4 things to think about when planning signature parks

Last week, I went to the Urban Land Institute Conference in Toronto to see a panel discussing signature parks, including Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, New York’s High Line, and Chicago’s Millennium Park. The conversation was in the context of Toronto’s future Rail Deck Park and the lessons learned from these other projects. Here’s four things I came away thinking about.

Signature parks can act as idea incubators

The Executive Director of the Rose Kennedy Greenway—the conservancy that runs this linear park in Boston–made an interesting point when he argued that signature parks, especially ones that are run by or in partnership with non-profits, are able to experiment and test new ideas in a way that cities are not able (or willing) to try in the wider park system. In this way, they can act as incubators for creative programming and policy change. His example was allowing people to have a beer in the park—the Greenway will be opening a beer garden this summer.

Because signature parks are labelled as unique, they are perfect testing grounds for new ways of doing things that may not work in more traditional parks. Perhaps it’s music or visual arts or food (or beer). Toronto’s Bentway seems like a good candidate for seeding new ideas in public space, especially because it’s not exactly a “park” as we normally understand it, but a linear public space underneath an elevated expressway.

Programming is key to creating more inclusive spaces, but it can’t just be about delivering programming

When asked how they were working to create more inclusive spaces out of these downtown parks, all the panellists stressed attracting people to the park by providing meaningful (and free) experiences for a wide diversity of people. Inclusivity, they argued, came from programming that gives creativity across the entire city a platform, both by acting as host to groups doing their own programming and by working to create programming with others where the capacity might not exist yet.

Unfortunately, the panel discussing these ideas was far from inclusive, consisting of men who were, I believe, all white and pretty close in age. The entire discussion, including this question, would have benefited from other voices being centred.

I think that extends into managing and programming parks, as well. Providing free programming is great, but creating a grant or support system to work with community groups and others to create their own programming, support local artists, and share decision-making is a critical part of ensuring a public space remains inclusive and rooted in local community. It’s not just about delivering programming, but engaging people in co-creating that programming—and paying them to do so.

A great example of this (thought not a signature park like the ones being discussed) is Corona Plaza in Queen’s in New York, which was created by the Queen’s Museum as part of the City’s Plaza Program to turn under-used road space into public space. A key goal of the space was to create what they called a “dignified space for immigrants” by ensuring that programming in the space didn’t just reflect the local community, but was actively created by residents. In order to do this, they hired a community organizer from the neighbourhood and also commissioned artists to run programs and performances in the plaza—tapping into local talent, building capacity, and providing funding.

You can read more about this in this excellent report that documents their approach.

Signature parks provide an opportunity to experiment with new funding mechanisms 

Signature parks often come with high price tags—not just for construction, but also for maintenance and operations afterwards. While public tax dollars remain a key base for many of these signature park spaces, rightly so, new revenue tools are often needed to raise funds to pay for the extras, like special design features and heavy programming.

Some signature public spaces use earned revenue from events and third-party programming to fund their own free programming, maintenance, and operations. Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, for example, leans on this model. Some rely heavily on philanthropy and donations, raising their funding each year, such as the High Line.

Other mechanisms are tax-based. For example, Millennium Park uses Chicago’s hotel tax to fund $9 million of its annual operations and maintenance. This is an interesting model when you think about how much Millennium Park has become a draw for tourists to Chicago—the park is the number one attraction in the Midwest. The more tourists that are drawn to Chicago to visit the park, the more money for the maintenance of the park.

Governance, financial mechanisms, and design need to thought of up front together

Both the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the High Line are managed by independent non-profit organizations rather than the city government. In Toronto, the Bentway Conservancy is the first of its kind in the city—a non-profit set up to manage and program the space on behalf of the city, including raising funds to support its ongoing operations.

An interesting point was made by Jaime Springer—who worked on the report that recommended the creation of the Bentway Conservancy (full disclosure: so did I at Park People) and consulted for the creation of the High Line.

