Four ways parks address climate change

As everyone in my office at Park People prepares to participate in the climate strike this Friday, September 27th at the rallies in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, we’ve have turned our attention to the ways in which parks play into this conversation.

In addition to the social, health, and economic benefits of parks, our shared green spaces are powerful ecological forces worthy of increased investment.

Here are four ways parks help combat and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Parks reduce the urban heat island effect

Last year Montreal suffered from a devastating heat wave that left 66 dead. When the City plotted the deaths, they found that people who lived in neighbourhoods deemed heat islands—where temperatures rose higher than in other neighbourhoods—were twice as likely to die.

As the Toronto Star noted, the heat islands divided “the cool, treed areas from the hot concrete-covered ones.”

Urban areas can feel as much as 12 degrees hotter than rural areas due to pavement, brick, and concrete surfaces that absorb the sun’s heat. One Montreal city councillor said that urban greening projects such as tree planting and green walls can be a way to combat this effect, and help cool some of these particularly hot neighbourhoods.

How does this work? Think of green spaces as natural air conditioners.

Increasing the tree canopy increases shade, which helps shield surfaces from the sun, reducing their ability to absorb heat. Trees and other vegetation also help cool the air around them through a process called evapotranspiration, which is basically when plants sweat. Water evaporates into the air through the leaves, cooling the air around it in the process.

As temperatures continue to rise in cities across the country, features like tree-lined streets and well-tended parks to keep things cooler will become ever more important.

Parks mitigate flooding from extreme weather

Another devastating impact of climate change has been increasing extreme weather events such as heavy rainfalls, known, poetically, as cloud bursts. In these events, stormwater systems can be overwhelmed by too much rain in a short period of time, leading to flooding.

As Park People documented in our Canadian City Parks Report, flooding continues to impact Canadian cities.

Calgary’s Bow River overflowed due to heavy rainfall in 2013, causing widespread property damage and evacuations. Flooding caused 4 million dollars worth of damage to Oakville’s waterfront in 2017 — the same year high water and flooding caused millions of dollars in damage in Toronto, and the closing of the popular Toronto Islands park for the summer. And this past spring, heavy rainfall caused flooding in many communities in Ontario and Quebec. It goes on and on.

Sudden storms can also lead to the release of raw sewage into waterways. This is because cities were planned with systems that combined stormwater and sewage pipes into one. When those systems are overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of stormwater they vent untreated water into nearby lakes, rivers, and oceans.

This impacts water quality. High E.coli readings at some beaches in Vancouver closed them this summer and Ontario’s environmental commissioner found that sewage flowed into southern Ontario waterways over 1,300 times in the year between April 2017 and March 2018.

The amount of paved surfaces in our cities only further contributes to flooding and overwhelmed stormwater systems, which is where parks, as soft landscapes capable of absorbing water, come into play.

As Park People’s Resilient Parks, Resilient City report noted, turning our streets, public spaces, and parks into sponges through green infrastructure can help address flooding. Green infrastructure includes engineered natural elements — rain gardens, bioswales, retention ponds — that help to store, soak up, and treat rainwater where it falls, rather than whisking it away through underground pipes.

Green infrastructure can relieve pressure on aging stormwater systems, but also contributes to more beautiful, biodiverse cities through the creation of more green space.

Despite that, Park People’s Canadian City Parks Report found that while Canadian cities were experimenting with small-scale green infrastructure projects, less than half had strategies for scaling the practice up across the city. That work is urgently needed.

There is some great work happening in Canada, though.

Toronto’s Corktown Common includes a flood protection berm and a wetland that helps to stop and soak up water. Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy coordinates green infrastructure projects across the city, including a new plaza built last year that can soak up water from over 1,000 square metres of impervious surfaces in the neighbourhood around it. And Calgary just finished the first phase of West Eau Claire Park along the Bow River, which safeguards neighbourhoods from flooding.

Parks suck up carbon from the air

While governments and oil companies experiment with technology that can capture carbon from the air and store it underground, we already have a natural, tested way of removing carbon from the air and storing it: trees.

Planting trees may seem like a small act, but reforestation is the most effective way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

According to National Geographic, there’s enough land around the world to plant new forests to cut carbon by 25 percent. This would erase “nearly 100 years of carbon emissions.” Apparently, Canada has 78 million hectares that could be reforested. Not bad.

