The case of Richmond Hill and the park by-law

So, big news. A judge has ruled that the Town of Richmond Hill is allowed to appeal an Ontario Municipal Board decision that—no, wait, where are you going? Come back, this is really interesting. OK, so the judge has ruled the Town can appeal an OMB decision that limited the amount of parkland the Town could get through the development process as it intensifies.

Why is this important? Well, because many other Greater Toronto Area municipalities are intensifying (Markham and Vaughan, to name just two) and they will need more parkland to serve these new higher-density areas, and they are not too pleased about the idea that the OMB, an unelected board that can overturn municipal planning decisions, could also cap their parkland dedications.

Ready for more park nerdery? Well, slip on your Blundstones because here we go

The Planning Act, which sets the rules for urban planning in the Province of Ontario, allows municipalities to use levies on new development to get land or money for parks. The regular way this is done is by requiring 5% of the land or a cash equivalent. This is okay for spread out subdivisions where you have a lot of land that houses a medium amount of people on it. Five percent works out to be okay. But if you have a tiny piece of land and a big tall condo on it filled with lots of people then 5% of the land doesn’t really get the amount of park space all those people need.

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So: the alternate rate

The alternate rate in the Planning Act allows municipalities to ask instead, in areas designated for higher density, for 1 hectare of land for every 300 units in a building. If you’re building a condo with, say, 600 units, you need to provide 2 hectare of land (or the cash equivalent). This makes more sense because a denser building = more units = more people living in the building = more park space needed. It’s all tied together with a nice little green bow.

Developers do not like that bow

The argument is that the money they must pay per unit for these park levies drives up the cost of housing in the end and is a disincentive to the kind of high-density development all these municipalities are trying to encourage. Which does make intuitive sense. The more fees you add onto each unit you build, the more expensive it is for the developer, and the more costly the unit in the end. However, in the real world where there is a market environment, there is only really so high you can price a unit, even if you are being charged a bunch of fees.

But wait, what’s this thing about Richmond Hill?

Right. So a few years ago Richmond Hill did a smart, proactive thing. They realized they had to intensify (because Provincial policy directs them to) and so they did up a Parks Plan that laid out the park needs in the Town. Then they calculated how much park space would be needed and used that to justify creating a by-law that asked for the full amount of the alternate rate: 1 hectare of parkland for every 300 units.

Developers did not like this

They appealed the park policies in the Official Plan to the OMB on the basis that it was too high and would be a disincentive to development. They argued it would actually discourage the kind of intensity the Town was hoping for, and contribute to unaffordable housing. The OMB ultimately agreed with the developers and capped the amount of land or cash the Town could ask for at 25% of the land area of the development.

IMG_0024.jpgOn a certain level, a cap does make sense

If you are building a condo on a plot of land that is 0.5 hectares in size, but will contain 300 units you will owe the Town 1 hectare of parkland, or the cash equivalent. See the issue? You don’t have 1 hectare of land. You have 0.5 hectares, and presumably you want to, you know, actually put your building on some of that. On the small sites that a lot of condo towers are built on you get into this weird situation with the alternate rate where you can owe more land than you have because you’re building a lot of units on a small piece of land. The solution? A cap.

But on another level, a cap doesn’t make sense

The fact that it’s a small piece of land doesn’t change the ultimate fact that the building will house X amount of people who need a place to walk their dog, play with their kids, or surreptitiously drink a beer on a picnic blanket while reading a book (not speaking from personal experience here). Capping the amount really does hinder the amount of parkland that is actually needed for all the people living in the building. In fact, Richmond Hill argued the OMB ruling cheated the Town out of $70 million in parkland that it needs for the future.

When you think about it, the OMB placing a cap is kinda messed up

Provincial legislation allowed municipalities to ask for 1 hectare of parkland for every 300 units if they pass a by-law stating so. Richmond Hill did a parks study that justifies the need to ask for that amount, so they passed a by-law. All perfectly legal. Then all of a sudden the OMB goes, um, nope. Really? Nope to something that Provincial legislation allows? Alrighty then, OMB.

So now Richmond Hill will argue its case in front of an appeals court, which could overturn the OMB ruling. If it does, this will be good news not just for Richmond Hill, but for Markham and Vaughan and all the other municipalities who are watching this and wondering how this will ultimately affect their ability to generate the needed parkland for their growing cities.