Jaime argued governance and financial mechanisms need to be thought of up front in the development of a park along with the design. It’s important to do this at the same time because certain design ideas can support (or hinder) different governance and funding models. For example, if you hoping to rely on concessions or events to fund the space then certain designs will make more sense. Developing the governance, financing, and design together means you can ensure they all fit well and complement each other. While there are governance and financing models out there, each space is unique and will require its own variation to make it sustainable.

photo of Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate (aka the bean) by Yamaira Muniz on Flickr CC.

Creating a greener 21st century city

We often wax poetic about urban parks as areas of nature in our cities, but it’s interesting to note that some urban parks are not actually the best representation of the natural landscapes of their city, sometimes burying—literally in the case of urban streams—the features and particularities of the landscape upon which they’re built.

I don’t mean these parks are made of plastic trees and AstroTurf, but the central feature of many parks is lawns of mowed grass, hardly a naturally occurring landscape in many of our environments, and gardens planted with non-native (but pretty flowers) that require a lot of water and care.

Is there a better way for our parks to contribute to more sustainable, resilient cities, especially as stresses on our natural environment increase through growing density, population, and the unpredictable threats of climate change?

Green City, a paper written by University of Calgary landscape architecture professor Bev Sandalack for Park People’s Heart of the City Conference, is a great launching pad for this discussion. Part history of park development, part manifesto, Sandalack proposes a new way of planning and designing our park systems as deep ecological infrastructure.

Creating this higher focus means we need to re-prioritize investments, placing parks and public spaces, as the landscape of our cities, at the very base upon which everything else must be built and organized. We need to reintegrate parks into our natural systems, Bev writes, planning and designing them not as lawns plunked down in the urban fabric, but as part of an interconnected natural system.

Doing so can connect us in a more visible way to our own city’s particular natural landscape, vegetation, climate, and topography. But it also better positions our cities for a future that will be determined by our ability to adapt to climate change by reinforcing and enhancing natural systems that perform functions such as stormwater management, habitat creation, heat reduction, air purification, and more.

This doesn’t mean of course that we should seed every lawn in our parks with wildflowers and native grasses—we need lawns for lounging, social events, and sports after all—but it does mean prioritizing a more intentional, integrated approach to park (and city) planning that takes an ecological systems view and works across our cities departmental silos.

Putting A New Approach into Practice

Bev points to Toronto’s new Ravine Strategy—the first ever for the city—which lays out a framework for how the city’s vast network of ravines can be better protected, enhanced, and enjoyed in the face of all the challenges that come with being sensitive natural environments squeezed from the big city around it. The Ravine Strategy takes a holistic rather than siloed approach to revitalizing ravines involving input from staff from city planning, parks, recreation, economic development, and water.

Similarly, but on a smaller scale, Toronto’s Green Streets pilot program, has transformed several under-used portions of roadway into small green spaces. These spaces offer places for community members to gather, but also contain stormwater management infrastructure. This layering of benefits—safer roads, community green space, stormwater infrastructure—is the key to a smarter, climate resilient city. Plus, it unlocks potential new funding for green spaces through funding from municipal water departments which collect water and sometimes stormwater fees. Zooming out, you could see how this program could be a way to celebrate and make visible the city’s buried streams or targeted for areas that are at risk for flooding.

Understanding and prioritizing investments in parks and park systems as infrastructure is critical, especially in an era of increasing extreme climate events including droughts, flash floods, ice storms, and more. If past eras of park development were based on creating islands of nature in the city or places for people to recreate, this new era must be predicated on integrating natural systems at the foundation of our city building.

Read the Green City report to learn more about how park systems thinking can buffer the impact of climate change on cities.

Public space is unequally enjoyed

When I was a teen growing up in White Rock, BC, the hip place to hang out was the McDonalds. Or, more specifically, the bit of public space in between the McDs and the Subway. Until the building owner installed speakers facing into the space that played classical music all day long. Either this was a misguided attempt to culturally indoctrinate the local teenage population with a love of classical music or, more likely, it was to repel them. It worked.

Public space is not equally enjoyed. We design public spaces to enable and encourage use, but we can also wield design to prevent and discourage use by “undesirables.” Design is not neutral. It can send a clear message: this space is not for you. Move along, please.

