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.

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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

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mini-park image from the 2012 West End Community Profile

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