What’s in a (park) name?

If you Google Shoreham Park you’ll zoom right into the green space near Jane and Shoreham in North York. Visit the park and you’ll find a funky, old park sign with psychedelic sun rays shooting out of it. But do the same search for Shoreham Walkway and you’ll come up with nothing. Yet things are happening in Shoreham Walkway, thanks to a number of community partners nearby working to animate the space.

Shoreham Walkway is the “unofficial” name given to the park just south of Shoreham Park on the other side of Shoreham Drive.

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The name emerged from the work of the nearby Jane and Finch Action for Neighbourhood Change, Green Change Agents, and the St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club who are working to engage the local community in this green space (they’re putting on a movie in the park as part of the TIFF in Your Park series this summer). They needed a name, so they asked the park supervisor for the area who told them: Shoreham Walkway.

The only problem is that the name doesn’t appear anywhere.

A park sign with an official name seems like a small thing, but it can be the difference between an undefined blob of grass that you walk through and a park that you meet a friend in or host a community dinner. It allows you to say “meet me in X park,” but it also defines the space as public—a place you can gather and use. So at its most basic, a name turns a space into more of a place.

This green space is sandwiched between two schools, a Boys and Girls Club, and a Toronto Community Housing townhouse and high-rise development. It’s a bit of a blank space right now, with a few park benches and some trees. It’s situated in the middle of the block with each building turning its back to it, which gives it a bit of a lost feeling. But with so many uses around it, and a dedicated group of partners working in it, the space has tremendous potential.

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But walk around its edges and you won’t find a city park sign anywhere. No sign, no name. Passersby could be forgiven for even wondering if it was actually a park at all. And with the TCH buildings and schools around it, who the green space belongs to is thrown even more into question.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the blend of private and public space around Winchester Park. Shoreham Walkway is even more blended. Is the basketball court and playground public or is it part of the TCH development? Is the big field one that anyone can use or is it for the nearby middle school (it’s certainly strewn with garbage from the students.)

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Officially, I was told, the name for this park is Shoreham Park—the same as the park to the north. But the two are really distinct spaces and not actually directly adjacent to each other as other parks that have a North/South name are (see: Stanley Park North/South, Chandros Park North/South, etc.).

In Toronto we seem to slap a park sign up on even the smallest of parkettes, often resulting in a sign that seems bigger than the actual park itself. But the sign does an important job. It defines it as a public space. Shoreham Walkway deserves the same.

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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.)

Blending public and private space at Winchester Park

When you boil it down, there are really two basic types of open space in a city: public and private. You’ve got your beaches, ravines, parks, and plazas on the public side, and your front yards, apartment lawns, walkways, and courtyards on the other.

Of course, nothing in a city is ever as clear-cut as that.

There is a lot of blending between the two, to the point where sometimes you have no idea whether the space you are using is public or private. (This has led to a few instances where a security guard materializes from somewhere to tell me no, you can’t lie down on that lovely stone bench and read your book, you bum.)

The several small parks that make up the block where Winchester Park is located in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood (Ward 28) creates that same feeling of blended public and private spaces. It consists of four (I think) public parks set amidst several housing complexes that also have their own (private) spaces that are all connected by various internal walkways that are (I think) private.

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One of the two small parkettes that make up Winchester Square Park (south of the bigger park) contains some raised bed gardens and is very clearly a public park. But the second space is a less defined green space that seems more like a private yard for the adjacent apartment building, whose towering blank face rises above the park, begging to have a mural painted on it. There’s even a small garden that borders the park with a green picket fence, but is (I think) a private garden of the building.

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You can follow the pathway in these parks to get to a walkway/alley that leads up the centre of the block and connects you to two other parks, but also acts as the main path between several housing complexes, including the Hugh Garner Housing Co-op. Here is where things get a little bit murkier as it becomes less clear what is private and what is public space.

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There are a number of variously-sized pathways leading off in differeent directions, including some very narrow ones that border a park.

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Sometimes a fence separates two communal open spaces, one private (right) and one public (left) so there’s no room for confusion.

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The largest green space in this area, Winchester Park, is just a big blank grassy space with a dirt running track around it. It’s bordered by Ontario Street, which ceases to be a street and becomes a pedestrian walkway instead.

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To further complicate the public/private spaces matter, a short walk away there is a really lush and beautiful garden space that is part of a nearby school. There is a fence around it with a gate that was open, but it wasn’t clear whether anyone could just walk in and enjoy the garden so I stood outside the fence and took pictures, which maybe is even more creepy than just walking into the space, but there you go.