This past week someone noticed a speaker installed on the side of a building next to McGill Parkette–a small sliver of green space nestled between buildings east of Yonge Street near to Covenant House, a youth shelter. It was posted on Reddit and confirmed by @Matttomic on Twitter.

The speaker emits a frequency audible to young people under the age of 30 (which, sadly, is not me). In an interview with a Toronto Star reporter, a building representative said the device was not aimed at young people, but then provided a link to the Mosquito Device (a self-described anti-loitering device) that emits an annoying high-pitched frequency heard only by young people.

(And oh, look, if you want you upgrade you can get the Music Mosquito, “a complete music system that will relay Royalty free Classical or Chill-out music that would keep the teenagers away to some extent.” Thanks a lot, Music Mosquito.)

The local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, expressed concern and said her office was looking into it. “I think it’s very disconcerting that there are certain types of people that are viewed as undesirable,” she told the Toronto Star reporter.

A visit to McGill Parkette myself on Friday afternoon revealed the speaker had already been removed. But it also revealed a park that is highly surveilled (I counted at least four cameras). The anti-loitering speaker is only a very egregious and obvious example of the practice of creating defensive spaces that are meant to protect against use by people, not encourage it. While McGill Parkette still has benches (someone was asleep on one), two other nearby parkettes were recently redesigned to contain absolutely no seating whatsoever. The message? Walk through here, but for god’s sake please don’t loiter.

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Loitering is an interesting word in relation to parks. Don’t we want people to loiter? Isn’t that the exact purpose of a public park? But that word is only aimed at certain park users. I have the privilege of being able to use public spaces without fear of anyone asking me to move along. I can hang out in a park for hours, take a nap on a bench, crack a beer in Trinity Bellwoods without worry. Loitering refers to, you know, undesirables.

The building rep said that the park had become “a high risk area for crime.” To be sure, creating safe spaces is important. The park is narrow, fenced in, and very enclosed, with an entrance only on one side. I can see how it could create an intimidating environment. Good lighting, additional entry points, and clear sight-lines could go a long way towards creating a space that is safer without preventing its use by people.

In fact, the City is hoping to redesign the park, but since it leases the space from the building it needs the building owners approval to do so–approval they have not given because it seems they want to turn the space into a loading area. The plot thickens.

At any rate, the answer to creating safe public spaces is not to design out certain users. And certainly not for a private entity to install something that inhibits the use of a public space by young people. Or to design public spaces with no seating, for that matter.

When we design our public spaces in this way, we all lose. But those who are already at a disadvantage lose even more. People experiencing homelessness or those who are at-risk need public spaces even more than the rest of us. If you don’t have a living room or a place to hang out then the local park becomes one. If you don’t have a bed, then that bench becomes your afternoon nap spot. This isn’t loitering, it’s living.

 

 

 

Catalyzing the power of parks for social connection

Last week, I wrote about parks and mental health, mentioning that some of the results of that research dove-tailed with what we heard researching Park People’s Sparking Change report. We’ve now released that report, which you can download here.

We know that parks are important drivers of improved physical and mental health, but our neighbourhood parks also play an important role in fostering a sense of belonging. They’re not simply green places of respite, but critical pieces of the social infrastructure of our cities.

At a time when increasing attention is being paid to the growing inequality of our cities and neighbourhood-based inequities, it’s critical that we examine how engaging in our parks and public spaces can create more inclusive, equitable places that are shaped by and for the people living there.

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Park People’s been involved in animating and improving parks to create strong communities since 2011. But we wanted to better understand the social impacts of this work, particularly in underserved neighbourhoods where people may be living on lower incomes or are newcomers. Residents in these neighbourhoods often experience barriers to engaging in parks related to time, resources, and sometimes language.

Our new report, Sparking Change: Catalyzing the Social Impacts of Parks in Underserved Neighbourhoods, tells the story of communities that have taken action in their local parks through spearheading improvements, building partnerships, engaging diverse community members, and organizing events and activities that draw people into the park.

