Over the last few months, the news surrounding the planned redevelopment of Ontario Place, coupled with the relocation of the Ontario Science Centre, has prompted many in this City to contemplate the value of places in forming a local identity. Those controversial proposals are a reminder that Toronto often fails to protect or celebrate its built history, one that preserves the fabric of the City and the character of its communities. 

While heritage architectural conservation is often the most obvious mission in protecting and celebrating the identity of cities, public art can also be a powerful tool in this pursuit, and one that is often undervalued. An example of this was seen last summer, with the completion of an elaborate mural in Toronto’s eclectic Kensington Market community. Approaching its one year anniversary, the mural, titled: A Ride to Joy, exists as an exemplary demonstration of the role of public art in placemaking, and was brought to life through a process of community engagement that allowed it to capture the essence of this iconic neighbourhood and its residents. 

A Ride to Joy mural, completed in summer 2022, image courtesy of Yasaman Mehrsa

The story of A Ride to Joy dates back to 2021, when Senior Urban and Landscape Designer, Khatereh Baharikhoob, who works at the multi-disciplinary design firm DIALOG, started the Art Enlivens project. Created as a vehicle to explore the relationship between art and urban design and the role of public art in positive community outcomes, one of Art Enlivens’ first projects would be the creation of a mural at an under-appreciated site. 

Baharikhoob eventually settled on a large exposed wall on the property of 620 Dundas Street West, just east of Denison Avenue, and recruited established mural artist Yasaman Mehrsa to bring the vision to life. Prominently visible from the street due to the setback of the auto shop next door, the wall also belongs to one of Kensington’s revered businesses, African Drums and Arts and Crafts. 

Looking at the site of the mural before it was painted, image courtesy of Khatereh Baharikhoob

By the summer of 2022, a number of designs had been drafted and the project began its first stage of community engagement. Taking a set of easels to Kensington’s Bellevue Square Park, Mehrsa shared her designs with passers by, welcoming feedback and inviting community members to get involved by writing comments on sticky notes and adding them to the display. After several sessions like this, the winning design was determined, and Mehrsa had the support of the community to begin the painting process. 

Community members share feedback on designs in Bellevue Square Park, image courtesy of Khatereh Baharikhoob

When it came to painting the mural, the project again turned to the community, and invited participation from neighbours and volunteers, turning the process into a community event that brought people together to share in making an impact in a creative way. Looking at the finished product, the subject of Mehrsa’s design is a winged figure on a bike; the backdrop is a row of colourful houses that are inspired by the distinct quality of the existing houses in the Kensington neighbourhood, while the wheels of the bike are decorated with other references to the community, like the musical imagery paying homage to the African drum store. 

Volunteers assist in the painting of the mural, image courtesy of Khatereh Baharikhoob

Since the mural’s completion, the support of the project from the Kensington community has been quite unanimous, praising the mural for improving the condition of what was once a hostile corner, and adding a visual landmark that celebrates its location. As Toronto continues to struggle with the preservation of authentic identity in the built environment, it’s projects like this that demonstrate how smaller approaches, like public artworks, can have a big impact, and how community involvement is paramount to delivering meaningful improvements. 

Mehrsa (right) compares mural to earlier draft, image courtesy of Yasaman Mehrsa

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UrbanToronto has a research service, UrbanToronto Pro, that provides comprehensive data on construction projects in the Greater Toronto Area—from proposal through to completion. We also offer Instant Reports, downloadable snapshots based on location, and a daily subscription newsletter, New Development Insider, that tracks projects from initial application.