Running through the Six: How the Design of the City Unconsciously Impacts Running

If you lived in Toronto circa 2005, you may recall there was a race put on by Nike. The race, runTO10K, had a playful marketing campaign pitting each neighbourhood against each other in friendly competition.  Smart quips centring around smack-talking the usual stereotypes of that neighbourhood were the focus. Gibes like:

“Nice outfits, Rosedale, but can you run in them?” 

“High Park runs this town” 

“Hey Queen St. Too Cool to 10K? – Riverdale” 

were ubiquitously seen plastered on TTC subway trains, wooden construction walls, and in the free commuter newspaper. 

While the race was a short-lived series, the feel of each of these neighbourhoods is long standing and came into existence as a result of historic urban planning philosophies. 

A map of local roads in Toronto that have sidewalks on both sides. 

Take for instance Toronto proper. Neighbourhoods like Riverdale, Rosedale, Leslieville, or High Park were developed in the mid to late 1800s and into the turn of the century. Presently, these communities have sidewalks on both sides of the street, a mature tree canopy, and tight straight grid-patterned roads — perfect for easy navigation, Strava art, and interval training

Contrast that to the emergence of the suburbs in the 1950s and 60s. The planning philosophy of this time focused on keeping the flow of the (mainly affluent) areas in harmony with that of the adjacent ravines and wooded areas. In these areas, there is a beautiful juxtaposition of nature and forest with the homes that abut it and long curved roads that follow the topography of the land. There is a lack of sidewalks in this area as planners of the day wanted to maintain an air of exclusivity, separating out the cars from the pedestrians without the perceived intrusiveness of sidewalks. Nonetheless, they often have a safe and quiet feel to them. A perfect place to do a long easy no pressure run or duck into the Don Valley River Park trails for some nature

Not every neighbourhood in Toronto has an enjoyable feel and aesthetic. There are also areas of the city where the privilege of safe and bucolic streets and sidewalks to run on is lacking. An important example of this is the area along Jane St near the Finch corridor. Developed in the 1960s, this area experienced an exponential population boom in the 1970s. This neighbourhood was developed without the proper support like its affluent counterparts built around the same time. The infrastructure that is taken for granted like enjoyable walking areas, safe and calming roads, and harmony with the landscape is sometimes missing. 

An example of the infrastructure we take for granted: The privilege of having a department that will come and fix sunken sidewalk squares like this. 

The idea of running privilege as it relates to the environment is not often talked about. It’s easy to take for granted especially when living in a city that prioritizes clean, well-maintained and ubiquitous sidewalks and has approved funding for urban planning initiatives. It is the historical design and subsequent engrained historical class of each neighbourhood that gives each area its unique feel and with it, both the convenience and barriers to those who want to exercise within them. While the demographics and socio-economic status of these districts have both changed and contributed to the feel of each area, obstacles are still present and can unconsciously contribute to the privilege one enjoys (or doesn’t) when running in the area. 

  • It is easy to take this accessibility and convenience for granted especially if running is focused in one part of the city.  To reflect on the possible privilege afforded by a particular running environment, consider these questions:
  • How do you feel when you run in your part of the city vs. another part of Toronto? 
  • Do you have the privilege of enjoying quiet trails and ravines? Well maintained, garbage free sidewalks?
  • Do you have a mature tree canopy that gives you shade from the hot summer sun? Plowed and salted sidewalks in the winter?
  • Do you get to enjoy the utility of streetlights, water fountains, parks, or even a track in your area?
  • Are the sidewalks and roads you run on congested with people using them for transportation more so than recreation?
  • Are you forced to run through hostile environments like commercial and industrial areas or near major arteries where you risk getting sprayed by a bus with a tsunami of slush or stagnant rainwater/sewage mix?
  • Are you able to enjoy your music, the podcast, the cadence of your footsteps and breath or are you forced to listen to the noise pollution of construction, diesel engine buses and honking horns?

Each city has its nuances and Toronto is no different. Try to take a pause and consider the army of urban planners bringing its denizens accessible, safe and convenient sidewalks. No neighbourhood is perfect when it comes to safety, accessibility, and urban planning. Hopefully,  the mistakes of the past are learned from and city design for the future rectifies these problems. After all, any privileges that are enjoyed as a runner should be afforded to all runners regardless of where they reside.

Oh and for a really good example of sidewalks being built at different times with different purposes, check out this image of  Briar Hill Avenue

Disclaimer: I am not an urban planner (but a special thanks to J, B, and R who are). The information obtained is objective but interpretation is obviously subjective. I encourage that if you want factual evidence-based and well researched information to refer to textbooks, archival information, urban development studies and of course, speak to the urban planners who run the initiatives in your city.