Through speaking with resident volunteers, community organizers, and city staff in seven different North American cities, including Toronto, we identified five social impacts of park engagement and 10 strategies to support better this work.

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We heard about work being done to create a new park in a low-income, park deficient neighbourhood in Portland that now includes an inter-tribal garden that is co-managed by local Indigenous people and the City parks department. We heard about community members working with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust to design, build, and program a new park in an area that didn’t have a public space before.

We heard about groups that use gardening and food to spur social connections, tackle food insecurity, and provide places for people with disabilities to garden. We heard about community groups that create opportunities for local entrepreneurs and newcomers to sell homemade food, clothing, and crafts in parks, like Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Market. And we heard how employing a translator to work with Chinese-speaking residents in a north Toronto park helped engage residents through activities like movie nights and plantings.

These stories helped us define the strategies that can be used to create thriving social environments in parks. Our hope was that this report would be a useful tool for community members, non-profit staff, and city governments.

Here are a few of the key take-aways from the report:

Programming is key to creating social connections in parks. There is often a lot of focus on capital improvements (new playgrounds and benches) but locally-created programming is a critical component of creating parks where people actually connect with others in their neighbourhood. Investments in upgraded amenities should be paired with investments in programming and engagement.

Parks can be gateways to becoming civically involved. Park engagement can be a first step to becoming more civically engaged—such as volunteering for other organizations and advocacy campaigns—and also building skills around public speaking and community outreach.

Small actions and investments have big impacts. Small wins and milestones keep people excited, encourage others to get involved, and create a visible presence in the park. It might be as simple as organizing a group park clean-up, working to spruce up a garden, hosting a community picnic.

Parks can be important sites of local economic development. By providing start-up space to local entrepreneurs, cooks, and craftspeople, parks can create local economic opportunities and become important places to build skills and professional networks.

Communities where people are visibly engaged keep parks clean and well-maintained. Engaged community members with a visible presence—at events and clean-ups, for example—can help spur a sense of neighbourhood pride in a local park, which helps keep parks clean and amenities well-maintained and encourages others to get involved.

Park groups should be community-led, but partner support is often needed. While it’s important to ensure community members lead projects themselves, strong partnerships are critical. The support of a paid staff member in a partner organization is often helpful with tasks like organizing meetings, applying for permits, and funding applications.

Download a full copy of the report here.

If you’re in Toronto, please join us on Monday, February 13 for a discussion of the report with people working at different levels in their neighbourhood and park to make change. Register here.

Title photo courtesy of Toronto Arts Council. 

 

 

Understanding the intersection of parks, mental health, and equity

When I feel stressed at work, I get outside and walk to the nearest park. I lie on my back and watch the clouds go by or sit against the trunk of a tree and read. Breathe in, breathe out. Sometimes I’m only out there for 10 or 15 minutes, but I always feel better.

This past Wednesday was Bell’s annual Let’s Talk campaign to reduce the stigma around mental health issues, and so it seems an appropriate time to write a little something about the link between parks and mental health in cities. Do parks really make us feel better? If so, how? And, crucially, are those benefits available to all in a city?

There is a lot of research into these questions. In fact, if you printed out all the articles and scientific studies and stacked them on top of each other it would reach to the top of the CN Tower. (I don’t know if that’s true, but I always like when people write things like that).

CityLab compiled a pretty comprehensive list about the influence of parks on health, including mental health, which you can read here. But as a run-down, parks have been shown to reduce stress levels, improve mood and focus, and reduce depression and anxiety. Parks may also help us not to die. These links have been studied both for short-term exposure to green space—going for my 10 minute visit during a work break—and for long-term exposure—moving to a neighbourhood with more trees and parks nearby.

But these benefits are not distributed evenly in our city as they depend on things like access to green space (can you walk to a park?) and access to high-quality green spaces (when you get to that park is it full of garbage and broken benches?). This is where parks, mental health, and equity intersect.

It is a complicated area to tease out, which is why recently published work by Toronto-based researcher Nadha Hassen out of the Wellesley Institute is so important.

