Welcome back, tiny urban plaza

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Well, that was unexpected.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a fence around what was supposed to be a public space for everyone to enjoy just off John Street in the King-Spadina neighbourhood where I work at Park People. The fence enclosed a privately-owned publicly accessible space (POPS)—a type of public space the City creates through agreements with developers. The patio was for a neighbouring restaurant, La Carnita, and also used by people patronizing the adjacent Sweet Jesus ice cream shop. You can read the original post here.

The post was tweeted, shared on Facebook, and posted on Reddit. Cue public outrage. Media like the Toronto Star, MetroGlobal, and Inside Toronto started calling me. The CBC picked it up. Post think pieces like this one at TVO have been written. Less than a week later, the fence was taken down.

I think it’s fascinating that this issue became as large as it did. Perhaps the lazy beginnings of August is a slow news time. Perhaps the lure of a fight against a patio during the high patio season was too much. Residents standing in front of things with their arms crossed! A man trying to take down an ice cream shop! Tacos under siege! Whatever it was, the story sure struck a nerve.

What it tells me is that people are very, very sensitive to the issue of public space in our city right now—a development that is very positive, I think.

Indeed, this story followed ones earlier in the summer about Councillor Joe Cressy working hard to create a new downtown park (that would be a stone’s throw from the plaza in question) and the announcement of a plan to create a new 21-acre downtown green space by decking over part of the rail tracks. Downtown parks are so hot right now.

But why care about such a small space?

  1. Public plazas, no matter how small, provide essential places to step out of the stream of urban life while still being able to watch it all flow by. No, you’re not going to kick a ball around or lay out a picnic, but we need these simple, small places to sit and enjoy our city. If you’ve ever been a tourist in a big city somewhere, you know the necessity of these little spaces to catch your breath.
  1. If we’re going to create these privately-owned publicly accessible spaces as a strategy to increase public space in dense downtown areas, we need to also be vigilant about protecting them as publicly-accessible. Otherwise we are giving goodies to developers like height and density (otherwise known as money) to create private commercial spaces for only a few to enjoy. That doesn’t make sense and it’s an abuse of the tool.

Anyway, thank you to La Carnita for taking down the fence and returning the space to the public. None of this was done out of malice or an attempt to demonize a restaurant. I simply wanted to draw attention to the complications of POPS and the need for public space downtown.

If you walk by the space today, you’ll see people lounging on the rock cubes, eating their Sweet Jesus ice cream cones, enjoying this tiny spot to just sit and chill amidst the ever-growing forest of tall towers sprouting around it.

No, it’s not Central Park, but we needed this space.

photo of the fenceless public space by Zaira Gaudio Fry on Facebook 

 

This private patio is supposed to be public space

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First let me say this: I love patios. The wind in your hair, the sun on your face, the hot waft of a garbage truck barreling down the street. It’s all part of the glory of summer in Toronto.

But I do have a bone to pick with a patio that is currently occupied by La Carnita/Sweet Jesus on John Street just south of Adelaide. My bone?

It’s supposed to be a public space. As in no fence around the edge. As in I don’t need to buy something to sit there. You know, open to everyone?

Kind of like how it was before:

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What makes this extra annoying is that King-Spadina is one of the densest, rapidly-growing, open space poor neighbourhoods in the entire city. The fact that we created a public space (however itty bitty) and then had it taken away so people could eat over-priced (but Instagrammable) ice cream cones is just the pits. We need all the slivers of public space we can carve out in this city, especially in the downtown, and especially especially in King-Spadina.

How did this happen?

The space is meant as a POPS (privately-owned publicly accessible space). These are spaces created through the development process in Toronto where developers get extra goodies (height, maybe, or chocolate) in exchange for creating and maintaining publicly-accessible open spaces on their property. We have a ton of these in Toronto, many of them in the Financial District. (My favourite POPS is the TD Centre “pasture” where all those lovely cows like to hang out all day). Here’s a map.

