We can turn King Street into downtown’s front porch

One of the first things I noticed about Toronto when I moved here from Vancouver was that it didn’t have much opportunity to stop and just hang out on the street.

Streets were far narrower than they were in Vancouver and there just wasn’t as much room for seating. And yet this is one of the best things to do on a street—just sit and watch people go by. If parks are our shared backyards, then great streets are our shared front porches.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the King Street Pilot started in Toronto. At its core, the pilot is about movement—specifically moving the most people the most efficient way along the street, which is by streetcar. The pilot restricts cars from travelling right through intersections to help speed up streetcar travel.

But the King Street Pilot is also a chance to talk about how streets can be places to linger, to stay awhile and experience the city, as well as places of movement. Because the pilot has also opened up 21 new public spaces out of parts of the roadway–spaces the City calls a “relief valve” for pedestrians on crowded sidewalks.

I’d rather think of it as an opportunity to create a bunch of front porches along the street.

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This is a chance to rediscover how streets can be a part of our public space system, in a way that we haven’t had the opportunity to do so before on such a scale and in such a visible way as King Street. I also hope this paves the way for this kind of transformation of car space to people space in other parts of the city, particularly areas outside the downtown where streets are wide and intimidating.

Some people call these spaces parklets—the name given to small public spaces constructed in parallel parking spots along streets. These were first seen in San Francisco and soon popped up in cities all over North America. I’d rather we just drop that name, which feels like a tired too cute trend by now, and just call it regular old public space.

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These public spaces are not going to be ones that can accommodate a soccer field or a kid’s playground or a dog park, but they can contribute in a big way to the social space in our city.

We’ve done this before along Church and, in a larger way, as part of the John Street Pilot, which saw the sidewalk space extended into the roadway and Muskoka chairs and picnic tables scattered throughout for the summer.

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These spaces don’t have to be fancy—they just have to be open, flexible, accessible, and comfortable. While some cities use them as spaces to create more outdoor patios for restaurants and cafes, I hope we preserve them as publicly accessible to everyone–whether you’ve purchased something or not.

It would also be interesting to see them each take on a different character. The King Street Pilot, which runs from Jarvis to Bathurst, goes through a few different neighbourhoods with their own flavours. The public space created in front of St. James Park offers a different opportunity than one near Spadina, for example.

They also offer opportunities for experimentation. One of the interesting things about San Francisco’s parklets is that they are all different, and some of them are truly strange.

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While I wouldn’t want to see the whole route taken up by weird concept spaces (although I’d love if someone turned one of them into an outdoor library/reading room), it would be great to see some interesting, strange ideas for how they can be used. Indeed, the City seems open to this. During the winter there will be a call to residents, businesses, and organizations on how to use these spaces, including some “creative installations.” Artists, take note.

We likely won’t see the full potential of these new public spaces until spring comes around to us again in Toronto, but when it does I’ll be there often, sitting on the front porch of the city watching everyone go by. Maybe in that reading room?

Photo credits: title image from Paul Krueger (Flickr CC), King Street Pilot map and John Street photo from the City of Toronto, and the two parklets are here and here.

 

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Weaving parks into the city through better connections

Have you ever stumbled upon a park you never knew about in a neighbourhood you thought you knew well? It’s happened to me before, usually while I’m searching for something on Google Maps and I notice a little green square a few streets away, tucked away into the corner somewhere.

What if there was a way to draw parks out, especially in dense areas where green space is at a premium, helping to weave parks throughout the neighbourhood, reach more people, and create new public space as a result?

I thought about this again while I watched Adam Nicklin and Marc Ryan from PUBLIC WORK at an event this past weekend where they presented some of the ideas in the forthcoming Parks and Public Realm master plan for Toronto’s downtown. One concept, called park districts, focuses on how to create a network of parks and public spaces in particular neighbourhoods by focusing on the linkages and connections between them.