The two papers—a scoping review and a theoretical framework—consist of a review of academic literature related to the association between green space and mental health and a good discussion of how this intersects with neighbourhood-based inequities.

One of the most interesting findings from Nadha’s research was the emphasis on the quality of green space as a factor for positively influencing well-being. Often these studies look at access or quantity of green space, either by measuring distance between homes and parks or using satellite imagery to determine how much green space is in a neighbourhood. But it’s the more subjective, and harder to measure, quality of parks that really have an important influence on our well-being.

Quality measurements that Nadha found were things like: is the area species-rich and biodiverse? Is it aesthetically pleasing, clean, and well-maintained? Is it quiet, peaceful, and well-lit? Are there facilities and amenities that are useful? Are there water features and reflecting pools? Is it safe?

Additionally, social interactions in parks were also found to increase the positive impacts of parks on well-being—something that I also found when researching Sparking Change, a report Park People is releasing in February on the social impacts of parks in underserved neighbourhoods.

The reason Nadha’s research is important and worth emphasizing is that park maintenance is often first on the table in cities that find their operating budgets constrained and look year to year for areas to make cuts. In fact, just this year Toronto’s proposed 2017 operating budget included a reduction in maintenance for parks in high-use times and for gardens—something we spoke out strongly against. Luckily this cut has been reversed, but the final decision still must be made by City Council in February.

Investments in park quality are particularly important in our underserved neighbourhoods—those 31 areas that the City of Toronto has identified as Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. If well-maintained, clean, attractive, safe, and well-programmed parks can positively impact mental health and well-being, then investments in gardens, grass-cutting, park programming, and amenities like playgrounds and pathways should be made through the lens of public health and equity as much as through park operations and maintenance.

As Nadha writes: “To strive towards creating mental health-promoting green spaces, we need to ensure access to good quality green spaces that meet the needs of diverse populations. In urban settings, neighbourhoods with low-income, newcomer, and racialized populations tend to have lower access to available, good quality green spaces compared to other groups that are higher income and white.”

Having data to make these decisions about where to invest would be great. Which is why, as Nadha suggests, we should develop tools to evaluate park quality—using some of the indicators that Nadha uncovered like cleanliness, amenities, programming, natural environment, and safety—as a measure for public health and equity. It would be great to see this data collected with community members themselves—kind of like neighbourhood safety audit walks do currently.

This information would help us prioritize investments to ensure everyone has a beautiful, clean, and welcoming park nearby when they need to sit under a tree and de-stress.

Toronto’s Green Line takes a huge leap towards reality

Big news for the Green Line, a project that I’ve been involved with at my work, Park People, since 2014.

The Green Line is a vision to transform a hydro corridor into a 5km linear park and trail, connecting multiple communities along its length and providing new green spaces for areas that are lacking in parks. We actually just released a video (above) showcasing the potential of the hydro corridor as a linear park and outlined some of the challenges and opportunities for making it a reality.

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The project has received a lot of community and political support over the past few years, but one of the key things we’ve been pushing has been a City-initiated master plan for the Green Line. This master plan would, as we saw it, create a path forward for the project by outlining necessary improvements, connections needed, amenities, and potential new green spaces. The master plan would be a key document for changing what is now dealt with as a series of disconnected parks into a connected linear park with a common threaded identity. You can read more here.

That’s why it’s such big news that the City has hired a team of consultants to engage with communities along the route and create this plan in 2017. Called the Green Line Implementation Plan, it will outline the steps needed to make this a reality. There’s also over $1 million already in the capital budget for the next three years to implement portions of the plan. We’re excited at Park People to be a partner with the City on initiating this study.

With all the coming residential development along Dupont Street, new green spaces are going to be needed. There are already a number of applications for new mid- and high-rise buildings along Dupont and not many opportunities to create new green spaces. The Green Line is going to be an important park space and pedestrian route that serves both these new residents and existing residents along its length.

