The FIFA World Cup was held last summer in South Africa. This is an event that truly emphasizes the multi-cultural nature of Toronto. The World Cup became an excuse for thousands of energetic fans to engage in unbridled patriotism of their ‘home’ country. (Nationalism, patriotism in such overt displays is problematic, but this is content for another post). With every game came the inevitable honking of horns, waving of flags, and eruptions of street parties after victory.

Last summer’s World Cup provided a number of interesting meditations on the city. First: the extreme multi-cultural-ness was on display, and allowed the appreciation that Toronto is a city of immigrants, whether first, second, third (or beyond) generation.

The World Cup also gave the opportunity for Toronto’s urban space to be experienced in rare ways. Toronto is a pretty civil, subdued city, especially relative to European and South American cities that erupt constantly with football riots (and even compared to nearby Montreal, which similarly erupts in riots every time the Canadiens are in the playoffs, whether or not they win or lose).

When the energy of a crowd becomes powerful enough, the laws of the everyday are cast aside, and pedestrians can reclaim the streets. The police have no choice really to enforce the normal rules of the road: instead of resisting, they succumb to the power of the crowd and make way for the pedestrianization of the street.

These world cup parties are demonstrative of the inherent flexibility of urban space. Though the buildings and streets may seem static, and pretty much are in their average everyday existence, they in fact provide an open forum for an incredibly wide variety of uses. Since Torontonians are so subdued and prude, this doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, the flexibility of the city can be experienced at full force. The World Cup changes urban space into the city as a stage for celebration.

Other examples  from last summer include the G20, and the subsequent anti-police protests that were held outside the police headquarters downtown. The corner of Yonge and Welleselly transformed from its typical role as intersection and thoroughfare into a well defined urban square that played its new role well as the host of a political rally.

Back to the World Cup: another phenomenon that Toronto saw consistently were people mounting and cheering on top of streetcar shelters. Torontonians, cheering for the victory of their home country, transformed these otherwise mundane temporary urban shelters into the focal point of celebration. This is another instance of the inherent flexibility of urban space: the objects themselves adapt to the uses of the citizens as needed.

The most dramatic example of this was, after Spain’s championship victory, people began to mount the streetcars themselves.

The experiences of unplanned street-closing celebrations are interesting in the consideration of urban design. Should cities purposefully attempt to craft city spaces that encourage and facilitate such impromptu gatherings? Or should the city continue to be planned with the ordinary goals of efficiency and transportation, ignoring the possibility of unexpected gatherings of large crowds. Following the latter might be a better option… part of the pleasure of these spontaneous street parties is the feeling of experiencing something familiar in a completely different way…

Check out ‘the geography of professional sports’ too.