In my head, I always called this focus on connections “park fingers” or “park tentacles,” but park districts sounds maybe a bit less weird. It’s something I’ve written about before, specifically in a Park People report from 2015 called Making Connections that focused on different ideas to create networks of parks and public spaces in dense areas.

Essentially the idea is to find corridors, usually existing streets with low car traffic, that could be redesigned or revitalized to create stronger, hopefully green, connections between an existing park and its surrounding neighbourhood. This works especially well for parks that are more internal or face onto quieter streets.

If we can’t find land to build new parks in dense neighbourhoods, then maybe we can help draw those parks out farther into the city. These streets become connections to the park, yes, but they also become public spaces and a place to linger themselves.

The example that comes to mind most for me is St. Andrew’s Playground–a small park in the extremely busy and park-starved King-Spadina area where I work. This park is well-used by people with dogs, workers eating lunches balanced on their knees, and kids in the playground (the first in the city). But it’s also one that you wouldn’t know existed unless you meandered over, despite busy Spadina Avenue being right next door.

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The way I get to the park is walking down Camden Street. This street is pretty wide with plenty of room for landscaping, trees, and seating–except that it’s used mostly for car parking, which is allowed right on the sidewalk. This drives me crazy. Is this really the best use of our scarce downtown public space?

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Get rid of the car parking and turn the street into a true park connection that re-positions Camden as its own linear public park/plaza, but also helps draw people from Spadina down the street and into St. Andrew’s Playground. This could be part of the massive Waterworks development that is happening right at the end of this street, adjacent to the park, which will include a new food hall, condos, YMCA, and an expanded bit of green space.

Here are two more I often think about, but I know there are dozens of others across the city.

Trinity Square is a beautiful square tucked away next to the Eaton Centre. It has a large uneven expanse of cobblestone and a church stuck in its middle. Here, both James Street and Albert Street–quieter, low car volume streets that are fairly wide–could help draw people in from both City Hall to the west and Queen Street to the south, while creating more usable public space.

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Another is Cloud Gardens in the Financial District, which is actually the area’s only public park–the rest are what are called privately-owned public spaces created by private owners through agreements with the city and maintained for public use. Many don’t even know that Cloud Gardens, with its strange green house building, is even there. Temperance Street, however, is ripe for re-imagining as a connection that could help more people find and use the park (which is badly in need of a refresh).

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What are examples from your own neighbourhoods?

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.

Pride and the politics of public space

The day after Pride Toronto this year, I scrolled through pictures of people smiling, laughing, and walking hand in hand in the streets. I saw politicians of different political stripes marching down the street and corporations sporting rainbow versions of their logos. And then I scrolled through a different set of pride photos. People screaming, waving posters, being thrown onto the ground by cops. The first set of photos were from Toronto’s pride and the second from Turkey’s pride.

It was an important reminder that our celebrations this past weekend in Toronto were made possible by the protests of yesterday, and that elsewhere in the world, and even in our own community, those struggles continue.

And they continue in public space—in the streets and parks of our cities. Because public space is where we go to celebrate, but it’s also where we go to protest.

This line between celebration and protest can be blurry, because the politics of public space can be at once joyful and painful. A protest doesn’t have to be morose and negative; it can be an affirming expression of taking up space—or stepping back to give space to others. It can be angry and colourful, frustrating and fabulous. It can be a burst of confetti amid shouts.

At the core of Pride is this assertion of the right to the city, a right to public space. To make the often invisible visible, the marginalized centred. My favourite part of Pride is wandering the streets—not just the ones that have been closed for official Pride events, but all over downtown—and seeing people out in full view. As a closeted teen uncertain and often ashamed of himself, this was incredibly powerful.

Straight people who don’t understand Pride, or why it’s needed anymore when we have the right to marry, don’t understand this core. They don’t understand that they take up space every day in this city on its streets and in its parks in a way that LGBTQ people don’t and sometimes can’t.

