Parks are canvases that communities can paint on

Guest post by Minaz Asani-Kanji, the outreach manager for Park People, originally posted here.

I recently took my son, Kahzmir, to Alexmuir Park where the Toronto Arts Foundation brought Shadowland Theatre to the park as part of their Arts in the Parks program. Shadowland was presenting ‘The Spirit of Our Park:’ a week of workshops with music, puppet-making, performers and aboriginal teachings–all culminating in a final glorious parade.

I was there representing Park People (we helped guide the project and connected The Toronto Arts Foundation to underserved park groups in our network), but mostly I was also there as a mom.

While I was busy chatting with Shawn, Shadowland’s fabric designer, my 10 year old son, who is normally quite shy, started becoming curious about a pair of stilts.

The next time I looked over, Kahzmir was proudly stilt walking on his own, around the park.  He refused to take the stilts off until we finally headed home.

IMG_6348Kahzmir was hooked. As luck would have it, I hadn’t signed him up for any camps that week, so every day my in-laws and son headed to Alexmuir Park to practice stilt walking. Kahzmir improved at a rapid pace, eventually jumping, crouching and kicking a ball.

Shadowland Theatre ended the week with a phenomenal parade to celebrate the park. Kahzmir was a Blue Jay, proudly circling the park in his homemade costume.

I learned several lessons about parks and from watching my son strut around on stilts. Here are a few:

1. Parks are canvases

We all know parks are places where soccer, monkey bars, and picnics happen. But when a whimsical parade marches through your park, it serves as a reminder that parks are places where anything can happen (well, most anything.). All it takes is an idea, some people and a park to create a circus big top, a stage or a festival. Parks are canvases that communities can paint on.

2. Park pride is contagious

My son’s pride not only came from learning to stilt walk. Kahzmir was also proud of his community and his park for being part of something utterly magical. That pride spread to the parents who ran with backpacks slung over their shoulders to catch the parade they’d heard about all week. Pride is what it takes to make parks the heart of communities. When it comes to pride, a little goes a long way toward transforming a patch of grass into a valued community gathering place

3. Community groups set the stage

Right from our first meeting with Rosewood Taxpayers Association, it was clear that like our Park Friends Groups, good community groups see possibilities where others might see challenges. When Shadowland said they needed storage for their items each evening, the Association’s VP,  Alura raised her hand and said she’d have no problem sharing her garage for the week. Alura may not have been one of the performers, but the show couldn’t have gone on without her.

4. Pokemon Go isn’t the 0nly game in town

Yes, it’s great that Pokemon Go is getting people off their couches and into public spaces, but Arts in the Parks does the same thing without a digital interface. My son was eager to rush out to the local park every morning because he was learning a new skill, meeting new people and working toward a goal. Sorry, but Pokemon’s got nothing on that!

Guest post by Minaz Asani-Kanji, the outreach manager for Park People, originally posted here.

Do people actually use exercise equipment in parks?

I walk by Sally Bird Parkette often, probably about once a week for the last six years. It’s a small sliver of green space on a single skinny lot between two houses. There’s a flower garden. There’s a bench. Even a water fountain. And there’s also what appears to be three forest-green torture devices.

Well, it depends on your definition of torture.

When this parkette was redone in 2010, three outdoor exercise stations were included. I’ve heard this was based on community feedback that said people would rather have something for adults to do than children, since there was a number of playgrounds already nearby.

Only problem is, as far as I can tell, no one uses these things except for teenagers who sometimes hang out there to smoke. I mean, at least they’re getting used.

It got me thinking: do people actually use exercise equipment in parks, or is it like the equivalent of a gym membership. We like having the option. We say we’re going to use it. But then we decide to eat ice cream and watch Stranger Things on Netflix instead (guys, that show is really good–stop reading this and go watch it.)

Turns out I’m not the only one wondering this. A team of researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta did a study looking at the use of exercise equipment in parks. They observed people in the parks and spoke with people about their use of the park.

What did they find?

