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Six-part series asks how to improve Toronto

Toronto is getting used to splashy buildings, but our public spaces could use a little imagination too. In this six-part series, we ask some of the city's most creative designers to improve our streets – on the cheap.

Special to The Globe and Mail

TORONTO — It's often essential to leave your home in order to see it clearly.

After an extended sojourn in another, much-better-dressed city, I began to bemoan the visual wretchedness of the place where I was born and raised. Yes, the angles about to sprout from the Royal Ontario Museum and Will Alsop's provocative box on stilts for the Ontario College of Art & Design were all very well, but what of the rest of the city? Why not just flatten all that concrete-challenged public space in between and start over?

But after conversations with designers and other disenchanted residents, it became clear that there are plenty of ways we can improve Toronto's urban fabric quickly and cheaply. The purpose of the six-part series is to show, through the eyes of some of Toronto's most committed and imaginative designers and architects, what could be – that is, if we had the will and courage to reimagine Toronto as a place where visual harmony and a sense of surprise are commonplace; a place where the shabby and the unimaginative are not allowed to spread unchecked.

The beauty of this approach, which strikes me as quintessentially Canadian, is that it's based on using what we have.

Is there a rump end of a street adjacent to the entertainment district, used for turning streetcars and impossible to plant trees on because of all the services running under its pavement? Landscape architects Janet Rosenberg Associates would turn it into a pedestrian playground (see above), where tree-like umbrellas allow dappled light to filter over sidewalks adorned with bands of green.

Is University Avenue, our only grand thoroughfare, a disappointing canyon of grey boxes in the core of the city, bisected by six lanes of traffic?

Reduce the lanes, turn the centre island into a pedestrian park and let shops and cafés root along the building façades as they do on any self-respecting grand boulevard. That's the suggestion of Denegri Bessai Studio, which comprises two Canadian architects who started their careers in Barcelona during that city's famous 15-year architectural makeover.

Architect Tom Bessai, 39, whose ideas helped to inspire this series, explains that many of the techniques used so successfully there – such as contemporary lighting, elegant green spaces and inventive paving – can have a remarkable “makeover” effect.

As the submissions roll out, there will be rewarding viewing and discussion for anyone interested in the visually appealing city that Toronto could be, one where it's easy to direct out-of-towners to numerous public spaces full of delight, rather than the head-scratching chore it is now. The designers who graciously donated their time to this project range from the world-famous, to Canadian icons, to emerging architects not yet 40.

Some, such as Will Alsop of SMC Alsop, Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB, and Ms. Rosenberg, deserve special thanks for illuminating the potential in this city – and also, perhaps, for demanding the elegant, architecturally grown-up city its residents are entitled to.

Mr. Kuwabara sees vast changes in Toronto in only seven years at places such as the University of Toronto and OCAD, changes that are as remarkable for a long-time student of the city's planning and design as they are for those from away. “I see architectural projects that are at a level that I never imagined would be here,” he says.

Today, Mr. Kuwabara isoptimistic about the city,which he says “has the warts and pimples of a teenage city but … a lot of potential.”

Mr. Alsop, who is based in London but has opened a small office in Toronto since designing the Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD, sees the same kind of shift in the city. For Mr. Alsop, questions of design don't revolve around one building or space. “It's all one project,” he says. “And that project – it sounds absurd – is to make life better.”

An essential ingredient for that sort of betterment, Mr. Alsop says, is a willingness to face up to the current state of affairs. “Once you've admitted it,” he says, “then you can do something.”

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