Why we need to think about streets when we’re designing parks

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One design option presented at the meeting

I was at a public meeting last week for proposed redesigns for Salem and Westmoreland Parkettes, but despite good questions about which playground equipment was needed or what type of amenities for seniors there should be or where a water feature could go, the conversation kept coming back to the laneway and street that bisect the two parks.

Some suggested distributing the playground equipment to both parks, but others pointed out that would encourage kids to run across the street. One woman was concerned the bushes near the laneway would present visibility issues for little kids. Ideas were floated about speed humps or raising the street pavement up to the level of the park to signal to drivers that the space is a pedestrian-oriented spot and to slow down.

It quickly became clear that any design for the park also needed to take into account this laneway and street. The only problem was that street improvements are not usually part of the official discussion around park improvements in Toronto.

They were good ideas, the landscape architect hired by the City told everyone, but they were also outside of the scope and budget he had to work with. The local councillor, Ana Bailão, was very supportive of improving and animating the street and laneway, but pointed out it was a different City department and a different pot of money. Parks staff were at the meeting, but not transportation.

In Toronto, the money we largely use for park improvements comes from park levies on development (Section 42), which can’t be used for street improvements. But maybe in cases where those improvements create direct connections between parks and help expand the usable open space of the park, they should. At the very least, money for street improvements should be identified along with park improvements so it can all be part of the same process.

We should be thinking, especially in small parks with limited space, about how streets and sidewalks can be designed to complement the park, or how connections feed into the park from the surrounding neighbourhood. Too frequently we focus our attention solely inside the boundaries of the park and forget the network of sidewalks, streets, and laneways that surround it. These are valuable public spaces. (I’ve touched on this before in my post on park edges.)

We do, however, have an example in Toronto of how all this could work–Berczy Park.

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This is a small, triangular park in downtown Toronto just east of the financial district. It recently went through a redesign process (with the wonderful Claude Cormier), part of which included ideas to transform Scott Street, which flanks the western portion of the park, into a curbless, flexible street that can become part of the park when shut down to traffic.

You can see how the street has become an integral part of the park design right up front. All of a sudden this park doesn’t end where it did before, but extends visually and physically onto and across the street. In the summer, when more space is needed, or when an event or activity is planned, the street can be shut down and, because of its design, easily become part of the park. That’s a whole bunch of new space opened up and a smart way of designing this park. The City funded the street improvements through Section 37 (density bonus funds) and the park improvements through Section 42 (park levy funds).

It would be great to see more of this kind of proactive thinking. Of course, we can go in and do street improvements after the park improvements as a separate process, but why not make it part of the conversation right up front during the public consultation for the park? It’s what people want to talk about.

photo from the Berczy Park blog.

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Reimagining the potential of a small park in Scarborough in Ward 35

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Toronto has 1,600 parks. Sometimes these are beautiful places of natural respite, places where you can imagine yourself far outside of the city. Other times they are filled with people and activities or fit snugly within a bustling neighbourhood. And then there are those parks that you likely walk by, maybe every day, maybe not even realizing it is a park.

When deciding which park to visit next for my goal to visit a park I haven’t been to in every one of Toronto’s 44 wards, I took to Google Maps, flitting around Toronto until my eye caught a small triangular park hemmed in on all sides by multi-lane roads in the upper north-west corner of Ward 35 in Scarborough. Victoria Park-Eglinton Parkette, it’s called. What is that like, I wondered.

When I got there, the first thing I thought was: maps are deceiving. The park was actually far bigger than I expected. Despite being called a parkette, it was larger than some neighbourhood parks in downtown Toronto, like my home park, Jean Sibelius Square. That park has a small field, picnic tables, an adventure playground, a social space in its centre with benches and flower gardens, and a washroom building. Victoria Park-Eglinton Parkette, in contrast, has…well, nothing really. It has a few trees, but the rest is flat grass and the only benches are the bus stops at its edges. There wasn’t even a park sign.

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When I came into work on Monday and showed my coworkers where I’d gone, they said, oh yeah, we know that park. There was someone from the community there that had proposed a new design a little while ago, they said. They put me in touch with him.

Michael Kenny, a local resident of the area, told me over the phone that he’s seen this park untended his whole life. “It’s just been grass,” he said. However, Kenny, who is the Executive Director of an environmental organization run out of university campuses called Regenesis, saw more in the space. And a need for more animated community park space in the wider neighbourhood.

“Victoria Village is one of the United Way communities in need,” he told me. “While there is a lot of parkland, a lot of forest, there isn’t anything in terms of a park that is a community hub where people congregate where there are activities.”

And it does seem like the space has potential. Despite being an island in the middle of high speed roads, the park is not really isolated–in fact, it’s in the middle of a pretty bustling spot, right across the street from Eglinton Town Centre mall, close to residential areas, and right next to a future stop on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (Ominously, one of the maps on the LRT project site has the triangular park labelled: “potential future development,” though I checked and it’s zoned as open space.)

