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.

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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)

 

 

 

 

Five simple ideas to improve Toronto’s parks

This week Christopher Hume at the Toronto Star wrote about modest steps that could improve Toronto. He talked about more scramble intersections, upgraded St. Lawrence Market area parks, and better pedestrian experiences.

We often get bogged down with big, complex problems in Toronto (we are a big, complex city after all), but it’s good to be reminded that sometimes simple, relatively inexpensive fixes can go a long way to make the city more enjoyable for everyone.

It got me thinking about what five simple, inexpensive things we could do right now to improve parks in Toronto. Here’s my list. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas, as well.

Create a Community Group Event permit

Okay, so it’s not a super sexy topic, but permits are important. They’re important because they regulate our use of public space in ways that are needed (making sure we all have equitable access to our open spaces) and annoying (being costly and confusing for most folks).

In recognition of this, Toronto recently created two new permits for art and music events that are free and simple to apply for.

This is great, but it leaves out the wonderful, small volunteer-run community events that local residents put on in their parks.

Right now these groups need to apply for Social Gathering or Special Event Permits which can cost between $90 and $125 once all fees and insurance requirements are fulfilled. Not cheap when you’re already putting a lot of time and energy into doing an event for your neighbourhood.

So let’s create a new Community Group Event category that is free and simple to apply for. You’d need to be a local community group and limit your event to, say, less than 75 people to ensure it’s not a big impact kind of event on the park.

The City is reviewing its permit system this year. Hopefully it builds on its great work around art and music events with a Community Group Event permit.

Install more benches and social spaces

Whenever I travel to other cities and come back to Toronto I’m always re-amazed at one thing: the lack of places to sit in parks and on streets. It’s gotten better in the last five years, but we are really stingy on benches in Toronto. They’re not super expensive, but they do so much to make a public space, whether it’s a street or park, more inviting and usable.

Benches aren’t just nice-to-haves, they’re crucial for children, older adults, and people with mobility issues who may need to sit down and rest and can’t curl up easily on a blanket on the grass. Even popular parks like Trinity Bellwoods and Christie Pits have a dearth of places to sit.

I’d like to see Toronto get behind the super-long benches that you find along park pathways in New York.

Or how about lunch tables that seat just two or three people rather than big standard picnic tables all the time? I know these would go over well in the downtown park near my office where everyone hunches over take-out containers balanced on their knees.

Put up message boards in parks

Perhaps with the new wayfinding strategy the City is working on, this will soon be an item I can cross off the list. I know from speaking with many community volunteers who do things in their park that reaching out to their neighbours and letting them know what’s happening in the park can be difficult sometimes.

Social media is great, but having a physical place in parks to post notices, event details, upcoming meetings, funny pictures—whatever—would really help people reach their neighbours and share information.

More friendly park signs

My favourite Toronto park sign is found in Sunnybrook Park staked into the ground next to the parking lot overlooking the cricket pitch. Have a nice day, it says. Or the Toronto Islands sign that says, Please walk on the grass. They make me smile.

Toronto park signs don’t often make me smile. Too often I’m greeted with a huge list of items with a red slash through them. Don’t do this. Or that. Nope. Don’t even try it. Forget about it. Oh, and enjoy! I wrote about this previously after visiting Milliken Park, which has some of the harshest NO signs I’ve come across.

Let’s flip our messaging from negative to positive as much as we can. First, welcome people to the park. If there are things that can’t take place (dogs off leash, leaving pathways, etc.), use it as an opportunity to explain why, rather than simply banning the activity with a red slash. Educate people on the sensitivity of natural areas and the erosion that dogs can cause. Maybe include a list of suggested activities (picnics, reading a book under a tree) as a cute way to balance things out.

Outdoor recreation programming

We have a lot of community centres in parks, which have various programs for things like yoga, art, tai chi and lots of other activities. Unfortunately, these take place inside the four walls of the community centre even though there is great, wonderful, life-giving green space right outside.

New York has a big summer program of outdoor classes that take advantage of the city’s great parks. Let’s move some of our recreation programming outside the walls of the community centres and outside into our parks. Or how about libraries that are near parks? Maybe we can get some children literacy programs outside instead of indoors?

What are your ideas for simple, inexpensive ways to improve our parks?

 

 

Cars are part of the mix in Kensington Market

One of the first areas I take people when they visit Toronto is usually Kensington Market–that dense grid of narrow streets stuffed with fruit and veggie stores, cafes, colourful vintage shops, and taco joints.

It’s fun to navigate the market, threading between parked or slowly moving cars, crossing from one side to the other with just a casual glance over the shoulder. Kensington has a lively energy to which many other neighbourhoods aspire. It’s a neighbourhood that has found its pedestrian-friendly groove.

You won’t find special paving here, or curbless streets, or bollards, or any of the other tactics designers and planners now mobilize to make other areas pedestrian-friendly and people-centric. It Kensington it just kinda…happens. 

Still, in an article published today in the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume argues that banning cars from Kensington is the “obvious move” and the area is a “battleground” between cars and people on foot? A battleground? If any neighbourhood in Toronto can least be described as a battleground between cars and people, it’s Kensington Market. More of a slow dance, really.

Pedestrian-only Sundays are great, but I would hazard a guess that they’re great because they’re pedestrian-only Sundays and not pedestrian-only all-the-times. 

Go to Kensington and watch the main streets. Cars go slower, people spill off of the sidewalk and walk in the road or cross back and forth. This is Kensington’s special sauce. By removing an ingredient you risk ruining it. 