They found the exercise equipment was used by only 2.7% of park goers (this follows with other studies that found between 1.9% and 5.5% use).

The interesting thing though is that when they spoke to people to ask them about their use, 22% of people said they used the equipment monthly. It’s our tendency as humans to want to appear a little bit more virtuous than we really are. “Oh, how often do I go to the gym? Oh about three times a week usually.” Uh huh, sure you do, Jim. Sure.

The other interesting part is that people just liked knowing the equipment was there. They “perceived” the equipment to be beneficial to health, but as the researchers wrote, there was a difference between “potential benefits as opposed to actual benefits.”

This is like the equivalent of having broccoli on the menu at a restaurant that serves fatty hamburgers and then looking at the menu and saying “Oh, it’s good they serve broccoli. That’s healthy. I’ll have two hamburgers, please.”

So how to turn those perceived benefits into actual benefits?

Turns out the whole Field of Dreams if-you-build-it-they-will-come scenario doesn’t really work out to well with exercise equipment. What does work then? Well for one: programming. Trainers provided on-site to show people how to use the equipment. Classes and lessons. This is what many of the people interviewed in the study requested.

Because, as we all know, a gym opening up down the street from us doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to use it. Sometimes we need that extra external push of a trainer yelling into our face to turn that potential benefit, into an actual benefit.

 

 

 

Improving access to green spaces in Toronto’s tower communities

Toronto is a tower city. We not only have high-rises in our downtown core, but many clusters outside the core in the inner suburban areas. These tower clusters, often set within large open green spaces and parking lots, have become the landing pad for many newcomers to the city.

One of the challenges that has emerged, however, is a sense of disconnection in many of these tower neighbourhoods—from the city around them and from the green spaces, like the ravine system, which often lie tantalizingly close by without really great direct access. You also often have thousands of residents living in these towers, but without any real services or retail nearby where people can do simple things, like walk to get groceries.

Using a citizen-led process, a new report out by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation takes a look at these challenges in Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park—two of Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods—to highlight several key interventions that could make the neighbourhood a better place for residents with safer, more attractive routes for walking and cycling.

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One idea focuses on making the nearby Don ravine, with its large, natural areas and wonderful trail, more accessible to residents. The idea is to create a “ravine landing pad” that would act as a welcoming gateway at the trailhead into the ravine, providing a place for people to gather, as well as informational signage.

Toronto’s ravines are truly magical and thread their way all across the city adjacent to many different kinds of neighbourhoods. But they’re often hidden. Sometimes a trail opening doesn’t include even a sign, let alone a map that shows you where the trail goes. Adding these elements woud go a long way to making the system more accessible.

The neighbourhood plan also recommends ways to active the in-between spaces in the neighbourhood through temporary activations on some of the parking lots. These could take the form of pop-up markets or retail stands. While residents didn’t support permanent retail, there was interest in temporary markets that could be set up.

This recommendation follows on the heels of City Council approving a new type of zoning for these neighbourhoods called Residential Apartment Commercial that allows retail and commercial uses to mix in with what are now just residential towers.

It would be great to see more of this citizen-led neighbourhood planning in more communities around Toronto.

 

 

 

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

 

Creating places for people as we grow

As municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe shift from building sprawling single-family housing neighbourhoods to denser neighbourhoods filled with a mix of housing—including high-rise towers—we also need to shift the way we plan, design, and engage communities in parks and open spaces.

If we are going to build the “complete communities” envisioned in the Provincial Growth Plan, we’ll need to use new strategies to make sure that everyone has access to public spaces that meet various needs. This becomes even more necessary as the Province has released the proposed new Growth Plan, which includes higher intensification targets.

Thriving Places CoverThriving Places, the new report released by Park People today, showcases different strategies that municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe are using to address this challenge. The report builds on the ideas in Park People’s 2015 report Making Connections, which set out eight guiding principles for planning a network of parks and open spaces in urban neighbourhoods.