They don’t understand there is still a risk, even in Toronto, that the word faggot will be hurled out of a moving car or out of the mouth of a man across the street because you chose to hold your partner’s hand in public. That hate crimes towards LGBTQ people have, since 2006 in Toronto, been in the top three of hate crimes reported each year. That there is truth in the fact that many people still don’t want us to be able to express ourselves in a public space, the way they are able to do without even thinking.

But, even still, as an able-bodied white gay man, my experience in public space, in how I’m received and treated, in the spaces that are open to me, is different than others–and this is critical for us to recognize. I have written about this before, but it’s worth saying again: public space is not equally enjoyed.

As Black Lives Matter Toronto made clear at last year’s parade and again with a powerful reminder this year, there is much more to be done here for Black, Indigenous, racialized, trans people, and people with different abilities. Sometimes the most powerful protest is to show up, as BLMTO has done, to take up and reclaim space. As Rodney Diverlus of BLMTO said at the parade this year: “We’re out here for Pride to take up space and remind you that Black queer and trans people exist.”

This was, after all, the impetus for those first Pride parades in Toronto more than 30 years ago. To take up space and shout that we are queer and here.

It’s good that these conversations play out in full public view. Public space has always been, and continues to be, a process of negotiation, of give and take. That process is not always comfortable, but it is necessary. We gather in the street, in the square, in the park, to shout or to hug—sometimes at the same time—and we push forward.

Photo by Neal Jennings from Wiki Creative Commons

Public space is unequally enjoyed

When I was a teen growing up in White Rock, BC, the hip place to hang out was the McDonalds. Or, more specifically, the bit of public space in between the McDs and the Subway. Until the building owner installed speakers facing into the space that played classical music all day long. Either this was a misguided attempt to culturally indoctrinate the local teenage population with a love of classical music or, more likely, it was to repel them. It worked.

Public space is not equally enjoyed. We design public spaces to enable and encourage use, but we can also wield design to prevent and discourage use by “undesirables.” Design is not neutral. It can send a clear message: this space is not for you. Move along, please.

This past week someone noticed a speaker installed on the side of a building next to McGill Parkette–a small sliver of green space nestled between buildings east of Yonge Street near to Covenant House, a youth shelter. It was posted on Reddit and confirmed by @Matttomic on Twitter.

The speaker emits a frequency audible to young people under the age of 30 (which, sadly, is not me). In an interview with a Toronto Star reporter, a building representative said the device was not aimed at young people, but then provided a link to the Mosquito Device (a self-described anti-loitering device) that emits an annoying high-pitched frequency heard only by young people.

(And oh, look, if you want you upgrade you can get the Music Mosquito, “a complete music system that will relay Royalty free Classical or Chill-out music that would keep the teenagers away to some extent.” Thanks a lot, Music Mosquito.)

The local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, expressed concern and said her office was looking into it. “I think it’s very disconcerting that there are certain types of people that are viewed as undesirable,” she told the Toronto Star reporter.

A visit to McGill Parkette myself on Friday afternoon revealed the speaker had already been removed. But it also revealed a park that is highly surveilled (I counted at least four cameras). The anti-loitering speaker is only a very egregious and obvious example of the practice of creating defensive spaces that are meant to protect against use by people, not encourage it. While McGill Parkette still has benches (someone was asleep on one), two other nearby parkettes were recently redesigned to contain absolutely no seating whatsoever. The message? Walk through here, but for god’s sake please don’t loiter.

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Loitering is an interesting word in relation to parks. Don’t we want people to loiter? Isn’t that the exact purpose of a public park? But that word is only aimed at certain park users. I have the privilege of being able to use public spaces without fear of anyone asking me to move along. I can hang out in a park for hours, take a nap on a bench, crack a beer in Trinity Bellwoods without worry. Loitering refers to, you know, undesirables.

The building rep said that the park had become “a high risk area for crime.” To be sure, creating safe spaces is important. The park is narrow, fenced in, and very enclosed, with an entrance only on one side. I can see how it could create an intimidating environment. Good lighting, additional entry points, and clear sight-lines could go a long way towards creating a space that is safer without preventing its use by people.

