Toronto is known as a city of neighbourhoods. There’s the old and quirky Chinatown and Kensington Market to the trendy Leslieville and Yorkville and dozens of others across the city.
But amid all that, there are still plenty of lifeless streets and underutilized pockets of land ripe for community intervention and revitalization.
Nearly a decade ago, the Scadding Court Community Centre showed what can be done when it turned the once drab corner of Dundas and Bathurst Sts. into a bustling sidewalk market. Their innovative market, housed in re-purposed shipping containers on the wide sidewalk in front of the centre, provides space for everything from delicious ethnic foods and bakeries to a tattoo parlour and a bicycle repair shop.
It’s a great addition to the local community, the broader public realm and it helps new entrepreneurs get a start in a low-cost supportive space.
To get it off the ground the people who run the centre had to blaze a trail through the city’s vast bureaucracy, which seems to love nothing more than wrapping up a new idea in a tight tangle of red tape.
Since they were Toronto’s first container market it’s understandable that they faced some extra hurdles. What’s less understandable is why the container markets and cafes that have followed in their footsteps have faced the same barriers.
The city got a big win with Scadding Court’s Market 707 but it doesn’t seem to have learned enough from it.
The newcomer women-led Park Cafe faced big challenges to get all the approvals necessary for its refurbished container, which offers food and drinks in a Thorncliffe neighbourhood park. And it took longer for Stackt, a temporary container market on vacant city land, to get the idea through city hall than it did to actually build the site of 120 shipping containers at Bathurst and Front Sts.
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The city needs to find a way to break down its bureaucratic silos and get to “yes” faster. And most particularly for non-profit, community-led enterprises that serve the dual purpose of enlivening a public space and providing opportunities for disadvantaged communities.
It shouldn’t take tenacious staff, incredibly dedicated volunteers or the luck of having a particularly supportive councillor to fight and re-fight battles with department after department at City Hall to get these good ideas off the ground.
Right now, the city’s planning, licensing and standards, building and public health departments treat this pop-up infrastructure the same way they do a brick-and-mortar building.
Certainly no one wants to see food safety rules thrown out the window. And the provincial building code does deem a shipping container to be a building. But there’s still plenty of room for the city to embrace these projects. (That’s aside from the environmental benefit of reusing shipping containers, something the world has millions of rusting away after they’ve brought consumer goods across the ocean.)
It’s in everyone’s interest to bring drab streets to life, provide new entrepreneurs with small-scale opportunities, and create cool new destination spaces for locals and tourists alike. This is the essence of what makes so many of Toronto’s neighbourhoods welcoming and livable.
And as big and busy as Toronto is, it still seems starved for go-to places.
On a warm summer weekend there’s barely a blade of grass visible at Trinity Bellwoods Park for the crowd that gathers there and in December the lineup to get into the Distillery District’s Christmas Market can go around the block.
The city needs to start learning from its success stories and make it easier to write the next ones.