Catalyzing the power of parks for social connection

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Last week, I wrote about parks and mental health, mentioning that some of the results of that research dove-tailed with what we heard researching Park People’s Sparking Change report. We’ve now released that report, which you can download here.

We know that parks are important drivers of improved physical and mental health, but our neighbourhood parks also play an important role in fostering a sense of belonging. They’re not simply green places of respite, but critical pieces of the social infrastructure of our cities.

At a time when increasing attention is being paid to the growing inequality of our cities and neighbourhood-based inequities, it’s critical that we examine how engaging in our parks and public spaces can create more inclusive, equitable places that are shaped by and for the people living there.

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Park People’s been involved in animating and improving parks to create strong communities since 2011. But we wanted to better understand the social impacts of this work, particularly in underserved neighbourhoods where people may be living on lower incomes or are newcomers. Residents in these neighbourhoods often experience barriers to engaging in parks related to time, resources, and sometimes language.

Our new report, Sparking Change: Catalyzing the Social Impacts of Parks in Underserved Neighbourhoods, tells the story of communities that have taken action in their local parks through spearheading improvements, building partnerships, engaging diverse community members, and organizing events and activities that draw people into the park.

Through speaking with resident volunteers, community organizers, and city staff in seven different North American cities, including Toronto, we identified five social impacts of park engagement and 10 strategies to support better this work.

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We heard about work being done to create a new park in a low-income, park deficient neighbourhood in Portland that now includes an inter-tribal garden that is co-managed by local Indigenous people and the City parks department. We heard about community members working with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust to design, build, and program a new park in an area that didn’t have a public space before.

We heard about groups that use gardening and food to spur social connections, tackle food insecurity, and provide places for people with disabilities to garden. We heard about community groups that create opportunities for local entrepreneurs and newcomers to sell homemade food, clothing, and crafts in parks, like Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Market. And we heard how employing a translator to work with Chinese-speaking residents in a north Toronto park helped engage residents through activities like movie nights and plantings.

These stories helped us define the strategies that can be used to create thriving social environments in parks. Our hope was that this report would be a useful tool for community members, non-profit staff, and city governments.

Here are a few of the key take-aways from the report:

Programming is key to creating social connections in parks. There is often a lot of focus on capital improvements (new playgrounds and benches) but locally-created programming is a critical component of creating parks where people actually connect with others in their neighbourhood. Investments in upgraded amenities should be paired with investments in programming and engagement.

Parks can be gateways to becoming civically involved. Park engagement can be a first step to becoming more civically engaged—such as volunteering for other organizations and advocacy campaigns—and also building skills around public speaking and community outreach.

Small actions and investments have big impacts. Small wins and milestones keep people excited, encourage others to get involved, and create a visible presence in the park. It might be as simple as organizing a group park clean-up, working to spruce up a garden, hosting a community picnic.

Parks can be important sites of local economic development. By providing start-up space to local entrepreneurs, cooks, and craftspeople, parks can create local economic opportunities and become important places to build skills and professional networks.

Communities where people are visibly engaged keep parks clean and well-maintained. Engaged community members with a visible presence—at events and clean-ups, for example—can help spur a sense of neighbourhood pride in a local park, which helps keep parks clean and amenities well-maintained and encourages others to get involved.

Park groups should be community-led, but partner support is often needed. While it’s important to ensure community members lead projects themselves, strong partnerships are critical. The support of a paid staff member in a partner organization is often helpful with tasks like organizing meetings, applying for permits, and funding applications.

Download a full copy of the report here.

If you’re in Toronto, please join us on Monday, February 13 for a discussion of the report with people working at different levels in their neighbourhood and park to make change. Register here.

Title photo courtesy of Toronto Arts Council. 

 

 

Understanding the intersection of parks, mental health, and equity

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When I feel stressed at work, I get outside and walk to the nearest park. I lie on my back and watch the clouds go by or sit against the trunk of a tree and read. Breathe in, breathe out. Sometimes I’m only out there for 10 or 15 minutes, but I always feel better.

This past Wednesday was Bell’s annual Let’s Talk campaign to reduce the stigma around mental health issues, and so it seems an appropriate time to write a little something about the link between parks and mental health in cities. Do parks really make us feel better? If so, how? And, crucially, are those benefits available to all in a city?