Looking to municipalities such as Brampton, Mississauga, Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, and Barrie, the report highlights best practices in park planning, design, and community engagement.

Whether it’s an engaged group of residents around an urban trail, a street that is also designed as a public plaza, or a linear park along a new transitway, the examples in the report point a new way forward for parks in the GGH.

New higher density neighbourhoods need a different kind of park than suburban subdivisions filled with houses where everyone has a front and backyard.

Urban parks see a desire for more intense and varied types of activities, from farmer’s markets to movie nights to community BBQs to outdoor yoga classes and cultural festivals. They require new designs to support these activities, such the hard-surface plaza found at Market Square in Guelph or the power hook-ups and free wifi of Mississauga’s Scholar’s Green.

Scholars Green_gh3:Terraplan landscape architects

Higher density neighbourhoods require creative ways to use space efficiently, such as the creation of a new pedestrian promenade on a street adjacent to Hamilton’s Gore Park or the closing of a street in Barrie to expand an existing park and make a connection to the waterfront.

It also requires new sources of funding and partnerships to make these spaces work. For example, partnering with a community non-profit to manage a naturalization project in Guelph’s Pollinator Park. Or the City of Barrie partnering with the downtown BIA to help fund and program its proposed expanded downtown plaza. Or Newmarket working with donated materials to build an outdoor library in Riverwalk Commons, creating a fun new spot in the warmer months for people to gather.

We often to look to cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Montreal for inspiration when it comes to best practices for public spaces, but there are many inspiring, innovative projects right here in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Thriving Places highlights 15 of these projects in the hope that it will become a useful tool to inspire more creative thinking across the region. Because as we continue to grow and intensify, we need to ensure we are creating places for people.

Download the report here.

If you’re in Toronto, be sure to register for our Thriving Places report launch on May 26th at Urbanspace Gallery in 401 Richmond.

image credits: John D. Bell Associates and City of Mississauga

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: Power to the people

This is the third in a trilogy about TOCore, the City of Toronto’s initiative to create a parks and open space master plan for the downtown (among other related planning things). In the last two posts I broke down the challenges with buying parkland and the need for flexible design.

Pretend you’re at a community consultation for park improvements. (I mean, what else would you be doing on a Monday night, right?) There’s a sprinkling of people in the room, mostly adults from the neighbourhood. The landscape architect is at the front of the room gesturing with her Pilot Fineliner at three different concepts on poster boards and asking what you think. Should the pathway curve this way or that? Do you like this slide or that climbing structure? How about this bench?

You place little stickers on the things you like and then you go home, pour yourself a bottle of wine, and fire up Netflix (may I suggest Master of None?).

But is that the best we can do?

We have all these super engaged people in a room together all nerding out about the park and yet the conversation is almost always only about design. But what happens after the ribbon is cut on that new park with its curving pathways, slide, and bench? How do community members stay involved?

We should use the opportunity in park consultations to engage community members in more long-term direct involvement in the park, like developing a programming and engagement plan led by local residents and organizations.

What kind of programming do people want to see? What organizations are nearby that could assist? A community health centre? A yoga studio? Who are the users of the park? Local schools? A nearby homeless shelter? How can local community members be involved? Can they adopt a new tree and help water it? Tend a garden? Lead nature programming for kids? Organize community picnics? A massive flash mob of people silently reading on blankets (my dream)?

These programming and engagement plans would really come in handy because…

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We are using our parks more and more

As the City’s Downtown Parks Study found, the number of permits issued for downtown parks has gone up every single year since 2005–not surprising given the population growth we’ve seen. But it also means our parks are more and more active with more and more people. People want to use parks in new and different ways: for cultural activities, for movie nights, for farmer’s markets. Demand on park space has never been higher. This is great…

…until it’s not

We go to parks for social reasons, but we also go to parks to get away from people and be in nature. The city can be a crowded, loud, hard place sometimes and the neighbourhood park is a good place to sit on some grass and read a book for a few hours without anyone else disturbing you. Seriously, all you moms and dads with screaming gaggles of three-year olds in tow, do you really need to set up your children’s birthday party right next to the guy quietly reading under a tree?