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All of this is interesting in the context of another space just north of Winchester Park: St. James Town. Here, private high-rise housing developments are clustered together around a meandering system of roadways, parking lots, and open spaces–both private and public. It’s almost impossible to tell which is which. In fact, the lack of distinction between private and public open space is one of the points people now criticize about older housing developments of this kind. When a space seems neither public nor private, who takes care of it? How do you use it?

In the end, the experience of walking the block around Winchester Park is not uncomfortable (it’s actually quite pleasant with all the pedestrian walkways going everywhere), but there are a few moments where you think to yourself: am I supposed to be walking here? Where does this actually go? You feel a bit at times like you are trespeassing, and maybe that’s because you are, without even knowing it.

Special thanks to local Ward 28 resident Cameron who accompanied me on this walk.

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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.)

Parkifying the city through making connections

As our cities grow in both density and population, how can we ensure our parks and open spaces keep pace? Just over a month ago, Park People, the charity where I work, released a report called Making Connections which explores this question by proposing strategies for planning parks and open space networks in urban neighbourhoods. It’s exciting to see that it’s been downloaded over 7,000 times since then.

The report grew out of the idea that in today’s built-out and intensifying urban neighbourhoods, particularly in hyper-dense downtown cores, meeting the parks and open space needs of people necessitates a shift in thinking about parks as individual spaces to understanding how they fit within a wider system of open spaces in a city. This doesn’t mean relegating traditional parks to a lesser role, but rather taking advantage of a variety of spaces to build a more connected system overall that serves multiple needs–places for green respite, social gathering, play, recreation, etc.

These include our streets, sidewalks, and laneways, but also hydro and rail corridors, beaches, ravines, trails, schoolyards, and any number of other publicly accessible spaces. When the report came out, an article in the Toronto Star referred to this as the “parkification” of the city—a term I really like.

Acting on this shift requires a focus on making connections—connections between different kinds of open spaces, between communities and those spaces, and between city departments, outside groups, and resources. Understanding the elements of that shift is what the report is all about.

While much of the report is rooted in Toronto, the guiding principles we outline look at examples from across North America to lay out a planning framework. We spoke with community members, designers, planners, developers, and business folks in Toronto, but also other cities like San Francisco, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, and Minneapolis.

You can read the full report here, but I’ve outlined the eight principles below in shorter form and included links to more info on the case studies.

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ONE: Proactively plan central green spaces as the heart of open space networks

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In Toronto we have avenue and corridor studies, urban design guidelines for different neighbourhoods, heritage studies, and a number of other planning documents, but what we don’t have many of are neighbourhood-scale parks and open space plans. It’s crucial to have these plans in place not only so communities can articulate a shared vision, but so development can contribute to this vision over time. Otherwise you’re left being reactive, which means the city risks falling behind or making the wrong investments. The most exciting plans look at the whole range of open spaces—from streets to schoolyards to parks—to understand how existing and new spaces can work better as a system by building connections between them. Ideally, a plan would come with a programming element as well as physical space element, laying the groundwork for future community partnerships to animate and bring these spaces to life.

Case studies:

Midtown in Focus, Toronto

Brooklyn Strand, New York

TWO: Create green connections that become places themselves

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Obviously thinking about connections between open spaces is important if you’re talking about a connected parks and open space network, but it’s important that these connections aren’t just links from point A to point B, but also become places themselves. Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway is a great example of this. It links several parks through Vancouver’s downtown neighbourhoods by creating a safe and pleasant route for walking and cycling. But it also creates small gardens and seating areas by bumping out the sidewalk space along the route, helping to pull the park experience through the street so it becomes a place to linger as well as move through. Laneways are also a great resource for creating green connections, with San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Montreal all looking to this more fine-grained network as a source of park and social gathering space.

Case studies:

Comox-Helmcken Greenway, Vancouver

Ruelles Vertes, Montreal

West Toronto Railpath, Toronto

THREE: Be flexible in design and use

Bell Street Park music performance_Nate Cormier, SvR Design Company

When you have a very built-out city, space becomes a scarce commodity, so many cities have begun redesigning spaces to become more flexible so they can adapt to changing uses and needs for different times of day or year. This could mean building a central gathering space that can be flooded in the winter to become an ice rink or simply using movable street furniture or even stages to allow for flexible programming. It can also mean rethinking park edges by redesigning streets that surround a park so that they can easily become part of the park when more space is needed, such as for events or in warmer weather. The new design for Toronto’s Berczy Park, for example, proposes to redesign an adjacent street to this small triangular park into a curbless tree-lined space with distinct paving so that the park edge blends more with the street. Or an existing street can be redesigned as more park-like with a flexible design that allows it to shift between being a shared street and being a plaza, such as Bell Street Park in Seattle.

