Learning to skate again at Morningside Park in Ward 43

It was at around 3pm that I found myself hiding in a park washroom, balancing awkwardly on one foot with the other raised to get my toes as close as I could get to the hand dryer’s blast of warm air. The temperature was somewhere in the -10 range, a day of icy cold sandwiched between two days of even more extreme icy cold. It was also the Morningside Park natural ice rink party put on by Centennial College’s Environmental Students Society (who created and maintain the rink), so here I was attempting to thaw my toes under a hand dryer and get up the courage to put on skates after an eight year hiatus. 

Skating is not my favourite thing. In fact, as a West Coaster, winter isn’t really my favourite thing. I hate wearing layers that have their own layers. My fingers and toes have such poor circulation that they inevitably end up white and rubbery. I don’t enjoy having each word I utter freeze as soon as it leaves my mouth and clatter to the ground.

But I have lived in Toronto for almost five years now (damn all you Vancouver friends posting your pictures of flowers blooming in February and walking around in your cotton zip-up hoodies), and here, in Toronto, winter is a thing and skating is one of those things that make this thing a tolerably thing for many, even an enjoyable thing.

So: a natural ice rink party on Valentine’s Day. Why not.

Morningside Park is a huge park. I was told there were deer and coyotes. I was told to come back and go for walks when it was warmer. The ice rink was built in a clearing near the playground and a BBQ structure. Campfires had been set up and people huddled around them, sometimes talking, but more often than not just silently appreciating the warmth.

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The rink itself wasn’t huge, but it was impressively manicured. People with big shovels would zip around every once and awhile, clearing the powdery snow that had been created from so many skates slicing around its surface. I was happy to see that many people seemed to be beginners. Metal folding chairs were clung to as people gingerly moved around the ice. The exception was one older couple zipping around, holding hands, parting only to pass by slower skaters, and a child who propelled himself forward with a crazy never-ending fearless energy.

I decided I would skate a little bit later. First I ate food, which had been prepared and brought by Lick’s and served assembly-line style under the BBQ hut. My burger and its toppings were cold, but then everything was. I sat down at a table to eat and noticed that a bottle of water left out was now mostly ice.

I can’t remember the last time I skated. I think it was in Vancouver on the rink underneath Robson Square. Although I took skating lessons as a child, it wasn’t something I kept up as I grew older, abandoned just like the piano, swimming, soccer, and baseball lessons. In Vancouver, skating is not the activity that it is in Toronto. Outdoor rinks are a rare species there. I can only think of the one at Robson Square.

But here in Toronto they are everywhere. If they are not artificial rinks maintained by the City, they are natural ice rinks created and maintained by community volunteers for the enjoyment of all. It’s a hard job that takes dedication and a set of winter chops that I don’t possess and likely never will. Getting up at midnight to go flood the rink so the kids can skate the next day? No thank you, my bed is warm and the book I’m reading is too good.

But I’m glad these people did. After discovering the heated washroom and defrosting my toes, I felt reinvigorated and marched straight to the table where skates could be borrowed free of charge, picked out a set of size elevens and, with much difficulty, laced them up. I stood, wobbling, my ankles knocking back and forth. I had a short walk down a snowy pathway to the ice rink and almost fell a hundred times, but I finally made it. My friend and coworker Minaz kindly fetched me a metal chair to grip as I stepped onto the ice.

A picture I will probably regret putting on the internet
A picture I will probably regret putting on the internet

I hear it’s just like riding a bike, Minaz said. This would be true if the bike was instead two sharpened blades that you strapped to your feet before stepping out onto a frozen surface. I made my way halfway down the rink, bent over and clutched the metal chair like how I imagine the cave people did when they went skating for the first time. Then, like evolution teaches us, I straightened up, stood tall, and let go of the chair. “Can I take this?” someone immediately asked. I nodded, gulping. My chair was gone.

I pinwheeled my arms once for good measure and set off, chairless, across the ice. One thing I had forgotten about ice skating was how much it burns. What a thigh work out. I made my way around a few times, keeping my eye trained on the older couple whizzing around so I wouldn’t collide with them. They effortlessly parted around me like water around a very wobbly and uncertain stone. I think I made about seven loops. Amazingly, I didn’t fall.

I felt ridiculously proud of myself. All around me were students, kids, and adults, many of them out on the ice for the first time, learning to do this strange activity with a smile on their face. Back in my boots, a man handed me a cup of hot apple cider which was bubbling away on a picnic table. Another man handed me a cookie from a tin. This was, simply put, the best.

