Bridging gaps to expand our park systems

If a park is there, but people can’t get to it, does it still exist?

As cities grow in population and land for new parks becomes more difficult to find, we must refocus on the accessibility of our existing park system. If we have a great big park next to a neighbourhood, but a rail corridor, highway, or other barrier separates the two, then can we really say that park serves that community?

There are two ways to add parkland to a city. One is to buy more land and build more parks. The other is to connect existing parks better to the people that could use them. Okay, so the second one doesn’t actually mean you’re adding land to the system, but making that existing land more accessible can have almost the same effect–especially if you’re connecting an underused park to people that want to use it.

Take this example from New York:

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New York is building a pedestrian bridge to connect people over the West Side Highway to Riverside Park on the other side. Currently, the park is only accessible–if you can call it that–by going up and down a bunch of stairs and through a tunnel (which some residents noted feels unsafe). The new $24 million bridge is under construction right now and will make a more direct connection.

Toronto has long had a proposal to create a connection over the rail corridor in the South Niagara neighbourhood just north of Fort York in order to link a growing community to larger park spaces and the waterfront to the south (I’ve written about this before).

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Originally, the plan called for a land bridge that would basically create new parkland over top of the rail corridor (see above image). What’s now being proposed, however, is a pedestrian and cycling bridge that would connect new parkland being created just north of the rail corridor, with the already established large, green areas to the south. The title image to this post is one proposal for that bridge.

Also in Toronto, the Green Line proposal would require pedestrian bridges to link up different parcels of hydro corridor parks over top of the underpasses that have been carved out to allow drivers to flow underneath a rail corridor directly to the south. (Full disclosure: I work for the charity advocating for this project.) Link up these parks with bridges and you have a 5 kilometre continuous linear park. Don’t build the bridges and you have still useful, but much smaller disconnected skinny parks.

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Creating good connections between parks can be like knocking down walls in a house. There is essentially the same amount of space as before but it feels larger and more immediate.

It can also help parks increase their reach–a critical element for a growing city. A park that may have taken 25 minutes to get to by some hellish circuitous route, may now only take 5 minutes over a direct bridge crossing. The actual effect for people can be like adding new parkland. And, as we seen in the Fort York bridge example, these can become key elements of a cycling network.

So yes, of course, as cities grow we should be looking at opportunities to increase the amount of parks we have by acquiring more land. No amount of connections between parks can account for parks in high-density areas that are over-crowded already.

But I think sometimes we can get over-focused on the land acquisition issue as if it was the only solution to expanding the park system. Sometimes a better strategy is to look deeply at the parks you already have and make sure they are used well, connected to and serving the people they can. And if they’re not, then find a way to bridge that gap–sometimes literally.

photo credits: Landmark, NY Times, DTAH, Workshop Architecture

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Powering up the Green Line

[This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of Ground Magazine. An online version is here in PDF form. But seeing as I’m doing a Jane’s Walk along the Green Line on May 3rd, I thought it would be a good time to put it up here on the blog.]

If you stand in one of the small parkettes under the hydro corridor north of Dupont Street in Toronto’s west end, you’ll find yourself on the site of a new vision for public space in the city: the Green Line.

The Green Line exists currently as an idea—an idea to transform the hydro corridor that runs from Earlscourt Park to the Annex into a five-kilometre linear park. It’s an idea that, through the work of local residents, has taken hold of the imaginations of people across the city.

The Green Line, which would pass through three city wards and be close to two others, could provide more than new park space: it could also create walking and cycling connections, says Helena Grdadolnik.

Grdadolnik lives and works near the proposed linear park. Associate director for Workshop Architecture, she is one of the Green Line’s original champions, first becoming interested in the idea when she attended a consultation for a local park in the hydro corridor. She left feeling frustrated.

“Although I welcome these local investments—in this case it was $20,000 for some benches and replanting—I saw the need for a complete vision for the entire length of this corridor,” she says.

The land along the Green Line varies in use and quality, much of it disconnected by roads, grade changes, and fencing. Owned by Infrastructure Ontario and operated by Hydro One, parcels are already leased for uses such as parking lots and nine small parks. Connecting these spaces into a cohesive whole will be a challenge, particularly where roads slice through the site, whisking cars under the railway that runs parallel to the Green Line.

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To spark interest in the project, Grdadolnik ran an ideas competition through Workshop Architecture. The 2012 Green Line ideas competition drew 80 submissions from Toronto and around the world, with ideas ranging from the practical (community garden spaces) to the fanciful (a mini-putt green).

For Mary and Evan Castel of the Davenport Neighbourhood Association, the Green Line resonates with their local needs. “Reclaiming and advocating for reinvestment in the green spaces in our neighbourhood has always been one of our top priorities as an association,” Mary Castel says. “And in our catchment, green spaces are predominantly within the hydro corridor.”

Evan Castel adds: “We see it as a great opportunity to ‘make’ more space by connecting, highlighting, and making accessible a great resource that has been there all along.”

Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, agrees. Increasing connectivity between green spaces is critical to making them accessible to many more people in the city, she says. “When you fill in a little gap, you multiply exponentially the amount of benefit you provide to adjacent neighbourhoods.”

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This is the appeal of projects that use infrastructure corridors—such as New York’s High Line or Atlanta’s BeltLine—to create new park space. “As cities rapidly densify, we become less frivolous with spaces that at one time we would have seen as leftover spaces,” Keesmaat says. “In the instances where neighbourhoods are underserved by parkland, these are exactly the kinds of creative solutions that are required to provide more neighbourhood amenity.”

A challenge, but also an opportunity, of the Green Line is that it must function as a cohesive linear park that connects multiple neighbourhoods while at the same time providing local park space and amenities in communities that lack them.

Joe Lobko, an architect and partner at DTAH who served as a judge in the Green Line ideas competition, acknowledges this tension, but likens it to the city’s main streets.

“These streets pulse,” he says. “They connect communities, but they have nodes of intensity, so they have to accommodate both the local need and the larger regional, citywide need.”

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In order to push the idea forward after the design competition, Toronto Park People, an independent charity that works with communities to improve Toronto’s parks, took up the project with funding from TD Bank. This year, Park People (where I work) helped form Friends of the Green Line, a group of local residents, such as Grdadolnik and the Castels, and others interested in making the Green Line a reality.

All this attention has created momentum at Toronto City Hall. Council recently directed staff to negotiate licensing agreements when opportunities arise to transform the remaining Green Line land into parks. Council also approved using density bonus funds, which usually stay within the ward they were generated in, and park levies from future developments along Dupont Street for the Green Line, even though the project runs through adjacent city wards—a crucial source of funding and a vote of confidence in the Green Line vision.

These movements are positive, but a master plan is still needed for the entire Green Line corridor, one that recognizes its potential as a linear park and brings different city divisions and community stakeholders together.

“We’d like the City to look at the space as a whole for any future upgrades, however small,” Grdadolnik says. It’s important “to make physical connections and to implement a unified vision over time.”