What would you do to Toronto if you could implement one major change to the urban landscape? Richard Valenzona asked himself that very question before he submitted his winning entry into the first ever NXT City Prize contest, organized by Dstil. Approximately 120 other young Torontonians under age 30 also submitted their ideas for re-imagined public spaces in the city, but it was Valenzona’s plan for a walkable Yonge Street that won top honours. As the winner, the Masters of Landscape Architecture grad took home $5,000 in cash and now has an additional $10,000* to implement his vision, along with a team of experts. We caught up with Valenzona to find out more about his life, work, award-winning plan, and hopes for the future…
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should people know?
I have Bachelor of Environmental Studies in Honours Planning – with a specialization in Urban Design – from the University of Waterloo. Right after my undergraduate studies I went and did my Master of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph. Professionally, I work for a firm that plans and designs entertainment and leisure environments worldwide. The summer before, and during my third year in graduate school, I worked with the local BIA and implemented several streetscape projects within the Downtown Yonge area – most notably Celebrate Yonge in 2012. So I guess you can say I know Yonge Street very well.
You used your Master’s thesis as a jumping point for your winning design at the first ever NXT City Prize. Tell us a bit about your thesis and how you turned it into your NXT City Prize submission.
My thesis focused on a type of streetscape approach called shared space; and using the corresponding research on that topic to develop a set of principles that could provide recommendations for the conceptual redesign of Downtown Yonge Street. The research consisted of literature on shared space and related case studies comprised of secondary resources, key-informant interviews, and on-site observations. I wanted the principles to draw upon successful aspects, lessons learned, and my own personal observations from the case studies in order for there to be some validity that it could possibly work in the context of Downtown Yonge Street. After the completion of my thesis, I always wanted to turn the research I compiled into a more visual product rather than just have it as text. So when the NXT City Prize competition showed up, it provided me the opportunity to actually pursue this initiative of creating a more developed visual reimagination of Downtown Yonge Street based off my research.
The coolest part about NXT City Prize, in our opinion (aside from the $5,000 cash prize, of course), is that you will have $10,000 to work with a design firm to implement your idea. How/when do you see your idea coming to fruition? Tell us some of the details!
Hopefully everyone will get to enjoy it in the next 3 to 5 years. I know that the first steps are to get the local community and stakeholders along the street involved and create a formal proposal.
What do you think making Yonge Street more pedestrian focused will bring to our great city of Toronto? Why was this such an important project to you?
I think it will provide everyone who uses Yonge Street the opportunity to enjoy it passively, instead of just a corridor for active movement. It will set a precedent for how we view our streets; as public spaces rather than just vehicular thoroughfares.
Yonge Street has gone through numerous efforts to make the street more pedestrian friendly, like the mall in the 70s and Celebrate Yonge. Having studied Yonge Street for my thesis and being part of several implementation projects within the area, it was important for me to continue the conversation to transform one of Toronto’s most iconic streets. With pedestrians beginning to outnumber vehicles in the area, I believe it is time to finally pursue this change.
Finish this sentence: I love Toronto because…
…of its energy, diversity, and potential.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Playing sports (hockey, basketball, soccer), watching sports (basically everything) and… reading up on sports.
What’s your favourite restaurant and why?
Currently? There is a Caribbean place in Orangeville called Soulyve that is amazing. Best Caribbean food I ever had. If we are talking Toronto, I actually enjoy Elephant & Castle at Yonge and Gerrard because of the fish tacos.
You have a Master of Landscape Architecture. What’s ultimately your dream project and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
To be honest, ever since my thesis and past involvement with several Downtown Yonge Street projects, the dream is – well I guess it is now “was” – to redesign Yonge Street. Having won the NXT City Prize and being given the opportunity to realize my dream is still surreal. In 10 years, I hopefully see myself walking down a newly redesigned Yonge Street.