Court overturns OMB ruling on Richmond Hill’s park by-law

Okay, this news is a bit old, but I’m guessing not many people are exactly following OMB parkland dedication court cases with the same close eye that they would, oh say the split of Hollywood couples (RIP Brangelina).

A few months back I wrote about an OMB decision that essentially said that the Town of Richmond Hill did not have the ability to set its own level of parkland dedication, as the Planning Act allows.

Earlier this month (while I was on vacation in Vancouver), the court overturned that OMB decision.

In short, Richmond Hill had approved their park levy at the highest that is allowable under the Planning Act. This wasn’t done willy-nilly, but after analyzing the future park needs of the Town and compiling all of that in their 2013 Parks Plan. The OMB then ruled it was too high and imposed a cap. The court ultimately ruled the OMB “exceeded its mandate.”

This decision is a big one because it will have ramifications for other municipalities that are experiencing intensification (like Vaughan and Markham), who are re-tooling how they collect park levies from those new developments to pay for the parks that residents living in high-density neighbourhoods need.

Here’s the press release:

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Both the Toronto Star and Torontoist have written articles on the decision.

Stationed park managers could help improve our parks

This week Marcus Gee wrote about park maintenance in the Globe and Mail in a column titled “Toronto’s parks suffer from a lack of pride.” He recounts the oft-cited example of Canoe Landing Park as an argument that the City is unable to maintain its parks at a high-quality (especially its signature parks) and that park staff have no sense of pride in our parks.

Gee’s column is unfair to city parks workers, portraying them as lazy and uncaring about their work. Every time I have met a city parks worker, the care and pride they took in our parks was clear. Sure, in a workforce as large as the City’s, you’ll come across people who are careless, but Gee’s is an unproductive generalization.

He does, however, raise a good point when he notes that having on-site park managers who have a deeper, more visible presence in parks would result in parks that are better maintained.

Currently, the City has park supervisors, but these hard-working staff are responsible for a number of parks. For example, there’s one park supervisor for Wards 19 and 20, which includes Trinity Bellwoods, Christie Pits, and a slew of other high-profile parks.

It’s important to remember that parks staff are working under very difficult budget conditions. It was only in 2015 that the City actually approved extra maintenance funding (above and beyond increases just to keep up to the same standards as the year before) to focus on signature parks in high-use times like summer.

There is evidence to suggest that moving from the current “flying squad” model where city crews rotate in and out of many parks doing maintenance work, to a “zone-based” model where crews are responsible for specific areas, results in cleaner parks.

We dabble with this in Toronto in parks like the Toronto Music Garden and Corktown Common where gardeners take special care and receive special training for these signature spaces. But overall city parks workers are stretched across many, many parks “flying” through and doing things like cutting grass, etc.

When Central Park changed their maintenance style to a zone-based system in 1994 they saw big improvements. The park was divided up into a number of different areas and park staff workers were assigned to these specific areas. “Each of 49 zones, roughly 10 acres a piece, are the direct responsibility of a zone gardener whose task is not only to maintain horticultural standards, but also to remove minor graffiti, empty trash baskets, do small-scale mowing, repair benches, and address potential crime situations,” notes a post on the Project for Public Spaces website.

Now, this management style may not be necessary throughout our entire park system, but choosing several high-volume, signature parks—Trinity Bellwoods and Allan Gardens, for example—and assigning a dedicated park manager and staff as a pilot could be an interesting way to see the effects of this for Toronto.

Toronto’s park supervisors are often also the first point of contact that residents have with city parks staff when they want to do something in their park—host an event, for example. Making this presence more visible and including a community-engagement element could be very beneficial. This is an idea Park People, where I work, originally proposed in our Parks Platform for the 2014 election, and it’s one we still believe has merit.

As we head into budget season, we should be watchful of the parks operating budget. Announcements like the proposed Rail Deck Park have rightly sparked a conversation about how we can afford the maintenance costs of new parks. It’s crucial to remember that building new parks is only one side of the equation—we need to strongly advocate for the operating funds needed to support our parks, both new and old.

Title image is of Corktown Common, which receives special maintenance care as a signature park. This post also appears on Park People’s blog.


Stop throwing shade at our parks

If you’ve ever walked down the street on a wintry, but sunny January day in Toronto, you can really see the importance of direct sunlight. The south side of the street, usually cast in shadow, will be nearly empty of people, while the sunnier north side of the street will be bustling.

Sunlight matters.

Turns out the Toronto District School Board agrees. They’re fighting a development proposal at Church and Wood Street that will cast their schoolyard in shadow for a portion of the day. Residents are not happy. The local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, says removing opportunities for sunlight is “almost a criminal act.”

The City, which is also fighting the development at the Ontario Municipal Board to where it has been appealed, has suggested the proposed 38-storey building be reduced to 25-storeys so that its shadows fall within already shadowed areas. We shall see what the OMB—in all its unelected unwisdom—decides.

