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Saturday May 28, 2011

Small steps toward a better walk

Headshot of Marcus Gee

Toronto's suburbs were not built for walking. When planners laid out the sprawling subdivisions and apartment-tower parks of Scarborough and Etobicoke, they assumed that most people would have cars. What they did not foresee was that these suburbs would one day be populated by hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, many of them too poor to afford an automobile.

They walk the suburbs because they have to. They walk to work, walk to shopping, walk to transit stops, walk to drop off or pick up their kids. With things so far apart in the grand scale of the suburbs, they can walk a kilometre for a jug of milk or a bag of rice.

It can be a forbidding, unpleasant experience. Sidewalks along the big arterial roads are often narrow, forcing people to walk alongside rows of streaming, belching traffic. Most parking lots have no place for pedestrians, so walkers have to dodge traffic to traverse them. Apartment towers are often ringed with chain-link fence, blocking natural shortcuts to shopping malls or bus stops.

Jane Farrow aims to change all that. A writer and broadcaster best known for her CBC Radio shows and Wanted Words books, she is executive director of Jane's Walk, the annual series of neighbourhood walking tours named after urban thinker Jane Jacobs. She is determined to make walking the suburbs a better experience. For three years, she and her Jane's Walk team have been researching walking conditions in neighbourhoods from North Kipling and Steeles-L'Amoreaux to Thorncliffe Park and The Peanut in North York. In small but telling ways, they are showing that making suburbs friendlier to pedestrians is not a lost cause. "People think it has to be Copenhagen or Cabbagetown to be walkable," says Ms. Farrow. "It's not true."

The other day I went for a walk with her in Scarborough Village, a low-income neighbourhood where Eglinton meets Kingston Road. We toured a pod of rundown apartment buildings just north of Eglinton where mothers in hijab pushed strollers as buses roared by. It is a typical development of its era, meant to be approached by car on wide driveways, not on foot.

In Ms. Farrow's study, residents complained about cracked, littered, icy footpaths, poor lighting and fast traffic that makes it hard to cross streets. A body was found in a nearby laneway after a murder not long ago, so many felt insecure walking to shops or sending their kids out to school.

Under pressure from police and residents, the apartment owners put in better lights and cut low-hanging tree branches to improve visibility. They also helped open up a shortcut to Eglinton by widening the gap in a fence, formalizing what had been a dark and dangerous path to the supermarket across the street.

"We have done a lot of improvements," says neighbourhood organizer Kiran Shaikh, who immigrated from Malaysia. "Before, it was a mess. There was rubbish all over."

Improving shortcuts is a big deal in places like Scarborough Village, where residents often tear holes in chain link to avoid circuitous walking routes. It's just one example of what can be done to make the suburbs easier to navigate on foot.

"Simple fixes can make a big differences in people's lives," says Ms. Farrow - little things like fixing cracked pavement, installing curb ramps for people with walkers, strollers and wheelchairs, putting marked walking routes through parking lots, supplying a few benches where walkers can rest, lengthening crossing times at traffic lights and removing obstructions like dumpsters out of walking paths.

Ms. Farrow's collaborator, University of Toronto geography professor Paul Hess, says that officials and experts often talk about the need to combat obesity and climate change by getting people in the suburbs to walk instead of drive. In Toronto's immigrant suburbs, he says, they are already walking. They have no choice.

The challenge is to make walking a safer, less alienating experience. "These are people who spend a good part of their life jumping through a fence, walking over mud, crossing a busy street," says Prof. Hess. "It's not an easy or pleasant place to live." But it can be a better one, with a few small steps.

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