Trees and other plants capture carbon from the air through the act of photosynthesis, removing it from the air and storing it within themselves. The carbon is then only released if the plant is burned, which is why the recent spate of large forest fires in British Columbia and Alberta are so concerning–a trend that is only likely to get worse.

Forest fires release all the carbon sucked up by those trees back into the air. In fact, it was found that California’s 2018 wildfires released as much carbon into the air–68 million tons–as the state does in providing a year’s worth of electricity.

Cities across Canada have tree planting programs in place, with varying targets.

Mississauga is partway through a multi-year plan to plant one million trees in the city by 2032, having planted over 340,000 so far. Victoria has committed to a more modest, but still beneficial, 5,000 trees planted by 2020 as part of the United Nations Trees in Cities Challenge.

Vancouver is on track to reach its goal of planting 150,000 trees in the city by 2020. And in Ontario, the provincial government backed down from axing its tree-planting program after public protest in 2018, which has a goal of planting 50 million trees in the province by 2025 (it’s about halfway there).

So, hug a tree. Or better yet, plant one–lots of them.

Parks provide space to come together

This benefit doesn’t deal with the science of evapotranspiration or the engineering of green infrastructure, but instead with social capital and good ol’ fashioned meeting your neighbours.

With climate change being such a large and often intangible force in our lives that can cause anxiety, stress, and feelings of helplessness, the benefits of parks to provide a collective space to gather becomes even more crucial.

Take this recent example from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where, after being ravaged by a hurricane, community members gathered at a park bake oven to provide food and warmth for families without power. Other community park groups contribute to a cleaner environment by hosting park clean-ups, tree planting, and even zero-waste picnics.

An existential threat like climate change can spin us apart from one another or it can be a force to drive us together–and our parks and public spaces, as sites of gathering, will become only more important to ensuring that we join with our community in calling for action.

Originally published on the Park People blog.

When parks pop-up, butterflies pop in

It’s been awhile! I’m looking to rejuvenate this blog, so stay tuned for more. Here’s the latest I wrote for the Park People blog.

The coolest thing happened in the middle of a Toronto strip mall parking lot along Lawrence West in Scarborough last month: a monarch butterfly came to visit.

No, it wasn’t looking for lunch at The Wexford Restaurant (though I hear it’s good)–the butterfly was attracted by over 360 native pollinator plants that were part of a pop-up park installation called WexPOPS.

WexPOPS, led by artist and Master of Landscape Architecture graduate Daniel Rotsztain and University of Guelph professor Brendan Stewart, was intended as a project to support community-use and social gathering. It was one of five projects funded through Park People’s Public Space Incubator program in 2018.

But the design also included lots of native plants, supplied by Native Plants in Claremont, thanks to the collaborative design process between local community members and University of Guelph landscape architecture students.

“We selected a wide variety of native perennial wildflowers and meadow grasses — 29 species in all — and we certainly hoped to attract bees and butterflies and other insects, but we’ve been completely amazed at the results,” Brendan Stewart said.

“It’s been quite dramatic to watch the monarch’s progress from larva to adult butterflies, and to see how much milkweed they eat in the process. The garden is constantly buzzing and visitors tend to be surprised and delighted to experience this much life in the middle of a huge parking lot.”

It’s a striking example of how small pin-pricks of nature in an otherwise sea of pavement — even in temporary spaces — can help support biodiversity and threatened species, like pollinators.

Emerging research backs this up, too. A recent study explored the potential of temporary pop-up parks (cutely acronymed PUPS) to support greater species diversity.

Large scale green spaces are critical, but the study author points to research showing that the quality and density of ground-level plants — like the native plants populating WexPOPS — can have a greater degree of influence on species diversity than factors in larger green spaces, like tree density.

The conclusion: don’t discount the importance of small spaces.

This should come as welcome news to Canadian cities who are hard at work trying to restore natural habitat lost to urbanization and increase biodiversity. Supporting biodiversity was a key trend we found in our 2019 Canadian City Parks Report–which surveyed 23 cities–released in June.

In particular, Toronto is doing some creative work with a newly approved Pollinator Strategy. The City just launched its first PollinateTO community grants, which fund small-scale pollinator gardens cultivated by local residents. As WexPOPS shows, these initiatives can have quite positive impacts, when using the right native plant mixtures for local species.

Vancouver is also working to create small pollinator gardens in the city. A pop-up pollinator park planted at 5th and Vine in 2016 on a small 0.3 acre site packed in 1,500 community-planted pollinator plants. A citizen science survey observed the second highest number of pollinator species within the garden compared to other observed park sites.

