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.

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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.

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.

 

 

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway creates a connection that is also a place

We want to create safe, attractive cycling and pedestrian connections throughout our city, but rather than simply planning a route to get from A to B what if we created connections that became places themselves?

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway does exactly this. It’s a part of the city’s cycling network, with both painted and separated lanes, but it does so much more than act as way for cyclists to get across the dense, downtown West End neighbourhood through which it threads.

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Unfortunately, I moved away from Vancouver before the greenway was complete, but I make sure to ride along its length whenever I’m back visiting—like I did this past September when I was in town for Placemaking Week.

The Comox-Helmcken Greenway was planned to include small gardens, seating areas, and other amenities to make it almost like a linear park-street hybrid. It’s route also connects already existing schools, community centres, and parks (like the big Stanley Park), smaller mini-parks in the West End, and the lovely Nelson Park, the West End’s largest neighbourhood park (which includes a lovely, street-side community garden).

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Walking or biking along the greenway, you’re treated to bump-outs that act as traffic calming measures, but also contain gardens lush with green plants, often tended by residents living in the mid- and high-rise buildings that populate the West End.

There is also a variety of seating along the route, allowing people to stop and sit at chairs, tables, and even a bar stool-style set-up where the greenway meets the busier Denman Street commercial strip. Personally, I like the living room set-up in the picture below. All you need is a nice table lamp, a cup of tea, and you’re set.

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The greenway was always designed to be more than your average cycling route, evident in its design, but also by the fact that the City of Vancouver partnered with the University of British Columbia to study the activity levels of those living along the route before and after installation.

The results of that study, released last month argue that the $5 million dollar project was well worth the investment. The study looked at people living within 500 metres of the greenway and found that cycling trips went up by 32 percent while car trips went down by 23 percent. Other research done for the City reported health and activity improvements for seniors living along the greenway.

As we look to expand our cycling networks, we’d do well to look at the example set by Vancouver in how we can pull the park experience into our very streets.

 

The many personalities of Vancouver’s traffic circles

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One of the things I miss dearly about Vancouver from my perch in Toronto are the traffic circles. It feels weird to even type that—like someone saying they miss an on ramp—but honestly, these traffic circles are wonderful. Yes, some look a bit mangy, but they are all unique in their own tiny, wonderful, circular way.

Many are tended by volunteers from the neighbourhood who work with the City through the Green Streets program to water and take care of the plants. This provides spaces for those that may not have their own yard to do a bit of gardening. But the really great thing is that these residents get to add their own flare, so each traffic circle has a different personality.

Sometimes that personality even extends beyond the usual flowers and plants into other more spontaneous uses like when a resident near the 10th Avenue bikeway transformed a nearby traffic circle into a tiny meeting spot called, awesomely, Gather Round. I’m not sure if this is still happening, but if you’re in Vancouver be sure to stop in for tea if you can.

Makes me wonder what else you can do in a traffic circle? Maybe a little reading group with circular benches and a mini library? A small bike repair station with an air pump? A bar to cozy up in at night for a beer or two? A boy can dream.

The traffic circles also help visually break up long street views, making neighbourhoods feel cozier and greener—no more big grey intersections. And they’re great for cyclists because you don’t have any of those pesky stop signs to ignor—er, stop fully at.

More mini-traffic circles, I say! And more residents getting the chance to put their own unique (green) thumb print on their city.

Vancouver brings the park into the street

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It’s exciting to see cities taking the idea of the ‘park’ and extending that into the street. As cities get more and more built up and land for new parks is difficult to find, we are going to have to leverage the public space of our streets and redesign them to do more than just move cars.

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway, which connects the West End and English Bay to the Hornby separated bike lanes, is a great example of turning a street into a place to linger, rather than just move through. The next phase extends it into Yaletown.

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The idea is to take a relatively low traffic volume street and enhance it for cycling and walking, bringing a park-like experience to a street while also connecting many green spaces together.

To do that, the City has not only put in some separated bike lanes where needed, but they have installed street furniture like tables and chairs at different spots along the way and created small rain gardens and other street gardens to bring more greenery into the street and help with storm water management.

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From the signs I saw on some of the new little gardens, they are maintained by nearby neighbours. (The white picket fence garden has a message from “Michael” asking people not to pick the flowers.) New bulb outs on the street slow down cars further and help pedestrians cross the street by narrowing the width they have to walk.

During my week long stay in Vancouver, I found myself drawn back again and again to the street. It is an incredibly pleasant experience to ride your bike or stroll along it. Despite the fact that it is still a street, it does have the feeling of a linear park.