The tug-of-war between developers who want to build higher and residents who are worried about the ever-lengthening shadows those buildings cast on public spaces is not new to the city. But it is one that is intensifying as the hyper-development we’re seeing in the downtown results in more and higher buildings and the shadows begin to accrue and overlap. I mean, my god, we’re already talking about minimizing the shadow impacts of a proposed building on a downtown park that hasn’t even been built yet.

This is not a challenge that is unique to Toronto. New York is going through its own battle with residents who are worried that new super-tall towers that provide housing for the super-rich will cast super-shadows on Central Park.

In San Francisco, critics of high-rise developers whose buildings cast shadows over parks have the backing of a 1984 law, called Proposition K—otherwise known as the Sunlight Ordinance. This law blocks any development of a building over 40 feet that casts shadows on parkland “unless the Planning Commission decides the shadow is insignificant.”

But as with many things in life, it gets complicated. What is one person’s “insignificant” is another person’s “significant.”

And as usual, developers and their planners argue that all shadows are “insignificant.” See how slender the shadow is, they cry. Look how quickly it passes, they exclaim. We already reduced the building height from 45 to 38 storeys, they shout, what more do you want from us?

But the problem really isn’t with any one individual shadow. It’s with what Wong-Tam nicely called “shadow creep”—the cumulative and growing effect of multiple shadows from an increasing amount of towers. A single slender, quickly moving shadow is one thing, dozens and dozens of them are quite another.

Sunlight is important for public spaces. As William Whyte discovered through his observations of public spaces in New York, people are drawn to the sunny parts of parks and plazas. Shade is nice in the height of summer, yes, but the rest of the 10 months we get in Toronto we need those sunny spots to feel warmth on our face, to allow trees and gardens to grow and flourish.

Turns out, sunlight is not a renewable resource after all. Once we block it out, it’s gone.

Is that worth an extra 11-storeys on a building?

the photo is actually a picture of the lovely Anish Kapoor sculpture in Simcoe Park, but I liked its angry-ish shadow









Welcome back, tiny urban plaza

Well, that was unexpected.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a fence around what was supposed to be a public space for everyone to enjoy just off John Street in the King-Spadina neighbourhood where I work at Park People. The fence enclosed a privately-owned publicly accessible space (POPS)—a type of public space the City creates through agreements with developers. The patio was for a neighbouring restaurant, La Carnita, and also used by people patronizing the adjacent Sweet Jesus ice cream shop. You can read the original post here.

The post was tweeted, shared on Facebook, and posted on Reddit. Cue public outrage. Media like the Toronto Star, MetroGlobal, and Inside Toronto started calling me. The CBC picked it up. Post think pieces like this one at TVO have been written. Less than a week later, the fence was taken down.

I think it’s fascinating that this issue became as large as it did. Perhaps the lazy beginnings of August is a slow news time. Perhaps the lure of a fight against a patio during the high patio season was too much. Residents standing in front of things with their arms crossed! A man trying to take down an ice cream shop! Tacos under siege! Whatever it was, the story sure struck a nerve.

What it tells me is that people are very, very sensitive to the issue of public space in our city right now—a development that is very positive, I think.

Indeed, this story followed ones earlier in the summer about Councillor Joe Cressy working hard to create a new downtown park (that would be a stone’s throw from the plaza in question) and the announcement of a plan to create a new 21-acre downtown green space by decking over part of the rail tracks. Downtown parks are so hot right now.

But why care about such a small space?

  1. Public plazas, no matter how small, provide essential places to step out of the stream of urban life while still being able to watch it all flow by. No, you’re not going to kick a ball around or lay out a picnic, but we need these simple, small places to sit and enjoy our city. If you’ve ever been a tourist in a big city somewhere, you know the necessity of these little spaces to catch your breath.
  1. If we’re going to create these privately-owned publicly accessible spaces as a strategy to increase public space in dense downtown areas, we need to also be vigilant about protecting them as publicly-accessible. Otherwise we are giving goodies to developers like height and density (otherwise known as money) to create private commercial spaces for only a few to enjoy. That doesn’t make sense and it’s an abuse of the tool.

Anyway, thank you to La Carnita for taking down the fence and returning the space to the public. None of this was done out of malice or an attempt to demonize a restaurant. I simply wanted to draw attention to the complications of POPS and the need for public space downtown.

If you walk by the space today, you’ll see people lounging on the rock cubes, eating their Sweet Jesus ice cream cones, enjoying this tiny spot to just sit and chill amidst the ever-growing forest of tall towers sprouting around it.

No, it’s not Central Park, but we needed this space.

photo of the fenceless public space by Zaira Gaudio Fry on Facebook 


This private patio is supposed to be public space

First let me say this: I love patios. The wind in your hair, the sun on your face, the hot waft of a garbage truck barreling down the street. It’s all part of the glory of summer in Toronto.

But I do have a bone to pick with a patio that is currently occupied by La Carnita/Sweet Jesus on John Street just south of Adelaide. My bone?

It’s supposed to be a public space. As in no fence around the edge. As in I don’t need to buy something to sit there. You know, open to everyone?