There is a lot of research into these questions. In fact, if you printed out all the articles and scientific studies and stacked them on top of each other it would reach to the top of the CN Tower. (I don’t know if that’s true, but I always like when people write things like that).

CityLab compiled a pretty comprehensive list about the influence of parks on health, including mental health, which you can read here. But as a run-down, parks have been shown to reduce stress levels, improve mood and focus, and reduce depression and anxiety. Parks may also help us not to die. These links have been studied both for short-term exposure to green space—going for my 10 minute visit during a work break—and for long-term exposure—moving to a neighbourhood with more trees and parks nearby.

But these benefits are not distributed evenly in our city as they depend on things like access to green space (can you walk to a park?) and access to high-quality green spaces (when you get to that park is it full of garbage and broken benches?). This is where parks, mental health, and equity intersect.

It is a complicated area to tease out, which is why recently published work by Toronto-based researcher Nadha Hassen out of the Wellesley Institute is so important.

The two papers—a scoping review and a theoretical framework—consist of a review of academic literature related to the association between green space and mental health and a good discussion of how this intersects with neighbourhood-based inequities.

One of the most interesting findings from Nadha’s research was the emphasis on the quality of green space as a factor for positively influencing well-being. Often these studies look at access or quantity of green space, either by measuring distance between homes and parks or using satellite imagery to determine how much green space is in a neighbourhood. But it’s the more subjective, and harder to measure, quality of parks that really have an important influence on our well-being.

Quality measurements that Nadha found were things like: is the area species-rich and biodiverse? Is it aesthetically pleasing, clean, and well-maintained? Is it quiet, peaceful, and well-lit? Are there facilities and amenities that are useful? Are there water features and reflecting pools? Is it safe?

Additionally, social interactions in parks were also found to increase the positive impacts of parks on well-being—something that I also found when researching Sparking Change, a report Park People is releasing in February on the social impacts of parks in underserved neighbourhoods.

The reason Nadha’s research is important and worth emphasizing is that park maintenance is often first on the table in cities that find their operating budgets constrained and look year to year for areas to make cuts. In fact, just this year Toronto’s proposed 2017 operating budget included a reduction in maintenance for parks in high-use times and for gardens—something we spoke out strongly against. Luckily this cut has been reversed, but the final decision still must be made by City Council in February.

Investments in park quality are particularly important in our underserved neighbourhoods—those 31 areas that the City of Toronto has identified as Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. If well-maintained, clean, attractive, safe, and well-programmed parks can positively impact mental health and well-being, then investments in gardens, grass-cutting, park programming, and amenities like playgrounds and pathways should be made through the lens of public health and equity as much as through park operations and maintenance.

As Nadha writes: “To strive towards creating mental health-promoting green spaces, we need to ensure access to good quality green spaces that meet the needs of diverse populations. In urban settings, neighbourhoods with low-income, newcomer, and racialized populations tend to have lower access to available, good quality green spaces compared to other groups that are higher income and white.”

Having data to make these decisions about where to invest would be great. Which is why, as Nadha suggests, we should develop tools to evaluate park quality—using some of the indicators that Nadha uncovered like cleanliness, amenities, programming, natural environment, and safety—as a measure for public health and equity. It would be great to see this data collected with community members themselves—kind of like neighbourhood safety audit walks do currently.

This information would help us prioritize investments to ensure everyone has a beautiful, clean, and welcoming park nearby when they need to sit under a tree and de-stress.

Toronto’s Green Line takes a huge leap towards reality

Big news for the Green Line, a project that I’ve been involved with at my work, Park People, since 2014.

The Green Line is a vision to transform a hydro corridor into a 5km linear park and trail, connecting multiple communities along its length and providing new green spaces for areas that are lacking in parks. We actually just released a video (above) showcasing the potential of the hydro corridor as a linear park and outlined some of the challenges and opportunities for making it a reality.

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The project has received a lot of community and political support over the past few years, but one of the key things we’ve been pushing has been a City-initiated master plan for the Green Line. This master plan would, as we saw it, create a path forward for the project by outlining necessary improvements, connections needed, amenities, and potential new green spaces. The master plan would be a key document for changing what is now dealt with as a series of disconnected parks into a connected linear park with a common threaded identity. You can read more here.

That’s why it’s such big news that the City has hired a team of consultants to engage with communities along the route and create this plan in 2017. Called the Green Line Implementation Plan, it will outline the steps needed to make this a reality. There’s also over $1 million already in the capital budget for the next three years to implement portions of the plan. We’re excited at Park People to be a partner with the City on initiating this study.

