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), map and John Street from the City of Toronto, and the two parklets are here and here.

 

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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?

Mirvish Village public realm breaks up the block

On Monday night, a redesign of Westbank’s Mirvish Village project (aka the Honest Ed’s site) was presented. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the meeting, but I was excited when I saw the new project details–especially the inclusion of an on-site park in the project. As a local resident of the neighbourhood, I know how much this area needs more public spaces, especially along the busy Bloor Street corridor.

The new design achieves what some in the neighbourhood were asking for by reducing the size of the project (rental units have been reduced from 1,017 to 946), but I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about–duh–public spaces.

The proposed redesign improves upon what was already a pretty exciting public space design. If built as proposed, Mirvish Village would include: an outdoor market space, a redesigned flexible Markham Street, a park, a dog-run, a community garden, and an activated alleyway that retains the original Honest Ed’s alley location.

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It’s the potential of this connected set of public spaces–across streets, parks, alleys, markets, gardens, and dog-runs–that has me excited about the project.

Including all of these elements in one project is very unique and would create one of the most interesting public space environments in the city. You can really get a sense of this from an overview of how all the different public spaces interact, linking up with each other, but also the surrounding streets and neighbourhood.

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It would also help break up the block that is currently occupied by the Honest Ed’s site by offering many different ways to travel through the neighbourhood through this new network of public spaces.

Here’s how you can currently travel through the block. It’s pretty limited to north-south connections through streets and Honest Ed’s alley.

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Here’s how you would be able to travel through the block with the proposed design (as far as I can tell). It’s much more fine-grained and allows for an easier flow of people in and out and through the neighbourhood.

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Some are concerned in the neighbourhood about the building heights–that they’re “too tall” or will stick out “like a sore thumb.” Personally, I think we can get overly stuck on building heights sometimes in Toronto, when what we really should be focusing more on is the experience at the ground level. This is the experience that we so often get wrong in Toronto (although we are doing much better).

Way too often public space seems like an afterthought, simply the trimmings that are left after the building is designed. Not so with this project.

This project has really thought hard about that ground-level experience: what it means to move through the site, how the different spaces are configured and connected to each other. What will it mean to be a person here? I’m much more concerned with this element, than whether the tower is 25 or 29 storeys.

Because the ground-level is how we are going to interact with this project day after day when it is built. We will walk its streets, stroll through the alley, play in the park, etc.

When thinking about this development and all it can be for the neighbourhood, let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees, as tall as some of them may be.

images from Westbank, except the Google Maps which were drawn inexpertly by me

 

The Under Gardiner points to new possibilities for public space in Toronto

I spent much of 2015 gallivanting around Toronto and looking at various parks as part of my goal to visit a park I hadn’t been to in every corner of Toronto as a way to explore the city. In the end, I saw over 80 parks in every ward of Toronto, from small parkettes to community gardens to sprawling ravines.

I decided that a good way to end the year was to look toward a future park–a space that hasn’t been created yet, but is slated for a major reimagining that has caused both excitement and raised eyebrows around Toronto: the Under Gardiner.

Set to open in 2017, the Under Gardiner will connect multiple communities together by repurposing leftover space underneath an elevated expressway in Toronto’s downtown core, transforming it into a 1.75km programmable public space.

For my walk, I met local Councillor Joe Cressy and urban designer Ken Greenberg, who is intimately involved with the project, at the Under Gardiner’s eastern start by Spadina.

Here the space is at its most unattractive currently. The Gardiner is obviously in need of repair (work that is in progress) and the ground is muddy and strewn with garbage. But its potential as a linear trail is plain to see as you stare down the telescoped length of the thing.

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It’s also right smack against some incredibly dense and growing neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods (CityPlace, Liberty Village, Fort York) are not actually that far apart from each other, but because of the Gardiner, the rail corridor, and some busy roads, feel worlds away. Tying them together with this trail is a way to plug these neighbourhoods better into each other and the rest of the city–something both Joe and Ken spoke about with excitement.

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As we walked west, the aesthetics improved drastically. The Gardiner pulls itself up in height, causing the traffic noise to recede and the area to become brighter and cleaner.

