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.

The network effect

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.

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.

Vancouver Mini Park Elements

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

The many personalities of Vancouver’s traffic circles

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One of the things I miss dearly about Vancouver from my perch in Toronto are the traffic circles. It feels weird to even type that—like someone saying they miss an on ramp—but honestly, these traffic circles are wonderful. Yes, some look a bit mangy, but they are all unique in their own tiny, wonderful, circular way.

Many are tended by volunteers from the neighbourhood who work with the City through the Green Streets program to water and take care of the plants. This provides spaces for those that may not have their own yard to do a bit of gardening. But the really great thing is that these residents get to add their own flare, so each traffic circle has a different personality.

Sometimes that personality even extends beyond the usual flowers and plants into other more spontaneous uses like when a resident near the 10th Avenue bikeway transformed a nearby traffic circle into a tiny meeting spot called, awesomely, Gather Round. I’m not sure if this is still happening, but if you’re in Vancouver be sure to stop in for tea if you can.

Makes me wonder what else you can do in a traffic circle? Maybe a little reading group with circular benches and a mini library? A small bike repair station with an air pump? A bar to cozy up in at night for a beer or two? A boy can dream.

The traffic circles also help visually break up long street views, making neighbourhoods feel cozier and greener—no more big grey intersections. And they’re great for cyclists because you don’t have any of those pesky stop signs to ignor—er, stop fully at.

More mini-traffic circles, I say! And more residents getting the chance to put their own unique (green) thumb print on their city.

Vancouver brings the park into the street

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It’s exciting to see cities taking the idea of the ‘park’ and extending that into the street. As cities get more and more built up and land for new parks is difficult to find, we are going to have to leverage the public space of our streets and redesign them to do more than just move cars.

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway, which connects the West End and English Bay to the Hornby separated bike lanes, is a great example of turning a street into a place to linger, rather than just move through. The next phase extends it into Yaletown.

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The idea is to take a relatively low traffic volume street and enhance it for cycling and walking, bringing a park-like experience to a street while also connecting many green spaces together.

To do that, the City has not only put in some separated bike lanes where needed, but they have installed street furniture like tables and chairs at different spots along the way and created small rain gardens and other street gardens to bring more greenery into the street and help with storm water management.

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From the signs I saw on some of the new little gardens, they are maintained by nearby neighbours. (The white picket fence garden has a message from “Michael” asking people not to pick the flowers.) New bulb outs on the street slow down cars further and help pedestrians cross the street by narrowing the width they have to walk.

During my week long stay in Vancouver, I found myself drawn back again and again to the street. It is an incredibly pleasant experience to ride your bike or stroll along it. Despite the fact that it is still a street, it does have the feeling of a linear park.

When is a street not a street? When it’s a park, of course

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I’m so excited to see that Open Streets Toronto, which proposes opening up a stretch of Bloor Street for four Sundays this summer to people rather than cars between High Park and Withrow Park, is gaining momentum.

We don’t often think of them this way, what with all the vehicles rumbling along them 24/7, but the streets of our cities are our largest public spaces.

In Toronto, for example, there are 5,617 kilometres of roadways comprising 27.4 percent of the city’s area. To put that in perspective, parks and open spaces cover just about 13 percent of Toronto.

So it’s not surprising that in dense cities where new land for parks is difficult to come by, people are looking at streets that can be permanently or temporarily opened up to people to create new open spaces and pop-up parks. These not only get people outside, they allow people to experience their city in new ways and help connect neighbourhoods.

There is probably a health argument here somewhere, but forget about that eat-your-greens stuff for a moment. What about a fun argument? Shouldn’t we be allowed to play in the street for four Sundays in the summer?

No, say some people. Streets are for cars, trucks and busses. It will cause gridlock, chaos, anarchy.

There are 2,232 hours in summer where Bloor Street is open for cars (okay, okay there are some other smaller street closures for festivals, I’m spit-balling here). Open Streets Toronto is proposing to use 20 of those hours (five hours on four different Sundays) for people only. That’s a pretty small percentage of hours that cars won’t be able to travel east-west this summer.

0.0089 percent to be exact.

If this was a pie chart, this slice of time would be so thin as to be almost invisible. Here, look:

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North American cities from Austin to New York City to Vancouver have already experimented with opening up stretches of roadway in the summer in similar programs to Open Streets Toronto. So far their economies are doing okay, fingers-crossed.

I was in New York City a few summers ago and stumbled upon Summer Streets, which opened up portions of roadway in Manhattan to people. I borrowed a free bike and zoomed up towards Central Park with thousands of others. I passed people doing yoga, taking dance lessons, or just walking around.

Everyone was giddy about the fact that they were in the middle of Park Avenue. For a few hours on a sunny summer day, the street lived up to its name.

[If you’re in Toronto, be sure to write to the City’s economic development committee with your support of Open Streets Toronto before Tuesday, April 15th. The Open Streets Toronto proposal is on the agenda for the committee’s April 16th meeting. Check it out here.]

photo from Viva Streets Austin, Flickr (cc)