Case studies:

Berczy Park, Toronto

Bell Street Park, Seattle

FOUR: Broaden the park to include the space beyond its edges

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Often the largest amount of public space in a city is not its parks, but its streets (in Toronto street space takes up 22% of the city, while parks account for about 13%). So it makes sense then that many cities looking to shore up their open space system are looking to the land they already own in the public right-of-way. These can be both small spaces along boulevards or in parallel parking spaces (the trendy “parklet”), but it can also mean creating new, larger plazas or parks out of streets, as Toronto has done on two downtown university campuses that wanted more outdoor social gathering space for their students. Vancouver also has a history of using traffic calming measures as opportunities to create new “mini-parks” with the city’s West End neighbourhood being the best example of how these are done. Even creating small spaces can have a large impact.

Case studies:

Parklets and Pop-up Parks, Philadelphia

Dundas Street West Parkettes, Toronto

Gould Street Pedestrian Plaza, Toronto

FIVE: Find park space in overlooked and unexpected places

Underpass Park_Jake Tobin Garrett

Aside from the space within streets, cities are also turning to other spaces to see how they can fit into the park system. Certainly, we’ve seen the repurposing of infrastructure corridors as linear parks, with the High Line in New York being the prototypical example (but there is also the 606 in Chicago and the Green Line in Toronto) and the building of parks underneath overpasses and elevated rail lines (see Miami’s Underline proposal). But there’s also schoolyards, cemeteries, and a whole host of other spaces that are taking on more “park” roles. Peter Harnik’s book Urban Green is a great resource that dives into each of these categories in detail. The gist is that we can expand what we think of as parks by understanding what function they serve or what need or desire they fulfil within the community, whether that’s simply a green space to walk your dog (cemetary) or a place to take your kid to play (schoolyard).

Case studies:

Underpass Park, Toronto

Schoolyards-to-playgrounds, New York City

SIX: Empower communities by building new partnership models

McCormick Park Shipping Container Cafe_Heather Jarvis

A big part of creating a more connected parks and open space system is connecting communities within that system by building partnership models that allow communities to have an ongoing role in the programming and stewardship of their local parks. This can happen at a variety of different scales from informal park friends groups (we have over 110 in Toronto in all corners of the city) to more formal partnerships between the City and a group to operate, program or even maintain a park. The crucial point here is to create partnerships that allow many different people to come together and contribute in a meaningful way, test out new ideas, and offer the kind of locally-responsive programming that can only come from people who live in and know the neighbourhood–like a tandoor oven built in a park.

Case studies:

McCormick Park Shipping Container Café, Toronto

Congress Square Park, Portland

Mint Plaza, San Francisco

SEVEN: Experiment and be nimble

Celebrate Yonge_Downtown Yonge BIA

All of these principles require trying new things, which can be difficult sometimes, either because people are skeptical of change or because projects can be expensive and if you don’t know if it’s going to work properly it’s hard to make the case for that investment. That’s where pilot projects and quick interventions come into play—what Project for Public Spaces has branded their Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach. Testing something out allows people to see it work on the ground, suggest changes, and ultimately study the impacts before a bunch of money is spent on something more permanent (for example, Toronto used Celebrate Yonge to study a revitalized public realm for Yonge Street). New York has used this tactic to great effect with many of the new on-street plazas they created around Broadway. It can also be a great tool to use during a planning process to showcase emerging ideas and get more people involved, which is what Vancouver calls “action while planning.”

Case studies:

Celebrate Yonge, Toronto

Davie Village Plaza, Vancouver

EIGHT: Creative collaborations and pool funding sources

North Minneapolis Greenway Concept_City of Minneapolis:SRF Consulting Group

Finally, we come to the need to think across sectors and city departments to implement some of these ideas and find new sources of funding for parks and open space projects. Sometimes this funding can be health-related, as with the planning work being done on the North Minneapolis Greenway. The point is that a more connected parks and open space system crosses departmental boundaries and necessitates collaboration between parks, transportation, public works, water, public health—not to mention outside non-profit groups and community members. Toronto’s green streets pilot is a good example, where a green infrastructure project grew out of a request from the community to make an intersection safer. As a result parks, city planning, water, and transportation are all working together to create a new green space with seating that achieves both the transportation goals as well as helps to manage stormwater onsite.

Case studies:

Green Streets pilot, Toronto

North Minneapolis Greenway, Minneapolis

If you want to read more, check the full report.

guiding principle photo credits in order: WXY Studio, Brent Granby, SvR Design, PMA Landscape Architects, me, Heather Jarvis, Downtown Yonge BIA, City of Minneapolis and SRF Consulting Group