In fact, the City is hoping to redesign the park, but since it leases the space from the building it needs the building owners approval to do so–approval they have not given because it seems they want to turn the space into a loading area. The plot thickens.

At any rate, the answer to creating safe public spaces is not to design out certain users. And certainly not for a private entity to install something that inhibits the use of a public space by young people. Or to design public spaces with no seating, for that matter.

When we design our public spaces in this way, we all lose. But those who are already at a disadvantage lose even more. People experiencing homelessness or those who are at-risk need public spaces even more than the rest of us. If you don’t have a living room or a place to hang out then the local park becomes one. If you don’t have a bed, then that bench becomes your afternoon nap spot. This isn’t loitering, it’s living.

 

 

 

Understanding the intersection of parks, mental health, and equity

When I feel stressed at work, I get outside and walk to the nearest park. I lie on my back and watch the clouds go by or sit against the trunk of a tree and read. Breathe in, breathe out. Sometimes I’m only out there for 10 or 15 minutes, but I always feel better.

This past Wednesday was Bell’s annual Let’s Talk campaign to reduce the stigma around mental health issues, and so it seems an appropriate time to write a little something about the link between parks and mental health in cities. Do parks really make us feel better? If so, how? And, crucially, are those benefits available to all in a city?

There is a lot of research into these questions. In fact, if you printed out all the articles and scientific studies and stacked them on top of each other it would reach to the top of the CN Tower. (I don’t know if that’s true, but I always like when people write things like that).

CityLab compiled a pretty comprehensive list about the influence of parks on health, including mental health, which you can read here. But as a run-down, parks have been shown to reduce stress levels, improve mood and focus, and reduce depression and anxiety. Parks may also help us not to die. These links have been studied both for short-term exposure to green space—going for my 10 minute visit during a work break—and for long-term exposure—moving to a neighbourhood with more trees and parks nearby.

But these benefits are not distributed evenly in our city as they depend on things like access to green space (can you walk to a park?) and access to high-quality green spaces (when you get to that park is it full of garbage and broken benches?). This is where parks, mental health, and equity intersect.

It is a complicated area to tease out, which is why recently published work by Toronto-based researcher Nadha Hassen out of the Wellesley Institute is so important.

The two papers—a scoping review and a theoretical framework—consist of a review of academic literature related to the association between green space and mental health and a good discussion of how this intersects with neighbourhood-based inequities.

One of the most interesting findings from Nadha’s research was the emphasis on the quality of green space as a factor for positively influencing well-being. Often these studies look at access or quantity of green space, either by measuring distance between homes and parks or using satellite imagery to determine how much green space is in a neighbourhood. But it’s the more subjective, and harder to measure, quality of parks that really have an important influence on our well-being.

Quality measurements that Nadha found were things like: is the area species-rich and biodiverse? Is it aesthetically pleasing, clean, and well-maintained? Is it quiet, peaceful, and well-lit? Are there facilities and amenities that are useful? Are there water features and reflecting pools? Is it safe?

Additionally, social interactions in parks were also found to increase the positive impacts of parks on well-being—something that I also found when researching Sparking Change, a report Park People is releasing in February on the social impacts of parks in underserved neighbourhoods.

The reason Nadha’s research is important and worth emphasizing is that park maintenance is often first on the table in cities that find their operating budgets constrained and look year to year for areas to make cuts. In fact, just this year Toronto’s proposed 2017 operating budget included a reduction in maintenance for parks in high-use times and for gardens—something we spoke out strongly against. Luckily this cut has been reversed, but the final decision still must be made by City Council in February.

Investments in park quality are particularly important in our underserved neighbourhoods—those 31 areas that the City of Toronto has identified as Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. If well-maintained, clean, attractive, safe, and well-programmed parks can positively impact mental health and well-being, then investments in gardens, grass-cutting, park programming, and amenities like playgrounds and pathways should be made through the lens of public health and equity as much as through park operations and maintenance.

