In Toronto, a pilot project aiming to improve streetcar efficiency on a busy downtown street is doing double duty as the City’s testing ground for a curb-lane parklets design initiative. The King Street Transit Pilot is testing out the viability of a ‘more streetcars, fewer cars’ approach to traffic management along a major downtown traffic artery. The City staged its concurrent ‘Everyone is King’ Design Build Competition to create streetscape-animating curb-lane parklets along the 2.5-mile Transit Pilot stretch of King. Face to Face / Tête à Tête, one of the winning parklet designs, transforms a couple of curb-lane parking spots into a concentrated conversation zone. Just 6.5 feet wide, it was inspired by the intimate conviviality of a dinner party. Working with a supply and install budget of less than $19,000 (U.S.), the design team focused on form, pattern and planting to create a place-making enclave for conversation and people-watching on a bustling city street. In vivid blue and orange, the parklet’s name projects dynamically over all surfaces – bench, planters, zigzagging tables, and deck.
The competition brief indicated where the 18 parklets would be located along King Street, but entrants were instructed not to develop a design for a specific site. While most parklets were to be temporary installations that would be in place for no more than eight months, two were to be “durable destination parklets”: moveable, reusable structures that would be installed in one location from spring until early winter, possibly housed indoors for the coldest months, and then re-installed in the same or a different location, for up to four years in total. Face to Face / Tête à Tête was one of two winning entries in the durable destination parklet category.
The Request for Expressions of Interest for the ‘Everyone is King’ parklets competition states that the King Street Transit Pilot, in addition to improving streetcar operations along King Street, “aims to improve place-making and support economic prosperity.” This document defines the ‘Everyone is King’ Design Build Competition as an opportunity to “contribute to the rethinking of King Street” and to “create a series of attractive curb lane public spaces for all to enjoy.” These spaces are for non-commercial uses.
For most of the 20th century, urban main streets were planned to allow for the operation of many different systems, including vehicular traffic, bicycle traffic, pedestrian flow and entry/egress to buildings, infrastructure, and services such as snow clearing. These systems were long perceived as essentially separate from one another, but it is increasingly apparent that they are integrated, and that there are ‘crossover’ opportunities worth exploring. The ‘Everyone is King’ parklets program tests the capacity for extending the pedestrian realm beyond the sidewalk and into the roadway – this type of incursion is literally part of the movement to ‘take back the street’ for the people.
For the duration of the pilot project, there is no parking along King Street, which means that the parklets are very exposed to traffic. A key challenge, therefore, was to design inviting public realm space for a curb lane that would be safe and feel safe. Another major challenge was to make a space with a maximum width of 6.5 feet comfortable to inhabit.
Making this narrowness an asset rather than a liability was key to our approach. Our inspiration was a big family dinner party, with people packed in tightly around a long table, with several animated conversations all taking place at once. The parklet’s narrowness promotes intimacy within the bustle of King Street, and its aesthetic is the visual equivalent of voluable, overlapping conversations.
We designed two long, narrow, boomerang-shaped tables that zigzag through an ‘outdoor room’ flanked by continuous benches and wrapped with planting. In vividly contrasting blue and orange, the words “Face to Face / Tête à Tête” are dynamically projected over all surfaces – bench, planters, tables, and deck. This vibrancy ensures that the curb-lane parklet is clearly visible to pedestrians and drivers– and that it looks inviting even at grey, bare-branched times of year. The bench enclosure provides real and perceptual protection while enabling people sitting in the parklet to maintain a visual dialogue with streetcars, cyclists, and drivers.
Although Face to Face / Tête à Tête was conceived as a place for conversation, co-working, and gathering, we also wanted it to be a welcoming spot for individuals to use as a touch-down workplace, pause and check email or social media feeds, or simply somewhere to sit and watch passers-by. While most sidewalk furniture does not provide a choice of orientation – a typical bench is fixed in place facing either toward or away from the roadway – Face to Face / Tête à Tête enables people to choose a seat with a view of the sidewalk or the roadway. Meanwhile, the varying width of its zigzagging tables allows friends to sit close together, while strangers who happen to occupy the parklet at the same time can choose to be farther apart.
The tiny budget narrowed our choice of materials and led us to develop a solution that relied on form, pattern and planting to create visual vibrancy, with the blue-and-orange providing maximum visual contrast. It was entirely built off site, and craned in and installed in one day.
The plants were chosen for color, continuous blooms, fragrance and protective buffering. Plant List: Yucca (Yucca filafera ‘Golden Sword’); Siberian Iris (Iris sibiria ‘Ceasar’s Brother’); Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbekia fulgida ‘Goldstrum’); Lavendar (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’).
Project location (Street, City, Country): King Street East, Toronto, Canada
Design year: 2018
Year Built: 2018