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?

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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.

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.

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 importance of whimsy in public spaces

Walking through downtown Montreal on a recent trip with a few friends, we came across something a bit strange. A bunch of logs dumped along a stretch of busy Saint Catherine Street. Did some logging truck tip over and leave its cargo behind?

Nope. The logs are a piece of public art titled 500KM that includes 1,000 logs meant to be a “metaphorical representation of river driving, the 19th century method of moving timber down Quebec’s rivers.” If you need a quick nostalgia break, click here (Canadians only, please).

People took selfies with the logs. They sat on the logs. They pondered the logs. The logs were, as far as I could tell, a hit.

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But this is Montreal, the city that has perfected the art of creating dynamite public spaces that practically have a magnetic pull: you can’t help but stop and stay awhile. Whether it’s a bunch of logs or giant projections on the sides of buildings at night or light strung up overhead in a park or fog that emerges from grates beside a pathway or maybe just the delight you get stumbling across a tiny cafe in a park.

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Montreal understands the importance of whimsy—of things that are fanciful and maybe sometimes even silly. Things that are done for the sake of being just plain fun. Montreal’s public spaces, especially the ones in the downtown Quartier des Spectacles, are a playground for both adults and children.

I mean, they actually have swings that play music as you swing, which, I’m sure, you’ll find directly referenced in the Oxford Dictionary definition of whimsical.

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And Toronto? Toronto is a lot of things. It’s boisterous, fast-paced, often boastful. But whimsical? Ummmmmm. I could only imagine the liability conversations and headaches in Toronto over dumping a bunch of logs in the middle of a downtown street.

We do have our moments, though. There’s the now under construction fountain coming to Berczy Park that features little statues of dogs and even a kitty.

And then there’s Sugar Beach, which is probably one of the most whimsical public spaces in the entire city with its faux-beach filled with white sand, oversized bubblegum pink umbrellas, and candy-striped granite boulders. It’s a beach where you could imagine finding Willy Wonka suntanning.

And guess what? Both the Berczy Park fountain and Sugar Beach are the brainchild of Claude Cormier, a landscape architect out of, you guessed it, Montreal.

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Sugar Beach has become an incredibly popular space. I spent a staycation day there last week turning my own shade of pink while lying in the sun reading. It was 2pm on a Tuesday. The joint was packed.

But Sugar Beach has also been a source of controversy where its very whimsicalness has been used as a slur against it. The message? Don’t design and spend money on things that are viewed as fun or, god forbid, silly. Utilitarian or bust.

But whimsy is important, as I learned walking the streets of Montreal, because our public spaces should provide us with a counterbalance to the hectic keep-your-head-down-until-the-weekend drive of the city.

Whimsy is about making a public space an invitation to play, to become a five-year old again–that magical time when everything around us inspired wonder. It’s walking the streets of a city and feeling delighted. It’s creating a sense that the city can be a festival.

Or, on a very specific level, it’s a man in a business suit swinging next to an eight-year old on the street, both laughing at the music they’re making.

 

 

Creating places for people as we grow

As municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe shift from building sprawling single-family housing neighbourhoods to denser neighbourhoods filled with a mix of housing—including high-rise towers—we also need to shift the way we plan, design, and engage communities in parks and open spaces.

If we are going to build the “complete communities” envisioned in the Provincial Growth Plan, we’ll need to use new strategies to make sure that everyone has access to public spaces that meet various needs. This becomes even more necessary as the Province has released the proposed new Growth Plan, which includes higher intensification targets.

Thriving Places CoverThriving Places, the new report released by Park People today, showcases different strategies that municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe are using to address this challenge. The report builds on the ideas in Park People’s 2015 report Making Connections, which set out eight guiding principles for planning a network of parks and open spaces in urban neighbourhoods.

Looking to municipalities such as Brampton, Mississauga, Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, and Barrie, the report highlights best practices in park planning, design, and community engagement.