As Nadha writes: “To strive towards creating mental health-promoting green spaces, we need to ensure access to good quality green spaces that meet the needs of diverse populations. In urban settings, neighbourhoods with low-income, newcomer, and racialized populations tend to have lower access to available, good quality green spaces compared to other groups that are higher income and white.”

Having data to make these decisions about where to invest would be great. Which is why, as Nadha suggests, we should develop tools to evaluate park quality—using some of the indicators that Nadha uncovered like cleanliness, amenities, programming, natural environment, and safety—as a measure for public health and equity. It would be great to see this data collected with community members themselves—kind of like neighbourhood safety audit walks do currently.

This information would help us prioritize investments to ensure everyone has a beautiful, clean, and welcoming park nearby when they need to sit under a tree and de-stress.

Toronto’s Green Line takes a huge leap towards reality

Big news for the Green Line, a project that I’ve been involved with at my work, Park People, since 2014.

The Green Line is a vision to transform a hydro corridor into a 5km linear park and trail, connecting multiple communities along its length and providing new green spaces for areas that are lacking in parks. We actually just released a video (above) showcasing the potential of the hydro corridor as a linear park and outlined some of the challenges and opportunities for making it a reality.

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The project has received a lot of community and political support over the past few years, but one of the key things we’ve been pushing has been a City-initiated master plan for the Green Line. This master plan would, as we saw it, create a path forward for the project by outlining necessary improvements, connections needed, amenities, and potential new green spaces. The master plan would be a key document for changing what is now dealt with as a series of disconnected parks into a connected linear park with a common threaded identity. You can read more here.

That’s why it’s such big news that the City has hired a team of consultants to engage with communities along the route and create this plan in 2017. Called the Green Line Implementation Plan, it will outline the steps needed to make this a reality. There’s also over $1 million already in the capital budget for the next three years to implement portions of the plan. We’re excited at Park People to be a partner with the City on initiating this study.

With all the coming residential development along Dupont Street, new green spaces are going to be needed. There are already a number of applications for new mid- and high-rise buildings along Dupont and not many opportunities to create new green spaces. The Green Line is going to be an important park space and pedestrian route that serves both these new residents and existing residents along its length.

Linear parks are also very good bang for your buck in terms of park space. Because they are stretched out and thread their way through multiple neighbourhoods, they actually serve more people within a five minute walk than a similar sized park in a more traditional square shape. They also create opportunities for active transportation, providing a safe and pleasant place to walk, ride, and roll. And they’re not just good for people: linear parks provide much-needed corridors for wildlife, like pollinators, which we need more of in our city.

I hope one day in the next few years, I’ll be able to lace up my runners and take a jog along the Green Line.

 

 

Our city is growing — our parks budget must grow, too

This year was an exciting one for public spaces in Toronto. There was the announcement of the Under Gardiner (now The Bentway), Rail Deck Park, a renewed Grange Park, a “super park” in the Lower Don Valley, and strong support for The Green Line.

Toronto is booming in population and we are finally beginning to match that boom by seeding some much-needed investment in new and renewed parks in neighbourhoods across the city. But we risk falling behind if we don’t ensure that our budget to maintain those parks keeps pace. Despite all of this growth, the proposed budget would actually cut maintenance funding in our parks this year—and during their busiest use times.

As an independent charity that builds stronger communities by animating and improving parks in all corners of Toronto, Park People, where I work, believes strong public funding is crucial for a great park system.

This year the proposed operating budget for Parks, Forestry, and Recreation includes a cut of 0.3% from last year. This may seem like a small number, but included within that reduction is maintenance, horticulture, and urban agriculture funds—totalling $636,000—that were approved in the 2016 budget. The maintenance funds specifically went towards enhanced weekend and evening maintenance in high-use times like summer.

