Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen many rapid and pragmatic changes to how we safely use the public realm. The City of Toronto’s CaféTO program throws a lifeline to restaurants and bars by allowing for much needed outdoor dining and physical distance in the public realm. The program required collaboration between the City of Toronto, Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), restaurants, and design firm IBI Groups’s placemaking team. Central to the team’s landscape architecture efforts are Astrid Greaves and Trevor McIntyre. Astrid and Trevor played a key role in navigating the challenges between unique streetscapes, transportation modes, the dining experience, and the overall sense of design. “It was a design strategy solution to this economic public health issue,” says Astrid. “All of a sudden, the City had to source thousands of bollards and planters.”
“It went from 0-100 literally overnight,” says Trevor in reference to the program’s rapid start and continued output.
CaféTO partnered with 51 BIAs, over 1,000 restaurants, produced over 300 drawings, and animated spaces along approximately 450 road closures throughout Toronto. Prior to the start of the program, it is estimated a third of restaurants in Toronto had permanently shut down, and many more would follow if outdoor dining in the public realm wasn’t made possible. It is in this context that CaféTO’s bold vision and pragmatic implementation arose to allow for expansion of dining into the sidewalks and streets of Toronto. The idea of expanding patios in the public right of way was not necessarily a new idea, as restaurants have advocated for this several years prior. However, Trevor says, “The pandemic causes you to rethink risk.” In practice, this meant “resilience, setting aside differences and being responsive.” Trevor emphasized the dedicated efforts of the team behind CaféTO. From talking with Trevor, there is a strong sense of stability in coming together to solve complex issues from the CaféTO team that will remain after COVID.
CaféTO’s expanded patios illustrate the key role for placemaking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the patios had relatively humble beginnings as standard-issue fluorescent bollards, planters, and catalogue patio furniture. The pop-up and tactical nature of the spaces taking over roadways allowed for low cost of entry to restaurants. Trevor clears up any misconceptions for design critics comparing their local CaféTO installation to a King Street Parklet, crucially: “This is not about design, it’s about people’s jobs and livelihoods.” Despite these patios’ utilitarian functions, many were creatively upgraded to bring the characters of Toronto’s restaurants into the streets. Trevor says, “Even if they don’t want to sit on the patios, people realize it’s a cool thing, and it’s nice to see a bit of normalcy.” This is a glimpse of the power of physical distancing, food, people, and placemaking in the new normal.
Many of these patios were forced to close in November, to allow for winter road maintenance. While the City looked for ways to help restaurants winterize their patios, rising COVID cases have forced a new ban on patio dining. Regardless, there is much speculation about what will become of the program, post-pandemic. Trevor says the City must decide to return to the “old normal,” or if the patios add real value. Either way, the pop-up patios have made a significant impact.
Astrid says, “We often run into the issue of space for automobiles, which seems like an insurmountable obstacle to more people-oriented initiatives in the city.” Perhaps, in the post-COVID city, there can be more consideration for the planning, design, and activation of streets. Besides the quick pace of work and highly visible results with this project, for Astrid, “It was refreshing to be prioritizing pedestrians, public realm, and restaurants.” CaféTO’s rapid and pragmatic adaptive use of the public realm shows the resilient potential of landscape architecture when everyone comes to the table.
Text by Steven Shuttle, a Master of Landscape Architecture Student at the University of Guelph.