Stationed park managers could help improve our parks

This week Marcus Gee wrote about park maintenance in the Globe and Mail in a column titled “Toronto’s parks suffer from a lack of pride.” He recounts the oft-cited example of Canoe Landing Park as an argument that the City is unable to maintain its parks at a high-quality (especially its signature parks) and that park staff have no sense of pride in our parks.

Gee’s column is unfair to city parks workers, portraying them as lazy and uncaring about their work. Every time I have met a city parks worker, the care and pride they took in our parks was clear. Sure, in a workforce as large as the City’s, you’ll come across people who are careless, but Gee’s is an unproductive generalization.

He does, however, raise a good point when he notes that having on-site park managers who have a deeper, more visible presence in parks would result in parks that are better maintained.

Currently, the City has park supervisors, but these hard-working staff are responsible for a number of parks. For example, there’s one park supervisor for Wards 19 and 20, which includes Trinity Bellwoods, Christie Pits, and a slew of other high-profile parks.

It’s important to remember that parks staff are working under very difficult budget conditions. It was only in 2015 that the City actually approved extra maintenance funding (above and beyond increases just to keep up to the same standards as the year before) to focus on signature parks in high-use times like summer.

There is evidence to suggest that moving from the current “flying squad” model where city crews rotate in and out of many parks doing maintenance work, to a “zone-based” model where crews are responsible for specific areas, results in cleaner parks.

We dabble with this in Toronto in parks like the Toronto Music Garden and Corktown Common where gardeners take special care and receive special training for these signature spaces. But overall city parks workers are stretched across many, many parks “flying” through and doing things like cutting grass, etc.

When Central Park changed their maintenance style to a zone-based system in 1994 they saw big improvements. The park was divided up into a number of different areas and park staff workers were assigned to these specific areas. “Each of 49 zones, roughly 10 acres a piece, are the direct responsibility of a zone gardener whose task is not only to maintain horticultural standards, but also to remove minor graffiti, empty trash baskets, do small-scale mowing, repair benches, and address potential crime situations,” notes a post on the Project for Public Spaces website.

Now, this management style may not be necessary throughout our entire park system, but choosing several high-volume, signature parks—Trinity Bellwoods and Allan Gardens, for example—and assigning a dedicated park manager and staff as a pilot could be an interesting way to see the effects of this for Toronto.

Toronto’s park supervisors are often also the first point of contact that residents have with city parks staff when they want to do something in their park—host an event, for example. Making this presence more visible and including a community-engagement element could be very beneficial. This is an idea Park People, where I work, originally proposed in our Parks Platform for the 2014 election, and it’s one we still believe has merit.

As we head into budget season, we should be watchful of the parks operating budget. Announcements like the proposed Rail Deck Park have rightly sparked a conversation about how we can afford the maintenance costs of new parks. It’s crucial to remember that building new parks is only one side of the equation—we need to strongly advocate for the operating funds needed to support our parks, both new and old.

Title image is of Corktown Common, which receives special maintenance care as a signature park. This post also appears on Park People’s blog.


Stop throwing shade at our parks

If you’ve ever walked down the street on a wintry, but sunny January day in Toronto, you can really see the importance of direct sunlight. The south side of the street, usually cast in shadow, will be nearly empty of people, while the sunnier north side of the street will be bustling.

Sunlight matters.

Turns out the Toronto District School Board agrees. They’re fighting a development proposal at Church and Wood Street that will cast their schoolyard in shadow for a portion of the day. Residents are not happy. The local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, says removing opportunities for sunlight is “almost a criminal act.”

The City, which is also fighting the development at the Ontario Municipal Board to where it has been appealed, has suggested the proposed 38-storey building be reduced to 25-storeys so that its shadows fall within already shadowed areas. We shall see what the OMB—in all its unelected unwisdom—decides.

The tug-of-war between developers who want to build higher and residents who are worried about the ever-lengthening shadows those buildings cast on public spaces is not new to the city. But it is one that is intensifying as the hyper-development we’re seeing in the downtown results in more and higher buildings and the shadows begin to accrue and overlap. I mean, my god, we’re already talking about minimizing the shadow impacts of a proposed building on a downtown park that hasn’t even been built yet.

This is not a challenge that is unique to Toronto. New York is going through its own battle with residents who are worried that new super-tall towers that provide housing for the super-rich will cast super-shadows on Central Park.

In San Francisco, critics of high-rise developers whose buildings cast shadows over parks have the backing of a 1984 law, called Proposition K—otherwise known as the Sunlight Ordinance. This law blocks any development of a building over 40 feet that casts shadows on parkland “unless the Planning Commission decides the shadow is insignificant.”

But as with many things in life, it gets complicated. What is one person’s “insignificant” is another person’s “significant.”

And as usual, developers and their planners argue that all shadows are “insignificant.” See how slender the shadow is, they cry. Look how quickly it passes, they exclaim. We already reduced the building height from 45 to 38 storeys, they shout, what more do you want from us?

But the problem really isn’t with any one individual shadow. It’s with what Wong-Tam nicely called “shadow creep”—the cumulative and growing effect of multiple shadows from an increasing amount of towers. A single slender, quickly moving shadow is one thing, dozens and dozens of them are quite another.

Sunlight is important for public spaces. As William Whyte discovered through his observations of public spaces in New York, people are drawn to the sunny parts of parks and plazas. Shade is nice in the height of summer, yes, but the rest of the 10 months we get in Toronto we need those sunny spots to feel warmth on our face, to allow trees and gardens to grow and flourish.