In fact, the approval for the building included a condition that the developer provide this publicly-accessible open space. It’s pretty clear:

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So turning this space into a private patio for a business is basically the opposite of what is supposed to be happening here.

It also highlights the challenges of using POPS as ways to create “public space” in highly dense, rapidly developing areas. It’s an attractive tool for the City for sure–you get some new public space and you don’t even need to maintain it!

But hiccups like this show why we need to be cautious with these spaces, and why we certainly don’t want them ever to be seen as a substitute for a publicly owned park or plaza. One clear example of this was highlighted on a Jane’s Walk I went on two years ago (led by City Staff) where we were approached by two security guards as we stood in a POPS to talk about it. These are still, ultimately, privately-owned spaces.

I contacted Councillor Joe Cressy’s office to ask about this and was told by his staff that he’s aware of the issue, does not approve of what’s happening, and has instructed the city’s legal staff to look into it. Hopefully we can expect some action soon.

Yes, patios are cool. But we can’t let these things slide if we’re going to protect the spaces that we’ve managed to create for the public to use. Tear down the fence, people.

photo of the space without the fence was nabbed from Alex Bozikovic’s Twitter feed

Parks are canvases that communities can paint on

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Guest post by Minaz Asani-Kanji, the outreach manager for Park People, originally posted here.

I recently took my son, Kahzmir, to Alexmuir Park where the Toronto Arts Foundation brought Shadowland Theatre to the park as part of their Arts in the Parks program. Shadowland was presenting ‘The Spirit of Our Park:’ a week of workshops with music, puppet-making, performers and aboriginal teachings–all culminating in a final glorious parade.

I was there representing Park People (we helped guide the project and connected The Toronto Arts Foundation to underserved park groups in our network), but mostly I was also there as a mom.

While I was busy chatting with Shawn, Shadowland’s fabric designer, my 10 year old son, who is normally quite shy, started becoming curious about a pair of stilts.

The next time I looked over, Kahzmir was proudly stilt walking on his own, around the park.  He refused to take the stilts off until we finally headed home.

IMG_6348Kahzmir was hooked. As luck would have it, I hadn’t signed him up for any camps that week, so every day my in-laws and son headed to Alexmuir Park to practice stilt walking. Kahzmir improved at a rapid pace, eventually jumping, crouching and kicking a ball.

Shadowland Theatre ended the week with a phenomenal parade to celebrate the park. Kahzmir was a Blue Jay, proudly circling the park in his homemade costume.

I learned several lessons about parks and from watching my son strut around on stilts. Here are a few:

1. Parks are canvases

We all know parks are places where soccer, monkey bars, and picnics happen. But when a whimsical parade marches through your park, it serves as a reminder that parks are places where anything can happen (well, most anything.). All it takes is an idea, some people and a park to create a circus big top, a stage or a festival. Parks are canvases that communities can paint on.

2. Park pride is contagious

My son’s pride not only came from learning to stilt walk. Kahzmir was also proud of his community and his park for being part of something utterly magical. That pride spread to the parents who ran with backpacks slung over their shoulders to catch the parade they’d heard about all week. Pride is what it takes to make parks the heart of communities. When it comes to pride, a little goes a long way toward transforming a patch of grass into a valued community gathering place

3. Community groups set the stage

Right from our first meeting with Rosewood Taxpayers Association, it was clear that like our Park Friends Groups, good community groups see possibilities where others might see challenges. When Shadowland said they needed storage for their items each evening, the Association’s VP,  Alura raised her hand and said she’d have no problem sharing her garage for the week. Alura may not have been one of the performers, but the show couldn’t have gone on without her.

4. Pokemon Go isn’t the 0nly game in town

Yes, it’s great that Pokemon Go is getting people off their couches and into public spaces, but Arts in the Parks does the same thing without a digital interface. My son was eager to rush out to the local park every morning because he was learning a new skill, meeting new people and working toward a goal. Sorry, but Pokemon’s got nothing on that!

