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Insights Into An Ideal Main Street

At the Yes in My BackYard (YIMBY) 2016 festival, we wanted to better understand what makes for an ideal Main Street in Toronto. YIMBY, a Toronto event that brings together individuals and groups involved in grassroots community development to learn, exchange ideas and collaborate on initiatives, was held on September 24 2016 at Toronto’s Metro Hall. As practitioners in HXD, we wanted to better understanding how people perceive Main Streets – one of the most core urban experiences in any city – and what are some key insights that we can learn? So we created a small activity at our YIMBY booth to engage attendees on two questions:

  • What makes for your ideal main street?
  • What kind of experiences would you like to see on main streets?

With the assistance of designer Joy Nelson, we sketched a street layout on some foam core board and asked participants to write on to sticky-notes their answer to both questions or draw out their ideas on the board directly. We received 39 comments from many different participants throughout the afternoon at YIMBY – many of whom are urbanites who live or work in the downtown core. Acknowledging that is not the more representative sample of Torontonians, we were nonetheless interested in seeing what sort of insights we could learn.

A photo of the result is below:

What We Learned

Safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians;The comments that we received can be generally classified into 3 key categories:

  • Safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians
  • Streetscapes that are inviting, easy to navigate and are vibrant active communities
  • Accessibility of streets for all and for all different uses

Among the comments, there was clearly a desire for more pedestrian and bike-oriented streets and more street level amenities such as patios and art. Nature and green spaces came up as well as more opportunities for social interactions, cleaner streets and comfortable street furniture. Many participants were dedicated cyclists with a variety of suggestions for road improvements and even re-use of parking spaces. Safety, however, was the main concern for all: pedestrians, cyclists and drivers and the daily interactions between these groups. Some participants expressed frustrated with cyclists who break the law and suggested ticketing them. This elicited a small discussion thread where some other participants strongly disagreed – which to us speaks to the ongoing tension that exists between the different realities faced by drivers, cyclists and pedestrians when using the road. And where there is tension, there often is a human-centred design challenge waiting to be addressed.

Key Insights

Given that many of the comments were focussed on pedestrians, cyclists and on street activities, a key insight would be that people don’t feel that these needs are currently being prioritized. There is indeed tension around when different uses conflict; aggressive drivers and slow pedestrians, for example, and these tensions do cause a lot of frustration and anger. A final insight might be around the desire for more amenities – especially ones that will create a vibrant street such as markets and nice store windows. Streets are indeed social spaces and people feel that there are currently not enough opportunities for positive social interactions on the street.

Of course, none of these insights are ground-breaking: many of these have been cited in urban planning and transportation literature for many years now. Confirming that these sentiments also exist in Toronto though allows us to see how universal human desires around city streets can be and how much people value these public spaces for movement and enjoyment. And for us, we see that as the key challenge for human experience designers – understanding how to balance different yet conflicting needs around movement and enjoyment so that all human users can have a better experience on the complex public theatre of the street.

What do you think of all this? Please feel free to send us an email: info@thinkfreshgroup.com

Special thanks to Joy for all her assistance in putting this together and staffing our booth!

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