With all the coming residential development along Dupont Street, new green spaces are going to be needed. There are already a number of applications for new mid- and high-rise buildings along Dupont and not many opportunities to create new green spaces. The Green Line is going to be an important park space and pedestrian route that serves both these new residents and existing residents along its length.

Linear parks are also very good bang for your buck in terms of park space. Because they are stretched out and thread their way through multiple neighbourhoods, they actually serve more people within a five minute walk than a similar sized park in a more traditional square shape. They also create opportunities for active transportation, providing a safe and pleasant place to walk, ride, and roll. And they’re not just good for people: linear parks provide much-needed corridors for wildlife, like pollinators, which we need more of in our city.

I hope one day in the next few years, I’ll be able to lace up my runners and take a jog along the Green Line.

 

 

Our city is growing — our parks budget must grow, too

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This year was an exciting one for public spaces in Toronto. There was the announcement of the Under Gardiner (now The Bentway), Rail Deck Park, a renewed Grange Park, a “super park” in the Lower Don Valley, and strong support for The Green Line.

Toronto is booming in population and we are finally beginning to match that boom by seeding some much-needed investment in new and renewed parks in neighbourhoods across the city. But we risk falling behind if we don’t ensure that our budget to maintain those parks keeps pace. Despite all of this growth, the proposed budget would actually cut maintenance funding in our parks this year—and during their busiest use times.

As an independent charity that builds stronger communities by animating and improving parks in all corners of Toronto, Park People, where I work, believes strong public funding is crucial for a great park system.

This year the proposed operating budget for Parks, Forestry, and Recreation includes a cut of 0.3% from last year. This may seem like a small number, but included within that reduction is maintenance, horticulture, and urban agriculture funds—totalling $636,000—that were approved in the 2016 budget. The maintenance funds specifically went towards enhanced weekend and evening maintenance in high-use times like summer.

Cutting these from the budget also means we are reversing the first investments the City made towards operating initiatives in the City’s Parks Plan, which was a five-year plan that was meant to take us to 2017. While improvements like new social gathering spaces have been funded from the Plan, City staff note: “funding for operating has been a challenge.” It’s more than a shame to reach the end of the Parks Plan’s lifespan by reversing some of its vital initiatives.

The price of maintaining parkland is rising, too. More people using parks, more activities, and more complex designs means steadily higher costs. In the last three years the cost of maintaining parks has risen about $600 per hectare. By 2019, it will have increased $1,000 per hectare since 2014. All of this makes a 2017 budget that proposes to reduce, or even flat line our investment in parks maintenance, concerning.

This year also saw positive interest from philanthropy in our parks. There was the $25 million gift to the City from Judy and Wil Matthews for The Bentway and a number of other gifts to projects like the Lower Don Valley “super park.” Since it was launched in early 2013, the Weston Family Parks Challenge, which Park People administers, has invested nearly $4.5 million in projects around Toronto—almost all outside the downtown.

But let’s be clear: while private donations towards public space can be an important and welcome component of creating a great park system—just like donations to hospitals or public libraries—it is no substitute for a strong base of public funding. Philanthropy should add, not replace. Philanthropy is also not likely to step up and fund such critical core services such as grass-cutting and gardening. Nor should it. If parks are our common grounds, then we must invest in them as such—together.

Since there are no service levels mandated by the Province, the parks operating budget often feels the squeeze come budget time. Cutting funding for maintenance and garden renewal is also not an immediately visible cut—no walking to your favourite park only to find it closed because of budget cuts—but the effect it has on our city is just as real.

Well-maintained, beautiful parks are not a frill, but a crucial component of the social and environmental infrastructure of our city. Research has shown that attractive, clean parks encourage more people to use them and instill a sense of neighbourhood pride, bringing both health and social benefits—benefits that are particularly important in our more underserved neighbourhoods and support the City’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

We are excited and invigorated by the renewed focus on parks and public spaces in Toronto, by the announcements from Mayor John Tory, and the support from City Councillors across the city. If we are to build a liveable, resilient, and socially connected city as we continue to grow in population and density, then we must invest in our parks—and not just by building new parks, but in the money and City staff to keep them as beautiful as the day the ribbon was cut.

Originally posted on Park People‘s website. 