Guest post by Minaz Asani-Kanji, the outreach manager for Park People, originally posted here.

Do people actually use exercise equipment in parks?

Excercise Equipment

I walk by Sally Bird Parkette often, probably about once a week for the last six years. It’s a small sliver of green space on a single skinny lot between two houses. There’s a flower garden. There’s a bench. Even a water fountain. And there’s also what appears to be three forest-green torture devices.

Well, it depends on your definition of torture.

When this parkette was redone in 2010, three outdoor exercise stations were included. I’ve heard this was based on community feedback that said people would rather have something for adults to do than children, since there was a number of playgrounds already nearby.

Only problem is, as far as I can tell, no one uses these things except for teenagers who sometimes hang out there to smoke. I mean, at least they’re getting used.

It got me thinking: do people actually use exercise equipment in parks, or is it like the equivalent of a gym membership. We like having the option. We say we’re going to use it. But then we decide to eat ice cream and watch Stranger Things on Netflix instead (guys, that show is really good–stop reading this and go watch it.)

Turns out I’m not the only one wondering this. A team of researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta did a study looking at the use of exercise equipment in parks. They observed people in the parks and spoke with people about their use of the park.

What did they find?

They found the exercise equipment was used by only 2.7% of park goers (this follows with other studies that found between 1.9% and 5.5% use).

The interesting thing though is that when they spoke to people to ask them about their use, 22% of people said they used the equipment monthly. It’s our tendency as humans to want to appear a little bit more virtuous than we really are. “Oh, how often do I go to the gym? Oh about three times a week usually.” Uh huh, sure you do, Jim. Sure.

The other interesting part is that people just liked knowing the equipment was there. They “perceived” the equipment to be beneficial to health, but as the researchers wrote, there was a difference between “potential benefits as opposed to actual benefits.”

This is like the equivalent of having broccoli on the menu at a restaurant that serves fatty hamburgers and then looking at the menu and saying “Oh, it’s good they serve broccoli. That’s healthy. I’ll have two hamburgers, please.”

So how to turn those perceived benefits into actual benefits?

Turns out the whole Field of Dreams if-you-build-it-they-will-come scenario doesn’t really work out to well with exercise equipment. What does work then? Well for one: programming. Trainers provided on-site to show people how to use the equipment. Classes and lessons. This is what many of the people interviewed in the study requested.

Because, as we all know, a gym opening up down the street from us doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to use it. Sometimes we need that extra external push of a trainer yelling into our face to turn that potential benefit, into an actual benefit.

 

 

 

Improving access to green spaces in Toronto’s tower communities

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Toronto is a tower city. We not only have high-rises in our downtown core, but many clusters outside the core in the inner suburban areas. These tower clusters, often set within large open green spaces and parking lots, have become the landing pad for many newcomers to the city.

One of the challenges that has emerged, however, is a sense of disconnection in many of these tower neighbourhoods—from the city around them and from the green spaces, like the ravine system, which often lie tantalizingly close by without really great direct access. You also often have thousands of residents living in these towers, but without any real services or retail nearby where people can do simple things, like walk to get groceries.

Using a citizen-led process, a new report out by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation takes a look at these challenges in Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park—two of Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods—to highlight several key interventions that could make the neighbourhood a better place for residents with safer, more attractive routes for walking and cycling.

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One idea focuses on making the nearby Don ravine, with its large, natural areas and wonderful trail, more accessible to residents. The idea is to create a “ravine landing pad” that would act as a welcoming gateway at the trailhead into the ravine, providing a place for people to gather, as well as informational signage.

Toronto’s ravines are truly magical and thread their way all across the city adjacent to many different kinds of neighbourhoods. But they’re often hidden. Sometimes a trail opening doesn’t include even a sign, let alone a map that shows you where the trail goes. Adding these elements woud go a long way to making the system more accessible.