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Earlier, while hiding out in the warmth of the washroom and trying to work up the courage to skate, a young guy had entered, maybe 24 years old. “Are you going to stake,” he asked. I nodded. “I think so. I haven’t been in over eight years though,” I said. “I haven’t been in my whole life,” he replied.

Later I had passed him on the rink. His hand gripped the girl’s next to him as they shuffled down the ice, laughing.

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This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

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Why we need to think about streets when we’re designing parks

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One design option presented at the meeting

I was at a public meeting last week for proposed redesigns for Salem and Westmoreland Parkettes, but despite good questions about which playground equipment was needed or what type of amenities for seniors there should be or where a water feature could go, the conversation kept coming back to the laneway and street that bisect the two parks.

Some suggested distributing the playground equipment to both parks, but others pointed out that would encourage kids to run across the street. One woman was concerned the bushes near the laneway would present visibility issues for little kids. Ideas were floated about speed humps or raising the street pavement up to the level of the park to signal to drivers that the space is a pedestrian-oriented spot and to slow down.

It quickly became clear that any design for the park also needed to take into account this laneway and street. The only problem was that street improvements are not usually part of the official discussion around park improvements in Toronto.

They were good ideas, the landscape architect hired by the City told everyone, but they were also outside of the scope and budget he had to work with. The local councillor, Ana Bailão, was very supportive of improving and animating the street and laneway, but pointed out it was a different City department and a different pot of money. Parks staff were at the meeting, but not transportation.

In Toronto, the money we largely use for park improvements comes from park levies on development (Section 42), which can’t be used for street improvements. But maybe in cases where those improvements create direct connections between parks and help expand the usable open space of the park, they should. At the very least, money for street improvements should be identified along with park improvements so it can all be part of the same process.

We should be thinking, especially in small parks with limited space, about how streets and sidewalks can be designed to complement the park, or how connections feed into the park from the surrounding neighbourhood. Too frequently we focus our attention solely inside the boundaries of the park and forget the network of sidewalks, streets, and laneways that surround it. These are valuable public spaces. (I’ve touched on this before in my post on park edges.)

We do, however, have an example in Toronto of how all this could work–Berczy Park.

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This is a small, triangular park in downtown Toronto just east of the financial district. It recently went through a redesign process (with the wonderful Claude Cormier), part of which included ideas to transform Scott Street, which flanks the western portion of the park, into a curbless, flexible street that can become part of the park when shut down to traffic.

You can see how the street has become an integral part of the park design right up front. All of a sudden this park doesn’t end where it did before, but extends visually and physically onto and across the street. In the summer, when more space is needed, or when an event or activity is planned, the street can be shut down and, because of its design, easily become part of the park. That’s a whole bunch of new space opened up and a smart way of designing this park. The City funded the street improvements through Section 37 (density bonus funds) and the park improvements through Section 42 (park levy funds).

It would be great to see more of this kind of proactive thinking. Of course, we can go in and do street improvements after the park improvements as a separate process, but why not make it part of the conversation right up front during the public consultation for the park? It’s what people want to talk about.

photo from the Berczy Park blog.

Getting a dose of green at the Centennial Park Conservatory in Ward 3

Centennial Sign

Tropical Paradise, the sign promised as I stood in ankle deep snow on the side of a road in Etobicoke. It was Sunday and amidst extreme cold weather alerts and warnings of freezing rain, I had decided I wanted to read in a park.

Usually I head to Allan Gardens, a park in the east side of downtown with a beautiful, historic conservatory–one of the oldest in North America in fact. It may smell a bit pungent and small drops of condensation may drip on your head but it’s one of the only places to go and get a dose of green in the middle of a long winter.

The other is located about an hours transit ride west to the farthest reaches of Etobicoke in Centennial Park in Ward 3. The conservatory there is helped out by the volunteer-based Friends of Centennial Park Conservatory, which raise money for improvements through events. It’s free and open 7 days a week 365 days a year from 10am to 5pm (more here).

Building

After an unexpected 25-minute wait at Royal York Station because Google sucks at bus schedules, I boarded the 48 Rathbury which lets you off right at the bottom of a short road that leads up into the park to the conservatory building.