Kenny had a team of student researchers “look at the space of the park and talk to residents to see what type of stuff they might want and what could fit in the space.” Some of the ideas, like an outdoor skating rink, probably wouldn’t have fit into the space. Other popular ideas were a space for a farmer’s market, adventure playground, community gardens, and an event stage for performances.

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Image credit: Regenesis

When I asked whether people had expressed concern over safety issues because of the roads, he said they hadn’t really. “The space is used a lot to traverse between the mall and bus stops,” he said. “People are crossing it all the time.” In fact, there is a dirt pathway carved through the park that shows exactly where people have gone, which they used to form the design of where actual pathways might go.

It’s an interesting design, if a bit crowded. Some may lament the loss of the grassy, open space. And I still wonder about all those cars zooming around its edges.

But the importance of what Kenny and the students did stands: to reimagine what a park can be and look at it differently, trying to see how it can, as Kenny said, become “a community hub that could operate all year round.”

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This is the second post in the City within a Park series, the first of which, Earl Bales Park, can be found here

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.

Grange Park and the trouble with park edges

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There are lots of neat things about the redesign of Toronto’s Grange Park by Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, from an expanded playground area, to new water features, to more trees. And all those are well documented here on Urban Toronto. Or you can watch the fancy fly-through rendering which contains, inexplicably, a man who appears to be carrying on an animated conversation with a fountain at the 1:10 mark.

But I don’t want to talk about all that. I want to talk about edges. Because I’m really, really excited about Grange Park’s new edges.

Right now the park’s longest edge, which runs along Beverley Street, contains a black iron fence with two openings that allow people inside the park. Here’s what it looks like now:

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The redesign would remove that fence and build raised gardens with low fences (see title photo) and rippling benches down the Beverley Street frontage instead. Right now, Beverley Street doesn’t really have much relationship to the park–it feels like its backside. The fence is so high that it makes the park feel almost like someone’s private yard (which, in fact, it once was–so there’s that).

Fences keep people on the sidewalk and pathways, yes, but you also risk creating dead zones and unfriendly atmospheres with the bad ones. No one really wants to snuggle up against a fence, as then local councillor Adam Vaughan pointed out at an earlier design meeting for Grange Park. In a way it can actually end up decreasing the amount of usable park space because people stay away from them. The new edge will change that dramatically:

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There was a man who spoke at the same meeting as Vaughan, who argued in defense of the fence. He said the fence was important to help people distinguish between “city space” and “park space.”

What he was concerned about, I think, was that removing the fence would also remove part of what makes Grange Park feel different or special from the rest of the city. It makes the park less a place to just carelessly cut through because you must consciously enter it.

And park edges do need extra consideration because they can quickly become the rattiest parts of the park, especially along long frontages. You often find dead strips of yellow grass or dirt trails where people have overflowed from the sidewalk. Fences help keep people off grassy and sensitive areas and corral people into using predetermined pathways. And too soft an edge where a park meets a busy street can mean people stay farther into the park as a buffer to get away from the traffic.

But I think the proposed garden ripples with their raised beds and seating will create a kind of soft, more porous fence for Grange Park that still allows you to feel you have “entered” the park without creating that hard, unfriendly edge that the fence does.

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A fence or a hard edge can be a part of what makes a good park, too. It depends what kind of message you want to send and how that barrier is designed and interacts with the park and the street. Central Park (above) is surrounded mostly by a low stone wall that solidifies that park’s image as a pastoral green oasis. That stone wall is actually an inviting and important feature of the park, creating a welcoming edge.

And I’ve long thought the large park near my apartment, Christie Pits Park, needs some extra treatment along its long Bloor Street frontage other than the current grass-meet-sidewalk situation. It doesn’t have to be elaborate by any means, but I think the park edge would benefit from a bit more definition and interaction with the street and help make that part of the park near the road more inviting.

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So: edges. Hard and soft, good and bad, depending who you ask, what they are doing, and how they are doing it. Simple, right?

When a park lives more for its design than for its people

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Last month Toronto’s newest park, June Callwood Park, opened just south of Fort York. Designed by gh3, it’s a beautiful plaza with granite pavers, trees, and, its most eye-catching feature, bubble-gum pink elements threaded throughout that will find much love on Instagram, I’m sure.

And yet, after visiting the park I felt disappointed.

June Callwood Park seems like a park that lives more for its design than for its people. As a piece of art, or a theatrical set, the park is wonderful. It has a compelling narrative behind its design in recreating the sonic waves of a June Callwood quote (“I believe in kindness”) in its granite pavers. Its pink highlights add the whimsy often lacking in Toronto parks.

But the park doesn’t make me want to stay and linger. In fact, it seems designed to let you flow through it and come out the other side with a few good pictures (though kids did seem intrigued by the pink maze-like structure).

