An Interview with the Winner of the NXT City Prize

An rendering of the winning entry, called Yonge Redux, by Richard Valenzona.

A rendering of the winning entry, called Yonge Redux, by Richard Valenzona.

You might be familiar with the NXT City Prize, a project that is the brainchild of a very talented group of young people who run a consultancy firm called Distl. The NXT City Prize is aimed at youth under the age of 30 and asked them to re-imagine public space (any public space) in the City of Toronto for the chance to win up to $5,000 in prize money and $10,000 in seed money to implement their idea. The City of Toronto supported this project by providing the seed money as well as in-kind support, and I offered my guidance and led the adjudication team.

The NXT City Prize is important precisely because it seeks to engage young people in thinking carefully and creatively about the future city that they would like to inhabit. While Echo Boomers – loosely defined as those between the ages of 18 and 34 – are the fastest growing demographic in our city, they are also wildly unrepresented in our planning meetings, workshops and during deputations at committees. So in the City Planning division, we have been seeking new ways to engage youth, and to draw them into our planning processes, knowing that traditional engagement methods are falling short. The NXT City Prize fits the bill perfectly.

The winner of this inaugural competition presented a well-resolved, thoughtful submission called Yonge Redux – really, it is an idea whose time has come for Yonge Street. The jury was compelled to vote for this submission as the winner even though it is grand in scale and scope, because we believe it is achievable, and signals the reinvention of city streets in our most urban locations as places for people. This idea also builds on the evolving story of Yonge Street – from the creation of Dundas Square in 2002 to the success of Celebrate Yonge just two years ago and Open Streets TO this August, Yonge Street is in a state of evolution, and I think we can all agree it’s not quite where it needs to be yet.

Last week, I sat down with the grand prize winner of the inaugural NXT City Prize, Richard Valenzona of Toronto. Here’s a transcript of that interview:

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I have an undergrad in planning from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Guelph.  I work for Forrec, a Toronto-based planning and design firm that specializes in the creation of entertainment and leisure environments around the world.

Why did you submit this entry?

In the past I worked for the Downtown Yonge BIA, and on Celebrate Yonge, so I know the context well, and I used this to pursue my thesis, which focused on researching shared space.

I knew that pedestrian counts outnumbered vehicles by a long shot, so I wanted to continue the conversation around what we could do for Yonge Street and how it could become more of a shared space.

I researched other places  – such as Exhibition Rd in London – to understand what worked in those contexts and what did not. I also looked at examples from elsewhere to see what we could improve on.

Are you familiar with past ideas that have tried to tackle Yonge St., and did they inform your thinking?

I knew that Yonge was pedestrianized in the 1970s.  I also knew a lot about the Celebrate Yonge project, because I worked on it with the BIA. The project in the ‘70s was too long, and it got dreary in areas. So I thought there was an opportunity with the Aura building and the revitalization of College Park, to extend the idea from Queen Street to College, but to keep it focused where the main retail anchors are, and where the highest number of pedestrians are today.

What is the most important thing the city of Toronto could do today, to build a city for the future?

I think it’s important to create connections to the waterfront from the dense urban core. To achieve a better quality of life, we need to look for ways to provide better, direct linages. The waterfront is really important to people, and there is so much good work going on there through the work of Waterfront Toronto, but people need better access to it.

Congratulations again to Richard for his excellent work, and for helping to draw attention to this extremely worthy idea.

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