Let the Town decide what the Town needs

If the Town wants to set its alternate rate at the full amount allowed by law, they should be allowed to do it. If they find it is negatively impacting their goals of intensification because developers are less inclined to build tall buildings, then they can adjust it. The point is that it should be up to the municipality to make that decision. Didn’t we elect people to make these decisions? Didn’t we craft legislation to allow these things? OMB, you’re drunk, go home.

title image from Richmond Hill’s Regional Centre Design and Land Use Study, showing the approved parks and open space framework

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Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: The trouble with money

It’s finally happening. The City of Toronto is embarking on a multi-year study to create a parks and public realm plan for the downtown—something much needed. The first phase, now complete, was an information-gathering exercise to document the current state of things, the challenges, the potential opportunities. The next, now happening, is a public engagement piece to get people to reimagine the what, how, and where of downtown public spaces. Rejoice.

And downtown public spaces should concern more than those who live downtown, too. In fact, a recently released Downtown Parks Background Study by the City (a good read) found that half of parks in the downtown are of citywide importance due to their historical or cultural character. These are the public spaces we should all love and enjoy, no matter where we live in the city. Here’s the study area:

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In this post, I’m going to look at the challenges of park funding and the current system of development levies and park acquisition. I promise it’ll be fun. In the next post, I’ll write about the actual design and management of parks and the opportunities for doing things a little more creatively.

Some of this draws on the research from Park People’s Making Connections report, which was released in April 2015 and set a vision for a new way of doing parks and public spaces in Toronto. Some of it draws on the City’s own Downtown Parks Background Study. Some of it draws on the series Spacing did last year.

Are you ready for some park nerdery? If not, please check out this cat video. I won’t hold it against you.

For the rest of you, here we go:

Downtown rakes in the park money…but it doesn’t stretch too far

The City study goes into greater detail (page 8 and 9), but the short and rough version of how the City collects money for park development is through a levy on new construction (Section 42 for all you real nerds out there). The City receives a portion of the land (or the equivalent in cash of its value) for each new development.

If you want to build a big residential development you’re going to have to reserve 5% of your land for a park. If you’re building a skinny condo and that 5% of land gets the City a sliver of a park, then they may ask you for cash instead. This money goes into different accounts meant for park development and land acquisition both citywide and in the district.

In short more development = more money for park development.

From 2000 – 2011, the downtown wards (20, 27, and 28) pulled in a total of $85 million in park levies from development. In the next TWO YEARS, from 2012 – 2014, those same three wards pulled in an incredible $128 million.

That’s a lot of swing sets.

Ok, calm down. Only $46.6 million remains, with the rest spent or committed to projects. And it does sound like a lot of money. But then you get into real estate value in downtown. Which is completely bananas. An acre of land in the downtown could easily swallow up that entire amount in one hungry free market gulp.

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And so we get to…

Frenetic downtown development has created a hugely challenging situation for parks

Ready for more? The City has a policy that it cannot pay more than fair market value for any piece of land that it wants to acquire for a new park. So say the City finds a piece it wants to buy and offers the owner X. The owner then looks around at all the high-rise condo towers sprouting around her lot and says, um, yeah, thanks but I can get way more for this. And she’s right. So a developer, more nimble and able to pay higher prices for a piece of land, gets it first. Gulp. Gone.

This is all evident in just how little land the City has purchased in downtown for new parks. For example, between 2010 and 2013, the City purchased one tiny plot of land at 1,150 square metres for $600,000.

That’s not to say the City hasn’t created any new parks downtown. We’ve got a bunch of new public spaces, but they tend to be waterfront spaces created by Waterfront Toronto (Corktown Common!), or parks created by land dedication or other means besides buying land (Regent Park!). Here’s a tiny chart:

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So spending the money we collect can be difficult

And all of this is if the City can even find a suitable piece of land to purchase and make into a park. Walk around downtown. Try to find a spot for a nice new park. No, not that one—one that doesn’t already have a development application sign on it. It’s hard, right? Many of the pieces left are small and while developers are getting creative in squeezing tall buildings onto these tiny sites, creating a park on them is often impractical.

And because of these tiny development sites, the City often doesn’t want to take a piece of the land to make a park onsite because it would be too small, so it takes the cash contribution to buy land and then…well, you get the picture.

But the longer we wait to spend the money, the less that money is worth

This is not in the City report, but it’s something to think about. The money the City receives from a development is worth a portion of the land value at that moment in time. But then it sits in an account waiting for other bits of money to flow in before there’s enough to do something. Problem is during that time the city hasn’t stopped and land values have increased, so now the bit of money you got two years ago buys less land than it originally did.

Great, so now what?

