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


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

The case of Richmond Hill and the park by-law

So, big news. A judge has ruled that the Town of Richmond Hill is allowed to appeal an Ontario Municipal Board decision that—no, wait, where are you going? Come back, this is really interesting. OK, so the judge has ruled the Town can appeal an OMB decision that limited the amount of parkland the Town could get through the development process as it intensifies.

Why is this important? Well, because many other Greater Toronto Area municipalities are intensifying (Markham and Vaughan, to name just two) and they will need more parkland to serve these new higher-density areas, and they are not too pleased about the idea that the OMB, an unelected board that can overturn municipal planning decisions, could also cap their parkland dedications.

Ready for more park nerdery? Well, slip on your Blundstones because here we go

The Planning Act, which sets the rules for urban planning in the Province of Ontario, allows municipalities to use levies on new development to get land or money for parks. The regular way this is done is by requiring 5% of the land or a cash equivalent. This is okay for spread out subdivisions where you have a lot of land that houses a medium amount of people on it. Five percent works out to be okay. But if you have a tiny piece of land and a big tall condo on it filled with lots of people then 5% of the land doesn’t really get the amount of park space all those people need.

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So: the alternate rate

The alternate rate in the Planning Act allows municipalities to ask instead, in areas designated for higher density, for 1 hectare of land for every 300 units in a building. If you’re building a condo with, say, 600 units, you need to provide 2 hectare of land (or the cash equivalent). This makes more sense because a denser building = more units = more people living in the building = more park space needed. It’s all tied together with a nice little green bow.

Developers do not like that bow

The argument is that the money they must pay per unit for these park levies drives up the cost of housing in the end and is a disincentive to the kind of high-density development all these municipalities are trying to encourage. Which does make intuitive sense. The more fees you add onto each unit you build, the more expensive it is for the developer, and the more costly the unit in the end. However, in the real world where there is a market environment, there is only really so high you can price a unit, even if you are being charged a bunch of fees.

But wait, what’s this thing about Richmond Hill?

Right. So a few years ago Richmond Hill did a smart, proactive thing. They realized they had to intensify (because Provincial policy directs them to) and so they did up a Parks Plan that laid out the park needs in the Town. Then they calculated how much park space would be needed and used that to justify creating a by-law that asked for the full amount of the alternate rate: 1 hectare of parkland for every 300 units.

Developers did not like this

They appealed the park policies in the Official Plan to the OMB on the basis that it was too high and would be a disincentive to development. They argued it would actually discourage the kind of intensity the Town was hoping for, and contribute to unaffordable housing. The OMB ultimately agreed with the developers and capped the amount of land or cash the Town could ask for at 25% of the land area of the development.

IMG_0024.jpgOn a certain level, a cap does make sense

If you are building a condo on a plot of land that is 0.5 hectares in size, but will contain 300 units you will owe the Town 1 hectare of parkland, or the cash equivalent. See the issue? You don’t have 1 hectare of land. You have 0.5 hectares, and presumably you want to, you know, actually put your building on some of that. On the small sites that a lot of condo towers are built on you get into this weird situation with the alternate rate where you can owe more land than you have because you’re building a lot of units on a small piece of land. The solution? A cap.

But on another level, a cap doesn’t make sense

The fact that it’s a small piece of land doesn’t change the ultimate fact that the building will house X amount of people who need a place to walk their dog, play with their kids, or surreptitiously drink a beer on a picnic blanket while reading a book (not speaking from personal experience here). Capping the amount really does hinder the amount of parkland that is actually needed for all the people living in the building. In fact, Richmond Hill argued the OMB ruling cheated the Town out of $70 million in parkland that it needs for the future.

When you think about it, the OMB placing a cap is kinda messed up

Provincial legislation allowed municipalities to ask for 1 hectare of parkland for every 300 units if they pass a by-law stating so. Richmond Hill did a parks study that justifies the need to ask for that amount, so they passed a by-law. All perfectly legal. Then all of a sudden the OMB goes, um, nope. Really? Nope to something that Provincial legislation allows? Alrighty then, OMB.

So now Richmond Hill will argue its case in front of an appeals court, which could overturn the OMB ruling. If it does, this will be good news not just for Richmond Hill, but for Markham and Vaughan and all the other municipalities who are watching this and wondering how this will ultimately affect their ability to generate the needed parkland for their growing cities.

Let the Town decide what the Town needs

If the Town wants to set its alternate rate at the full amount allowed by law, they should be allowed to do it. If they find it is negatively impacting their goals of intensification because developers are less inclined to build tall buildings, then they can adjust it. The point is that it should be up to the municipality to make that decision. Didn’t we elect people to make these decisions? Didn’t we craft legislation to allow these things? OMB, you’re drunk, go home.

title image from Richmond Hill’s Regional Centre Design and Land Use Study, showing the approved parks and open space framework

Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: The trouble with money

It’s finally happening. The City of Toronto is embarking on a multi-year study to create a parks and public realm plan for the downtown—something much needed. The first phase, now complete, was an information-gathering exercise to document the current state of things, the challenges, the potential opportunities. The next, now happening, is a public engagement piece to get people to reimagine the what, how, and where of downtown public spaces. Rejoice.

