toronto-laneway-downtown Photo: Ian Muttoo/Flickr

Mark Garner would like to see the laneways that carve through downtown blocks lined with patio chairs, umbrellas and planters. The Downtown Yonge BIA’s executive director wants them to be venues for music festivals, markets — even micro retail.

With the downtown core intensifying, and Yonge Street’s sidewalks not getting any wider, this drab, utilitarian infrastructure is essential to keep people moving, and bolster public space. But there’s just one “complex” problem, he notes.

“What it really comes down to is the challenge of the commercial waste in commercial laneways,” says Garner. “It’s a little easier when you’re working through a neighbourhood association or a community… that just has garages,” he adds.

The former head of the Kitchener BIA says Toronto Public Health won’t allow food waste to be stored inside a restaurant, so garbage is supposed to be kept front of house.

However, Garner, whose BIA represents businesses around Yonge Street from Grosvenor Street to Richmond Street West, realizes this presents certain issues for businesses — namely, mountains of garbage bags in front of a store is not a good look.

This leads to a pileup of garbage in the laneways, which isn’t exactly inviting for passersby. So the BIA recently conducted a formal audit of the waste appearing along a southern stretch of O’Keefe Lane, which runs parallel to Yonge, to see what could be done.

It looked at everything from the tonnage of waste that businesses were creating to what was actually being dropped in bins. The takeaway? “There were tactics that we could deploy to reduce the amount of waste generated, especially around food waste,” Garner says the BIA discovered.

One idea is giving food that Tim Horton’s would normally throw out at the end of the day to homeless shelters instead, says Garner. Another is working with private developers and City planning staff when there are projects that border laneways so that the new structures actually feature places to store waste out of sight.

Garner also floats the idea of the BIA starting its own waste management company that would use a smaller truck, making it more cost effective than having a regular garbage truck stop by more frequently. He mentions a vacuum system that sucks waste from multiple storefronts to a central location, where it can all be picked up at once, too.

“It’s a very complex issue,” says Garner, describing the difficulty of working not only with the City and developers, but private waste management companies at well (his area is serviced by several). In Miami, a single waste management company is in charge of a neighbourhood, he says.

“What we want to do is get the waste off the laneways and then activate the laneways,” explains Garner, who isn’t taking a blind stab at this. Back in 2007, when he ran the Kitchener BIA, he threw impromptu punk shows in laneways some weekends. “Shows would just occur, and then the next thing you know, people start using the laneways, and the social issues disappear, and the people just start saying, ‘Hey, laneways can be part of an experience,” he explains.

Garner continues to advocate for the activation of laneways in Toronto, and he recently spoken at the first ever NXT City Talks panel event on the subject. Having finished the waste audit for a southern stretch of O’Keefe Lane, the Downtown Yonge BIA is now setting its sights on the portion to the north spanning Gould to Gerrard Streets, with hopes of finishing it this year.

“Because then it shows what can be done, and then how we have to advocate on behalf of development is they’ve got to clean those problems up at that time,” says Garner.

“You can’t let a development occur if it’s on a laneway and not address the laneway accessibility issue,” he adds.

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