The most surprising thing about the walk was how new condo developments that have sprouted up around the Gardiner have already begun to reclaim the space underneath. They’ve added paint, light features, bicycle parking, and in one case, a giant boulder. Some have lobby areas that open directly onto the space.

The city is already growing in around the expressway, almost absorbing it like those trees you see that have grown up and through a nearby chainlink fence.

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And more of this is slated to happen in the next few years. Here’s a Loblaws redevelopment in progress right now that will create a new link under the Gardiner just to the east of Bathurst.

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Part of the challenge of the Under Gardiner is connections–not just to the surrounding neighbourhoods and the many parks and public spaces nearby, but along its own length.

Here, as the Gardiner marches over Fort York Boulevard, Ken spoke of a pedestrian bridge that could hang suspended from the Gardiner, to allow cyclists and pedestrians to continue along the length of the Under Gardiner without having to cross this busy roadway.

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As we got to the western section of the Under Gardiner near the Fort York Visitor’s Centre and the large, open green spaces that exist around it, the work that the City is doing on the roadway was obvious in the shower of sparks coming down.

This is where the Gardiner is at its highest point and the effect is pretty dramatic–a big soaring roof built overhead. The Visitor’s Centre, a wonderful building that opened not long ago, opens itself up under this section of the Gardiner and long imagined this stretch as a public space.

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I know some are skeptical about this project with concerns ranging from air pollution, to noise, to it just being a “gross” space, but a visit to the actual area quickly dispels a lot of those. Air quality testing will be done, which is good. And the traffic noise is really only noticeable in the east section by Spadina. I’ve been to parks in Toronto that are far more noisy from busy roadways nearby.

I think a city that is maturing as it grows is one that begins to look deep within itself to locate spaces previously discarded as useless to find the useful things about them.

You see this in Vancouver, Montreal, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and many other North American cities that are finding creative ways to layer uses, create flexible spaces, or repurposes forgotten areas as public space–whether this is parks in alleyways, along old rail lines, under elevated roads, on top of roads…the list is endless.

It’s an exciting time for public space in cities and I hope the Under Gardiner sparks a conversation about where some of these opportunities might exist in other areas of the city.

You can visit the Under Gardiner project website here.

This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

 

Parkifying the city through making connections

As our cities grow in both density and population, how can we ensure our parks and open spaces keep pace? Just over a month ago, Park People, the charity where I work, released a report called Making Connections which explores this question by proposing strategies for planning parks and open space networks in urban neighbourhoods. It’s exciting to see that it’s been downloaded over 7,000 times since then.

The report grew out of the idea that in today’s built-out and intensifying urban neighbourhoods, particularly in hyper-dense downtown cores, meeting the parks and open space needs of people necessitates a shift in thinking about parks as individual spaces to understanding how they fit within a wider system of open spaces in a city. This doesn’t mean relegating traditional parks to a lesser role, but rather taking advantage of a variety of spaces to build a more connected system overall that serves multiple needs–places for green respite, social gathering, play, recreation, etc.

These include our streets, sidewalks, and laneways, but also hydro and rail corridors, beaches, ravines, trails, schoolyards, and any number of other publicly accessible spaces. When the report came out, an article in the Toronto Star referred to this as the “parkification” of the city—a term I really like.

Acting on this shift requires a focus on making connections—connections between different kinds of open spaces, between communities and those spaces, and between city departments, outside groups, and resources. Understanding the elements of that shift is what the report is all about.

While much of the report is rooted in Toronto, the guiding principles we outline look at examples from across North America to lay out a planning framework. We spoke with community members, designers, planners, developers, and business folks in Toronto, but also other cities like San Francisco, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, and Minneapolis.

You can read the full report here, but I’ve outlined the eight principles below in shorter form and included links to more info on the case studies.

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ONE: Proactively plan central green spaces as the heart of open space networks

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In Toronto we have avenue and corridor studies, urban design guidelines for different neighbourhoods, heritage studies, and a number of other planning documents, but what we don’t have many of are neighbourhood-scale parks and open space plans. It’s crucial to have these plans in place not only so communities can articulate a shared vision, but so development can contribute to this vision over time. Otherwise you’re left being reactive, which means the city risks falling behind or making the wrong investments. The most exciting plans look at the whole range of open spaces—from streets to schoolyards to parks—to understand how existing and new spaces can work better as a system by building connections between them. Ideally, a plan would come with a programming element as well as physical space element, laying the groundwork for future community partnerships to animate and bring these spaces to life.