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It’s not fair to really judge a new park before its had a chance to integrate itself into the surrounding community, though. Often people will find weird, creative, unintended uses for a space. This may happen at June Callwood Park. Maybe they’ll add more seating. Maybe the trees just need to grow taller.

But hyper-designed public spaces seem to disinvite participation, which I think is a crucial part of a successful park. People need to feel they can make it their own, adopt it and hack its elements to suit their own needs.

When a park’s design is so fine-tuned and seemingly perfect already it presents itself as a toy which, rather than being played with, should instead be left in its packaging and admired from afar.

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That’s not to say that the design of June Callwood Park is perfect. In fact, there are some key issues. One is that the gravel tree pits are flush with the granite of the park, meaning that small gravel pieces are already scattered throughout its surface. Another is that small changes in grade in the park’s south end create two inch lips that are hard to see and will present accessibility issues.

We should want our parks to be beautiful. We should advocate for designs that are unique, whimsical, and bold. But we also need to be sure we aren’t creating museum pieces, but spaces that can be used and lived in.

What Vancouver’s Mid Main Park can teach us about small parks

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I love tiny parks—the more itty-bitty the better—and when I was back in Vancouver recently, I made sure I went to visit the relatively new Mid Main Park at Main and 18th Street done by Hapa Collaborative. I had been watching the design process from my perch in Toronto and was excited to see what it looked like in person. In short, the park is awesome, and it can teach us a lot about how to create great small parks.

There are a few reasons why this park is great. One is that it uses its space incredibly well, creating different rooms in a pretty tiny park by changing the elevations, using curved pathways, and incorporating distinct design elements in different places. It’s also located at an interesting bend in Main Street and creates a nice place to stop and people watch.

The other reason though is found in the whimsy of its design. As this recent post in the excellent blog The Dirt points out, the design of the park was meant to evoke the feel of a nearby ice cream shop that had closed in the 1980s. The park includes candy-red stools, a sculpture that resembles bendy straws, long concrete benches, and a small grassy knoll. Too many times, small parks are left as a patch of grass with a bench or two when they can be so much more. Dare to dream big, tiny parks!

The final reason is that the park is also an excellent example of what can happen when a city reclaims under-utilized roadway for park space. The design called for the closing of a slip lane on the western portion. Closing this lane and turning it into part of the park allowed this piece of public space to be stitched back into the city.

image from Hapa Collaborative

Yes in my backyard park

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How do you create a park that entices people to come out in a place where everyone has their own private backyard “park” to hang out in? You turn the park into the most awesomest backyard of all.

With designs for a new waterfront park in Tulsa, Oklahoma landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates are doing just that. The park will feature tons of space for children to play in, but also BBQ and picnic spaces, and a “Lodge” with an indoor fireplace and an “informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees,” says the Architects Newspaper.

This made me think of something I’ve heard from a lot of people in Toronto lately who live in the more suburban areas of the city, which is that their parks need to offer them more of a reason to go there.

Designing parks can’t just be about putting in a few benches, some trees, a lawn, and then sitting back and waiting for everyone to come running. Especially when you’re in a part of the city where a bench, a tree, and a lawn is what they have fenced in behind their own houses.

Sure, maybe we can’t all hire MVVA to come and build us an “informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees,” but top-notch design isn’t the only way to entice people to parks. Program the park with farmer’s markets or kid’s art classes or outdoor yoga or mimes trapped inside invisible boxes—whatever, every community’s different. But give that park a centre of gravity and people will be pulled in from the neighbourhood around it.

image from MVVA

The park as mega-project

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One of the things I’m really interested in is how very built-out cities will be able to expand park space for increasingly dense populations. In these cases, cities often turn to the harder spaces like defunct industrial areas, hydro corridors, or out of service rail lines.

An idea that hadn’t crossed my mind was to build a park bridge. But that is exactly what it seems London may be doing with a new infusion of $30 million pounds announced by the British government for a project that would build a garden bridge over the Thames. With that funding, nearly half of the $150 million pounds needed has been secured.

The park bridge also fits into the idea of the park as a new kind of high-design mega-project that cities are increasingly willing to bet their money on in the hopes that it will spur the kind of real estate scramble and tourist stampede that New York’s High Line has done.

These mega-parks with their eye-popping designs are certainly attractive—and I think as a form of mega-project to stimulate an area do better than the old idea of plunking down a stadium—but I hope the result is not thinly stretched park budgets that leave these cities struggling to keep up with maintenance.

Flashy new parks often come with with flashy designs that are expensive to maintain. And getting rich donors and foundations to pony up for maintenance is much harder than collecting cash for construction. Everyone loves to cut a ribbon after all. I would hope that the fundraising push for any new mega-park like this would also come with an endowment that can fund maintenance for years to come.

image from The Independent