Christine Ralphs
Christine Ralphs, pictured with her dog, Lucky, founded The Friends of University Avenue. She says she hopes Tuesday night's event marks "the beginning of a really beautiful renaissance for public spaces in this city." (Photo: Ola Sirant Photography)

For Christine Ralphs, it has been a four-year journey from darkness to light.

It was October 2017 when Christine walked out onto University Avenue from Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, where she was a patient. That night, alone, she was hit by the cold air – and the darkness.

Christine was also struck by an idea – transforming the "black hole" she saw and felt looking across the boulevard into "a beacon of light and hope for all patients, families, healthcare professionals and people of Toronto who use University Avenue as their main north-south artery through the city day and night."

Christine's vision will be realized on Tuesday night when The Friends of University Avenue, the non-profit organization she founded, flips the switch on an illumination project through the middle of the boulevard from College Street south to Elm Street. An installation known as "Radiant Journey," it spans 380 metres and features 20,000 individual LED lights in a cohesive visual composition.

"It's our hope that this is the beginning of a really beautiful renaissance for public spaces in this city," Christine told UHN News. "It shows that individuals can have an influence on what their city can be."

A self-described "very positive person," Christine, a retail designer who co-founded the Club Monaco fashion brand, enlisted friends from the worlds of design, architecture, communications and landscape design. They have raised the money, developed the plans for the installation, collaborated with City officials and departments, hospital and area stakeholders, and completed the construction.

Tuesday's event on the lawn of The Hospital for Sick Children will feature opening remarks from Mayor John Tory and Councillors Joe Cressy and Mike Layton. Christine hopes it's the beginning of a new partnership between the City and private citizens to beautify neighbourhoods across Toronto.

"We don't take the time to really look at our city," Christine says. "There are so many examples of beautiful architecture, beautiful neighbourhoods that could so easily be highlighted."

"Lightwave," an animated lighting installation, is part of "Radiant Journey," which will be illuminated Tuesday night on a 380-metre stretch through the middle of University Avenue from College Street south to Elm Street. (Photo: Light Monkey Photography)

Christine has spent much time over the past decade on University Avenue. Her late husband, Peter Ralphs, was a patient at the Princess Margaret for four years. A year after he passed away, Christine was diagnosed with lung cancer and has been a patient at the cancer centre for the past five years.

Though planning began long before the onset of COVID-19, Christine says the pandemic underscores the importance of the original idea of University Avenue being that beacon of light and hope.

"We never would have believed it would be so much more relevant today than it was in 2017," she says.

The Friends of University Avenue envision Tuesday's launch of "Radiant Journey" as the first phase of their initiative, which they call "Reimagining University Avenue." The innovative design, which includes every tree down the median of the boulevard as well as "Lightwave," an animated lighting installation, is synchronized by an audio feed, or heartbeat. It's designed to protect passing drivers from the glare.

The lit forms, which are made of extruded aluminum, create a visual wave along the avenue with an organic, dynamic movement visible from all angles, including vehicles, pedestrians and, most importantly to Christine's group, patients, visitors and staff in hospitals along University Avenue.

The second phase, which is still in development and would begin in 2022, is to have commissioned or loaned contemporary art that invites engagement and reflection placed in the same space on University Avenue. It would not only serve as a public art focal point for Torontonians and visitors alike, but also create opportunities for partnerships with cultural institutions and events across the city.

The Friends of University Avenue plan an ongoing program of maintenance and curation, allowing the space to endure as a source of inspiration and curation. Christine likens it to a program operating with Park Avenue in New York City. Read more about The Friends' new fundraising initiative.

"We're doing this because it's something we love," Christine says. "How lucky is that?"

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