With over 250 miles of laneways criss-crossing the city of Toronto, the repurposing and regeneration of these spaces is seen by many as an important step to creating a greener and more connected city. One of the individuals helping to make this happen is Michelle Senayah, Co-Founder and Director of The Laneway Project. As part of a team of passionate city builders with expertise in planning, urban design, communications and research, alongside community engagement and public policy, Michelle is working towards fundamentally changing Toronto’s relationship with its laneways. Their goal is to change the way that Toronto designs, uses and regulates its laneways so that they become a fully utilised part of the urban landscape.
Firstly, coming from a team with such a varied range of fields and design backgrounds, what made you focus in on laneways?
I had done a bunch of other projects in toronto’s public realm, but from living within Toronto, and seeing laneways every day, I became progressively more and more aware of these spaces that seemingly weren’t being used. I started wondering if that was true or not, and if so, why that was. I started researching and looking at laneways, particularly in the context of the wider city’s population growth. If you look at where that growth is happening, mainly along the city’s central avenues, and where laneways are located, they have a real potential to fill the public space deficit in those neighbourhoods.
So the benefits to laneway regeneration more than just environmental?
Exactly! The social, environmental and economic issues that the laneway regeneration can’t be viewed separately. One of the reasons I got into urban design after my original architecture training was because I wanted to look at design from the macro scale, at the connections between these issues- urban design felt like the best place to do that.
For the average Canadian city, how important are its laneways?
In terms of how much they engage, each city deals with them differently; Vancouver for example has really embraced laneway housing, and Montreal has city sponsored programs working to green its laneways. In Toronto on the other hand, laneways are really seen as service spaces- they’re not taken care of in the way people care for the front of their properties and as a result they’re not in good repair. As a result they aren’t used in the same way as the rest of the public realm network running through midtown and downtown. This ‘service space’ perspective means they’re only in use about five percent of the time.
Facilitated by changes in local public policy, over 2000 laneway houses have been built across Vancouver in the last six years alone.
Would you say Toronto undervalues these spaces?
Very,very much so, but mainly in a 'de facto’ sense. People are increasingly engaged in improving them, whether at a grassroots level or at the heads of divisions in City Hall. Everyone seems to be realising that something better has to happen with them. Property owners also definitely value them for their service purpose, which means one of our first goals is to reassure residents that we are not proposing to eliminate the practical role of these spaces. Once people get that, it’s pretty easy to get them on board with unlocking the potential of the site.
With the need to preserve their primary utility, what unique challenges does working with laneways present?
The first thing, I guess, would be the constrained dimensions of laneways in the city. There's not much space to bleed outwards from the laneway- You’ve got two vertical surfaces, and a paved surface that's four metres wide to work with. These constraints have led to neglect over the years, which has led to one upside; we haven’t really encountered any resistance to the work we do, because it’s almost impossible to make the argument that Toronto’s laneways should stay as they are!
That sounds like a pretty big benefit right?
Completely. People are a lot more attached to the way things are in regards to streets, parks and squares, but because laneways don’t seem to figure into anyones ‘everyday’ in the same way those other spaces do. This has made it a lot easier to propose a new model to communities.
How important is community engagement to the Project?
Over 2400 of the laneways in Toronto owned by the city, so the support of the people flanking that city property on either side is absolutely essential. So when we go into a new neighbourhood, we make it a priority to find out what that community wants. Each laneway has a sort of fingerprint- We know laneways, from the regulations and planning permissions needed, to the contacts we have at City Hall, but we don’t know a particular laneway until we’ve spoken to the people who live and work around it. You really need to get those two bases of knowledge working together, otherwise the project won’t fly