About 50 children and their parents, bundled up like colourful marshmallows, were sledding on a small hill at the base of the park in stark defiance of the Toronto Star commenter who claimed that “most nature loving people in burbs tend to emerge in the warmer months.” Parks are often stunningly beautiful in the winter, and besides that there is sledding, skating parties, hot chocolate, and campfires. One thing I’ve learned about living in Toronto is that you have to get outside in the winter, even when it’s freezing, otherwise you go nuts.

Arid Room

But sometimes inside is more inviting. And the conservatory building looked very welcoming with the glimpses of green through its fogged up windows. There are two smaller sections branching off from a larger, central space where trees and tropical plants soar up to the high ceilings. I loved the arid house where all manner of funny looking cacti live, but sadly there were no benches in this section. A sign imploring visitors to leave their signatures in the visitor’s book was set up next to a meaty looking succulent with broad fronds that I suppose at some point a few dumb people had decided was a good surface on which to leave their autographs. Don’t tag the plants, people.

Angel

The conservatory was pretty quiet, which was nice. Quiet, that is, except for Angel, the conservatory’s resident cockatiel. Angel lives in a cage in the central building, but is let out each morning from 7am to 10am to explore. He stared out at me with a flat, glassy black eye, fanning his yellow-tinged white feathers below him. A sign posted nearby said that if you sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” he will dance. I whisper-sang it to him, but he just looked at me unimpressed.

People drifted around the building, many with large cameras around their necks. A man set up a tripod next to me and took a bunch of pictures of a lovely white flower. There is a small pond where orange fish swim around. A young couple took a few selfies. A small boy spit at the fish.

Reading

I found a nice bench to sit on and cracked my book. Two teenagers kept walking by, whispering, and ducking into the washroom before drifting back out into the arid house. No diss to the conservatory, but it doesn’t really seem like the kind of place that many teenage boys would find interesting. Then I went to the washroom and discovered bits of ash on the ground and a whiff of smoke. Ah, got it.

The conservatory: something for everyone on a cold winter day.

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This post is part of the City within a Park series where I’m visiting a park I haven’t been to in every one of Toronto’s 44 wards in 2015. (Also, sorry if you see ads here. I can’t control it.)

Walking along the fuzzy ice banks of Warden Woods Park in Ward 35

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While in Ward 35 in Scarborough to check out Victoria Park-Eglinton Parkette, I thought I would balance out visiting a small park surrounded by roads with a walk in a deeply cut ravine–Warden Woods Park. It’s also right on the subway line (the entrance is across from Warden Station and the other end is near Victoria Park Station) so it was easy to get there.

Warden Woods is part of the Don ravine system and on the Taylor-Massey Creek. It’s a pretty big spot, 35 hectares in size, and, according to a park sign I came across, contains forests that are “approaching old-growth conditions, with rare understorey plants.” The ravine did have a lot of cool looking plants and things sticking up everywhere. I especially liked these reedy plants with the nifty spiky balls on them.

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The park also has huge, steep slopes, and what looks like a lot of erosion. Many of the trees on the slopes have their roots laid bare. You can tell people have climbed up and down the slopes from the buildings at the top.

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Then there is the wildlife, like this strange, tiny bear I befriended.

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What really makes Warden Woods, though, is the creek, which runs along the winding path with a pleasant gurgle, even when half of it seemed frozen. There is also a lot of erosion along the creek’s banks (see this Fixer article in the Toronto Star from a few years ago.)

The mix of frozen ice and rushing water was really beautiful, with the water running under frozen sections creating almost psychedelic patterns as it pushed up against the ice over top. There was also a lot of ice build up along the banks of the creek, as if water had seeped out from the dirt there and frozen in big fuzzy masses.

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And here is some more fuzzy-looking ice:

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If there is one thing I could complain about, it’s the lack of seating. What is up with the lack of benches in Toronto parks? There is only one bench along the whole trail. The people want to sit! It also seemed to be facing the wrong way. I’d rather sit and look out towards the creek then back towards the trail.

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The ravine follows the subway line (or I guess I should say the subway line follows the edge of the ravine) so you can hear the rumble of the train every so often, but otherwise the park is quiet except for the birds and the creek. It was a good 30 minute walk, but I was going very slowly and taking pictures of spiky plants and small bears.

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This post is part of the City within a Park series where I’m visiting a park I haven’t been to in every one of Toronto’s 44 wards in 2015. This is the second post for Ward 35. You can find the other one here.