Whether it’s an engaged group of residents around an urban trail, a street that is also designed as a public plaza, or a linear park along a new transitway, the examples in the report point a new way forward for parks in the GGH.

New higher density neighbourhoods need a different kind of park than suburban subdivisions filled with houses where everyone has a front and backyard.

Urban parks see a desire for more intense and varied types of activities, from farmer’s markets to movie nights to community BBQs to outdoor yoga classes and cultural festivals. They require new designs to support these activities, such the hard-surface plaza found at Market Square in Guelph or the power hook-ups and free wifi of Mississauga’s Scholar’s Green.

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Higher density neighbourhoods require creative ways to use space efficiently, such as the creation of a new pedestrian promenade on a street adjacent to Hamilton’s Gore Park or the closing of a street in Barrie to expand an existing park and make a connection to the waterfront.

It also requires new sources of funding and partnerships to make these spaces work. For example, partnering with a community non-profit to manage a naturalization project in Guelph’s Pollinator Park. Or the City of Barrie partnering with the downtown BIA to help fund and program its proposed expanded downtown plaza. Or Newmarket working with donated materials to build an outdoor library in Riverwalk Commons, creating a fun new spot in the warmer months for people to gather.

We often to look to cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Montreal for inspiration when it comes to best practices for public spaces, but there are many inspiring, innovative projects right here in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Thriving Places highlights 15 of these projects in the hope that it will become a useful tool to inspire more creative thinking across the region. Because as we continue to grow and intensify, we need to ensure we are creating places for people.

Download the report here.

If you’re in Toronto, be sure to register for our Thriving Places report launch on May 26th at Urbanspace Gallery in 401 Richmond.

image credits: John D. Bell Associates and City of Mississauga

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: A flexible public space system


This is the second in a trilogy about TOCore, the City of Toronto’s initiative to create a parks and open space master plan for the downtown (among other related planning things). In the last post I broke down the challenges and some potential solutions to buying parkland downtown. Next week’s post will be about programming and community engagement.

What do you do when you have a tiny apartment that needs to be a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom all at once? You get a bunch of furniture that folds up, packs away, and flips down. Your bed lifts up and reveals a desk underneath. A kitchen table flips down from a wall. A book opens up a secret passage way to reveal a long tunn—wait, that’s different.

The point is we create flexible spaces all the time in our homes, but we often don’t extend that same thinking to our cities. Here’s a street: this is where cars drive and park. Here’s a park: this is where we play. Etc.

But with such limited space downtown, flexibility is key

The conversation around parks in downtown Toronto is often that the City needs to buy land for new parks. And it does, no question about it. But what’s talked about less is how we can better use the land we already have. In this post, I want to dive deeper into some of the design issues around parks in dense growing areas, particularly how we can be more creative by blending our public spaces together and building in adaptability.

We need the city equivalent of a bed that folds up to reveal a desk

What if a roadway was designed so it could become a plaza during the warmer months? Now what if that road was actually along the edge of an existing park so that the park could get “bigger” when it needed to? 

This thinking is slowly coming to Toronto. In fact, the City’s Downtown Parks Background Study notes that “in terms of urban park design, it can be advantageous to extend the look and feel of a park beyond its designated boundaries.” City Study, I could kiss you on the mouth. Because…

Our biggest public space resource is not our parks

Although it is a great resource in comparison to other cities. According to the City, we have 127 parks in the downtown that covers about 15% of the land area. This compares to 13% parkland cover for the entire city. This is less than New York (20%), the same as Philadelphia (13%) and more than Chicago (9%). Take that Chicago!

So if it’s not parks, then what is it?

It’s our public streets. Our streets make up roughly 25% of the area of our city, which is pretty on par with most other major North American cities. That’s a lot of space—public space—that we already own.

So what does this mean for “park acquisition”?

For me, it means we need broaden our definition of “acquisition” to include examining the space we already own in our public rights-of-way to see if that can be a resource for new or expanded parks. This doesn’t mean we give up on buying land, but it only makes sense, given the extremely challenging situation for buying land for parks downtown, that we try to use what we have better.