 

Vancouver vs. Toronto: A tale of two 21-acre parks

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It’s not often that a dense, city centre gets to create a new 21-acre park that provides new green space in an area that needs it, but also reconnects neighbourhoods disconnected by an infrastructure corridor.

No, not that 21-acre park.

Not to be outdone by Toronto’s plan to create a 21-acre park by decking over a rail corridor downtown, my old hometown Vancouver has released more details about its plan to create a new 21-acre waterfront park, replacing what is now a mostly derelict area of parking lots and elevated roadways.

Last year, Vancouver’s City Council approved a staff recommendation to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts–recently featured in the opening bloodbath scene in Deadpool–in order to unlock more waterfront land at the edge of the downtown core. The city will create a new at-grade boulevard for cars while opening up more land for development and parks (sound familiar, Toronto?)

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The viaducts are really Vancouver’s hangover from a highway that never materialized that would have run down Georgia Street through the heart of the downtown. That highway plan was thankfully stopped, but not before these two “on-ramps” were constructed (demolishing Hogan’s Alley, a largely black neighbourhood, in the process).

Removing these viaducts—which carry far less traffic than they were originally designed for—was a smart, forward-thinking move by the city. The images below show what you can do with the viaducts in place and what you can do if you remove them. You get more park, sure, but you also get to connect the neighbourhoods to the north, like Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, better to False Creek.

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It’s the kind of bold decision that we could have made in Toronto when options were laid out for the Gardiner East. Instead, our City Council voted to essentially repair and rebuild the elevated highway, nudging it a bit to create a different alignment at a massive cost–the so-called hybrid option.

Recently we’ve learned that the cost of rebuilding this section of the Gardiner has ballooned by more than $1 billion, which is, in a kind of twisted hilarity you only seem to find in Toronto municipal politics, what Rail Deck Park is likely to cost.

In another little funny, ironic twist, Vancouver has secured James Corner, the designer of the little-known High Line in New York, as the landscape architect for its new 21-acre park. I say ironic because before the decision to demolish the viaducts, there were some who advocated for turning them into Vancouver’s own High Line-style kind of elevated park. I absolutely hated that idea for many reasons—some of which I outlined in this post from my old blog back in 2012—but the gist is that they’re ugly, expensive, and too short to become a High Line.

Anyway, now we can blow them up and create a beautiful on-the-ground park, which is, in my opinion, where parks belong.

So, Toronto: let this be a lesson.

If we want to be the progressive, big-thinking, bold city we say we are, we can start by taking a page out of Vancouver’s book. We should tear down the Gardiner East and replace it with a boulevard, new neighbourhoods, and waterfront parks. And, hey, that $1 billion we save? I know about this little project over a rail corridor…

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All images from vancouver city staff reports. The title image is not the final plan for the park, which hasn’t been released yet, but just a concept idea. 

Ryerson University public space plan leads the way for safer, people-focused streets

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One of my favourite little islands of quiet green space in downtown Toronto is a hidden grassy field a one-minute brisk walk away from Yonge-Dundas Square. It’s one of those unique moments where you can be right in the thick of thousands of people with video screens screaming ads at you and then quickly melt away into a quiet park surrounded by sleepy classroom buildings and a big open patch of green. This is the aptly named Ryerson Community Park. 

Ryerson’s campus plugs right into the heart of downtown in a way that the University of Toronto—my former campus—doesn’t. It’s streets, green spaces, laneways, sidewalks, and plazas form a network that seamlessly connects into the pulsing city around it.

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That’s why we should pay attention when Ryerson proposes a new public space master plan that aims to transform its public space network, including streets, into something that is safer, people-focused, and accessible. It’s not just a redesign that will benefit students, but residents and visitors to downtown. And, if it’s done right, it could act as an important example of what’s possible in other neighbourhoods.

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At the heart of the master plan, and of the campus itself, is Gould Plaza—one of the City of Toronto’s largest experiments (the largest?) in repurposing road space as public space for people. Closed to traffic as a temporary pilot in 2011, the open space on Gould Street quickly became a magnet for people and activity.

The plan proposes a simple, but important design fix to make the plaza permanent: raising the surface up so it’s flush with the sidewalks around it. Even though the street is closed to all traffic, pedestrians still, out of force of habit perhaps, use the sidewalks that line its edges.