The neighbourhood plan also recommends ways to active the in-between spaces in the neighbourhood through temporary activations on some of the parking lots. These could take the form of pop-up markets or retail stands. While residents didn’t support permanent retail, there was interest in temporary markets that could be set up.

This recommendation follows on the heels of City Council approving a new type of zoning for these neighbourhoods called Residential Apartment Commercial that allows retail and commercial uses to mix in with what are now just residential towers.

It would be great to see more of this citizen-led neighbourhood planning in more communities around Toronto.

 

 

 

Mirvish Village public realm breaks up the block

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On Monday night, a redesign of Westbank’s Mirvish Village project (aka the Honest Ed’s site) was presented. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the meeting, but I was excited when I saw the new project details–especially the inclusion of an on-site park in the project. As a local resident of the neighbourhood, I know how much this area needs more public spaces, especially along the busy Bloor Street corridor.

The new design achieves what some in the neighbourhood were asking for by reducing the size of the project (rental units have been reduced from 1,017 to 946), but I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about–duh–public spaces.

The proposed redesign improves upon what was already a pretty exciting public space design. If built as proposed, Mirvish Village would include: an outdoor market space, a redesigned flexible Markham Street, a park, a dog-run, a community garden, and an activated alleyway that retains the original Honest Ed’s alley location.

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It’s the potential of this connected set of public spaces–across streets, parks, alleys, markets, gardens, and dog-runs–that has me excited about the project.

Including all of these elements in one project is very unique and would create one of the most interesting public space environments in the city. You can really get a sense of this from an overview of how all the different public spaces interact, linking up with each other, but also the surrounding streets and neighbourhood.

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It would also help break up the block that is currently occupied by the Honest Ed’s site by offering many different ways to travel through the neighbourhood through this new network of public spaces.

Here’s how you can currently travel through the block. It’s pretty limited to north-south connections through streets and Honest Ed’s alley.

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Here’s how you would be able to travel through the block with the proposed design (as far as I can tell). It’s much more fine-grained and allows for an easier flow of people in and out and through the neighbourhood.

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Some are concerned in the neighbourhood about the building heights–that they’re “too tall” or will stick out “like a sore thumb.” Personally, I think we can get overly stuck on building heights sometimes in Toronto, when what we really should be focusing more on is the experience at the ground level. This is the experience that we so often get wrong in Toronto (although we are doing much better).

Way too often public space seems like an afterthought, simply the trimmings that are left after the building is designed. Not so with this project.

This project has really thought hard about that ground-level experience: what it means to move through the site, how the different spaces are configured and connected to each other. What will it mean to be a person here? I’m much more concerned with this element, than whether the tower is 25 or 29 storeys.

Because the ground-level is how we are going to interact with this project day after day when it is built. We will walk its streets, stroll through the alley, play in the park, etc.

When thinking about this development and all it can be for the neighbourhood, let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees, as tall as some of them may be.

images from Westbank, except the Google Maps which were drawn inexpertly by me

 

The importance of whimsy in public spaces

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Walking through downtown Montreal on a recent trip with a few friends, we came across something a bit strange. A bunch of logs dumped along a stretch of busy Saint Catherine Street. Did some logging truck tip over and leave its cargo behind?

Nope. The logs are a piece of public art titled 500KM that includes 1,000 logs meant to be a “metaphorical representation of river driving, the 19th century method of moving timber down Quebec’s rivers.” If you need a quick nostalgia break, click here (Canadians only, please).

People took selfies with the logs. They sat on the logs. They pondered the logs. The logs were, as far as I could tell, a hit.

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But this is Montreal, the city that has perfected the art of creating dynamite public spaces that practically have a magnetic pull: you can’t help but stop and stay awhile. Whether it’s a bunch of logs or giant projections on the sides of buildings at night or light strung up overhead in a park or fog that emerges from grates beside a pathway or maybe just the delight you get stumbling across a tiny cafe in a park.