Kind of like how it was before:

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What makes this extra annoying is that King-Spadina is one of the densest, rapidly-growing, open space poor neighbourhoods in the entire city. The fact that we created a public space (however itty bitty) and then had it taken away so people could eat over-priced (but Instagrammable) ice cream cones is just the pits. We need all the slivers of public space we can carve out in this city, especially in the downtown, and especially especially in King-Spadina.

How did this happen?

The space is meant as a POPS (privately-owned publicly accessible space). These are spaces created through the development process in Toronto where developers get extra goodies (height, maybe, or chocolate) in exchange for creating and maintaining publicly-accessible open spaces on their property. We have a ton of these in Toronto, many of them in the Financial District. (My favourite POPS is the TD Centre “pasture” where all those lovely cows like to hang out all day). Here’s a map.

In fact, the approval for the building included a condition that the developer provide this publicly-accessible open space. It’s pretty clear:

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 3.26.42 PMWhoops.

So turning this space into a private patio for a business is basically the opposite of what is supposed to be happening here.

It also highlights the challenges of using POPS as ways to create “public space” in highly dense, rapidly developing areas. It’s an attractive tool for the City for sure–you get some new public space and you don’t even need to maintain it!

But hiccups like this show why we need to be cautious with these spaces, and why we certainly don’t want them ever to be seen as a substitute for a publicly owned park or plaza. One clear example of this was highlighted on a Jane’s Walk I went on two years ago (led by City Staff) where we were approached by two security guards as we stood in a POPS to talk about it. These are still, ultimately, privately-owned spaces.

I contacted Councillor Joe Cressy’s office to ask about this and was told by his staff that he’s aware of the issue, does not approve of what’s happening, and has instructed the city’s legal staff to look into it. Hopefully we can expect some action soon.

Yes, patios are cool. But we can’t let these things slide if we’re going to protect the spaces that we’ve managed to create for the public to use. Tear down the fence, people.

photo of the space without the fence was nabbed from Alex Bozikovic’s Twitter feed

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.


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.


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.

honest eds 1

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.

honest eds 2

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


The importance of whimsy in public spaces

Walking through downtown Montreal on a recent trip with a few friends, we came across something a bit strange. A bunch of logs dumped along a stretch of busy Saint Catherine Street. Did some logging truck tip over and leave its cargo behind?

Nope. The logs are a piece of public art titled 500KM that includes 1,000 logs meant to be a “metaphorical representation of river driving, the 19th century method of moving timber down Quebec’s rivers.” If you need a quick nostalgia break, click here (Canadians only, please).

People took selfies with the logs. They sat on the logs. They pondered the logs. The logs were, as far as I could tell, a hit.


But this is Montreal, the city that has perfected the art of creating dynamite public spaces that practically have a magnetic pull: you can’t help but stop and stay awhile. Whether it’s a bunch of logs or giant projections on the sides of buildings at night or light strung up overhead in a park or fog that emerges from grates beside a pathway or maybe just the delight you get stumbling across a tiny cafe in a park.


Montreal understands the importance of whimsy—of things that are fanciful and maybe sometimes even silly. Things that are done for the sake of being just plain fun. Montreal’s public spaces, especially the ones in the downtown Quartier des Spectacles, are a playground for both adults and children.

I mean, they actually have swings that play music as you swing, which, I’m sure, you’ll find directly referenced in the Oxford Dictionary definition of whimsical.


And Toronto? Toronto is a lot of things. It’s boisterous, fast-paced, often boastful. But whimsical? Ummmmmm. I could only imagine the liability conversations and headaches in Toronto over dumping a bunch of logs in the middle of a downtown street.

We do have our moments, though. There’s the now under construction fountain coming to Berczy Park that features little statues of dogs and even a kitty.

And then there’s Sugar Beach, which is probably one of the most whimsical public spaces in the entire city with its faux-beach filled with white sand, oversized bubblegum pink umbrellas, and candy-striped granite boulders. It’s a beach where you could imagine finding Willy Wonka suntanning.

And guess what? Both the Berczy Park fountain and Sugar Beach are the brainchild of Claude Cormier, a landscape architect out of, you guessed it, Montreal.


Sugar Beach has become an incredibly popular space. I spent a staycation day there last week turning my own shade of pink while lying in the sun reading. It was 2pm on a Tuesday. The joint was packed.

But Sugar Beach has also been a source of controversy where its very whimsicalness has been used as a slur against it. The message? Don’t design and spend money on things that are viewed as fun or, god forbid, silly. Utilitarian or bust.

But whimsy is important, as I learned walking the streets of Montreal, because our public spaces should provide us with a counterbalance to the hectic keep-your-head-down-until-the-weekend drive of the city.

Whimsy is about making a public space an invitation to play, to become a five-year old again–that magical time when everything around us inspired wonder. It’s walking the streets of a city and feeling delighted. It’s creating a sense that the city can be a festival.

Or, on a very specific level, it’s a man in a business suit swinging next to an eight-year old on the street, both laughing at the music they’re making.