If completed, this would mirror the high-profile pedestrianization of New York’s Times Square, where a similar pilot project to create space for people was made permanent by raising the pavement. It’s amazing what a small change in grade and materials can do for a space to make it more comfortable and inviting–not to mention accessible. Goodbye, curbs!

Laneways

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Also included in the plan, are ideas to make the laneways on campus—Victoria and O’Keefe—more inviting and usable for people by including lighting and art features. The plan doesn’t go too deeply into what’s possible in each of these laneways, which is a disappointment, but they could really be used as a template for other laneways downtown if we do them right. I know the City of Toronto and the Downtown Yonge BIA have been actively working on how to transform these laneways for quite some time, so hopefully we’ll see some of that move forward.

Pedestrian-priority streets

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Finally, the plan proposes creating pedestrian-priority streets on other key streets leading into the campus. While these will still allow car travel, they will be raised up and treated with different paving, signalling to cars that they’ve entered a pedestrian-priority space. This treatment of streets to make them safer and more pleasant for people is a useful lesson beyond the campus that could be implemented in other neighbourhoods. In fact, it’s used at some intersections already in the University of Toronto campus along Huron Street.

I hope the University steps up with the necessary funding to make these improvements a reality because, if implemented, they could lead the way in Toronto to re-imagining the potential of our streets not as simply places to move cars, but places for people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 ways to create a more skateable city

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Skateboarding is often something we design out of our cities. We install metal bumps on concrete ledges and extra railings and barriers where they otherwise wouldn’t be needed. We put up signs with big red slashes through them. The message is clear: this space isn’t for you.

But what if we designed our city to be more skateable, not less?

With the City of Toronto’s new Skateboard Strategy, the City is hoping to do just that. The plan was created in close collaboration with skateboarders around the city, including the Toronto Skateboarding Committee—a great group of people advocating for more and better skateboarding infrastructure in the city.

The goal of the strategy is to create more and better skateparks in the city and also better programs to reach those that want to learn. There are currently 14 skateboard parks in Toronto (12 permanent, 2 seasonal), which you can find in every corner of the city. The findings in the strategy will be incorporated into the City’s facilities master plan—a long-term plan for the city’s parks and recreation facilities that’s being worked on right now.

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Here’s a few of the highlights from the Skateboard Strategy:

Mobile skateparks

 This idea stems from a pilot the City ran this past summer where a van stuffed with skatepark supplies like obstacles, ramps, and skateboards drove to areas of the city that were underserved by skateparks in order to build a quick, temporary space. It would be great to see this program expanded. But I also love the idea of just a “mobile games van” in general, which delivers a recreation staff member and soccer balls, toys, etc., to parks that don’t easy access to these otherwise. So many parks, particularly outside the downtown, are simply grass and maybe a bench. This would really help liven them up and provide play opportunities.

Skate dots

This idea recognizes that sometimes you don’t need to build a big, expensive skatepark, but instead can create small skateable locations in existing parks—what the city is called skate dots. These could be a single railing or ramp built into a park or pathway that allows people to practice. “They provide an introductory skateboarding experience for local users,” the Strategy says. “And can function as social gathering spaces.”

Skateable art

This is an idea I really love and kind of follows from the “skate dots” idea—creating public art pieces that are actually designed for people to skateboard on. It reminds me a little bit of the opposite of what the wave decks down along Queen’s Quay have become. The wave decks would be great for skateboarding if the City hadn’t put up weird, awkward railings so they couldn’t be used.

 Permits

Permits: the perennial headache. Turns out you actually can’t get a permit for skateparks currently and so this limits the ability to host events and competitions since only the City can put an event on at a skatepark. Any permitting process would, of course, have to balance the needs of all users and ensure that skateparks weren’t being taken over for events too often. But how great would it be for groups to be able to host local competitions and events in their skatepark?

 A skatepark at Nathan Phillips Square?

This wasn’t in the strategy, but at committee where the strategy was being discussed, Councillors voted to have staff look at creating a skatepark on the currently empty space on the west corner of Nathan Phillips Square. I love the idea of a visible skatepark right in the heart of downtown.

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway creates a connection that is also a place

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We want to create safe, attractive cycling and pedestrian connections throughout our city, but rather than simply planning a route to get from A to B what if we created connections that became places themselves?

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway does exactly this. It’s a part of the city’s cycling network, with both painted and separated lanes, but it does so much more than act as way for cyclists to get across the dense, downtown West End neighbourhood through which it threads.