Red Deer has designated four official pollinator parks where city staff handpick weeds and pesticide use is banned. And Hamilton’s Pipeline Trail features small pollinator gardens along its route tended by local community members.

You can read more about how cities across Canada are supporting pollinators and urban biodiversity by reading about it in our Canadian City Parks Report.

Back in Scarborough, the team behind WexPOPS will be taking down the pop-up near the end of August, meaning the parking spaces it occupies will go back to housing cars rather than plants and people.

A critical question in thinking about the viability and importance of pop-up parks in contributing to urban biodiversity is what happens after the pop-up pops down?

For the team behind WexPOPS that question was something they thought of from the very beginning. The plants will be transported to a local hydro corridor, which is undergoing its own transformation as a 16km linear park and trail called The Meadoway, where they will be re-planted.

This is a great solution, but there’s also an opportunity here to think about how these pop-up park projects can literally seed change in their own location.

For example, the plants repurposed within the stripmall parking lot itself. It’s these hardscape urban landscapes that require the most attention and care if we are to truly re-green our city, restoring some of the natural habitat we stole when we paved it over.

Some may look at micro-gardens like WexPOPS sitting in the middle of a parking lot and wonder: what good is this actually doing?

But as WexPOPS shows, if you build it butterflies will come.

photos of WexPOPS pollinators by Brendan Stewart and photo of installation by Park People.

The Bentway promised Toronto a lot–and it’s delivering

When The Bentway (then Project: Under Gardiner) was announced back in the fall of 2015, people seemed to have one of two reactions.

The first was excitement about the idea of a new public space underneath the elevated Gardiner Expressway, energizing an area that had largely been just dirt before. The second was grumbling about who would want to hang out underneath a dark, loud expressway and joking about pieces of concrete falling onto people’s heads from above (the deck was fully rehabilitated last year by the City, so these jokes are now very tired, by the way).

When The Bentway was announced there was a lot of grand language about reinventing public space, providing an ever-evolving space for culture, and creating a place that was uniquely Toronto. We at Park People led walks for Waterfront Toronto, the organization heading up the planning and engagement process, taking over 200 people in and around the space to gather ideas and hopes and concerns. People had a lot they wanted the space to be.

It was a lot to live up to and I admit, as I watched the construction take place, I wondered how people would embrace it when it was finished.

Well, The Bentway has been partially open for months and just started its summer programming in earnest this past Sunday with the first of its weekly Sunday Socials—and I can tell you no one I saw was grumbling.

Who wants to hang out under an expressway? Turns out a lot of people, actually.

On this hot, sunny Sunday people—and, let’s be real, dogs—were chilling out in the shade from the massive roof overhead (the expressway), sipping tall cans of beer and listening to local musicians play on a bicycle powered sound system. Lights were strung above long communal wooden tables and loungers (they looked appealing, but alas, were all occupied). In between the live music, I could hear grinding from the skateboarders using the just completed pop-up skatepark (up until August 12).

The space has a unique, unvarnished cool-factor quality that you don’t often find in other new public spaces in Toronto where polish and high-design is the name of the game. We should strive for high-quality spaces, to be sure, but there’s something lovely and wonderful about the concrete and sand and raw wood and general half-built quality of The Bentway right now—it is a public space under an expressway after all. I’m sure some of that will change with time as the space continues to be built out (a new performance area near Strachan is set to open later in the summer), but I hope it remains a place that feels a bit unpolished.

It’s even…green. Things are growing underneath the Gardiner. So much for dark and gloomy. This section of the Gardiner is five-storeys high.

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I admit I hadn’t visited The Bentway much during the winter except for a few quick moments to see if people were actually there enjoying the linear skating rink that had opened in December (they were). I’m not a cold weather kind of guy, having only laced up skates once in the last 10+ years. But it’s great to see a space that is being programmed so thoughtfully in both summer and winter—something that we don’t often see in Toronto. It’s likely due to the model, new to Toronto, of a separate non-profit set up to program and operate the space: The Bentway Conservancy.

If they have hot spiked cider you might see me there in January. Until then, I’ll be back on future Sundays. Silent disco next week, anyone?

You can check out the full schedule of Sunday Social events here.

We can turn King Street into downtown’s front porch

One of the first things I noticed about Toronto when I moved here from Vancouver was that it didn’t have much opportunity to stop and just hang out on the street.

