Toronto has joined other cities struck by vehicle attacks — what can it learn from them?

This week's deadly van attack on Yonge Street has thrust Toronto into a debate about safety and freedom in urban areas, a topic being discussed in other cities impacted by similar deadly incidents.

On a sunny Monday afternoon, a white rental van mounted a curb and plowed down pedestrians in one of the city's busiest areas, killing 10 people and injuring more than a dozen others over a stretch of two kilometres. The alleged driver, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.

While the specific details and circumstances of the incident are unique to Toronto, the broad strokes of the attack are familiar to cities around the world.

Since 2017, drivers have fatally run down large groups of pedestrians in cities including London, Stockholm, Barcelona and New York City, and these attacks have sparked debates that may come to define how local governments ensure the safety of their citizens in public spaces.

Avoiding 'protection bubbles'

In late 2016, a driver in Berlin drove a truck through a busy Christmas market, killing 12 people.

In the months since, local authorities have grappled with attempts to improve safety while preserving freedom of movement and their steadfast resolve to "not let the terrorists win."

"The most important thing is not to lose confidence in the liberal ideas of our societies," said Martin Pallgen, a spokesperson with Berlin's Ministry of Interior Affairs.

Since the attack, Berlin officials have met with counterparts in other European cities that have experienced vehicle attacks to share ideas and strategies.

Pallgen said while cities like Nice — where a truck attack two years ago left more than 80 people dead — have installed concrete barriers in busy pedestrian areas, Berlin has not yet made any changes to protect its so-called "soft targets" with new safety infrastructure.

"We try to avoid any of these 'protection bubbles' that make the people unfree," he said.

However, he added, concrete blocks or bollards that can submerge into the road are still being considered in some areas.

Toronto's decision

Just days after the Yonge Street attack, urban planners and politicians are involved in a similar debate in Toronto.

"I think measures need to be taken to protect pedestrians wherever they are in the city," said Coun. John Campbell.

In the wake of earlier vehicle attacks in Europe, Campbell said he asked city staff to explore safety measures in Toronto such as raised curbs and heavy planters to protect sidewalks.

He'll repeat those calls now that a similar incident has struck the city.

"I think the city could be taking measures to better prevent the sort of thing that happened from occurring."

Others said Toronto shouldn't respond to Monday's attack with an overly aggressive approach.

"That might have unintended consequences — turning the city into a fortress," said Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto's former chief planner.

'Made-in-Toronto' solutions

Instead of the metal bollards or concrete barricades that have been installed in many European cities, Keesmaat touts a strategy that has already been advocated for the stretch of Yonge Street where Monday's attack happened.

The plan, called Transform Yonge Street, includes flower boxes, narrower streets, wider sidewalks and separated bike lanes. After a great deal of debate at city hall, council voted last month to defer the proposal for more study.

Keesmaat said those "made-in-Toronto" solutions could not only lead to a dramatic improvement in everyday pedestrian safety; it could have protected the victims of Monday's attack. And, she said, the city will need to examine those strategies again as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, addressing the opening of a meeting of G7 security ministers in Toronto on Tuesday, Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale said globalization has transformed the nature of the threats countries face, affecting how they respond to them domestically.

"Cyber technology has become a disruptive force with the potential to harm our critical infrastructure and the power to more easily conceal identities," Goodale said.

"Conflicts in the Middle East and beyond are compounded by the ongoing and evolving threats posed by the ideologies of terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. We've witnessed brutal terror attacks on our own home soil and attacks on our democracies through foreign interference during elections."

Goodale said these tests to the collective security of countries demand constant collaboration through the G7.

"We will be considering how to work together to manage threats domestically, addressing efforts to counter violent extremism, and looking at the role of the internet as a tool for training, propaganda and financing."