It started with a vacant lot; an unloved, mostly ignored, plastic-bag-and-broken-bottle-strewn patch of city. I, and am sure many others in my neighbourhood, passed by it every day. Sometimes I’d grumble about its sorry state but usually I would just ignore it. At some point, I knew, given Toronto’s current real estate frenzy, this corner would be developed, its barren ground again serving an essential function. With earphones in and a whole other three corners to survey during my commute, I could wait a while for this gap in the urban fabric to be filled.
But each time I passed, the corner loomed larger and larger and I found myself complaining that someone should do something about it. I decided to be that someone on June 6, the second annual Toronto 100in1Day event, an international festival whose goal is 100 small acts of city betterment undertaken by regular citizens all on the same day. Last year I’d invited people to build guardian spirits at Tommy Thompson Park, this year I figured I would invite them to grow a garden out of pipecleaners.
Arts and craft supplies in hand, we took to the street and set up an impromptu workstation. Initially, most passersby were confused and some even suspicious, wondering why we were doing this and who was paying us. As the day wore on, though, more and more people joined us, helping transform the local eyesore into a work of temporary art.
By the time we were done, sunburned and hungry, I had run into friends I hadn’t seen for months and years, met dozens of neighbours, and shared our frustrations with and visions for the corner with locals.
While what we were doing was only a temporary solution – the flowers lasted about a month before succumbing to the elements – it felt like the problem we were trying to solve was ultimately less important than the fact that we were trying to solve it. Calling attention to the corner and working together to make it just a little brighter, a little more friendly, gave people who participated a sense of ownership. It might be someone else’s property, but that day it was our space. We had reclaimed it, made it useful.
Since June 6, in part thanks to the 100in1Day event, I’ve heard that the site’s developer is interested in opening up the space for the community. They’re not sure what that will look like yet, but they agree that a chain link fence and gravel is not exactly an optimal use of the land. Keep an eye on the corner though, because one weekend soon it might be a temporary outdoor movie theatre, a neighbourhood market, or even a garden with real flowers. It started with a vacant lot, but it will hopefully be so much more.
Danny Brown is an urban planner and editorial and research assistant at OpenCity Projects. He is passionate about technology and the potential of unused and neglected public spaces among many other great things. Follow him on Twitter @dannybr0wn.
Top two images courtesy of Google Maps and 100in1Day Toronto.