Well, one thing the City is looking at doing is more pooling of different land dedications and money from developments in an area to create one larger park. The City successfully did that to create the soon-to-be park at 11 Wellesley, where contributions from developer Lanterra’s three nearby sites were combined with a small land purchase from the City at one location to get a larger park. This is a great idea and should be done more. In order to do this though, you ideally need an acquisition study that identifies areas and sites to acquire in the downtown. Luckily for us the TOCore parks and public realm plan will do this.

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OK, but what about creating new parks without buying land?

The City does this too. They’re called POPS—privately owned publicly-accessible spaces. It’s a nifty way of creating new open spaces downtown through the development process, but as privately-owned spaces they are really only accessories to the public spaces system, not a substitute for it. The Financial District is highly dependent on these spaces. There is only one public park–Cloud Gardens–for the entire area.

How about borrowing money to buy parks now?

One other idea I want to raise that I didn’t see in the City report is about borrowing money to buy parkland. If we know developments are coming—and we know developments are coming. City Planning staff love to show that rendering of the Toronto skyline with all the development proposals coming and see our jaws collectively drop—then can’t we borrow the money to buy land right now and pay those loans back when those future developments are built?

This way the City doesn’t have to play the game of waiting until funds reach a certain level to buy a piece of land…at which point the money has depreciated in value and, anyway, the land is gone. Let’s use our crazy development environment to our advantage.

I’m exhausted

Me too. It’s a challenging environment to work in. But also let’s remember that these challenges—hyper-development and a real desire to live in the downtown core—is also our greatest opportunity. If we harness this energy for good, we can do some great things for our parks. We just need to be creative, plan ahead, and act fast.

Next up: Getting creative with our park design, planning, and programming

the map and charts are from the City’s report, the photo is my own

Bridging gaps to expand our park systems

If a park is there, but people can’t get to it, does it still exist?

As cities grow in population and land for new parks becomes more difficult to find, we must refocus on the accessibility of our existing park system. If we have a great big park next to a neighbourhood, but a rail corridor, highway, or other barrier separates the two, then can we really say that park serves that community?

There are two ways to add parkland to a city. One is to buy more land and build more parks. The other is to connect existing parks better to the people that could use them. Okay, so the second one doesn’t actually mean you’re adding land to the system, but making that existing land more accessible can have almost the same effect–especially if you’re connecting an underused park to people that want to use it.

Take this example from New York:

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New York is building a pedestrian bridge to connect people over the West Side Highway to Riverside Park on the other side. Currently, the park is only accessible–if you can call it that–by going up and down a bunch of stairs and through a tunnel (which some residents noted feels unsafe). The new $24 million bridge is under construction right now and will make a more direct connection.

Toronto has long had a proposal to create a connection over the rail corridor in the South Niagara neighbourhood just north of Fort York in order to link a growing community to larger park spaces and the waterfront to the south (I’ve written about this before).

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Originally, the plan called for a land bridge that would basically create new parkland over top of the rail corridor (see above image). What’s now being proposed, however, is a pedestrian and cycling bridge that would connect new parkland being created just north of the rail corridor, with the already established large, green areas to the south. The title image to this post is one proposal for that bridge.

Also in Toronto, the Green Line proposal would require pedestrian bridges to link up different parcels of hydro corridor parks over top of the underpasses that have been carved out to allow drivers to flow underneath a rail corridor directly to the south. (Full disclosure: I work for the charity advocating for this project.) Link up these parks with bridges and you have a 5 kilometre continuous linear park. Don’t build the bridges and you have still useful, but much smaller disconnected skinny parks.

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Creating good connections between parks can be like knocking down walls in a house. There is essentially the same amount of space as before but it feels larger and more immediate.

It can also help parks increase their reach–a critical element for a growing city. A park that may have taken 25 minutes to get to by some hellish circuitous route, may now only take 5 minutes over a direct bridge crossing. The actual effect for people can be like adding new parkland. And, as we seen in the Fort York bridge example, these can become key elements of a cycling network.

So yes, of course, as cities grow we should be looking at opportunities to increase the amount of parks we have by acquiring more land. No amount of connections between parks can account for parks in high-density areas that are over-crowded already.

But I think sometimes we can get over-focused on the land acquisition issue as if it was the only solution to expanding the park system. Sometimes a better strategy is to look deeply at the parks you already have and make sure they are used well, connected to and serving the people they can. And if they’re not, then find a way to bridge that gap–sometimes literally.

photo credits: Landmark, NY Times, DTAH, Workshop Architecture

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.”

What does ‘park acquisition’ mean when we’re building parks in the air?

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A few weeks ago a rendering of a park in the sky from Metrolinx and developer Ivanhoe Cambridge made the rounds in Toronto. It would be built as the pedestrian connection for two proposed towers that flank the rail corridor.

