Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: Power to the people

This is the third 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 two posts I broke down the challenges with buying parkland and the need for flexible design.

Pretend you’re at a community consultation for park improvements. (I mean, what else would you be doing on a Monday night, right?) There’s a sprinkling of people in the room, mostly adults from the neighbourhood. The landscape architect is at the front of the room gesturing with her Pilot Fineliner at three different concepts on poster boards and asking what you think. Should the pathway curve this way or that? Do you like this slide or that climbing structure? How about this bench?

You place little stickers on the things you like and then you go home, pour yourself a bottle of wine, and fire up Netflix (may I suggest Master of None?).

But is that the best we can do?

We have all these super engaged people in a room together all nerding out about the park and yet the conversation is almost always only about design. But what happens after the ribbon is cut on that new park with its curving pathways, slide, and bench? How do community members stay involved?

We should use the opportunity in park consultations to engage community members in more long-term direct involvement in the park, like developing a programming and engagement plan led by local residents and organizations.

What kind of programming do people want to see? What organizations are nearby that could assist? A community health centre? A yoga studio? Who are the users of the park? Local schools? A nearby homeless shelter? How can local community members be involved? Can they adopt a new tree and help water it? Tend a garden? Lead nature programming for kids? Organize community picnics? A massive flash mob of people silently reading on blankets (my dream)?

These programming and engagement plans would really come in handy because…

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We are using our parks more and more

As the City’s Downtown Parks Study found, the number of permits issued for downtown parks has gone up every single year since 2005–not surprising given the population growth we’ve seen. But it also means our parks are more and more active with more and more people. People want to use parks in new and different ways: for cultural activities, for movie nights, for farmer’s markets. Demand on park space has never been higher. This is great…

…until it’s not

We go to parks for social reasons, but we also go to parks to get away from people and be in nature. The city can be a crowded, loud, hard place sometimes and the neighbourhood park is a good place to sit on some grass and read a book for a few hours without anyone else disturbing you. Seriously, all you moms and dads with screaming gaggles of three-year olds in tow, do you really need to set up your children’s birthday party right next to the guy quietly reading under a tree?

Um, anyway

Sorry.

So it’s all about balance

Right. It’s this balance–between active programming and passive uses–that a community-led programming and engagement plan could help maintain. In partnership, of course, with the City, who are the park permit gatekeepers.

Oh, right. Those

Technically, if you want to host a community event in a park you need a permit. Currently that’ll cost you about $120 for the lowest tier. It can be a real barrier, both financial and psychological, to community members hosting activities for their neighbourhood. I’ve pulled a few permits. It’s not exactly an easy experience, even for someone who knows parks relatively well (ok, who am I kidding, I love drawing waste management maps).

So shouldn’t we just get rid of permits?

Well, no. Permits are needed to help the City balance use of public space to make sure that we all get an equitable opportunity to enjoy it. This way your acoustic music festival and drum circle (shudder) doesn’t clash with my Patsy Cline-themed artisanal hotdog cook-off (don’t ask). They’re also a source of revenue that help maintain our parks.

Ok, so…

I think we need a new class of permits that recognize the limited capacities of many community groups and encourage the kind of fun, social activities that make our neighbourhood parks great. Call it a Community Event Permit.

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This could build on the City’s newly introduced free art and music-related permits that will allow local musicians and artists to better animate parks and promote themselves. Look for my interpretive dance on the effects of amalgamation on Toronto coming to a park near you.

But, seriously, a Community Event Permit could be either free or set at a much-reduced price. It could be limited to local community groups and capped at 75 attendees so that maintenance issues are minimal. It’s totally do-able.

All of these ideas apply not just to downtown, but the whole city. But they’re especially important in parks with high (and competing) use.

In short, it’s all about getting people more directly involved

And not just when you have some money for new designed elements, but in the ongoing management and operation of the park–both in creating programming that brings people together and in creating a plan that helps manage the effects of that programming.

Dufferin Grove, the closest we’ve gotten in Toronto to a community-managed park, does this well. You’ll find friday night dinners, campfires, and a number of other community-focused programs.

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These volunteer-led park friends groups, of which there are over 100 in Toronto, are a great way to tap into local energy around a park. Some of these groups are doing the kind of work I’ve talked about here, but it would be nice to see this embedded more directly into the way we think about “engagement” and “consultation” in Toronto’s parks.

Because who better to involve in a park than the people who live and breathe it everyday?

photos by Park People except the movie night, which was the Canadian Film Centre

 

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