And downtown public spaces should concern more than those who live downtown, too. In fact, a recently released Downtown Parks Background Study by the City (a good read) found that half of parks in the downtown are of citywide importance due to their historical or cultural character. These are the public spaces we should all love and enjoy, no matter where we live in the city. Here’s the study area:

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In this post, I’m going to look at the challenges of park funding and the current system of development levies and park acquisition. I promise it’ll be fun. In the next post, I’ll write about the actual design and management of parks and the opportunities for doing things a little more creatively.

Some of this draws on the research from Park People’s Making Connections report, which was released in April 2015 and set a vision for a new way of doing parks and public spaces in Toronto. Some of it draws on the City’s own Downtown Parks Background Study. Some of it draws on the series Spacing did last year.

Are you ready for some park nerdery? If not, please check out this cat video. I won’t hold it against you.

For the rest of you, here we go:

Downtown rakes in the park money…but it doesn’t stretch too far

The City study goes into greater detail (page 8 and 9), but the short and rough version of how the City collects money for park development is through a levy on new construction (Section 42 for all you real nerds out there). The City receives a portion of the land (or the equivalent in cash of its value) for each new development.

If you want to build a big residential development you’re going to have to reserve 5% of your land for a park. If you’re building a skinny condo and that 5% of land gets the City a sliver of a park, then they may ask you for cash instead. This money goes into different accounts meant for park development and land acquisition both citywide and in the district.

In short more development = more money for park development.

From 2000 – 2011, the downtown wards (20, 27, and 28) pulled in a total of $85 million in park levies from development. In the next TWO YEARS, from 2012 – 2014, those same three wards pulled in an incredible $128 million.

That’s a lot of swing sets.

Ok, calm down. Only $46.6 million remains, with the rest spent or committed to projects. And it does sound like a lot of money. But then you get into real estate value in downtown. Which is completely bananas. An acre of land in the downtown could easily swallow up that entire amount in one hungry free market gulp.

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And so we get to…

Frenetic downtown development has created a hugely challenging situation for parks

Ready for more? The City has a policy that it cannot pay more than fair market value for any piece of land that it wants to acquire for a new park. So say the City finds a piece it wants to buy and offers the owner X. The owner then looks around at all the high-rise condo towers sprouting around her lot and says, um, yeah, thanks but I can get way more for this. And she’s right. So a developer, more nimble and able to pay higher prices for a piece of land, gets it first. Gulp. Gone.

This is all evident in just how little land the City has purchased in downtown for new parks. For example, between 2010 and 2013, the City purchased one tiny plot of land at 1,150 square metres for $600,000.

That’s not to say the City hasn’t created any new parks downtown. We’ve got a bunch of new public spaces, but they tend to be waterfront spaces created by Waterfront Toronto (Corktown Common!), or parks created by land dedication or other means besides buying land (Regent Park!). Here’s a tiny chart:

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So spending the money we collect can be difficult

And all of this is if the City can even find a suitable piece of land to purchase and make into a park. Walk around downtown. Try to find a spot for a nice new park. No, not that one—one that doesn’t already have a development application sign on it. It’s hard, right? Many of the pieces left are small and while developers are getting creative in squeezing tall buildings onto these tiny sites, creating a park on them is often impractical.

And because of these tiny development sites, the City often doesn’t want to take a piece of the land to make a park onsite because it would be too small, so it takes the cash contribution to buy land and then…well, you get the picture.

But the longer we wait to spend the money, the less that money is worth

This is not in the City report, but it’s something to think about. The money the City receives from a development is worth a portion of the land value at that moment in time. But then it sits in an account waiting for other bits of money to flow in before there’s enough to do something. Problem is during that time the city hasn’t stopped and land values have increased, so now the bit of money you got two years ago buys less land than it originally did.

Great, so now what?

Well, one thing the City is looking at doing is more pooling of different land dedications and money from developments in an area to create one larger park. The City successfully did that to create the soon-to-be park at 11 Wellesley, where contributions from developer Lanterra’s three nearby sites were combined with a small land purchase from the City at one location to get a larger park. This is a great idea and should be done more. In order to do this though, you ideally need an acquisition study that identifies areas and sites to acquire in the downtown. Luckily for us the TOCore parks and public realm plan will do this.

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OK, but what about creating new parks without buying land?

The City does this too. They’re called POPS—privately owned publicly-accessible spaces. It’s a nifty way of creating new open spaces downtown through the development process, but as privately-owned spaces they are really only accessories to the public spaces system, not a substitute for it. The Financial District is highly dependent on these spaces. There is only one public park–Cloud Gardens–for the entire area.

How about borrowing money to buy parks now?

One other idea I want to raise that I didn’t see in the City report is about borrowing money to buy parkland. If we know developments are coming—and we know developments are coming. City Planning staff love to show that rendering of the Toronto skyline with all the development proposals coming and see our jaws collectively drop—then can’t we borrow the money to buy land right now and pay those loans back when those future developments are built?

This way the City doesn’t have to play the game of waiting until funds reach a certain level to buy a piece of land…at which point the money has depreciated in value and, anyway, the land is gone. Let’s use our crazy development environment to our advantage.

I’m exhausted

Me too. It’s a challenging environment to work in. But also let’s remember that these challenges—hyper-development and a real desire to live in the downtown core—is also our greatest opportunity. If we harness this energy for good, we can do some great things for our parks. We just need to be creative, plan ahead, and act fast.

Next up: Getting creative with our park design, planning, and programming

the map and charts are from the City’s report, the photo is my own