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Montreal understands the importance of whimsy—of things that are fanciful and maybe sometimes even silly. Things that are done for the sake of being just plain fun. Montreal’s public spaces, especially the ones in the downtown Quartier des Spectacles, are a playground for both adults and children.

I mean, they actually have swings that play music as you swing, which, I’m sure, you’ll find directly referenced in the Oxford Dictionary definition of whimsical.

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And Toronto? Toronto is a lot of things. It’s boisterous, fast-paced, often boastful. But whimsical? Ummmmmm. I could only imagine the liability conversations and headaches in Toronto over dumping a bunch of logs in the middle of a downtown street.

We do have our moments, though. There’s the now under construction fountain coming to Berczy Park that features little statues of dogs and even a kitty.

And then there’s Sugar Beach, which is probably one of the most whimsical public spaces in the entire city with its faux-beach filled with white sand, oversized bubblegum pink umbrellas, and candy-striped granite boulders. It’s a beach where you could imagine finding Willy Wonka suntanning.

And guess what? Both the Berczy Park fountain and Sugar Beach are the brainchild of Claude Cormier, a landscape architect out of, you guessed it, Montreal.

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Sugar Beach has become an incredibly popular space. I spent a staycation day there last week turning my own shade of pink while lying in the sun reading. It was 2pm on a Tuesday. The joint was packed.

But Sugar Beach has also been a source of controversy where its very whimsicalness has been used as a slur against it. The message? Don’t design and spend money on things that are viewed as fun or, god forbid, silly. Utilitarian or bust.

But whimsy is important, as I learned walking the streets of Montreal, because our public spaces should provide us with a counterbalance to the hectic keep-your-head-down-until-the-weekend drive of the city.

Whimsy is about making a public space an invitation to play, to become a five-year old again–that magical time when everything around us inspired wonder. It’s walking the streets of a city and feeling delighted. It’s creating a sense that the city can be a festival.

Or, on a very specific level, it’s a man in a business suit swinging next to an eight-year old on the street, both laughing at the music they’re making.

 

 

Creating places for people as we grow

Memorial Square-Meridian Place in Barrie_John D. Bell Associates Ltd

As municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe shift from building sprawling single-family housing neighbourhoods to denser neighbourhoods filled with a mix of housing—including high-rise towers—we also need to shift the way we plan, design, and engage communities in parks and open spaces.

If we are going to build the “complete communities” envisioned in the Provincial Growth Plan, we’ll need to use new strategies to make sure that everyone has access to public spaces that meet various needs. This becomes even more necessary as the Province has released the proposed new Growth Plan, which includes higher intensification targets.

Thriving Places CoverThriving Places, the new report released by Park People today, showcases different strategies that municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe are using to address this challenge. The report builds on the ideas in Park People’s 2015 report Making Connections, which set out eight guiding principles for planning a network of parks and open spaces in urban neighbourhoods.

Looking to municipalities such as Brampton, Mississauga, Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, and Barrie, the report highlights best practices in park planning, design, and community engagement.

Whether it’s an engaged group of residents around an urban trail, a street that is also designed as a public plaza, or a linear park along a new transitway, the examples in the report point a new way forward for parks in the GGH.

New higher density neighbourhoods need a different kind of park than suburban subdivisions filled with houses where everyone has a front and backyard.

Urban parks see a desire for more intense and varied types of activities, from farmer’s markets to movie nights to community BBQs to outdoor yoga classes and cultural festivals. They require new designs to support these activities, such the hard-surface plaza found at Market Square in Guelph or the power hook-ups and free wifi of Mississauga’s Scholar’s Green.

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Higher density neighbourhoods require creative ways to use space efficiently, such as the creation of a new pedestrian promenade on a street adjacent to Hamilton’s Gore Park or the closing of a street in Barrie to expand an existing park and make a connection to the waterfront.