Case studies:

Midtown in Focus, Toronto

Brooklyn Strand, New York

TWO: Create green connections that become places themselves

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Obviously thinking about connections between open spaces is important if you’re talking about a connected parks and open space network, but it’s important that these connections aren’t just links from point A to point B, but also become places themselves. Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway is a great example of this. It links several parks through Vancouver’s downtown neighbourhoods by creating a safe and pleasant route for walking and cycling. But it also creates small gardens and seating areas by bumping out the sidewalk space along the route, helping to pull the park experience through the street so it becomes a place to linger as well as move through. Laneways are also a great resource for creating green connections, with San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Montreal all looking to this more fine-grained network as a source of park and social gathering space.

Case studies:

Comox-Helmcken Greenway, Vancouver

Ruelles Vertes, Montreal

West Toronto Railpath, Toronto

THREE: Be flexible in design and use

Bell Street Park music performance_Nate Cormier, SvR Design Company

When you have a very built-out city, space becomes a scarce commodity, so many cities have begun redesigning spaces to become more flexible so they can adapt to changing uses and needs for different times of day or year. This could mean building a central gathering space that can be flooded in the winter to become an ice rink or simply using movable street furniture or even stages to allow for flexible programming. It can also mean rethinking park edges by redesigning streets that surround a park so that they can easily become part of the park when more space is needed, such as for events or in warmer weather. The new design for Toronto’s Berczy Park, for example, proposes to redesign an adjacent street to this small triangular park into a curbless tree-lined space with distinct paving so that the park edge blends more with the street. Or an existing street can be redesigned as more park-like with a flexible design that allows it to shift between being a shared street and being a plaza, such as Bell Street Park in Seattle.

Case studies:

Berczy Park, Toronto

Bell Street Park, Seattle

FOUR: Broaden the park to include the space beyond its edges

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Often the largest amount of public space in a city is not its parks, but its streets (in Toronto street space takes up 22% of the city, while parks account for about 13%). So it makes sense then that many cities looking to shore up their open space system are looking to the land they already own in the public right-of-way. These can be both small spaces along boulevards or in parallel parking spaces (the trendy “parklet”), but it can also mean creating new, larger plazas or parks out of streets, as Toronto has done on two downtown university campuses that wanted more outdoor social gathering space for their students. Vancouver also has a history of using traffic calming measures as opportunities to create new “mini-parks” with the city’s West End neighbourhood being the best example of how these are done. Even creating small spaces can have a large impact.

Case studies:

Parklets and Pop-up Parks, Philadelphia

Dundas Street West Parkettes, Toronto

Gould Street Pedestrian Plaza, Toronto

FIVE: Find park space in overlooked and unexpected places

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Aside from the space within streets, cities are also turning to other spaces to see how they can fit into the park system. Certainly, we’ve seen the repurposing of infrastructure corridors as linear parks, with the High Line in New York being the prototypical example (but there is also the 606 in Chicago and the Green Line in Toronto) and the building of parks underneath overpasses and elevated rail lines (see Miami’s Underline proposal). But there’s also schoolyards, cemeteries, and a whole host of other spaces that are taking on more “park” roles. Peter Harnik’s book Urban Green is a great resource that dives into each of these categories in detail. The gist is that we can expand what we think of as parks by understanding what function they serve or what need or desire they fulfil within the community, whether that’s simply a green space to walk your dog (cemetary) or a place to take your kid to play (schoolyard).

Case studies:

Underpass Park, Toronto

Schoolyards-to-playgrounds, New York City

SIX: Empower communities by building new partnership models

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A big part of creating a more connected parks and open space system is connecting communities within that system by building partnership models that allow communities to have an ongoing role in the programming and stewardship of their local parks. This can happen at a variety of different scales from informal park friends groups (we have over 110 in Toronto in all corners of the city) to more formal partnerships between the City and a group to operate, program or even maintain a park. The crucial point here is to create partnerships that allow many different people to come together and contribute in a meaningful way, test out new ideas, and offer the kind of locally-responsive programming that can only come from people who live in and know the neighbourhood–like a tandoor oven built in a park.