Linear parks are also very good bang for your buck in terms of park space. Because they are stretched out and thread their way through multiple neighbourhoods, they actually serve more people within a five minute walk than a similar sized park in a more traditional square shape. They also create opportunities for active transportation, providing a safe and pleasant place to walk, ride, and roll. And they’re not just good for people: linear parks provide much-needed corridors for wildlife, like pollinators, which we need more of in our city.

I hope one day in the next few years, I’ll be able to lace up my runners and take a jog along the Green Line.

 

 

Our city is growing — our parks budget must grow, too

This year was an exciting one for public spaces in Toronto. There was the announcement of the Under Gardiner (now The Bentway), Rail Deck Park, a renewed Grange Park, a “super park” in the Lower Don Valley, and strong support for The Green Line.

Toronto is booming in population and we are finally beginning to match that boom by seeding some much-needed investment in new and renewed parks in neighbourhoods across the city. But we risk falling behind if we don’t ensure that our budget to maintain those parks keeps pace. Despite all of this growth, the proposed budget would actually cut maintenance funding in our parks this year—and during their busiest use times.

As an independent charity that builds stronger communities by animating and improving parks in all corners of Toronto, Park People, where I work, believes strong public funding is crucial for a great park system.

This year the proposed operating budget for Parks, Forestry, and Recreation includes a cut of 0.3% from last year. This may seem like a small number, but included within that reduction is maintenance, horticulture, and urban agriculture funds—totalling $636,000—that were approved in the 2016 budget. The maintenance funds specifically went towards enhanced weekend and evening maintenance in high-use times like summer.

Cutting these from the budget also means we are reversing the first investments the City made towards operating initiatives in the City’s Parks Plan, which was a five-year plan that was meant to take us to 2017. While improvements like new social gathering spaces have been funded from the Plan, City staff note: “funding for operating has been a challenge.” It’s more than a shame to reach the end of the Parks Plan’s lifespan by reversing some of its vital initiatives.

The price of maintaining parkland is rising, too. More people using parks, more activities, and more complex designs means steadily higher costs. In the last three years the cost of maintaining parks has risen about $600 per hectare. By 2019, it will have increased $1,000 per hectare since 2014. All of this makes a 2017 budget that proposes to reduce, or even flat line our investment in parks maintenance, concerning.

This year also saw positive interest from philanthropy in our parks. There was the $25 million gift to the City from Judy and Wil Matthews for The Bentway and a number of other gifts to projects like the Lower Don Valley “super park.” Since it was launched in early 2013, the Weston Family Parks Challenge, which Park People administers, has invested nearly $4.5 million in projects around Toronto—almost all outside the downtown.

But let’s be clear: while private donations towards public space can be an important and welcome component of creating a great park system—just like donations to hospitals or public libraries—it is no substitute for a strong base of public funding. Philanthropy should add, not replace. Philanthropy is also not likely to step up and fund such critical core services such as grass-cutting and gardening. Nor should it. If parks are our common grounds, then we must invest in them as such—together.

Since there are no service levels mandated by the Province, the parks operating budget often feels the squeeze come budget time. Cutting funding for maintenance and garden renewal is also not an immediately visible cut—no walking to your favourite park only to find it closed because of budget cuts—but the effect it has on our city is just as real.

Well-maintained, beautiful parks are not a frill, but a crucial component of the social and environmental infrastructure of our city. Research has shown that attractive, clean parks encourage more people to use them and instill a sense of neighbourhood pride, bringing both health and social benefits—benefits that are particularly important in our more underserved neighbourhoods and support the City’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

We are excited and invigorated by the renewed focus on parks and public spaces in Toronto, by the announcements from Mayor John Tory, and the support from City Councillors across the city. If we are to build a liveable, resilient, and socially connected city as we continue to grow in population and density, then we must invest in our parks—and not just by building new parks, but in the money and City staff to keep them as beautiful as the day the ribbon was cut.

Originally posted on Park People‘s website. 

 

Vancouver vs. Toronto: A tale of two 21-acre parks

It’s not often that a dense, city centre gets to create a new 21-acre park that provides new green space in an area that needs it, but also reconnects neighbourhoods disconnected by an infrastructure corridor.

No, not that 21-acre park.