Cutting these from the budget also means we are reversing the first investments the City made towards operating initiatives in the City’s Parks Plan, which was a five-year plan that was meant to take us to 2017. While improvements like new social gathering spaces have been funded from the Plan, City staff note: “funding for operating has been a challenge.” It’s more than a shame to reach the end of the Parks Plan’s lifespan by reversing some of its vital initiatives.

The price of maintaining parkland is rising, too. More people using parks, more activities, and more complex designs means steadily higher costs. In the last three years the cost of maintaining parks has risen about $600 per hectare. By 2019, it will have increased $1,000 per hectare since 2014. All of this makes a 2017 budget that proposes to reduce, or even flat line our investment in parks maintenance, concerning.

This year also saw positive interest from philanthropy in our parks. There was the $25 million gift to the City from Judy and Wil Matthews for The Bentway and a number of other gifts to projects like the Lower Don Valley “super park.” Since it was launched in early 2013, the Weston Family Parks Challenge, which Park People administers, has invested nearly $4.5 million in projects around Toronto—almost all outside the downtown.

But let’s be clear: while private donations towards public space can be an important and welcome component of creating a great park system—just like donations to hospitals or public libraries—it is no substitute for a strong base of public funding. Philanthropy should add, not replace. Philanthropy is also not likely to step up and fund such critical core services such as grass-cutting and gardening. Nor should it. If parks are our common grounds, then we must invest in them as such—together.

Since there are no service levels mandated by the Province, the parks operating budget often feels the squeeze come budget time. Cutting funding for maintenance and garden renewal is also not an immediately visible cut—no walking to your favourite park only to find it closed because of budget cuts—but the effect it has on our city is just as real.

Well-maintained, beautiful parks are not a frill, but a crucial component of the social and environmental infrastructure of our city. Research has shown that attractive, clean parks encourage more people to use them and instill a sense of neighbourhood pride, bringing both health and social benefits—benefits that are particularly important in our more underserved neighbourhoods and support the City’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

We are excited and invigorated by the renewed focus on parks and public spaces in Toronto, by the announcements from Mayor John Tory, and the support from City Councillors across the city. If we are to build a liveable, resilient, and socially connected city as we continue to grow in population and density, then we must invest in our parks—and not just by building new parks, but in the money and City staff to keep them as beautiful as the day the ribbon was cut.

Originally posted on Park People‘s website. 

 

Vancouver vs. Toronto: A tale of two 21-acre parks

It’s not often that a dense, city centre gets to create a new 21-acre park that provides new green space in an area that needs it, but also reconnects neighbourhoods disconnected by an infrastructure corridor.

No, not that 21-acre park.

Not to be outdone by Toronto’s plan to create a 21-acre park by decking over a rail corridor downtown, my old hometown Vancouver has released more details about its plan to create a new 21-acre waterfront park, replacing what is now a mostly derelict area of parking lots and elevated roadways.

Last year, Vancouver’s City Council approved a staff recommendation to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts–recently featured in the opening bloodbath scene in Deadpool–in order to unlock more waterfront land at the edge of the downtown core. The city will create a new at-grade boulevard for cars while opening up more land for development and parks (sound familiar, Toronto?)

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The viaducts are really Vancouver’s hangover from a highway that never materialized that would have run down Georgia Street through the heart of the downtown. That highway plan was thankfully stopped, but not before these two “on-ramps” were constructed (demolishing Hogan’s Alley, a largely black neighbourhood, in the process).

Removing these viaducts—which carry far less traffic than they were originally designed for—was a smart, forward-thinking move by the city. The images below show what you can do with the viaducts in place and what you can do if you remove them. You get more park, sure, but you also get to connect the neighbourhoods to the north, like Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, better to False Creek.

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It’s the kind of bold decision that we could have made in Toronto when options were laid out for the Gardiner East. Instead, our City Council voted to essentially repair and rebuild the elevated highway, nudging it a bit to create a different alignment at a massive cost–the so-called hybrid option.