Case studies:

McCormick Park Shipping Container Café, Toronto

Congress Square Park, Portland

Mint Plaza, San Francisco

SEVEN: Experiment and be nimble

Celebrate Yonge_Downtown Yonge BIA

All of these principles require trying new things, which can be difficult sometimes, either because people are skeptical of change or because projects can be expensive and if you don’t know if it’s going to work properly it’s hard to make the case for that investment. That’s where pilot projects and quick interventions come into play—what Project for Public Spaces has branded their Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach. Testing something out allows people to see it work on the ground, suggest changes, and ultimately study the impacts before a bunch of money is spent on something more permanent (for example, Toronto used Celebrate Yonge to study a revitalized public realm for Yonge Street). New York has used this tactic to great effect with many of the new on-street plazas they created around Broadway. It can also be a great tool to use during a planning process to showcase emerging ideas and get more people involved, which is what Vancouver calls “action while planning.”

Case studies:

Celebrate Yonge, Toronto

Davie Village Plaza, Vancouver

EIGHT: Creative collaborations and pool funding sources

North Minneapolis Greenway Concept_City of Minneapolis:SRF Consulting Group

Finally, we come to the need to think across sectors and city departments to implement some of these ideas and find new sources of funding for parks and open space projects. Sometimes this funding can be health-related, as with the planning work being done on the North Minneapolis Greenway. The point is that a more connected parks and open space system crosses departmental boundaries and necessitates collaboration between parks, transportation, public works, water, public health—not to mention outside non-profit groups and community members. Toronto’s green streets pilot is a good example, where a green infrastructure project grew out of a request from the community to make an intersection safer. As a result parks, city planning, water, and transportation are all working together to create a new green space with seating that achieves both the transportation goals as well as helps to manage stormwater onsite.

Case studies:

Green Streets pilot, Toronto

North Minneapolis Greenway, Minneapolis

If you want to read more, check the full report.

guiding principle photo credits in order: WXY Studio, Brent Granby, SvR Design, PMA Landscape Architects, me, Heather Jarvis, Downtown Yonge BIA, City of Minneapolis and SRF Consulting Group

Powering up the Green Line

[This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of Ground Magazine. An online version is here in PDF form. But seeing as I’m doing a Jane’s Walk along the Green Line on May 3rd, I thought it would be a good time to put it up here on the blog.]

If you stand in one of the small parkettes under the hydro corridor north of Dupont Street in Toronto’s west end, you’ll find yourself on the site of a new vision for public space in the city: the Green Line.

The Green Line exists currently as an idea—an idea to transform the hydro corridor that runs from Earlscourt Park to the Annex into a five-kilometre linear park. It’s an idea that, through the work of local residents, has taken hold of the imaginations of people across the city.

The Green Line, which would pass through three city wards and be close to two others, could provide more than new park space: it could also create walking and cycling connections, says Helena Grdadolnik.

Grdadolnik lives and works near the proposed linear park. Associate director for Workshop Architecture, she is one of the Green Line’s original champions, first becoming interested in the idea when she attended a consultation for a local park in the hydro corridor. She left feeling frustrated.

“Although I welcome these local investments—in this case it was $20,000 for some benches and replanting—I saw the need for a complete vision for the entire length of this corridor,” she says.

The land along the Green Line varies in use and quality, much of it disconnected by roads, grade changes, and fencing. Owned by Infrastructure Ontario and operated by Hydro One, parcels are already leased for uses such as parking lots and nine small parks. Connecting these spaces into a cohesive whole will be a challenge, particularly where roads slice through the site, whisking cars under the railway that runs parallel to the Green Line.

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To spark interest in the project, Grdadolnik ran an ideas competition through Workshop Architecture. The 2012 Green Line ideas competition drew 80 submissions from Toronto and around the world, with ideas ranging from the practical (community garden spaces) to the fanciful (a mini-putt green).

For Mary and Evan Castel of the Davenport Neighbourhood Association, the Green Line resonates with their local needs. “Reclaiming and advocating for reinvestment in the green spaces in our neighbourhood has always been one of our top priorities as an association,” Mary Castel says. “And in our catchment, green spaces are predominantly within the hydro corridor.”