Vancouver does this really well. Here’s an example of a recent project where a park was expanded by 50% by absorbing an adjacent street and including a bike path connection for cyclists. Now look at this drawing and tell me it doesn’t make your mouth water.

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We can do this in Toronto.

Take Berczy Park

No, really take it. It’s small enough to hold in your hand probably. Berczy Park is a little, triangular park that needs to be a lot of things to a lot of people: a children’s playground, a dog park, a place to have lunch at work. So the City got creative, god bless them. The park revitalization included a redesign of an adjacent street so that it could seamlessly become a plaza extension of the park when closed to cars. This is a smart, efficient use of very sparse downtown space.

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Market Street is another Toronto example, where the City used movable bollards to allow the sidewalk space to expand in the summer to accommodate patios and shrink in the winter to accommodate more car parking. Voila. More space for people. A city that responds to the seasons. A city that is adaptable, modular.

Call it parks that expand and contract.

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Okay, but what about money?

Ugh, it always comes back to money, right? While Berczy Park is a great example of creating a more flexible, blended system of public space design, it still used a silo approach when it came to funding.

The City’s park funds (Section 42) went to the redesign of the park and the density bonusing funds (Section 37) went to the street portion. This works if you have access to both funding tools, but since Section 37 funds is generated through denser development, not every ward in the city gets to use it.

Why not allow the use of park funds to do street improvement projects when they are directly related to the continuation or expansion of an adjacent park space? If I’m getting a bigger, better more usable public space then I don’t care where the invisible line is between park and street.

Turns out most people don’t

I went to a public consultation for two small parkettes last winter. A laneway and a small street cut up these two small parkettes, like so:

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Guess what everyone at the meeting wanted to talk about? Yup. How to create better connections across these streets and make it safer for children. Guess what the City couldn’t use the money on that they had for the park project? Yup. The streets. All the money had to be spent on the parks when in fact one of the biggest design challenges was how to make the streets that cut through them work better with the parks.

So if we’re going to get flexible with how we design, we need to get flexible with how we fund.

We also need to pay more attention to the edges

When we think about parks we often look inward. Where’s the playground going to go? What about the splashpad? How about those benches? But we need to spend more time thinking about a park’s edges, especially in the smaller parks that are surrounded by downtown streets. How do people enter the park? What’s the experience at the edge? Is there a fence? Can the park be better blended with the sidewalk to produce a better experience?

The redesign of Grange Park is a good example of the importance and power of paying attention to park edges. The Beverley Street side currently has a black iron fence with two entrances on the north and south sides, making this portion of the park much less inviting.

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The new design opens the park up on this side, keeping barriers low and using gardens to corral people to certain entry points. It will, I have no doubt, create an entirely new feel for Grange Park along a Beverley Street that will no longer be the “back” of the park, but a whole other front. Just look at all these somewhat translucent people enjoying it.

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New York is a great city to turn to for ideas about park edge thinking. They currently have a program called Parks Without Borders that specifically looks at the issue of entrances, exits, and park edges and how they interact with the city and public spaces around them. We could learn a lot from their approach.

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So in sum: it’s not always about looking for new and more spaces. Often, in a city like Toronto it’s about taking stock of the spaces we have and thinking about how we can use them better. Can we use a space twice, by designing it flexibly? Is that park better serving its community by removing a fence? Can we design across spaces? Can we spend our money that way?

I not only think we can, I think we have to if we want a public space system that serves the kind of growth we’re expecting in downtown (double the population by 2025). We need to be flexible.

Adapt or die, right?

Next week, the final instalment in this little TOCore trilogy: thoughts on programming and deeper community engagement in our parks.

photo of Market Street by Marcus Mitanis, title image from City of Vancouver

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

Comox-Helmcken Greenway seating_Brent Granby

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

Dundas West Streetscape improvements_PMA Landscape Architects

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

Underpass Park_Jake Tobin Garrett

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

McCormick Park Shipping Container Cafe_Heather Jarvis

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.”