Not to be outdone by Toronto’s plan to create a 21-acre park by decking over a rail corridor downtown, my old hometown Vancouver has released more details about its plan to create a new 21-acre waterfront park, replacing what is now a mostly derelict area of parking lots and elevated roadways.

Last year, Vancouver’s City Council approved a staff recommendation to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts–recently featured in the opening bloodbath scene in Deadpool–in order to unlock more waterfront land at the edge of the downtown core. The city will create a new at-grade boulevard for cars while opening up more land for development and parks (sound familiar, Toronto?)

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The viaducts are really Vancouver’s hangover from a highway that never materialized that would have run down Georgia Street through the heart of the downtown. That highway plan was thankfully stopped, but not before these two “on-ramps” were constructed (demolishing Hogan’s Alley, a largely black neighbourhood, in the process).

Removing these viaducts—which carry far less traffic than they were originally designed for—was a smart, forward-thinking move by the city. The images below show what you can do with the viaducts in place and what you can do if you remove them. You get more park, sure, but you also get to connect the neighbourhoods to the north, like Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, better to False Creek.

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It’s the kind of bold decision that we could have made in Toronto when options were laid out for the Gardiner East. Instead, our City Council voted to essentially repair and rebuild the elevated highway, nudging it a bit to create a different alignment at a massive cost–the so-called hybrid option.

Recently we’ve learned that the cost of rebuilding this section of the Gardiner has ballooned by more than $1 billion, which is, in a kind of twisted hilarity you only seem to find in Toronto municipal politics, what Rail Deck Park is likely to cost.

In another little funny, ironic twist, Vancouver has secured James Corner, the designer of the little-known High Line in New York, as the landscape architect for its new 21-acre park. I say ironic because before the decision to demolish the viaducts, there were some who advocated for turning them into Vancouver’s own High Line-style kind of elevated park. I absolutely hated that idea for many reasons—some of which I outlined in this post from my old blog back in 2012—but the gist is that they’re ugly, expensive, and too short to become a High Line.

Anyway, now we can blow them up and create a beautiful on-the-ground park, which is, in my opinion, where parks belong.

So, Toronto: let this be a lesson.

If we want to be the progressive, big-thinking, bold city we say we are, we can start by taking a page out of Vancouver’s book. We should tear down the Gardiner East and replace it with a boulevard, new neighbourhoods, and waterfront parks. And, hey, that $1 billion we save? I know about this little project over a rail corridor…

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All images from vancouver city staff reports. The title image is not the final plan for the park, which hasn’t been released yet, but just a concept idea. 

Ryerson University public space plan leads the way for safer, people-focused streets

One of my favourite little islands of quiet green space in downtown Toronto is a hidden grassy field a one-minute brisk walk away from Yonge-Dundas Square. It’s one of those unique moments where you can be right in the thick of thousands of people with video screens screaming ads at you and then quickly melt away into a quiet park surrounded by sleepy classroom buildings and a big open patch of green. This is the aptly named Ryerson Community Park. 

Ryerson’s campus plugs right into the heart of downtown in a way that the University of Toronto—my former campus—doesn’t. It’s streets, green spaces, laneways, sidewalks, and plazas form a network that seamlessly connects into the pulsing city around it.

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That’s why we should pay attention when Ryerson proposes a new public space master plan that aims to transform its public space network, including streets, into something that is safer, people-focused, and accessible. It’s not just a redesign that will benefit students, but residents and visitors to downtown. And, if it’s done right, it could act as an important example of what’s possible in other neighbourhoods.

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At the heart of the master plan, and of the campus itself, is Gould Plaza—one of the City of Toronto’s largest experiments (the largest?) in repurposing road space as public space for people. Closed to traffic as a temporary pilot in 2011, the open space on Gould Street quickly became a magnet for people and activity.

The plan proposes a simple, but important design fix to make the plaza permanent: raising the surface up so it’s flush with the sidewalks around it. Even though the street is closed to all traffic, pedestrians still, out of force of habit perhaps, use the sidewalks that line its edges.