Evan Castel adds: “We see it as a great opportunity to ‘make’ more space by connecting, highlighting, and making accessible a great resource that has been there all along.”

Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, agrees. Increasing connectivity between green spaces is critical to making them accessible to many more people in the city, she says. “When you fill in a little gap, you multiply exponentially the amount of benefit you provide to adjacent neighbourhoods.”

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This is the appeal of projects that use infrastructure corridors—such as New York’s High Line or Atlanta’s BeltLine—to create new park space. “As cities rapidly densify, we become less frivolous with spaces that at one time we would have seen as leftover spaces,” Keesmaat says. “In the instances where neighbourhoods are underserved by parkland, these are exactly the kinds of creative solutions that are required to provide more neighbourhood amenity.”

A challenge, but also an opportunity, of the Green Line is that it must function as a cohesive linear park that connects multiple neighbourhoods while at the same time providing local park space and amenities in communities that lack them.

Joe Lobko, an architect and partner at DTAH who served as a judge in the Green Line ideas competition, acknowledges this tension, but likens it to the city’s main streets.

“These streets pulse,” he says. “They connect communities, but they have nodes of intensity, so they have to accommodate both the local need and the larger regional, citywide need.”

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In order to push the idea forward after the design competition, Toronto Park People, an independent charity that works with communities to improve Toronto’s parks, took up the project with funding from TD Bank. This year, Park People (where I work) helped form Friends of the Green Line, a group of local residents, such as Grdadolnik and the Castels, and others interested in making the Green Line a reality.

All this attention has created momentum at Toronto City Hall. Council recently directed staff to negotiate licensing agreements when opportunities arise to transform the remaining Green Line land into parks. Council also approved using density bonus funds, which usually stay within the ward they were generated in, and park levies from future developments along Dupont Street for the Green Line, even though the project runs through adjacent city wards—a crucial source of funding and a vote of confidence in the Green Line vision.

These movements are positive, but a master plan is still needed for the entire Green Line corridor, one that recognizes its potential as a linear park and brings different city divisions and community stakeholders together.

“We’d like the City to look at the space as a whole for any future upgrades, however small,” Grdadolnik says. It’s important “to make physical connections and to implement a unified vision over time.”

Want a linear park for your city? Get in line.

Up high, at grade, underneath, below ground, around, sideways and longways, it seems that every city everywhere wants to build a linear park. Usually constructed along a piece of active or disused infrastructure like a rail or hydro corridor, these parks help connect communities and provide unique green spaces in locations that may have been viewed as leftover or unusable before.

Here are some “line” projects. Did I miss one? The answer is yes. Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it in.

If there’s one thing I learned from this exercise it’s that I want very much to live forever in the soft-focus world of architectural renderings where it’s always the golden hour and there is always at least one bird swooping above majestically (seriously every rendering has a bird, except for the underground park).

High Line, New York

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The High Line is a–oh, who am I kidding you already know. The third section of this elevated park opened in September and the whole linear park has sparked billions in private investment nearby. It wasn’t the first project to reuse old infrastructure to create a linear park, but it definitely was the one no one would shut up about afterwards. And for good reason. It’s beautiful and gives you a perspective of New York that is entirely unique.

BeltLine, Atlanta

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I had the pleasure of seeing Ryan Gravel, the man behind Atlanta’s BeltLine project, speak when here was here in Toronto a few months ago. He made me simultaneously excited about the project and ashamed that my Masters thesis did not spark a multi-million dollar public works project as well. Gravel wrote his thesis on the opportunity of creating a transit line and linear park with trail along a 22-mile loop of rail lines that ring Atlanta. And then he did what almost no one ever does: he turned his Masters thesis into reality. Portions have been built, but this will be a multi-year process and the way that Gravel and the Beltline team have done the ground game to earn community support for this project is inspiring.

Green Line, Toronto

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If built, the Green Line would transform a 5km hydro corridor into a linear park. There was an international design competition in the summer of 2012 that helped spark interest in the idea and now the organization I work for, Toronto Park People, has helped form Friends of the Green Line, a group of interested citizens and local residents, to advocate for the project. There are currently nine city parks along the route, but they are disconnected and the route is broken up by roads, grade changes, fences and parking lots. A master plan is needed to pull all the elements together and provide a cohesive vision for the entire route as a connected whole. If built it will run through several city wards and areas that are identified as low in parkland and then end conveniently near my apartment.