It also requires new sources of funding and partnerships to make these spaces work. For example, partnering with a community non-profit to manage a naturalization project in Guelph’s Pollinator Park. Or the City of Barrie partnering with the downtown BIA to help fund and program its proposed expanded downtown plaza. Or Newmarket working with donated materials to build an outdoor library in Riverwalk Commons, creating a fun new spot in the warmer months for people to gather.

We often to look to cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Montreal for inspiration when it comes to best practices for public spaces, but there are many inspiring, innovative projects right here in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Thriving Places highlights 15 of these projects in the hope that it will become a useful tool to inspire more creative thinking across the region. Because as we continue to grow and intensify, we need to ensure we are creating places for people.

Download the report here.

If you’re in Toronto, be sure to register for our Thriving Places report launch on May 26th at Urbanspace Gallery in 401 Richmond.

image credits: John D. Bell Associates and City of Mississauga

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: Power to the people

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This is the third in a trilogy about TOCore, the City of Toronto’s initiative to create a parks and open space master plan for the downtown (among other related planning things). In the last two posts I broke down the challenges with buying parkland and the need for flexible design.

Pretend you’re at a community consultation for park improvements. (I mean, what else would you be doing on a Monday night, right?) There’s a sprinkling of people in the room, mostly adults from the neighbourhood. The landscape architect is at the front of the room gesturing with her Pilot Fineliner at three different concepts on poster boards and asking what you think. Should the pathway curve this way or that? Do you like this slide or that climbing structure? How about this bench?

You place little stickers on the things you like and then you go home, pour yourself a bottle of wine, and fire up Netflix (may I suggest Master of None?).

But is that the best we can do?

We have all these super engaged people in a room together all nerding out about the park and yet the conversation is almost always only about design. But what happens after the ribbon is cut on that new park with its curving pathways, slide, and bench? How do community members stay involved?

We should use the opportunity in park consultations to engage community members in more long-term direct involvement in the park, like developing a programming and engagement plan led by local residents and organizations.

What kind of programming do people want to see? What organizations are nearby that could assist? A community health centre? A yoga studio? Who are the users of the park? Local schools? A nearby homeless shelter? How can local community members be involved? Can they adopt a new tree and help water it? Tend a garden? Lead nature programming for kids? Organize community picnics? A massive flash mob of people silently reading on blankets (my dream)?

These programming and engagement plans would really come in handy because…

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We are using our parks more and more

As the City’s Downtown Parks Study found, the number of permits issued for downtown parks has gone up every single year since 2005–not surprising given the population growth we’ve seen. But it also means our parks are more and more active with more and more people. People want to use parks in new and different ways: for cultural activities, for movie nights, for farmer’s markets. Demand on park space has never been higher. This is great…

…until it’s not

We go to parks for social reasons, but we also go to parks to get away from people and be in nature. The city can be a crowded, loud, hard place sometimes and the neighbourhood park is a good place to sit on some grass and read a book for a few hours without anyone else disturbing you. Seriously, all you moms and dads with screaming gaggles of three-year olds in tow, do you really need to set up your children’s birthday party right next to the guy quietly reading under a tree?

Um, anyway

Sorry.

So it’s all about balance

Right. It’s this balance–between active programming and passive uses–that a community-led programming and engagement plan could help maintain. In partnership, of course, with the City, who are the park permit gatekeepers.

Oh, right. Those

Technically, if you want to host a community event in a park you need a permit. Currently that’ll cost you about $120 for the lowest tier. It can be a real barrier, both financial and psychological, to community members hosting activities for their neighbourhood. I’ve pulled a few permits. It’s not exactly an easy experience, even for someone who knows parks relatively well (ok, who am I kidding, I love drawing waste management maps).

So shouldn’t we just get rid of permits?