Streets were far narrower than they were in Vancouver and there just wasn’t as much room for seating. And yet this is one of the best things to do on a street—just sit and watch people go by. If parks are our shared backyards, then great streets are our shared front porches.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the King Street Pilot started in Toronto. At its core, the pilot is about movement—specifically moving the most people the most efficient way along the street, which is by streetcar. The pilot restricts cars from travelling right through intersections to help speed up streetcar travel.

But the King Street Pilot is also a chance to talk about how streets can be places to linger, to stay awhile and experience the city, as well as places of movement. Because the pilot has also opened up 21 new public spaces out of parts of the roadway–spaces the City calls a “relief valve” for pedestrians on crowded sidewalks.

I’d rather think of it as an opportunity to create a bunch of front porches along the street.

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This is a chance to rediscover how streets can be a part of our public space system, in a way that we haven’t had the opportunity to do so before on such a scale and in such a visible way as King Street. I also hope this paves the way for this kind of transformation of car space to people space in other parts of the city, particularly areas outside the downtown where streets are wide and intimidating.

Some people call these spaces parklets—the name given to small public spaces constructed in parallel parking spots along streets. These were first seen in San Francisco and soon popped up in cities all over North America. I’d rather we just drop that name, which feels like a tired too cute trend by now, and just call it regular old public space.

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These public spaces are not going to be ones that can accommodate a soccer field or a kid’s playground or a dog park, but they can contribute in a big way to the social space in our city.

We’ve done this before along Church and, in a larger way, as part of the John Street Pilot, which saw the sidewalk space extended into the roadway and Muskoka chairs and picnic tables scattered throughout for the summer.

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These spaces don’t have to be fancy—they just have to be open, flexible, accessible, and comfortable. While some cities use them as spaces to create more outdoor patios for restaurants and cafes, I hope we preserve them as publicly accessible to everyone–whether you’ve purchased something or not.

It would also be interesting to see them each take on a different character. The King Street Pilot, which runs from Jarvis to Bathurst, goes through a few different neighbourhoods with their own flavours. The public space created in front of St. James Park offers a different opportunity than one near Spadina, for example.

They also offer opportunities for experimentation. One of the interesting things about San Francisco’s parklets is that they are all different, and some of them are truly strange.

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While I wouldn’t want to see the whole route taken up by weird concept spaces (although I’d love if someone turned one of them into an outdoor library/reading room), it would be great to see some interesting, strange ideas for how they can be used. Indeed, the City seems open to this. During the winter there will be a call to residents, businesses, and organizations on how to use these spaces, including some “creative installations.” Artists, take note.

We likely won’t see the full potential of these new public spaces until spring comes around to us again in Toronto, but when it does I’ll be there often, sitting on the front porch of the city watching everyone go by. Maybe in that reading room?

Photo credits: title image from Paul Krueger (Flickr CC), King Street Pilot map and John Street photo from the City of Toronto, and the two parklets are here and here.

 

Weaving parks into the city through better connections

Have you ever stumbled upon a park you never knew about in a neighbourhood you thought you knew well? It’s happened to me before, usually while I’m searching for something on Google Maps and I notice a little green square a few streets away, tucked away into the corner somewhere.

What if there was a way to draw parks out, especially in dense areas where green space is at a premium, helping to weave parks throughout the neighbourhood, reach more people, and create new public space as a result?

I thought about this again while I watched Adam Nicklin and Marc Ryan from PUBLIC WORK at an event this past weekend where they presented some of the ideas in the forthcoming Parks and Public Realm master plan for Toronto’s downtown. One concept, called park districts, focuses on how to create a network of parks and public spaces in particular neighbourhoods by focusing on the linkages and connections between them.

In my head, I always called this focus on connections “park fingers” or “park tentacles,” but park districts sounds maybe a bit less weird. It’s something I’ve written about before, specifically in a Park People report from 2015 called Making Connections that focused on different ideas to create networks of parks and public spaces in dense areas.

Essentially the idea is to find corridors, usually existing streets with low car traffic, that could be redesigned or revitalized to create stronger, hopefully green, connections between an existing park and its surrounding neighbourhood. This works especially well for parks that are more internal or face onto quieter streets.

If we can’t find land to build new parks in dense neighbourhoods, then maybe we can help draw those parks out farther into the city. These streets become connections to the park, yes, but they also become public spaces and a place to linger themselves.