Underline, Miami

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If you can’t build on it, then build under it. That seems to be the thought with Miami’s proposed Underline project which would transform the 10-mile stretch underneath an elevated Metrorail line into linear park and active transportation corridor. The Underline just released an RFQ for a master plan, so have it all you designer people. This project reminds me of a very pretty version of the Central Valley Greenway in my old hometown of Vancouver which largely follows the path of the elevated SkyTrain from Vancouver to New Westminster.

Lowline, New York

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This proposed project would see an old underground trolley terminal in the Lower East Side turned into an underground park by using “remote skylights” to focus sunlight underground and let plants grow (a.k.a. witchcraft). There is something slightly apocalyptic about the whole proposal of a park underground. Even just looking at the renderings gives me a weird combined sense of wonder and dread. But if the world ever ends rendering the surface of our planet unusable, you’ll find me there.

The 606, Chicago

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Okay, I cheated. It’s not of the X-line nomenclature, but I wanted to include The 606 from Chicago because it follows along the same lines (yuk yuk) as the others. This project is turning the unused elevated Bloomingdale rail line into a linear park with, you guessed, a pedestrian and cycling trail. The project, which broke ground in 2013, will connect six neighbourhood parks and serve 80,000 people within a ten minute walk.

images are taken from the respective project websites, except for the High Line which is my own photo.

Sometimes a street is a park that just doesn’t know it yet

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I pass by Phoebe Street in downtown Toronto often on my way to work. It travels east off of busy Spadina Street and into a calm, quiet residential area with a school. Despite its width there are few cars that travel its length due to a barrier installed to reduce traffic because the school’s playground faces the street.

The whole thing seems like a half-done project to me. Why leave all that asphalt there after going through the trouble of basically barricading the street?

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I can’t help but think of the mini-parks in my old neighbourhood in Vancouver’s West End. There are nine of them now, but the first started in 1973 as a traffic calming initiative. The idea was that a half block of a street would be transformed into a green space with gardens, benches and a pathway to allow pedestrians and cyclists through, but not cars.

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They are one of my favourite features of the West End, a dense tower neighbourhood with big leafy trees. And I’m not alone. A recent city survey found that the mini-parks were near the top of the list of what people loved about the West End’s streets and that 93% indicated they visited a mini-park several times per week.

The area of Toronto where Phoebe Street is has some of the lowest levels of parkland in the city relative to population and is just north of an area City staff recently said needed new parkland. Not only that, but it would benefit the nearby schoolyard by increasing green space and could actually create a green corridor to help link Spadina through to Grange Park.

So let’s finish what we started and use Vancouver’s mini-parks as a model to turn this part of the street into a park.

mini-park image from the 2012 West End Community Profile

A vacant lot turned local food market in downtown Toronto

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The King-Spadina area in downtown Toronto where I work is intensifying at such an incredible rate that one’s head is left spinning. There are three huge towers going up on the corner near my office building and that’s only the tip of the skyscraperberg.

But then there’s this little itty bitty spot on King Street that hasn’t been developed—yet. Instead of letting the lot just sit there, the developer, TAS, has partnered with local food organizations to turn the spot into a fresh fruit and vegetable market. [Full disclosure, I worked at TAS in the summer of 2013].

So instead of an empty lot with an ugly fence up around it, passersby are treated to planter boxes, benches made from boards, a nice mural, and—the best part—local vegetables and fresh fruit.

Stepping off the crowded sidewalks onto the wood chip covered ground is like stepping out of the city and into one of those cute roadside fruit stands along rural highways.

When we talk about the need to expand public spaces in our dense downtowns, we need to think about how we can temporarily activate those vacant lots waiting to be developed or those awkwardly shaped parcels that don’t serve a purpose right now. This is such a great, creative example of not only activating and beautifying an otherwise ugly blank spot, but giving local farmers a boost. Plus the strawberries are damn delicious.

Working with developers to incentivize this kind of activity while their development application is pending, or while they’re considering what to do with the land, would be a great thing.