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Hume Praises Liberty Village Street Furniture



Liberty Village project a benchmark for beauty
Sep. 28, 2006. 12:25 PM

If Toronto's street furniture is any indication, this isn't a city that cares much about appearances, or the people who live here.

We prefer the public-works approach to the public realm; in other words, it's enough that trash bins are durable, benches vandal-proof and bus shelters non-removable. Anything more would smack of aesthetics, something only the effete need worry about, and then in the privacy of their own homes.

And so Toronto finds itself one of the few large cities in the world where sidewalks are treated as little more than a utility, a way to get from one place to another. The idea that the sidewalks allow people to inhabit a city has not gained much currency in these parts. In any case, in our heart of hearts, we believe that sidewalks are for pedestrians, and pedestrians are people who can't afford to drive. What difference do they make?

These attitudes have slowly started to change in the past few months; earlier this year, the city launched a co-ordinated street furniture program. In Toronto, this counts as a major breakthrough, though the process has only just begun. A number of major companies will be bidding for the contract — don't worry, Bombardier isn't in the street furniture business — and one can only hope that city politicians and bureaucrats stay far enough away that the winner will be able to do something worthwhile.

Chances are good, however, that city hall will mess up the process somehow, either by splitting the job into a series of contracts too small to allow for the economies of scale that the companies need or by watering down the possibilities through endless public consultation.

But cities abhor a vacuum, and where governments refuse to go we now have BIAs, Business Improvement Areas. Toronto now boasts no less than 55 BIAs, all working to make the best of a bad situation. Their works are often small and strictly local, but there's no denying the effort that goes into them.

A good example is the BENCHmark program sponsored by the Liberty Village Business Improvement Area, a modest, even touching, attempt to help transform the former industrial district into a genuine neighbourhood. Already the place has been made over by the forces of gentrification. Countless condos have popped up on streets that until recently people would have avoided like the plague.

But still there's nowhere to sit; well, almost nowhere. The LVBIA wants to change that too; tomorrow nine benches, all painted by local artists, will be installed throughout the area. These are not new, but standard-issue city benches reimagined as artworks.

The artists were selected from literally hundreds who applied. (Toronto doesn't suffer from a shortage of artists, regardless of what we hear.) The winners, who were each given a bench to paint, were asked to do something that reflected the neighbourhood, its history and so on.

One of the most interesting — especially if you like reading benches — is Bench Break by Christine Stephens, Pam Lostracco and Craig Wing-King, three young graphic designers who get together Sundays to make art.

`We're trying to bring the comfort of indoor outdoors. It's an outdoor living room.'

Pam Lostracco, artist


"We went to the Toronto Archives and researched the history of the buildings in Liberty Village," Stephens explains. "We discovered there was a lot there, including a prison and a reformatory."

Their bench, which is covered in photographic transfers of archival pictures and text, looks — and reads — like a book. It also comes with a small side table and a rug.

"We're trying to bring the comfort of indoor outdoors," says Lostracco. "It's an outdoor living room."

For Christopher Hayes, an illustrator-turned-artist, the project involved mixing pop-flavoured images with an enlarged reproduction of a TTC transfer.

"This is my third transfer painting," Hayes says. "The first hangs outside the office of Mayor David Miller. I wanted to contrast past and present."

Painter Miklos Legrady turned his bench into a post-apocalyptic Liberty Village landscape, complete with smokestacks and broken trees.

The artists gathered yesterday by Allan Lamport Stadium — one of several Toronto white elephant sports venues — to put the finishing touches on their pieces.

It will take more than a handful of benches to warm Liberty Village but it's a start. And that's important.

It would also be interesting if the city, or BIA, were to give artists a chance to design benches, not just paint them. That would cost money, of course, which is in short supply throughout much of the public realm.

The benches will be unveiled at 1 p.m. tomorrow on the north side of Liberty St., between Atlantic and Jefferson Aves.

Christopher Hume can be reached at

mark simpson

shouldn't installing sidewalks where executives haphazardly now park their SUVs (between building envelope and roadway) be the first step?


"We prefer the public-works approach to the public realm; in other words, it's enough that trash bins are durable, benches vandal-proof and bus shelters non-removable."

Yes, in suburban Toronto, we would appreciate plain old trash bins, benches, and bus shelters...many locations have never had them or have seen them disappear since amalgamation. But we all know Hume has never been north of Eglinton :)


Actually, he grew up around Young & Lawrence if I remember correctly, so never north of Hoggs Hollow would be more accurate.


Sounds like a terrific initiative. Hopefully this sort of thing will catch-on in other BIAs/communities.


Sounds very similiar to the "Moose in the City", Chicago wannbe stunt Mel Lastman pulled several years ago.

Actually when I was passing through Chicago O'Hare Airport yesterday I noticed they had several benches from their past Bench program lining the arrivals hall.

This BENCHmark program was also one of the examples Projects for Public Places presented to Mississauga during its placemaking process.

That being said, I would prefer if we kept this program at the local BIA level and NOT go city-wide with it. I have little faith that the city of Toronto would ever maintain the benches in good repair if we had them in place across the city.



That being said, I would prefer if we kept this program at the local BIA level and NOT go city-wide with it. I have little faith that the city of Toronto would ever maintain the benches in good repair if we had them in place across the city.
A good quality iron or granite bench shouldn't need much maintenance.


Reviled as they were, I sort of miss the "Expo benches", i.e. the long wooden-slatted ones btw/concrete triangles...


I had a funny conversation with someone about Liberty village lately since he knows someone that did one of the benches there. His opinion of the area was that it was crap because of all the old factory and warehouse buildings and the only redeeming feature was the new dominion plaza we hate so much here.


Only Hume could start an article about such a positive development on such a sour note. He needs to get out more.


Couldn't we stand to raise the bar a little with respect to how we handle the public realm in this city? At one time or another I think we've all expressed frustrations with this issue. Maybe a little constructive negativity is in order to help draw attention to the issue and to send a strong critical message. At the same time though, positive reinforcement of success stories along the line of the Liberty Village benches is important.


Yes, I agree with you that the bar could be raised. Our garbage bins are a mess, and other improvements could be made.

However, our bus shelters I think are both highly functional and quite attractive.

I think my greater point is that I don't notice the situation as being hugely better in any other city I've been in. Yes, in selected tourist areas maybe, but overall, no. I was in Ottawa over the weekend and their newer bus shelters are ugly and thoughless compared with ours, to take just a single example. In San Diego I photo'd a row of newspaper boxes downtown about 20 wide.