Foundation and the Harbord Village Residents’ Association, installed community planters and hearty green vegetation, while StreetArToronto was behind the garage door murals.

Three children planting a laneway puncture in Willowave Lane

4 Willowave Lane, which runs from Dupont Street to Barton Avenue, just west of Christie Street, has been the recipient of “laneway punctures,” a greening and repaving system that is an enhancement both aesthetically and ecologically because the technique diverts storm water from the sewage system.

5 Probably the most famous of Toronto’s laneways, Graffiti Alley runs south of Queen Street West from Spadina Avenue to Portland Street. The city designated this area as being of “municipal significance” and exempt from graffiti by-laws, after the business improvement association formally lodged complaints about receiving fines for artwork they had sanctioned.