The Ivanhoe Cambridge proposal is not the first time that a ‘park in the sky’ has been proposed for Toronto, though.

A few days ago I was looking through old parks and open space plans for the Fort York neighbourhood and saw that the spot where we’re now getting a pedestrian and cycling bridge was originally proposed as a “land bridge” that would connect new parks below Stanley Park with new parkland south of the rail corridor and Coronation Park.

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That plan says that the crossing over the rail corridor “should be developed as a broad land bridge to extend the sense of landscape continuity…” and provide space for cyclists, pedestrians, and possibly emergency vehicles.

It’s a compelling idea, but the land bridge raises an interesting question: where could the money have come from?

In Toronto, every residential development must either dedicate 5% of its land as parkland or pay the city an equivalent amount in cash. This money is then used for park development and acquisition of new parkland. Ontario’s Planning Act Section 42 (15) states that this money can be “spent only for the acquisition of land to be used for park or other public recreational purposes.”

So, what about a land bridge? You’re not acquiring land, but you are building more of it and linking parks together. Is that an appropriate and allowable use? What about building a park island, like they’re proposing in New York? Would that count? Or how about “acquiring” street space like they did in Seattle, where park acquisition funds were used to build Bell Street Park?

Anyway, redefining what acquisition means or clarifying what it could mean is an interesting question to think about as we begin to look at more outside-of-the-box ways to create new parks or link them together.

Ken Greenberg on planning parks and open spaces as a network

Ken Greenberg gave a great interview to Civic Action’s Emerging Leaders Network a few days ago with his take on the new thinking that’s needed about how we plan parks and open spaces in our cities. Greenberg is the Principal at Greenberg Consultants and also on the board of Toronto Park People (where I work). He is the former Director of Urban Design and Architecture at the City of Toronto.

In the interview, Greenberg speaks about the need to plan parks and open space as networks of different kinds of spaces in order to respond to the challenges of a growing, dynamic city. This is a topic Greenberg has spoken about before in an interview he did with Spacing Magazine back in July.

“Very often what’s important is not just the individual spaces, but the networks,” Greenberg says, such as our streets, trails, and other public spaces.

“If we only follow the traditional roots, which is to have a sum of money to go out and purchase a piece of land and try to create a park, a traditional park, as a discrete separate thing in the city–there are limitations to doing that: the land has become extremely expensive, it’s hard to get a hold of large pieces of land. So this means we have to get much more creative.”

Greenberg also offers some good advice to young people out there:

“Be bold. Be inventive. Don’t accept the strictures and the conventions and all the reasons why not. Because there are lots of them. You’ll hear that all the time: we can’t do this because this, that, or the other. But really push back if you have good ideas. And persevere. Be patient, but also be forceful.”

Be sure to follow Ken on Twitter.

Leveraging laneways as park connections

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Last week I went to Toronto’s first laneway summit, put on by the Laneway Project, an organization that hopes to start a discussion about the potential of the city’s more than 250 kilometres of laneways to become more people-friendly spaces.

Much attention has been paid to cities that are promoting commercial uses, restaurant cafes, and public art in their laneways, like Seattle and Melbourne. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of digging into how cities are using laneways to create a fine-grained network of linear green spaces that connect existing parks.

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Spacing Magazine’s Dylan Reid, one of the Laneway Project presenters, wrote a good piece on laneways as shared street spaces and pedestrian connections. And many cities are looking to capitalize on that potential by including laneways as part of the parks and public realm planning tools in local neighbourhood plans, or through programs or projects specifically designed to look at the potential of laneways as green park-like spaces and connectors.

Laneways not only create pleasant, fine-grained, and safe ways to walk or bike to the park, but can help extend the park itself into the neighbourhood and draw your eye to the park from other streets. The key is to prioritize improvements to laneways that can serve that connection function to an existing space.

San Francisco’s Market and Octavia Area Plan is a great example of how laneways are being looked at as connections and extensions of parks. Calling these potential laneways “living alleys,” the plan lays out where the potential improvements could be made. Many end or connect to existing parks, helping to increase open space access in an area the City says needs more neighbourhood-scale parks, but has few opportunities for more.

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And Los Angeles is also looking to use laneways as park-like connectors to existing parks and schools in neighbourhoods that are low in parkland. Jodi Delaney of the Trust for Public Land, which is working with the City of Los Angeles on the project, told the LA Times the benefits of greening laneways goes beyond just creating more park-like places, but helps to reduce stormwater run-off and the urban heat island effect.