Um, anyway

Sorry.

So it’s all about balance

Right. It’s this balance–between active programming and passive uses–that a community-led programming and engagement plan could help maintain. In partnership, of course, with the City, who are the park permit gatekeepers.

Oh, right. Those

Technically, if you want to host a community event in a park you need a permit. Currently that’ll cost you about $120 for the lowest tier. It can be a real barrier, both financial and psychological, to community members hosting activities for their neighbourhood. I’ve pulled a few permits. It’s not exactly an easy experience, even for someone who knows parks relatively well (ok, who am I kidding, I love drawing waste management maps).

So shouldn’t we just get rid of permits?

Well, no. Permits are needed to help the City balance use of public space to make sure that we all get an equitable opportunity to enjoy it. This way your acoustic music festival and drum circle (shudder) doesn’t clash with my Patsy Cline-themed artisanal hotdog cook-off (don’t ask). They’re also a source of revenue that help maintain our parks.

Ok, so…

I think we need a new class of permits that recognize the limited capacities of many community groups and encourage the kind of fun, social activities that make our neighbourhood parks great. Call it a Community Event Permit.

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This could build on the City’s newly introduced free art and music-related permits that will allow local musicians and artists to better animate parks and promote themselves. Look for my interpretive dance on the effects of amalgamation on Toronto coming to a park near you.

But, seriously, a Community Event Permit could be either free or set at a much-reduced price. It could be limited to local community groups and capped at 75 attendees so that maintenance issues are minimal. It’s totally do-able.

All of these ideas apply not just to downtown, but the whole city. But they’re especially important in parks with high (and competing) use.

In short, it’s all about getting people more directly involved

And not just when you have some money for new designed elements, but in the ongoing management and operation of the park–both in creating programming that brings people together and in creating a plan that helps manage the effects of that programming.

Dufferin Grove, the closest we’ve gotten in Toronto to a community-managed park, does this well. You’ll find friday night dinners, campfires, and a number of other community-focused programs.

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These volunteer-led park friends groups, of which there are over 100 in Toronto, are a great way to tap into local energy around a park. Some of these groups are doing the kind of work I’ve talked about here, but it would be nice to see this embedded more directly into the way we think about “engagement” and “consultation” in Toronto’s parks.

Because who better to involve in a park than the people who live and breathe it everyday?

photos by Park People except the movie night, which was the Canadian Film Centre

 

Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: A flexible public space system


This is the second in a trilogy about TOCore, the City of Toronto’s initiative to create a parks and open space master plan for the downtown (among other related planning things). In the last post I broke down the challenges and some potential solutions to buying parkland downtown. Next week’s post will be about programming and community engagement.

What do you do when you have a tiny apartment that needs to be a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom all at once? You get a bunch of furniture that folds up, packs away, and flips down. Your bed lifts up and reveals a desk underneath. A kitchen table flips down from a wall. A book opens up a secret passage way to reveal a long tunn—wait, that’s different.

The point is we create flexible spaces all the time in our homes, but we often don’t extend that same thinking to our cities. Here’s a street: this is where cars drive and park. Here’s a park: this is where we play. Etc.

But with such limited space downtown, flexibility is key

The conversation around parks in downtown Toronto is often that the City needs to buy land for new parks. And it does, no question about it. But what’s talked about less is how we can better use the land we already have. In this post, I want to dive deeper into some of the design issues around parks in dense growing areas, particularly how we can be more creative by blending our public spaces together and building in adaptability.

We need the city equivalent of a bed that folds up to reveal a desk

What if a roadway was designed so it could become a plaza during the warmer months? Now what if that road was actually along the edge of an existing park so that the park could get “bigger” when it needed to? 