Recently we’ve learned that the cost of rebuilding this section of the Gardiner has ballooned by more than $1 billion, which is, in a kind of twisted hilarity you only seem to find in Toronto municipal politics, what Rail Deck Park is likely to cost.

In another little funny, ironic twist, Vancouver has secured James Corner, the designer of the little-known High Line in New York, as the landscape architect for its new 21-acre park. I say ironic because before the decision to demolish the viaducts, there were some who advocated for turning them into Vancouver’s own High Line-style kind of elevated park. I absolutely hated that idea for many reasons—some of which I outlined in this post from my old blog back in 2012—but the gist is that they’re ugly, expensive, and too short to become a High Line.

Anyway, now we can blow them up and create a beautiful on-the-ground park, which is, in my opinion, where parks belong.

So, Toronto: let this be a lesson.

If we want to be the progressive, big-thinking, bold city we say we are, we can start by taking a page out of Vancouver’s book. We should tear down the Gardiner East and replace it with a boulevard, new neighbourhoods, and waterfront parks. And, hey, that $1 billion we save? I know about this little project over a rail corridor…

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All images from vancouver city staff reports. The title image is not the final plan for the park, which hasn’t been released yet, but just a concept idea. 

Ryerson University public space plan leads the way for safer, people-focused streets

One of my favourite little islands of quiet green space in downtown Toronto is a hidden grassy field a one-minute brisk walk away from Yonge-Dundas Square. It’s one of those unique moments where you can be right in the thick of thousands of people with video screens screaming ads at you and then quickly melt away into a quiet park surrounded by sleepy classroom buildings and a big open patch of green. This is the aptly named Ryerson Community Park. 

Ryerson’s campus plugs right into the heart of downtown in a way that the University of Toronto—my former campus—doesn’t. It’s streets, green spaces, laneways, sidewalks, and plazas form a network that seamlessly connects into the pulsing city around it.

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That’s why we should pay attention when Ryerson proposes a new public space master plan that aims to transform its public space network, including streets, into something that is safer, people-focused, and accessible. It’s not just a redesign that will benefit students, but residents and visitors to downtown. And, if it’s done right, it could act as an important example of what’s possible in other neighbourhoods.

Gould Plaza

At the heart of the master plan, and of the campus itself, is Gould Plaza—one of the City of Toronto’s largest experiments (the largest?) in repurposing road space as public space for people. Closed to traffic as a temporary pilot in 2011, the open space on Gould Street quickly became a magnet for people and activity.

The plan proposes a simple, but important design fix to make the plaza permanent: raising the surface up so it’s flush with the sidewalks around it. Even though the street is closed to all traffic, pedestrians still, out of force of habit perhaps, use the sidewalks that line its edges.

If completed, this would mirror the high-profile pedestrianization of New York’s Times Square, where a similar pilot project to create space for people was made permanent by raising the pavement. It’s amazing what a small change in grade and materials can do for a space to make it more comfortable and inviting–not to mention accessible. Goodbye, curbs!

Laneways

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Also included in the plan, are ideas to make the laneways on campus—Victoria and O’Keefe—more inviting and usable for people by including lighting and art features. The plan doesn’t go too deeply into what’s possible in each of these laneways, which is a disappointment, but they could really be used as a template for other laneways downtown if we do them right. I know the City of Toronto and the Downtown Yonge BIA have been actively working on how to transform these laneways for quite some time, so hopefully we’ll see some of that move forward.

Pedestrian-priority streets

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Finally, the plan proposes creating pedestrian-priority streets on other key streets leading into the campus. While these will still allow car travel, they will be raised up and treated with different paving, signalling to cars that they’ve entered a pedestrian-priority space. This treatment of streets to make them safer and more pleasant for people is a useful lesson beyond the campus that could be implemented in other neighbourhoods. In fact, it’s used at some intersections already in the University of Toronto campus along Huron Street.

I hope the University steps up with the necessary funding to make these improvements a reality because, if implemented, they could lead the way in Toronto to re-imagining the potential of our streets not as simply places to move cars, but places for people.