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We haven’t quite grasped the potential of laneways in Toronto yet, but we are moving, it seems, slowly in the right direction. The draft public realm plan for the downtown King-Spadina area (I work right on the edge at Richmond and Spadina) maps out potential and existing mid-block connections.

However, it doesn’t include potential greening or park-like improvements as options, which is a shame because this area is, as city staff point out, a high-density neighbourhood low in green space and only growing in population. It’s also home to a lot of workers who just need a place to sit outside and enjoy their lunch or have a short break–something a redesigned laneway could offer.

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It doesn’t have to be complicated

It almost goes without saying, but there are different solutions for different types of laneways. It’s all dependent upon what the local community needs, the function of the laneway for vehicles and servicing, and the width and sunlight available. The Seattle Integrated Alley Handbook is a good resource for how to approach different types of laneways.

But just adding planters can do a lot for an otherwise dingy, uninviting laneway space. In the laneway behind my office building, a row of planter boxes outside helps to make it much more pleasant.

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Vancouver’s until recently apparently forgotten Country Lanes pilot project from 2002 saw several laneways introduce permeable surfaces and plantings to create a wonderful back road feel (see title picture). This is a bit like the “Ruelle Verte” program by Montreal’s Eco-quartiers, which partners with residents to improve the feel of their laneway by adding plantings and reducing impermeable surfaces (you can see a map of them here).

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It’s great to see so many of these project springing up from residents themselves who want to improve the quality of their spaces. But we also need our city planners and government to recognize the potential in these spaces and allow these types of projects to happen through supportive policies and plans.

title image from National Post’s Ben Nelms, maps from their respective plans, planter picture my own, and Montreal picture from Eco-quartiers.

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.

A $170 million park island may be coming to New York, largely dreamed up and paid for by one rich guy. Is this good?

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Yesterday I woke up to the above picture of a proposed park island in New York’s Hudson River along with breathless reporting about the very, super, incredibly rich person behind the vision and the money to get it built.

The low down: Media mogul Barry Diller will pay a heart-stopping $130 million of the cost of this park island, while the City, State, and Hudson River Park Trust will kick in another $39.5 million. The park will feature performance spaces that, it seems, Diller has already figured out everything for. He has offered to pay for operating costs for 20 years. Diller originally pledged $35 million to help the Hudson River Park Trust revitalize Pier 54, but then he got some big ideas and his commitment became also big.

And so: park island.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to see such an incredible level of private interest and investment in a public park. But on the other hand, it’s troubling to see such an incredible level of private interest and investment in a public park.

I’m not saying private investment in public spaces is bad–it can do a lot of good for cash-strapped city park departments, but it should be grounded within an open public process and local community needs.

As Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates told NY Daily News: “Diller is obviously being extremely generous, but private citizens are being able to dictate public spaces,” adding that “the public has been completely left out.”

Diller’s own comment made me cringe a bit. “We are so luck as a family that we get to do this,” he said.

It is also interesting to note how this announcement of Diller’s $130 million dollar gift to build a mega-park is almost the perfect mirror image of the $130 million the NYC Parks Department announced a few weeks ago to revitalize 35 community parks in low income neighbourhoods as part of Mayor de Blasio’s new park equity focus.

Now it seems de Blasio has even out-Bloomberged Bloomberg with the park island deal.

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I’m not writing this to be a downer or proclaim that I think that the park island is a bad idea. I don’t know enough about the specifics of the Hudson River Park Trust or the park needs in that area.

But we should be critical and ask questions about very large private investments in public space that come from one person who has dramatically shaped the final result without, it seems, much input from the public.

It’s easy to get starry eyed from dreamy renderings and jaw-dropping proposals, but once we get a chance to wipe the dazzle from our eyes, we should ask ourselves a few questions.

Questions like: How much was the public consulted or not consulted about this idea? How much say did the City have in shaping the proposal? How much say does Diller have in what gets built and how it operates? Will he walk away from the project if changes are proposed? What happens if (when) the cost of the park goes up? Who covers that? How expensive will this be to maintain when Diller’s 20 year operating agreement is up and the infrastructure is old? Who does it serve? Who does it not serve?

Then there are other questions like: is it even smart to build a park island when climate change means more superstorms in New York’s future?

Just because someone offers to pay for something spectacular doesn’t mean you should do it, or even that it’s a good idea. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should just applaud and say go for it. As Croft said, we have to think long and hard about what it means to have one very rich person dictate the shape of our public spaces largely without community input.

Now that it’s out in the public, there will be a debate. And I hope it will be vigorous.

images by Heatherwick Studio