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Unfortunately, I moved away from Vancouver before the greenway was complete, but I make sure to ride along its length whenever I’m back visiting—like I did this past September when I was in town for Placemaking Week.

The Comox-Helmcken Greenway was planned to include small gardens, seating areas, and other amenities to make it almost like a linear park-street hybrid. It’s route also connects already existing schools, community centres, and parks (like the big Stanley Park), smaller mini-parks in the West End, and the lovely Nelson Park, the West End’s largest neighbourhood park (which includes a lovely, street-side community garden).

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Walking or biking along the greenway, you’re treated to bump-outs that act as traffic calming measures, but also contain gardens lush with green plants, often tended by residents living in the mid- and high-rise buildings that populate the West End.

There is also a variety of seating along the route, allowing people to stop and sit at chairs, tables, and even a bar stool-style set-up where the greenway meets the busier Denman Street commercial strip. Personally, I like the living room set-up in the picture below. All you need is a nice table lamp, a cup of tea, and you’re set.

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The greenway was always designed to be more than your average cycling route, evident in its design, but also by the fact that the City of Vancouver partnered with the University of British Columbia to study the activity levels of those living along the route before and after installation.

The results of that study, released last month argue that the $5 million dollar project was well worth the investment. The study looked at people living within 500 metres of the greenway and found that cycling trips went up by 32 percent while car trips went down by 23 percent. Other research done for the City reported health and activity improvements for seniors living along the greenway.

As we look to expand our cycling networks, we’d do well to look at the example set by Vancouver in how we can pull the park experience into our very streets.

 

Making a place for people in the heart of Vancouver’s Davie Village

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I lived in Vancouver’s West End for three years just a few blocks from Davie Street, which runs through the centre of the city’s gay village. While the street was billed as the “heart” of the village, it was more like an artery in search of a heart.

There was nowhere along the strip to hang out, chat with people, host community events and watch the bustle of the street. There was nearby Nelson Park, which got a nice facelift during my time there, but what the street lacked–and what many neighbourhoods in Vancouver lack–was a public space or plaza that acted as a central gathering spot right on the street.

A few years ago the City decided to change that. The result, the newly opened Jim Deva Plaza, is a great example of both why pilot projects matter and why programming is so important to public spaces.

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Test ideas with pilots to gain support before making expensive permanent changes

The City opened up a portion of a Bute Street, which intersects with Davie, by removing car access and creating a quick and cheap public space to test the idea. Tables and chairs were put out, and small community events, like games nights, were encouraged.

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The pilot was so successful that when the City surveyed the community about whether they wanted to make the plaza permanent, over 80% said yes.

This September I went back to Vancouver to attend Placemaking Week, and got to check out the now permanent Jim Deva Plaza, named after a local community activist around gay rights and free speech who died tragically a few years ago in an accident. The giant megaphone structure seen in the title picture acts both as a statement about Deva’s advocacy and provides a place for people to perform.

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Don’t just provide a space, provide something for people to do

The plaza seems to be working as a spot to mix and mingle. On a somewhat cool, but sunny day I sat in the plaza on one of the moveable chairs left out for people. A man with a guitar sang songs and intermittently chatted with a woman from Australia who sat nearby. A group of skateboarders stopped to play over-sized Jenga, which turned into a huge magnet for people walking by. I counted 12 people stopping to watch and talk to the guys in 10 minutes, including lots of older adults.

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Successful public plazas are ones that provide opportunities for people to do things. Whether that’s play guitar, sit with friends, or interact in some low-key game. Too often we simply provide the space and then walk away thinking that’s the end of it. But it’s the activities in these spaces that really draw people, keep them there, and provide an opportunity to chat with people they don’t know and may not have interacted with otherwise.

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When the Jenga blocks finally fell over, there were smiles from everyone in the plaza, and then they started all over again.

all photos are mine except the pre-designed space, which is from the Vancouver Courier

5 important points about Rail Deck Park

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At Executive Committee on September 22, Rail Deck Park went through its first vote (they grow up so fast, don’t they?). Before the committee was a request for $2.4 million to do the prep work necessary to understand how to move the park forward. It passed easily and will head to council next.

You can read the staff recommendations here, but below are a few key points that emerged from the meeting about an idea to create this much-needed new 21-acre park over the rail corridor in downtown Toronto.

