Sorry, you can’t do that in Milliken Park

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I first heard about Milliken Park in Ward 41 not long after I moved to Toronto, but it wasn’t really for the best reason. The park was in the news because the City had moved to ban kite flying. The issue was that the type of kite flying that was happening, something called “kite fighting,” was leaving bits of string coated in glass around the park that was hazardous to people, but also the animals in the park. So, they banned kite flying.

The City reported on how to regulate kite flying in 2011. It seems to ban only kite fighting and the use of dangerous materials in the string of kites (like those coated in glass), but if you go to the park there is still a sign that bans kite flying. Hilariously, the sign uses the picture of a very innocuous child’s kite with little bows tied to its string. Sorry little Sally and Jimmy, but I’m going to have to slap you with a by-law infraction.

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Walk around the park and more “No” signs appear. There was a No Model Airplane Flying sign that I found along the pathway that wraps itself around the park. I’m not exactly sure why. Were people flying their planes directly into the natural regeneration area?

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Then there was the No Picnics sign on a gazebo in a small garden area. Again, not sure why. Maybe this is a memorial garden area and is meant more for quiet reflection?

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Forget all the signs telling you what you can’t do in Milliken Park though, and what you find is a pretty lovely, large park with a natural area and trail surrounding a big open field with huge gazebos. There’s a good sized pond that was still frozen when I went. It would make an awesome outdoor skating rink–if you were allowed. There was also a dock right out onto the water that would be a great spot to sit and have a drink on a hot summer day–if you were allowed. A nearby cafe building was closed, but had a nice patio.

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After exploring Milliken, I crossed over into Markham which borders the park on the north side. I managed to penetrate the walls that were put up around a subdivision and walk down a street that was wide enough to land a commercial airliner on. Google Maps told me there was a park in the middle of this subdivision, so I wanted to check it out.

When I got there, I found a big, sprawling green space and, surprise, a park sign at the entrance with a list of things with red lines through them. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Not allowed. No. Nope. Don’t even think about it.

Is there another way we can do this?

I understand that we need to have rules and that certain things are not allowed in parks because they pose a danger to wildlife, the natural environment of the park, or simply because the park is not designed to accommodate them.

But it would be nice to find another way to portray these things. Perhaps they can be designed in such a way that they don’t resemble the signs at airport security telling you what you can’t bring on the plane. A study related to national parks in the US found that positively worded signs worked better. And if you’re going to ban something, at least explain why so that people understand the context.

In San Francisco, for example, the park signs used examples of good behaviour for most things, showcasing what the appropriate way to use the park was. The sign still has red lines through certain activities, but the overall approach is more welcoming–it even welcomes you to the park. I like this positive approach.

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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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The park cafe that community built

[This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/15 issue of Spacing Magazine, so you’ll have to forgive the opening paragraph. But isn’t it great that it’s spring now and warmer weather is around the corner instead of colder?]

It’s an early autumn Saturday afternoon and the chill in the air hints at colder weather around the corner. A hot coffee would hit the spot. Luckily, the shipping container café by the basketball court is open for business.

“All our packaging is biodegadeable,” I’m informed as I’m handed my Americano and veggie samosa. I wrap my hands around the cup, settle down on a bench, and enjoy a coffee from Toronto’s first shipping container café in a park.

McCormick Park, located southwest of Dundas Street and Dufferin Street, is not a park hurting for amenities. In its 1.5 hectares, there is a recreation centre with an indoor pool, a skating arena, a bocce court, a little free library, a basketball court, a wading pool, a baseball field, and a playground.

The park also benefits from an engaged group of residents called the Friends of McCormick Park who help care for an animate the space. When this group surveyed the community on what they wanted to see in the park, food was a frequent answer.

Friends group member Adriana Beemans says she and her colleagues were inspired by the community-drive café in Dufferin Grove Park.

“It helps strengthen community,” she says. “There’s something nice about sharing a coffee and talking with someone—it makes it more of a community gathering space.”

Offering food and drinks can also help animate a park in the winter, getting people outside in the cold and dreary months. “In the evening, having hot chocolate or apple cider makes that experience much nicer,” Beemans says.

Unfortunately in Toronto, being able to buy food from a café in a park is rare—even more rare is finding food that isn’t pizza, hot dogs, or hamburgers. The Friends wanted food that was local and healthy.

City Councillor Ana Bailão was supportive of the idea and approached the arena about opening up the building’s unused kitchen to the park, but they weren’t interested.

Enter that ubiquitous symbol of urban pop-ups everywhere: the shipping container.

Bailao contacted Kevin Lee at Scadding Court Community Centre, which launched the successful Market 707 shipping container market and has developed “Business out of the Box” program to bring the idea to other communities. SCCC advised on the park café project, obtaining and outfitting the shipping container for café use. The cost was covered by the City of Toronto’s community benefit funds from the Planning Act, Section 37.