Turns out, sunlight is not a renewable resource after all. Once we block it out, it’s gone.

Is that worth an extra 11-storeys on a building?

the photo is actually a picture of the lovely Anish Kapoor sculpture in Simcoe Park, but I liked its angry-ish shadow









Welcome back, tiny urban plaza

Well, that was unexpected.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a fence around what was supposed to be a public space for everyone to enjoy just off John Street in the King-Spadina neighbourhood where I work at Park People. The fence enclosed a privately-owned publicly accessible space (POPS)—a type of public space the City creates through agreements with developers. The patio was for a neighbouring restaurant, La Carnita, and also used by people patronizing the adjacent Sweet Jesus ice cream shop. You can read the original post here.

The post was tweeted, shared on Facebook, and posted on Reddit. Cue public outrage. Media like the Toronto Star, MetroGlobal, and Inside Toronto started calling me. The CBC picked it up. Post think pieces like this one at TVO have been written. Less than a week later, the fence was taken down.

I think it’s fascinating that this issue became as large as it did. Perhaps the lazy beginnings of August is a slow news time. Perhaps the lure of a fight against a patio during the high patio season was too much. Residents standing in front of things with their arms crossed! A man trying to take down an ice cream shop! Tacos under siege! Whatever it was, the story sure struck a nerve.

What it tells me is that people are very, very sensitive to the issue of public space in our city right now—a development that is very positive, I think.

Indeed, this story followed ones earlier in the summer about Councillor Joe Cressy working hard to create a new downtown park (that would be a stone’s throw from the plaza in question) and the announcement of a plan to create a new 21-acre downtown green space by decking over part of the rail tracks. Downtown parks are so hot right now.

But why care about such a small space?

  1. Public plazas, no matter how small, provide essential places to step out of the stream of urban life while still being able to watch it all flow by. No, you’re not going to kick a ball around or lay out a picnic, but we need these simple, small places to sit and enjoy our city. If you’ve ever been a tourist in a big city somewhere, you know the necessity of these little spaces to catch your breath.
  1. If we’re going to create these privately-owned publicly accessible spaces as a strategy to increase public space in dense downtown areas, we need to also be vigilant about protecting them as publicly-accessible. Otherwise we are giving goodies to developers like height and density (otherwise known as money) to create private commercial spaces for only a few to enjoy. That doesn’t make sense and it’s an abuse of the tool.

Anyway, thank you to La Carnita for taking down the fence and returning the space to the public. None of this was done out of malice or an attempt to demonize a restaurant. I simply wanted to draw attention to the complications of POPS and the need for public space downtown.

If you walk by the space today, you’ll see people lounging on the rock cubes, eating their Sweet Jesus ice cream cones, enjoying this tiny spot to just sit and chill amidst the ever-growing forest of tall towers sprouting around it.

No, it’s not Central Park, but we needed this space.

photo of the fenceless public space by Zaira Gaudio Fry on Facebook 


This private patio is supposed to be public space

First let me say this: I love patios. The wind in your hair, the sun on your face, the hot waft of a garbage truck barreling down the street. It’s all part of the glory of summer in Toronto.

But I do have a bone to pick with a patio that is currently occupied by La Carnita/Sweet Jesus on John Street just south of Adelaide. My bone?

It’s supposed to be a public space. As in no fence around the edge. As in I don’t need to buy something to sit there. You know, open to everyone?

Kind of like how it was before:

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 3.37.38 PM

What makes this extra annoying is that King-Spadina is one of the densest, rapidly-growing, open space poor neighbourhoods in the entire city. The fact that we created a public space (however itty bitty) and then had it taken away so people could eat over-priced (but Instagrammable) ice cream cones is just the pits. We need all the slivers of public space we can carve out in this city, especially in the downtown, and especially especially in King-Spadina.

How did this happen?

The space is meant as a POPS (privately-owned publicly accessible space). These are spaces created through the development process in Toronto where developers get extra goodies (height, maybe, or chocolate) in exchange for creating and maintaining publicly-accessible open spaces on their property. We have a ton of these in Toronto, many of them in the Financial District. (My favourite POPS is the TD Centre “pasture” where all those lovely cows like to hang out all day). Here’s a map.

In fact, the approval for the building included a condition that the developer provide this publicly-accessible open space. It’s pretty clear:

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 3.26.42 PMWhoops.

So turning this space into a private patio for a business is basically the opposite of what is supposed to be happening here.

It also highlights the challenges of using POPS as ways to create “public space” in highly dense, rapidly developing areas. It’s an attractive tool for the City for sure–you get some new public space and you don’t even need to maintain it!

But hiccups like this show why we need to be cautious with these spaces, and why we certainly don’t want them ever to be seen as a substitute for a publicly owned park or plaza. One clear example of this was highlighted on a Jane’s Walk I went on two years ago (led by City Staff) where we were approached by two security guards as we stood in a POPS to talk about it. These are still, ultimately, privately-owned spaces.

I contacted Councillor Joe Cressy’s office to ask about this and was told by his staff that he’s aware of the issue, does not approve of what’s happening, and has instructed the city’s legal staff to look into it. Hopefully we can expect some action soon.

Yes, patios are cool. But we can’t let these things slide if we’re going to protect the spaces that we’ve managed to create for the public to use. Tear down the fence, people.

photo of the space without the fence was nabbed from Alex Bozikovic’s Twitter feed