Well, no. Permits are needed to help the City balance use of public space to make sure that we all get an equitable opportunity to enjoy it. This way your acoustic music festival and drum circle (shudder) doesn’t clash with my Patsy Cline-themed artisanal hotdog cook-off (don’t ask). They’re also a source of revenue that help maintain our parks.

Ok, so…

I think we need a new class of permits that recognize the limited capacities of many community groups and encourage the kind of fun, social activities that make our neighbourhood parks great. Call it a Community Event Permit.

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This could build on the City’s newly introduced free art and music-related permits that will allow local musicians and artists to better animate parks and promote themselves. Look for my interpretive dance on the effects of amalgamation on Toronto coming to a park near you.

But, seriously, a Community Event Permit could be either free or set at a much-reduced price. It could be limited to local community groups and capped at 75 attendees so that maintenance issues are minimal. It’s totally do-able.

All of these ideas apply not just to downtown, but the whole city. But they’re especially important in parks with high (and competing) use.

In short, it’s all about getting people more directly involved

And not just when you have some money for new designed elements, but in the ongoing management and operation of the park–both in creating programming that brings people together and in creating a plan that helps manage the effects of that programming.

Dufferin Grove, the closest we’ve gotten in Toronto to a community-managed park, does this well. You’ll find friday night dinners, campfires, and a number of other community-focused programs.

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These volunteer-led park friends groups, of which there are over 100 in Toronto, are a great way to tap into local energy around a park. Some of these groups are doing the kind of work I’ve talked about here, but it would be nice to see this embedded more directly into the way we think about “engagement” and “consultation” in Toronto’s parks.

Because who better to involve in a park than the people who live and breathe it everyday?

photos by Park People except the movie night, which was the Canadian Film Centre

 

Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: A flexible public space system

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This is the second in a trilogy about TOCore, the City of Toronto’s initiative to create a parks and open space master plan for the downtown (among other related planning things). In the last post I broke down the challenges and some potential solutions to buying parkland downtown. Next week’s post will be about programming and community engagement.

What do you do when you have a tiny apartment that needs to be a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom all at once? You get a bunch of furniture that folds up, packs away, and flips down. Your bed lifts up and reveals a desk underneath. A kitchen table flips down from a wall. A book opens up a secret passage way to reveal a long tunn—wait, that’s different.

The point is we create flexible spaces all the time in our homes, but we often don’t extend that same thinking to our cities. Here’s a street: this is where cars drive and park. Here’s a park: this is where we play. Etc.

But with such limited space downtown, flexibility is key

The conversation around parks in downtown Toronto is often that the City needs to buy land for new parks. And it does, no question about it. But what’s talked about less is how we can better use the land we already have. In this post, I want to dive deeper into some of the design issues around parks in dense growing areas, particularly how we can be more creative by blending our public spaces together and building in adaptability.

We need the city equivalent of a bed that folds up to reveal a desk

What if a roadway was designed so it could become a plaza during the warmer months? Now what if that road was actually along the edge of an existing park so that the park could get “bigger” when it needed to? 

This thinking is slowly coming to Toronto. In fact, the City’s Downtown Parks Background Study notes that “in terms of urban park design, it can be advantageous to extend the look and feel of a park beyond its designated boundaries.” City Study, I could kiss you on the mouth. Because…

Our biggest public space resource is not our parks

Although it is a great resource in comparison to other cities. According to the City, we have 127 parks in the downtown that covers about 15% of the land area. This compares to 13% parkland cover for the entire city. This is less than New York (20%), the same as Philadelphia (13%) and more than Chicago (9%). Take that Chicago!

So if it’s not parks, then what is it?

It’s our public streets. Our streets make up roughly 25% of the area of our city, which is pretty on par with most other major North American cities. That’s a lot of space—public space—that we already own.

So what does this mean for “park acquisition”?