This thinking is slowly coming to Toronto. In fact, the City’s Downtown Parks Background Study notes that “in terms of urban park design, it can be advantageous to extend the look and feel of a park beyond its designated boundaries.” City Study, I could kiss you on the mouth. Because…

Our biggest public space resource is not our parks

Although it is a great resource in comparison to other cities. According to the City, we have 127 parks in the downtown that covers about 15% of the land area. This compares to 13% parkland cover for the entire city. This is less than New York (20%), the same as Philadelphia (13%) and more than Chicago (9%). Take that Chicago!

So if it’s not parks, then what is it?

It’s our public streets. Our streets make up roughly 25% of the area of our city, which is pretty on par with most other major North American cities. That’s a lot of space—public space—that we already own.

So what does this mean for “park acquisition”?

For me, it means we need broaden our definition of “acquisition” to include examining the space we already own in our public rights-of-way to see if that can be a resource for new or expanded parks. This doesn’t mean we give up on buying land, but it only makes sense, given the extremely challenging situation for buying land for parks downtown, that we try to use what we have better.

Vancouver does this really well. Here’s an example of a recent project where a park was expanded by 50% by absorbing an adjacent street and including a bike path connection for cyclists. Now look at this drawing and tell me it doesn’t make your mouth water.

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We can do this in Toronto.

Take Berczy Park

No, really take it. It’s small enough to hold in your hand probably. Berczy Park is a little, triangular park that needs to be a lot of things to a lot of people: a children’s playground, a dog park, a place to have lunch at work. So the City got creative, god bless them. The park revitalization included a redesign of an adjacent street so that it could seamlessly become a plaza extension of the park when closed to cars. This is a smart, efficient use of very sparse downtown space.

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Market Street is another Toronto example, where the City used movable bollards to allow the sidewalk space to expand in the summer to accommodate patios and shrink in the winter to accommodate more car parking. Voila. More space for people. A city that responds to the seasons. A city that is adaptable, modular.

Call it parks that expand and contract.

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Okay, but what about money?

Ugh, it always comes back to money, right? While Berczy Park is a great example of creating a more flexible, blended system of public space design, it still used a silo approach when it came to funding.

The City’s park funds (Section 42) went to the redesign of the park and the density bonusing funds (Section 37) went to the street portion. This works if you have access to both funding tools, but since Section 37 funds is generated through denser development, not every ward in the city gets to use it.

Why not allow the use of park funds to do street improvement projects when they are directly related to the continuation or expansion of an adjacent park space? If I’m getting a bigger, better more usable public space then I don’t care where the invisible line is between park and street.

Turns out most people don’t

I went to a public consultation for two small parkettes last winter. A laneway and a small street cut up these two small parkettes, like so:

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Guess what everyone at the meeting wanted to talk about? Yup. How to create better connections across these streets and make it safer for children. Guess what the City couldn’t use the money on that they had for the park project? Yup. The streets. All the money had to be spent on the parks when in fact one of the biggest design challenges was how to make the streets that cut through them work better with the parks.

So if we’re going to get flexible with how we design, we need to get flexible with how we fund.

We also need to pay more attention to the edges

When we think about parks we often look inward. Where’s the playground going to go? What about the splashpad? How about those benches? But we need to spend more time thinking about a park’s edges, especially in the smaller parks that are surrounded by downtown streets. How do people enter the park? What’s the experience at the edge? Is there a fence? Can the park be better blended with the sidewalk to produce a better experience?

The redesign of Grange Park is a good example of the importance and power of paying attention to park edges. The Beverley Street side currently has a black iron fence with two entrances on the north and south sides, making this portion of the park much less inviting.

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The new design opens the park up on this side, keeping barriers low and using gardens to corral people to certain entry points. It will, I have no doubt, create an entirely new feel for Grange Park along a Beverley Street that will no longer be the “back” of the park, but a whole other front. Just look at all these somewhat translucent people enjoying it.

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New York is a great city to turn to for ideas about park edge thinking. They currently have a program called Parks Without Borders that specifically looks at the issue of entrances, exits, and park edges and how they interact with the city and public spaces around them. We could learn a lot from their approach.