If completed, this would mirror the high-profile pedestrianization of New York’s Times Square, where a similar pilot project to create space for people was made permanent by raising the pavement. It’s amazing what a small change in grade and materials can do for a space to make it more comfortable and inviting–not to mention accessible. Goodbye, curbs!

Laneways

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Also included in the plan, are ideas to make the laneways on campus—Victoria and O’Keefe—more inviting and usable for people by including lighting and art features. The plan doesn’t go too deeply into what’s possible in each of these laneways, which is a disappointment, but they could really be used as a template for other laneways downtown if we do them right. I know the City of Toronto and the Downtown Yonge BIA have been actively working on how to transform these laneways for quite some time, so hopefully we’ll see some of that move forward.

Pedestrian-priority streets

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Finally, the plan proposes creating pedestrian-priority streets on other key streets leading into the campus. While these will still allow car travel, they will be raised up and treated with different paving, signalling to cars that they’ve entered a pedestrian-priority space. This treatment of streets to make them safer and more pleasant for people is a useful lesson beyond the campus that could be implemented in other neighbourhoods. In fact, it’s used at some intersections already in the University of Toronto campus along Huron Street.

I hope the University steps up with the necessary funding to make these improvements a reality because, if implemented, they could lead the way in Toronto to re-imagining the potential of our streets not as simply places to move cars, but places for people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 ways to create a more skateable city

Skateboarding is often something we design out of our cities. We install metal bumps on concrete ledges and extra railings and barriers where they otherwise wouldn’t be needed. We put up signs with big red slashes through them. The message is clear: this space isn’t for you.

But what if we designed our city to be more skateable, not less?

With the City of Toronto’s new Skateboard Strategy, the City is hoping to do just that. The plan was created in close collaboration with skateboarders around the city, including the Toronto Skateboarding Committee—a great group of people advocating for more and better skateboarding infrastructure in the city.

The goal of the strategy is to create more and better skateparks in the city and also better programs to reach those that want to learn. There are currently 14 skateboard parks in Toronto (12 permanent, 2 seasonal), which you can find in every corner of the city. The findings in the strategy will be incorporated into the City’s facilities master plan—a long-term plan for the city’s parks and recreation facilities that’s being worked on right now.

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Here’s a few of the highlights from the Skateboard Strategy:

Mobile skateparks

 This idea stems from a pilot the City ran this past summer where a van stuffed with skatepark supplies like obstacles, ramps, and skateboards drove to areas of the city that were underserved by skateparks in order to build a quick, temporary space. It would be great to see this program expanded. But I also love the idea of just a “mobile games van” in general, which delivers a recreation staff member and soccer balls, toys, etc., to parks that don’t easy access to these otherwise. So many parks, particularly outside the downtown, are simply grass and maybe a bench. This would really help liven them up and provide play opportunities.

Skate dots

This idea recognizes that sometimes you don’t need to build a big, expensive skatepark, but instead can create small skateable locations in existing parks—what the city is called skate dots. These could be a single railing or ramp built into a park or pathway that allows people to practice. “They provide an introductory skateboarding experience for local users,” the Strategy says. “And can function as social gathering spaces.”

Skateable art

This is an idea I really love and kind of follows from the “skate dots” idea—creating public art pieces that are actually designed for people to skateboard on. It reminds me a little bit of the opposite of what the wave decks down along Queen’s Quay have become. The wave decks would be great for skateboarding if the City hadn’t put up weird, awkward railings so they couldn’t be used.

 Permits

Permits: the perennial headache. Turns out you actually can’t get a permit for skateparks currently and so this limits the ability to host events and competitions since only the City can put an event on at a skatepark. Any permitting process would, of course, have to balance the needs of all users and ensure that skateparks weren’t being taken over for events too often. But how great would it be for groups to be able to host local competitions and events in their skatepark?

 A skatepark at Nathan Phillips Square?

This wasn’t in the strategy, but at committee where the strategy was being discussed, Councillors voted to have staff look at creating a skatepark on the currently empty space on the west corner of Nathan Phillips Square. I love the idea of a visible skatepark right in the heart of downtown.