For me, it means we need broaden our definition of “acquisition” to include examining the space we already own in our public rights-of-way to see if that can be a resource for new or expanded parks. This doesn’t mean we give up on buying land, but it only makes sense, given the extremely challenging situation for buying land for parks downtown, that we try to use what we have better.

Vancouver does this really well. Here’s an example of a recent project where a park was expanded by 50% by absorbing an adjacent street and including a bike path connection for cyclists. Now look at this drawing and tell me it doesn’t make your mouth water.

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We can do this in Toronto.

Take Berczy Park

No, really take it. It’s small enough to hold in your hand probably. Berczy Park is a little, triangular park that needs to be a lot of things to a lot of people: a children’s playground, a dog park, a place to have lunch at work. So the City got creative, god bless them. The park revitalization included a redesign of an adjacent street so that it could seamlessly become a plaza extension of the park when closed to cars. This is a smart, efficient use of very sparse downtown space.

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Market Street is another Toronto example, where the City used movable bollards to allow the sidewalk space to expand in the summer to accommodate patios and shrink in the winter to accommodate more car parking. Voila. More space for people. A city that responds to the seasons. A city that is adaptable, modular.

Call it parks that expand and contract.

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Okay, but what about money?

Ugh, it always comes back to money, right? While Berczy Park is a great example of creating a more flexible, blended system of public space design, it still used a silo approach when it came to funding.

The City’s park funds (Section 42) went to the redesign of the park and the density bonusing funds (Section 37) went to the street portion. This works if you have access to both funding tools, but since Section 37 funds is generated through denser development, not every ward in the city gets to use it.

Why not allow the use of park funds to do street improvement projects when they are directly related to the continuation or expansion of an adjacent park space? If I’m getting a bigger, better more usable public space then I don’t care where the invisible line is between park and street.

Turns out most people don’t

I went to a public consultation for two small parkettes last winter. A laneway and a small street cut up these two small parkettes, like so:

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Guess what everyone at the meeting wanted to talk about? Yup. How to create better connections across these streets and make it safer for children. Guess what the City couldn’t use the money on that they had for the park project? Yup. The streets. All the money had to be spent on the parks when in fact one of the biggest design challenges was how to make the streets that cut through them work better with the parks.

So if we’re going to get flexible with how we design, we need to get flexible with how we fund.

We also need to pay more attention to the edges

When we think about parks we often look inward. Where’s the playground going to go? What about the splashpad? How about those benches? But we need to spend more time thinking about a park’s edges, especially in the smaller parks that are surrounded by downtown streets. How do people enter the park? What’s the experience at the edge? Is there a fence? Can the park be better blended with the sidewalk to produce a better experience?

The redesign of Grange Park is a good example of the importance and power of paying attention to park edges. The Beverley Street side currently has a black iron fence with two entrances on the north and south sides, making this portion of the park much less inviting.

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The new design opens the park up on this side, keeping barriers low and using gardens to corral people to certain entry points. It will, I have no doubt, create an entirely new feel for Grange Park along a Beverley Street that will no longer be the “back” of the park, but a whole other front. Just look at all these somewhat translucent people enjoying it.

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New York is a great city to turn to for ideas about park edge thinking. They currently have a program called Parks Without Borders that specifically looks at the issue of entrances, exits, and park edges and how they interact with the city and public spaces around them. We could learn a lot from their approach.

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So in sum: it’s not always about looking for new and more spaces. Often, in a city like Toronto it’s about taking stock of the spaces we have and thinking about how we can use them better. Can we use a space twice, by designing it flexibly? Is that park better serving its community by removing a fence? Can we design across spaces? Can we spend our money that way?

I not only think we can, I think we have to if we want a public space system that serves the kind of growth we’re expecting in downtown (double the population by 2025). We need to be flexible.

Adapt or die, right?

Next week, the final instalment in this little TOCore trilogy: thoughts on programming and deeper community engagement in our parks.

photo of Market Street by Marcus Mitanis, title image from City of Vancouver