The example that comes to mind most for me is St. Andrew’s Playground–a small park in the extremely busy and park-starved King-Spadina area where I work. This park is well-used by people with dogs, workers eating lunches balanced on their knees, and kids in the playground (the first in the city). But it’s also one that you wouldn’t know existed unless you meandered over, despite busy Spadina Avenue being right next door.

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The way I get to the park is walking down Camden Street. This street is pretty wide with plenty of room for landscaping, trees, and seating–except that it’s used mostly for car parking, which is allowed right on the sidewalk. This drives me crazy. Is this really the best use of our scarce downtown public space?

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Get rid of the car parking and turn the street into a true park connection that re-positions Camden as its own linear public park/plaza, but also helps draw people from Spadina down the street and into St. Andrew’s Playground. This could be part of the massive Waterworks development that is happening right at the end of this street, adjacent to the park, which will include a new food hall, condos, YMCA, and an expanded bit of green space.

Here are two more I often think about, but I know there are dozens of others across the city.

Trinity Square is a beautiful square tucked away next to the Eaton Centre. It has a large uneven expanse of cobblestone and a church stuck in its middle. Here, both James Street and Albert Street–quieter, low car volume streets that are fairly wide–could help draw people in from both City Hall to the west and Queen Street to the south, while creating more usable public space.

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Another is Cloud Gardens in the Financial District, which is actually the area’s only public park–the rest are what are called privately-owned public spaces created by private owners through agreements with the city and maintained for public use. Many don’t even know that Cloud Gardens, with its strange green house building, is even there. Temperance Street, however, is ripe for re-imagining as a connection that could help more people find and use the park (which is badly in need of a refresh).

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What are examples from your own neighbourhoods?

Six things we can learn from Berczy Park

After years of design meetings and then more of construction, the newly revitalized Berczy Park is now officially open. I profiled the design of this upcoming park as a best practice in a report I wrote at Park People called Making Connections back in 2015, so it was wonderful to attend the opening and see how the design has leapt off the page and into the world with such success.

Now that it’s open, here’s six things we can learn from Berczy Park.

A park must evolve along with the city around it

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Before Berczy Park was a park it was a parking lot. Through community action, a small triangular green space was created in what was then a primarily entertainment and worker environment. But as the city around it continued to develop, it became more of a residential neighbourhood. Suddenly a park that was mainly frequented by office workers eating lunch or visitors taking photos was also being used as the backyard of new residents, along with their children and their many (many) dogs.

This was a big part of the conversation about the new park design—how to accommodate these different user groups in a small space and ensure the new park reflected the way the city had changed since it was first built. The new space has a large plaza for those lunching workers, a fun fountain perfect for tourist photos, a dog area, and new public art that will also act as play structure for children.

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A touch of whimsy helps to create a welcoming place

Good park design helps to create a sense of place, but also a sense of playfulness. And this is exactly what the new Berczy Park does so well. We shouldn’t be surprised, since it was designed by Claude Cormier, the landscape architect who brought Toronto the candy pink umbrellas of Sugar Beach. The new fountain contains many dog statues (and one cat) that shoot water towards a golden bone perched on top of the fountain. If you follow the cat’s gaze you’ll find two birds perched on a nearby light fixture, and if you follow the birds’ gaze you’ll find some worms. It’s silly, whimsical, and an utter delight.

As I’ve written about before, we could use more whimsy in our public spaces. Cities are for living in, but they’re also for having fun and shedding the stress of our daily lives. I dare you to walk by this park without being drawn in with a smile on your face.

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Rolling hills can make a small space feel larger and more private

Berczy Park is not big. So how do you make a small space feel larger? And how do you make it feel safe and comfortable when it’s surrounded by busy streets? You make rolling hills, of course! Berczy Park’s western side has small grassy hills that help make the space feel both larger and more private by blocking your view of traffic and creating more space for people to lounge. It also creates space for kids to run around, as they were doing at the park opening. Who doesn’t love to roll down a hill?

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Streets should be included within park design

Berczy Park is unique not just for its new dog fountain, but because the revitalization of the park also included the redesign of adjacent Scott Street as an extension of the public space of the park. This is an ingenious solution that allows the park to actually “expand and contract” with different uses. When you need more space for an event—like the opening of a new park, say—then you can close down the street and it instantly adds more space for people. This is why I profiled the park design in Park People’s Making Connections report.