Rail Deck Park will likely be built in phases

It wasn’t explicitly articulated this way, but the message was clear: this park will be expensive and long-term, but it can also be built in a smaller set of phases rather than all at once. The report outlines certain partial-builds of the park and their high-level costs. Expect to hear more about this in future implementation plans. Here’s how the City broke down the different ways Rail Deck Park could be built over time:

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Partnerships will make this happen

Included in the report, and specifically highlighted by Deputy City Manager John Livey, was the importance that partnerships—with residents, community groups, businesses, and non-profits—will have in the construction, operation, and programming of Rail Deck Park.

We “need a new model” for this park, Livey said, mentioning the conservancy model specifically. There are a range of park partnership models, however, with a straight-up conservancy (basically a partnership between a City and a non-profit organization dedicated to the park) being on one end of the scale and local “friends of” groups on the other.

It will be interesting to see where Rail Deck Park ultimately ends up on that scale. City Council recently approved a new non-profit to manage The Bentway (formerly the Under Gardiner), so it’s not uncharted territory for Toronto. But one thing was clear: the City can’t do this alone.

There are dedicated funding streams for parks

People have pointed out that there’s no money set aside for Rail Deck Park. That’s true–sort of. There is no account right now with money sitting in it for the park; however, as the staff report outlined, and John Livey stressed, there are already several dedicated funding sources available. These funding sources are also growth-related, which is a jargony way of saying that new developments help pay for services/amenities that the new people living in those developments need. Growth pays for growth.

These are:

  • Section 37 (density bonus funds generated from tall, dense developments—aka pretty much every development in the downtown)
  • Section 42 (park levy funds generated from every development)
  • Development Charges (fees every development must pay per unit for a range of services, with Rail Deck Park to be included after the next DC review).

So it’s inaccurate to say there’s no money for this project or no one has thought of a way to pay for it. We do have funding mechanisms. And money collected for parks under Section 42 and through Development Charges can only be used for parks.

That’s important: they can only be used for parks. They can’t be used for housing or transit, by law. This is why these funding streams were created: so we’d have dedicated money for park improvements and acquisition as we grew (and grew and grew and grew).

Our park acquisition policies don’t work for downtown

This is a key point that John Livey talked about in his presentation. The way that we collect park levies from new developments downtown is largely through the Alternate Parkland Dedication Rate (Toronto’s is 0.4 hectares of land collected for every 300 units built). Often the City accepts cash in lieu of parkland from developers because the land provided would be such a small space given that downtown developments are largely tall buildings on tiny postage stamps of land. So we get money. Yay!

But: Toronto caps the amount that developers pay in park levies, which means that at a certain point in a high-density building, the City essentially stops collecting park levies. For a brief primer on why caps are used, head to the middle of this post. Here’s how that works out:

Screen Shot 2016-09-22 at 2.51.43 PM.png

Most developments in downtown would be under 1 hectare of land. So basically once the alternate rate (0.4 ha per 300 units) results in a land dedication of 10% of the development site, the City stops collecting park levies.

This may have been okay when our buildings were 30-storeys on average, Livey said, but now that we’re seeing 50, 60, and even 80 storey buildings on tiny pieces of land as the new normal, we need to revisit this cap because it’s not generating enough parkland/money to meet the needs of all those new residents. Reviewing these policies is long overdo.

Part of the hesitation around reviewing these policies stemmed from the fact that they could be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. But a recent court decision related to Richmond Hill (you can read about that here) has helped clarify municipalities power to set parkland policies. Take that OMB!

Getting more in park levies from downtown developments helps the whole city

Councillor Joe Cressy, whose ward contains Rail Deck Park, pointed out that increasing the cap on park levies would net more money for parks downtown, but also for the entire city. This is because of the way park levy money is divided up. A good chunk of the money generated for parks from downtown developments goes into a citywide account. Here’s the breakdown for all you nerds out there:

Screen Shot 2016-09-22 at 2.51.14 PM.png

Increasing the amount of funds collected in downtown then would also increase the amount of funds that goes citywide. You are essentially creating a bigger pie, so we all get bigger slices. This is good news for people who like pie, but also for neighbourhoods that don’t see a lot of development who rely on these citywide reserve funds for their park improvement needs.

Stay tuned for what I’m sure will be an interesting debate over this project when this item goes to City Council on October 5 and 6 (and, who are we kidding, probably 7 too).

You can read more here about the challenges of buying parkland downtown. The charts were taken from this 2013 City of Toronto staff report