Toronto looking at ways to beautify city streets

Coun. Josh Matlow (Toronto-St. Paul's) holds a broken bike rack that's been lying on the sidewalk at Yonge and St. Clair. Matlow wants the city to tackle 'filthy, ugly' streets. (Mike Smee/CBC - image credit)
Coun. Josh Matlow (Toronto-St. Paul's) holds a broken bike rack that's been lying on the sidewalk at Yonge and St. Clair. Matlow wants the city to tackle 'filthy, ugly' streets. (Mike Smee/CBC - image credit)

A midtown city councillor has launched an effort to reverse what he sees as the deterioration of Toronto's streetscape into "a filthy, ugly place" by doing a better job of selecting — and maintaining — street infrastructure, such as bike lane markers, trash cans and benches.

Last week, city council passed Josh Matlow's motion calling on staff to look into the feasibility and cost of setting up an office whose sole job would be to set and maintain standards for the appearance of Toronto's streets.

At Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue, Matlow talked to CBC Toronto about broken and twisted bike racks, Bike Share stands riddled with rust and sidewalk repair signs left obstructing pedestrians long after they're needed.

"What I'm asking the city to do is set our standards higher," Matlow said.

"Why should we leave our city in a state of disrepair? Why should we disrespect the space where we spend so much of our time?"

Broken, overflowing garbage receptacles are among the issues Matlow has with the state of the city's streets.
Broken, overflowing garbage receptacles are among the issues Matlow has with the state of the city's streets.

Broken, overflowing garbage receptacles are among the issues Matlow has with the state of the city's streets. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Matlow's motion also calls on staff to look into the feasibility and cost of establishing a city-wide standard for all street infrastructure, with an eye to buying items that are high quality and aesthetically pleasing.

"Why should we always be envious of Paris or Rome?" he said. "Why shouldn't Toronto be the beautiful city we know it can be?"

Matlow appears to have some allies. Writing in support of his motion, the Federation of North Toronto Residents Associations, which represents over 30 ratepayers groups, said Matlow's suggestions are "aspirational, but also practical and timely."

Cathie Macdonald of the Federation of North Toronto Residents Associations, says her group is backing Matlow's effort to beautify the city's streets by establishing an office that can bridge many city departments.
Cathie Macdonald of the Federation of North Toronto Residents Associations, says her group is backing Matlow's effort to beautify the city's streets by establishing an office that can bridge many city departments.

Cathie Macdonald, of the Federation of North Toronto Residents Associations, says her group is backing Matlow's effort to beautify the city's streets by establishing an office that can bridge many city departments. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

Cathie Macdonald, the organization's co-chair, told CBC Toronto the city's streets need a facelift.

"The public furniture, public spaces are deteriorating," she said. "There are good examples — certainly a number of garbage cans and things like that, that are not being kept up properly."

To solve the problem, she said, the city's priorities need to change.

Flex-poles used to protect bike lanes are too often broken and bent - like these examples at the intersection of Nesbitt Drive and Bayview Avenue - Matlow says.
Flex-poles used to protect bike lanes are too often broken and bent - like these examples at the intersection of Nesbitt Drive and Bayview Avenue - Matlow says.

Poles used to protect bike lanes are too often broken and bent, like these ones at the intersection of Nesbitt Drive and Bayview Avenue, Matlow says. (Mike Smee/CBC)

"Somebody needs to be paying attention," Macdonald said. "Somebody needs to be looking at our physical landscape."

Part of the reason for the problems, she said, is that so many city departments are responsible for maintaining the streets — parks and transportation departments, for instance — that a beautification effort is difficult to coordinate.

Matlow's motion calls on city staff to look into establishing a central beautification commissioner who would be responsible for collaborating with all city departments in order to set and maintain street beautification standards.

Bike Share Toronto racks riddled with rust near Yonge and St. Clair. Matlow says city staff need to do a better job maintaining street infrastructure.
Bike Share Toronto racks riddled with rust near Yonge and St. Clair. Matlow says city staff need to do a better job maintaining street infrastructure.

Bike Share Toronto racks riddled with rust near Yonge and St. Clair. Matlow says city staff need to do a better job maintaining street infrastructure. (Mike Smee/CBC)

He said part of the problem is that city staff have tended to choose the least expensive options when deciding on street infrastructure, and then those items have not been properly maintained as they deteriorate.

"We've reached for the height of mediocrity," he said. "The city buys in bulk — uniform, cheap, ugly, grey street furniture that does not contribute to our quality of life."

Matlow said the cost of his suggestions will be one of the elements that staff will need to look into. "I think most Torontonians would like to invest in a beautiful city," he said.

"The City of Toronto is continually working to improve public spaces while ensuring its investments in infrastructure and services deliver value for money for residents," spokesperson Laura McQuillan said via email.

"Residents are encouraged to report damage to public infrastructure to 311 Toronto for investigation and repair," she said.

City staff are expected to report to the executive committee by the end of this year, Matlow said.

Not everyone on council approved of the measure though.

Councillors Shelley Carroll, Stephen Holyday and James Pasternak voted against the motion, while councillors Paul Ainslie and Michael Thompson, as well as Mayor Olivia Chow, were absent.

Holyday said he voted against it on the grounds the city already has staff in place who should be able to keep the streets in shape.

"It's not a vote against a beautiful city, it's a vote against growing the bureaucracy," Holyday said in an interview.