The café is being run by Aangen Community Centre, a non-profit social service agency that relies on projects like the café, rather than grants, to funds its programs. It was important to have a non-profit run the café, Beemans says, so that any profit is put back into the community.

Aangen’s philosophy is about creating healthy lives and healthy communities, Executive Director Gurbeen Bhasin says. The café offers work experience and local employment for those who are in need, and she’s quick to point out that they use all local farm products and serve organic, fair trade coffee, all for under $5.

“Aangen has been wonderful in working with us in finding healthy snacks at an affordable price point,” Beemans says.

The café also helps tie the community centre in with the park, Bailão says, bringing more programming outdoors. “We have to stop thinking about programming just inside the four walls of the community centres and bring it outside.”

Indeed, Bhasin was excited speaking about the potential for activities centered around the café, from nutrition classes to movie nights to Sunday brunch. “We can explore lots of things,” she says.

Bailão hopes to see the idea replicated in other parks. There has been “great interest” from other councillors already, she says.

However, she adds that City parks staff had been somewhat concerned that shipping container cafes might quickly start popping up in parks around the city, so the McCormick Park Café will be studied for a year as a pilot project. “I’m sure there’s going to be some growing pains.”

Meanwhile, Bhasin says residents are still discovering the café, but first impressions are often positive. “They’re like, ‘wow, we didn’t know this was here,’” she says. “They’re excited about it.”

“I think people are truly impressed that we did this,” Bhasin says. “And it’s fun. It’s like, can this really happen?”

Photo by Heather Jarvis

Ramsden Park, the biggest little park in Toronto

One of Ramsden Park's little tendrils

I thought I had been to Ramsden Park already. Some late summer day last year I had wandered the few minutes up from Bloor and Yonge, grabbed a coffee at the Black Camel across from Rosedale Station and sat on a bench to read for a bit. What a nice little park, I thought. Then I packed up and left.

When my coworker suggested I check it out as the park to visit in Ward 27, I told her: Oh, I’ve already been there. But a quick map check made me realize I had barely scratched the surface. So on a still wintry day two weeks ago, I walked over to the park from the Annex, where I live.

It’s possible Ramsden Park is the biggest, little park in Toronto. It’s long–stretching from Avenue Road to Yonge Street–and, at 13.7 acres, one of the largest in downtown. But the way it meanders through its neighbourhood, and the way its interior is spliced up into different sections at different levels for things like skating, dogs, and tennis, makes the park feel smaller and more intimate than its size on a map would suggest.

You can’t ever get a sense of the park’s size no matter where you stand inside it–there’s always a slope, or a twist, or a building, which makes the park feel both big and small at the same time.

Nothing better than a good unexpected birch tree

It’s also a very interior park. The only real street edge is the part that touches Yonge Street. The rest of the park is set deep inside the neighbourhood, but this also leads to one of the most compelling and unique features of Ramsden Park: the small tendrils that it sends out, like some big green beast reaching up for air between the houses that enclose it.

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map from the ABC Residents’ Association discussion paper

In fact, on this second trip I entered the park through one of these tendrils off Avenue Road. I had to double check Google Maps to make sure this was the right spot and not just a vacant lot. There is nothing there that would suggest to you that it was an entrance to a park. No sign, no real pathway. Nothing.

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These entrances (also pictured in the title image) are one of the things that will be improved in the upcoming revitalization of the park, and one of the key elements highlighted in an interesting park discussion paper created by the ABC Residents’ Association (more park discussion papers, I say!)

The revitalization also proposes to use the street edge along Yonge to create more of a welcome into the park with a little plaza and more social gathering spaces. I think this is a great idea, and have written about the importance of paying attention to park edges before on this blog.

We don’t focus enough in Toronto on how our parks hit the street. People go to parks to sit on grass and get away from the city, sure, but they also go to parks to observe and be a part of the city. Plazas and seating at park edges are needed for these prime people-watching spots and can help create a nice transition from the street to the interior of a park, acting as a buffer from traffic.

The other thing I learned from the discussion paper is that Ramsden Park is one of Toronto’s oldest parks, created in 1904. There’s a nice little history about how a creek, the Yorkville Reach, used to flow through the park and link up to the Don. (Is there anywhere in Toronto that didn’t used to be an old creek?) The park was also the site of a brickyard in the mid to late 19th century, which supplied bricks for, among other buildings, University College.

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From PMA Landscape Architects presentation

So Ramsden Park was a nice surprise and a lesson for me not to judge a park by its cover. I’m excited to see the fruits of the park’s redesign, but I do hope that the park keeps the overall sense of being both big and little at the same time. It’s pretty special.

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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.)