This creative thinking and collaboration between City divisions (in this case, parks and transportation) is something we should be bringing to more parks, especially smaller ones in very dense areas. Our streets are actually the biggest public space resource that we have, making up approximately 25 percent of the space in Toronto (parks are 13 percent). By incorporating them better into the parks they surround, we can create a more people-focused, flexible network of public spaces.

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Diverse and plentiful seating is key

If there’s one thing lacking from many of Toronto’s public spaces—the one thing that I snap pictures of on trips to other cities and tweet about longingly—it’s places to sit. Toronto parks have few benches and the ones we do have are not exactly the most comfortable or attractive. Thankfully, with the new spaces that are being designed we are correcting this mistake. Berczy Park is filled with seating, and specifically the kind of long benches that you find in New York or Boston that invite dozens of people to share a space together. I’m told movable chairs and tables will be coming to the plaza space–another example of seating you find in other cities, but not often in Toronto.

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An engaged community can help push a project forward

Last, but not least, key to the success of the new park is the Friends of Berczy Park and the folks at the St. Lawrence Market BIA. These people helped push forward the design and also help program and bring the space to life. A park like Berczy, which is smack dab in the middle of a thriving business, historic, entertainment, and residential neighbourhood screams for programming, such as lunch time concerts and local art fairs. The Friends of Berczy Park and the BIA will have a critical role in ensuring the park remains lively, contains balanced programming, and still functions as a space of green, quiet respite for people to go in the middle of a bustling neighbourhood.

Pride and the politics of public space

The day after Pride Toronto this year, I scrolled through pictures of people smiling, laughing, and walking hand in hand in the streets. I saw politicians of different political stripes marching down the street and corporations sporting rainbow versions of their logos. And then I scrolled through a different set of pride photos. People screaming, waving posters, being thrown onto the ground by cops. The first set of photos were from Toronto’s pride and the second from Turkey’s pride.

It was an important reminder that our celebrations this past weekend in Toronto were made possible by the protests of yesterday, and that elsewhere in the world, and even in our own community, those struggles continue.

And they continue in public space—in the streets and parks of our cities. Because public space is where we go to celebrate, but it’s also where we go to protest.

This line between celebration and protest can be blurry, because the politics of public space can be at once joyful and painful. A protest doesn’t have to be morose and negative; it can be an affirming expression of taking up space—or stepping back to give space to others. It can be angry and colourful, frustrating and fabulous. It can be a burst of confetti amid shouts.

At the core of Pride is this assertion of the right to the city, a right to public space. To make the often invisible visible, the marginalized centred. My favourite part of Pride is wandering the streets—not just the ones that have been closed for official Pride events, but all over downtown—and seeing people out in full view. As a closeted teen uncertain and often ashamed of himself, this was incredibly powerful.

Straight people who don’t understand Pride, or why it’s needed anymore when we have the right to marry, don’t understand this core. They don’t understand that they take up space every day in this city on its streets and in its parks in a way that LGBTQ people don’t and sometimes can’t.

They don’t understand there is still a risk, even in Toronto, that the word faggot will be hurled out of a moving car or out of the mouth of a man across the street because you chose to hold your partner’s hand in public. That hate crimes towards LGBTQ people have, since 2006 in Toronto, been in the top three of hate crimes reported each year. That there is truth in the fact that many people still don’t want us to be able to express ourselves in a public space, the way they are able to do without even thinking.

But, even still, as an able-bodied white gay man, my experience in public space, in how I’m received and treated, in the spaces that are open to me, is different than others–and this is critical for us to recognize. I have written about this before, but it’s worth saying again: public space is not equally enjoyed.

As Black Lives Matter Toronto made clear at last year’s parade and again with a powerful reminder this year, there is much more to be done here for Black, Indigenous, racialized, trans people, and people with different abilities. Sometimes the most powerful protest is to show up, as BLMTO has done, to take up and reclaim space. As Rodney Diverlus of BLMTO said at the parade this year: “We’re out here for Pride to take up space and remind you that Black queer and trans people exist.”

This was, after all, the impetus for those first Pride parades in Toronto more than 30 years ago. To take up space and shout that we are queer and here.

It’s good that these conversations play out in full public view. Public space has always been, and continues to be, a process of negotiation, of give and take. That process is not always comfortable, but it is necessary. We gather in the street, in the square, in the park, to shout or to hug—sometimes at the same time—and we push forward.

Photo by Neal Jennings from Wiki Creative Commons

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.