It’s been a month since I started staying home for COVID-19, and like many others, I miss going out with friends and hanging out together. Although we have the ability to stay socially connected online, something is still missing. That something is a physical connection to the places where we meet each other.
During this unprecedented time, I’m reminded of the importance of placemaking. Placemaking is creating a shared identity that connects people and the public space they use together. As an architectural designer, I’ve had the privilege of working on a placemaking project in my home city, Toronto.
How It All Started
Two years ago, I came across a special opportunity to make a mark on a bustling street in Toronto. I had frequented this street almost daily since co-founding Urban Minds with Ryan Lo, so it had a lot of meaning. The street I’m referring to is King Street.
The City of Toronto launched the Everyone is King Design Build Competition in January 2018 as part of the King Street Pilot. The intent of the competition was to create a series of attractive curb lane public spaces on King Street for all to enjoy.
I couldn’t pass up this challenge and got to work right away with Ryan. Little did we know that our final idea, #WouldYouRatherTO, would be selected as a winner.
We started by asking ourselves what we wanted to achieve with this public space installation, and here’s what we came up with based on our own experiences and observations of the street:
- King Street felt almost exclusively like a working area by day and an entertainment area for adults by night, not always welcoming to teens and children. We wanted to create a fun and youthful place that reflects the community, highlighting the diversity of people and their perspectives.
- King Street was not so much of a destination as it was a thoroughfare due to the scarcity of inviting public space for people to sit and linger. We wanted our installation to be a place to sit and observe for individuals and groups alike.
- We wanted to bring people’s experience to go beyond the physical realm of King Street and into the digital realm. Like many pop-ups, after leaving the physical experience, people could share about their encounter on social media to invite others to participate.
With these three goals in mind, we began sketching on napkins at a cafe. We went through countless ideas and iterations, from spelling out “KING” to various configurations of seating and interactive elements. Soon enough, we landed on our final idea that was inspired by random lunch conversations with coworkers, asking each other “Would you rather” questions.
#WouldYouRatherTO was designed as an informal community voting poll that would bring people together through friendly banter. We proposed that a new “Would you rather” question be posted every month. Passersby would spin one of the two-coloured buoys to the colour of their choice representing their answer. Then, they could snap a photo and share their own question with the hashtag #WouldYouRatherTO for a chance to be featured the following month.
Location Inspired Design
The location of our physical-digital interactive art experience in the Fashion District inspired the expression of the structure. The plastic buoys on metal rods referenced sewing spools and the weaving form mimicked the sewing stitch pattern.
The historically industrial character of the neighbourhood gave us the idea to use wood and metal, while the trendy neighbourhood we know today inspired us to use brightly painted buoys.
We wanted people to be able to sit, rest and chat, so we integrated 12’ long benches that comfortably seat up to six people each. To make the most out of the long benches, we allowed for graphic panels to be easily inserted and switched out every month to display the “Would you rather” question.
From Idea to Reality
Within two months’ time, we transformed our concept into a built reality. While building the installation, we also built community. We gathered together with many friends to spray paint the plastic buoys in Ryan’s garage. It certainly was a fun time as we experimented with different techniques to produce the two-coloured buoys.
#WouldYouRatherTO came together on May 30, 2018 at King and Spadina. The five prefabricated modules were shipped to site, and our contractor assembled everything in under three hours.
The moment we removed the construction site pylons, I witnessed an excited young boy and a young girl run towards #WouldYouRatherTO to give it its first spin. I was hopeful that this new addition to King Street would bring delight to many others and spark conversation.
Making a Mark
A few days later, #WouldYouRatherTO was featured as one of many city-wide interventions during 100in1Day, which inspired residents to activate 100 innovative, thought-provoking ideas into interventions to transform their city all on one day.
Having walked by the installation almost everyday for the next few months, it was amazing for me to see all sorts of people stop by to give it a spin and take a break on the benches. This video captures the diversity of people that interacted with #WouldYouRatherTO and their answers to the question, “Would you rather only eat sweet food or only eat savoury food?”
It was also great to see that people were extending their experience into the digital realm, posing their own questions, like “Would you rather give up coffee or alcohol?”. I even saw some people use #WouldYouRatherTO for their urban lifestyle photoshoots, which was a pleasant surprise!
Although #WouldYouRatherTO was a temporary installation, we achieved our three goals for placemaking by bringing the community together through a seemingly divisive question. Both through its physical design and its intent as a conversation-starter, #WouldYouRatherTO gave this otherwise forgettable curbside space new meaning and identity.
A New Chapter
In April 2019, it was time for #WouldYouRatherTO to move to its new home in Markham Centre (also known as Downtown Markham), which happened to be very close to the cafe where we had originally come up with our idea a year ago.
The staff at the City of Markham were excited to use the installation to bring people together to discuss the future of Markham Centre. Questions like “Would you rather ride public transit or ride a bike?” were posed to help inform the City’s secondary plan update. Watch this video to find out how people responded.
The power of placemaking comes from the collective of people that interact with the public space and with each other in that space. #WouldYouRatherTO brought people together physically from concept design, to building and assembly, and to usage. A shared identity was formed as the community contributed to the ongoing dialogue initiated by the changing questions and young and old alike played and rested there. No matter the location of the installation, it served to bring the community together.
As the current situation plays out, I wonder what will happen to public spaces after this is all over. Will we see an increase in people gathering in public spaces compared to before COVID-19 or will we remain hiding behind our screens at home? Will we invest more or less into developing youthful and interactive public spaces?
Food for thought: Would you rather only be able to connect with people digitally or only be able to connect with people in public spaces (that means no Internet!)?
This project was made possible by an amazing team and sponsors:
Lead Designers: Urban Minds
Builder: All Custom Carpentry
Architect: RevelHouse Architecture
Structural Engineer: Hamann Engineering
Graphic Designer: Rachael Ng
Sponsors: Beyond Digital Imaging, DTAH, Evergreen, MJMA, Perkins+Will, Mackaywong
Photo Credits: Karissa Liu, Mary Wang (Mentored by Arnaud Marthouret, Revelateur Studio)