Monday, August 23, 2010

The Concrete Cafe and the Urban Jungle

Baldwin Street in old Toronto, showing outdoor seating areas of restaurants; note the window boxes with light green sweet potato vines; small trees and striped canvas awnings add charm; photo Joseph Wagenhals,

the outdoor area of the Second Cup Cafe Empress Walk in north Toronto; note the massive air vent, concrete paving and walls, and lack of plant material to soften the setting; there is no shaded area

lushly planted natural wood flower boxes a the Niagara Street Cafe, Toronto; image courtesy of
Irish Pub at College Park, downtown Toronto, with several large planters of petunias on the railings and potted palms on the pavement; colourful canvas umbrellas offer shade on Toronto's dog days and add old world charm; photo SwF

The outdoor seating area at Fran's Restaurant on College Street; the attractive bright green vines are sweet potato plants that are readily available at any garden centre, inexpensive, and very easy to grow; photo SwF

In the Empress Walk shopping complex adjacent to Mel Lastman Square in north Toronto, there is a very successful, thriving coffee shop. It is in the corridor leading into the subway station, so there is a lot of pedestrian traffic, and the shop is always full. It also has an outdoor seating area that hundreds of commuters walk past every day on their way to and from work.

The interior seems pleasant enough, with large windows bringing natural light. Unfortunately the outdoor area leaves something to be desired. In spring customer relations of the Second Cup was contacted asking that the litter be cleaned, and the shabby, rusty railings be painted. It was suggested that the area would be more attractive if there were a few plants. Several studies have shown that treed and planted urban areas are less susceptible to crime, graffiti, and vandalism.

A few weeks later, the area was noticeably cleaner, and new black rust paint was applied to the rusted iron enclosure. Sadly, no plants were ever put in the area. This is rather unfortunate as the paving material and adjacent walls are cement, and there is a massive air vent set into the wall of this area. Certainly a few plants would greatly improve this public space. In recent years, more and more cafes and outdoor restaurant areas in Toronto have been enhanced by flowers and plants.

Personally, I would rather have my coffee or lunch at the Fran's or Irish Pub on College Street than this bare outdoor cafe area. Perhaps the Second Cup, or the property manager of the mall, Rio Can, could offer a financial incentive for the franchises to accent outdoor areas with plants. It would be good business and it would make the shops better members of the community. Come on guys, buy a couple sweet potato vines, they're just a few bucks.

Starbucks at Yonge and Summehill, Toronto; photo SwF


  1. I am so glad that you have created this post. Baldwin Street here is one of those gems that is a welcome relief from our somewhat treeless city (in places). I work in the Bay and College area and walk past the Irish Pub each day, only to have to cross the street and be met with the bareness of Second Cup and Timothy’s on the north side of College Street. The Empress Walk photo that you have posted is so common of the chain coffee shop mentality and outdoor dining as a whole here in Toronto. Queen Street West is full of concrete patios with nary a plant in sight! You are right a couple of $ on some potato vines would not go astray.

    On the other hand I so pleased with what the city has been doing and completed on Bloor Street around the Yonge area. The widening of the footpath and the creative planting has really transformed the area. Now all they need is some wonderful outdoor restaurants!

  2. There's a lot to be said for a few strategically placed window boxes on the iron railings. Mrs. E. and I recently dined at a place which patio was partially hidden from sidewalk view by a hedge of some sort, much like your photo of Fran's. It was secluded, romantic and delightful. Hidden in plain sight behind a border of green. Just delightful.

  3. Hate to say it, because I know it is a cliche,,,but...I bet a man owns needs a woman's touch.....