An Afternoon on the Toronto Islands

Claire and I spent this afternoon biking around the Toronto islands (specifically, Ward and Algonquin islands) taking part in CommunityAIR‘s Toronto Island House Tour. (CommunityAIR is a group that advocates against expansion of the Toronto Island Airport.)

Aside from being a fundraiser, the day was also meant to raise awareness that people who live on the island are, well, real people. We met extremely nice residents (thanks Baye, Doreen, Jennie, and Ken!) who welcomed us into their homes and offered us wine and food, ranging from brie to strawberries to lemon loaf to popcorn (pretty much my four favourite foods).

Houses on the island are only allowed to be two stories high, and can’t have basements. The result is a series of pleasant and modest cottage-like buildings. At least two had fewer square feet than a one-bedroom downtown condo.

One of funniest aspects of the day was how everyone kept asking us if we were “on the list.” As in, the list to get onto the island. (Hmmm…sounds like a movie, doesn’t it?)

See, houses on the island aren’t allowed to be sold at market rates, or to just anyone who wants them. There’s a list (and a lottery system to get on said list) which gives you the opportunity to, when a house goes on sale, buy it for the price that the building (excluding the land) was assessed at several years ago, indexed only to inflation. The first person on the list gets first dibs, and if they don’t want it the second person is asked, and so on. One house we saw was assessed at less than $90,000. Others couldn’t have been much higher.

Almost everyone we talked to encouraged us to get on the list so that we could come “join them.” There’s a very strong sense of community. Children run and bike around in groups, relatively unattended. It’s hard for them to escape I guess, and they seem to be the responsibility of everyone. Every Saturday morning a group of people bike over to the St. Lawrence Market together for groceries.

“You know what the secret is,” asked Jennie? “No cars.” That’s why you know who your neighbours are. That’s why children can play in the “street.” That’s why it’s so quiet and calm. That’s why the air is so clear. (The last two, of course, come with the exception of when planes are landing.)

Add that to reason number [I’velostcount] why cities should be built around people and not cars. All the more reason to look forward to this Friday’s International Car Free Day.

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