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So in sum: it’s not always about looking for new and more spaces. Often, in a city like Toronto it’s about taking stock of the spaces we have and thinking about how we can use them better. Can we use a space twice, by designing it flexibly? Is that park better serving its community by removing a fence? Can we design across spaces? Can we spend our money that way?

I not only think we can, I think we have to if we want a public space system that serves the kind of growth we’re expecting in downtown (double the population by 2025). We need to be flexible.

Adapt or die, right?

Next week, the final instalment in this little TOCore trilogy: thoughts on programming and deeper community engagement in our parks.

photo of Market Street by Marcus Mitanis, title image from City of Vancouver

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

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

It’s time for Toronto’s Green Line

In cities experiencing explosive growth, we have to get creative about green spaces. It’s not easy to find land for new parks. We need new models, new ideas, new thinking. Enter Toronto’s Green Line–a project that I’m working on at Park People.

The Green Line is important, not just because it creates more green space in neighbourhoods that need it, but because it represents a new, creative way to think about parks in Toronto.

The key to the Green Line is that it takes a hydro corridor and a set of nine existing small parks, and connects all of these together with new green spaces to create something larger and more impactful.

Rather than thinking about each park as an individual space, the potential of the Green Line is seeing the entire 5km length, from Earlscourt Park to just east of Spadina Road, as one continuous park. Much like knocking down walls in a small house creates larger, more usable spaces from tinier rooms, creating connections between parks in the corridor creates a much larger, more usable park.

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We’ve been working hard at Park People, along with our partners Workshop Architecture and the Friends of the Green Line, to make the Green Line a reality.

We’ve advocated for new green spaces to be created in the corridor and seen the City commit in the 2016 budget to license the land to create four new parks. We’ve engaged with hundreds of community members with fun activities that bring people to the Green Line through walks, parties, bike rides, and harvest festivals.

We’ve beautified the walls of the Dovercourt underpass with a new mural by celebrated street artist Roadsworth. We’ve created new natural habitat with the Friends of Frankel Lambert Community Garden in a new pollinator garden. We’ve worked with Ryerson University students on a study that lays out the Green Line’s challenges and opportunities. The Toronto Star endorsed the Green Line, calling it “brilliant.”

And we’re just getting started.

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And, if you can forgive the plug, we’re hosting a Green Line Fundraiser and Celebration on Thursday, March 31 at Geary Lane. We want to celebrate the successes that we’ve all had together and raise some money to continue working. If you’re in Toronto, come!

Linear parks like the Green Line are crucial to urban neighbourhoods that find themselves struggling to create new parks. These spaces have become extremely popular in cities around North America, from well-known projects like New York’s High Line and Chicago’s 606 to our local Toronto gems like the Midtown Beltline and West Toronto Railpath.

Because of their long skinny shape, linear parks are able to connect many communities together, providing space to relax, but also a safe, pleasant route to bike, walk, or run along. The Green Line is no exception. It would connect neighbourhoods in the west like Davenport Village to the Annex in the east.

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The Green Line is a key east-west link. If we plug the Green Line into existing bike routes like the West Toronto Railpath to the south, and Prospect Cemetery and the York and Midtown Beltline to the north, it suddenly becomes a part of a much larger already established network of trails and parks.

Linear parks also reach more people than traditional square-shaped parks because they extend their long, skinny shapes farther into neighbourhoods.

This is why the Green Line would have more people within walking distance than a park like Dufferin Grove, which actually contains a similar amount of space. A study by Ryerson University students found more than 65,000 people living within a 10-minute walk of the Green Line—that’s more than the entire population of Aurora, Ontario.

So what needs to happen to bring the Green Line to life? We need to create more green spaces in the corridor, build connections over the roadways, and run a continuous trail through both the parks and the parking lots in the east.

We’ve built a lot of positive momentum in the past year to get this done. With support from local politicians, city staff, community members, and people like you, we can make the Green Line a reality.

photos by Sammy Tangir (people walking) and Dan Bergeron (mural)