Pedestrianization is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The desired end is usually a lively, comfortable, safe place that people like to go and hang out. Sometimes removing cars is the way to do it. Ryerson’s Gould Street is a great example of an area that has flourished since cars were banished and people allowed to flood into the space. 

But sometimes it’s the slow mix of cars and people and bikes that makes certain areas what they are. Go to Boston’s North End and you find the same thing. Narrow streets with people spilling out of Italian restaurants, cars winding their way slowly through it all. It works because everyone understands that people come first.

We have something really special in Kensington right now, something that emerged on its own, over time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

photo by Diego Torres Sylvester on Flickr (cc)

New money for parks proposed in this year’s budget

“The initiatives to meet the goals in the [Parks Plan] will require significant resources which will be considered in future operating budgets.”

This is the sentence that has appeared in the last several operating budgets for Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division (PFR).

But finally, nearly three years after the 2013 Parks Plan was approved—a plan envisioned as a five-year service plan—it seems City Council is poised to fund several of its initiatives (there has been some capital funding, but never operating). So, hurray!

This represents the first real increase in operating funding for new or enhanced park-specific services in years—something Park People (where I work) supported back in September when these services were up for debate (read mine and Dave Harvey’s Op-Ed in Spacing here. Dave also appeared at Parks and Environment Committee to speak in support. You can read the letter version here.)

On January 26, Budget Committee voted to approve an extra $2.24 million in the PFR operating budget. Kudos to the City Councillors and Mayor’s Office who supported more funding for parks. This will still have to be approved by City Council when it votes on the whole budget at its February 17/18 meeting, but I have a good feeling about it.

Here’s where that extra $2.24 million will go:

  • $177,000 for enhanced maintenance
  • $291,000 for horticulture and urban agriculture
  • $1,664,000 for restoring the original tree canopy goals
  • $110,000 for new hydro corridor agreements

Okay, but what does all that really mean on the ground?

Well, as City Staff pointed out back in September when they brought a whole menu of enhanced services and their associated costs to Parks and Environment Committee, the City currently doesn’t have extra money to keep parks maintained in high-use times (like summer). Similarly, it has no funding for special horticultural displays.

Simply put, this extra money will help make our parks cleaner and more beautiful at the times when we’re using them the most (summer weekends and evenings).

And the extra funding for urban agriculture also dovetails with goals the City has in its recently-approved Poverty Reduction Strategy, which has a key focus on reducing food insecurity by supporting food growing on public lands. Right now the City has no money to help repair/maintain community gardens, but this could change that.

The funding also, crucially, includes money to license new hydro corridor lands as parks, including several along the Green Line corridor that can begin to fill in the gaps in this proposed linear park. Park People has been hard at work advocating for the Green Line and it’s great to see such on-the-ground progress being made.

To recap:

  • Cleaner parks when we’re using them the most
  • More support for people who want to grow healthy, fresh food
  • More trees planted faster
  • New parks to link up the Green Line linear park corridor

And all for a relatively modest increase in the Park budget. All of this is a good start. It’s important to note, however, that this was made possible by reducing other budgets and using one-time funding from a few accounts. A conversation about sustainable revenue tools is one we’re still waiting for in Toronto.

As we’ve all been told, money is tight. For the past several years, the Parks budget in Toronto has been status quo: inflationary increases to keep the same level of service as previous years. This, despite a rapidly growing city that is using its parks more and more for different types of things.

While PFR has money stashed away in multiple reserve accounts for capital projects and land acquisition (see Spacing’s investigation into this here), it’s on the operating side where pressure is building.

This is something City Staff are not shy about noting. As they point out in this year’s budget analyst notes (and have pointed out in many year’s previous), new facilities and parks require more money to operate them, more people using parks means more money is needed to keep them maintained, more demand for activities/events means more staff needed to engage with the public, etc.

The initiatives included this year—hopefully approved by City Council—are a good, positive step. Let’s keep building on that.

Creating more public space on King Street

Today, I was happy to see an article in the Toronto Star about the City’s plans to move quickly on testing new ideas for King Street. Redesigns floated for the street would create a transit mall that prioritizes both streetcar movement and pedestrian-friendly spaces by limiting car access. It’s a good idea and the kind of creative, bold thinking that’s desperately needed for King Street to help people move faster along the corridor.

But it also provides us with a great opportunity to rethink the public realm network along the street so it becomes a place as much as a corridor. Right now there are very few public spaces along the street where people can sit, relax, and enjoy themselves despite the fact that the street is one of the most lively and interesting in the downtown.

I wanted to bring up an idea that the Entertainment District BIA proposed in their master plan from a few years ago that I think is an interesting one and should be revisited in this new review of King Street–what the BIA called King Street Squares.

From the BIA’s plan (p.36):

These Squares present an opportunity to provide additional pedestrian areas on the sunny side of the street with plaza treatments to accommodate outdoor patios, public art, as well as occasional festivals and events.

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And here it is from the street view, using Mirvish Way as an example:

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By flexibly designing these spaces you allow them to adapt to different needs and users, which makes better use of the limited amount of space we have in the downtown.

If you walk down King between Spadina and University you’ll find a number of these streets; small stubs that may only travel the one or two blocks between Richmond and King, like Charlotte and Widmer Streets.

I’m not sure, but I’d hazard a guess that there are similar opportunities in the more western sections of King Street as well. You wouldn’t want to do this at every street, obviously, but it could be a nice way to create a consistent public space network down the spine of King Street at certain key points in different neighbourhoods.

all images from the Entertainment District BIAs master plan