Weaving parks into the city through better connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What are examples from your own neighbourhoods?

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Six things we can learn from Berczy Park

After years of design meetings and then more of construction, the newly revitalized Berczy Park is now officially open. I profiled the design of this upcoming park as a best practice in a report I wrote at Park People called Making Connections back in 2015, so it was wonderful to attend the opening and see how the design has leapt off the page and into the world with such success.

Now that it’s open, here’s six things we can learn from Berczy Park.

A park must evolve along with the city around it

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Before Berczy Park was a park it was a parking lot. Through community action, a small triangular green space was created in what was then a primarily entertainment and worker environment. But as the city around it continued to develop, it became more of a residential neighbourhood. Suddenly a park that was mainly frequented by office workers eating lunch or visitors taking photos was also being used as the backyard of new residents, along with their children and their many (many) dogs.

This was a big part of the conversation about the new park design—how to accommodate these different user groups in a small space and ensure the new park reflected the way the city had changed since it was first built. The new space has a large plaza for those lunching workers, a fun fountain perfect for tourist photos, a dog area, and new public art that will also act as play structure for children.

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A touch of whimsy helps to create a welcoming place

Good park design helps to create a sense of place, but also a sense of playfulness. And this is exactly what the new Berczy Park does so well. We shouldn’t be surprised, since it was designed by Claude Cormier, the landscape architect who brought Toronto the candy pink umbrellas of Sugar Beach. The new fountain contains many dog statues (and one cat) that shoot water towards a golden bone perched on top of the fountain. If you follow the cat’s gaze you’ll find two birds perched on a nearby light fixture, and if you follow the birds’ gaze you’ll find some worms. It’s silly, whimsical, and an utter delight.

As I’ve written about before, we could use more whimsy in our public spaces. Cities are for living in, but they’re also for having fun and shedding the stress of our daily lives. I dare you to walk by this park without being drawn in with a smile on your face.

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Rolling hills can make a small space feel larger and more private

Berczy Park is not big. So how do you make a small space feel larger? And how do you make it feel safe and comfortable when it’s surrounded by busy streets? You make rolling hills, of course! Berczy Park’s western side has small grassy hills that help make the space feel both larger and more private by blocking your view of traffic and creating more space for people to lounge. It also creates space for kids to run around, as they were doing at the park opening. Who doesn’t love to roll down a hill?

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Streets should be included within park design

Berczy Park is unique not just for its new dog fountain, but because the revitalization of the park also included the redesign of adjacent Scott Street as an extension of the public space of the park. This is an ingenious solution that allows the park to actually “expand and contract” with different uses. When you need more space for an event—like the opening of a new park, say—then you can close down the street and it instantly adds more space for people. This is why I profiled the park design in Park People’s Making Connections report.

This creative thinking and collaboration between City divisions (in this case, parks and transportation) is something we should be bringing to more parks, especially smaller ones in very dense areas. Our streets are actually the biggest public space resource that we have, making up approximately 25 percent of the space in Toronto (parks are 13 percent). By incorporating them better into the parks they surround, we can create a more people-focused, flexible network of public spaces.

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Diverse and plentiful seating is key

If there’s one thing lacking from many of Toronto’s public spaces—the one thing that I snap pictures of on trips to other cities and tweet about longingly—it’s places to sit. Toronto parks have few benches and the ones we do have are not exactly the most comfortable or attractive. Thankfully, with the new spaces that are being designed we are correcting this mistake. Berczy Park is filled with seating, and specifically the kind of long benches that you find in New York or Boston that invite dozens of people to share a space together. I’m told movable chairs and tables will be coming to the plaza space–another example of seating you find in other cities, but not often in Toronto.

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An engaged community can help push a project forward

Last, but not least, key to the success of the new park is the Friends of Berczy Park and the folks at the St. Lawrence Market BIA. These people helped push forward the design and also help program and bring the space to life. A park like Berczy, which is smack dab in the middle of a thriving business, historic, entertainment, and residential neighbourhood screams for programming, such as lunch time concerts and local art fairs. The Friends of Berczy Park and the BIA will have a critical role in ensuring the park remains lively, contains balanced programming, and still functions as a space of green, quiet respite for people to go in the middle of a bustling neighbourhood.

Creating a greener 21st century city

We often wax poetic about urban parks as areas of nature in our cities, but it’s interesting to note that some urban parks are not actually the best representation of the natural landscapes of their city, sometimes burying—literally in the case of urban streams—the features and particularities of the landscape upon which they’re built.

I don’t mean these parks are made of plastic trees and AstroTurf, but the central feature of many parks is lawns of mowed grass, hardly a naturally occurring landscape in many of our environments, and gardens planted with non-native (but pretty flowers) that require a lot of water and care.

Is there a better way for our parks to contribute to more sustainable, resilient cities, especially as stresses on our natural environment increase through growing density, population, and the unpredictable threats of climate change?

Green City, a paper written by University of Calgary landscape architecture professor Bev Sandalack for Park People’s Heart of the City Conference, is a great launching pad for this discussion. Part history of park development, part manifesto, Sandalack proposes a new way of planning and designing our park systems as deep ecological infrastructure.

Creating this higher focus means we need to re-prioritize investments, placing parks and public spaces, as the landscape of our cities, at the very base upon which everything else must be built and organized. We need to reintegrate parks into our natural systems, Bev writes, planning and designing them not as lawns plunked down in the urban fabric, but as part of an interconnected natural system.

Doing so can connect us in a more visible way to our own city’s particular natural landscape, vegetation, climate, and topography. But it also better positions our cities for a future that will be determined by our ability to adapt to climate change by reinforcing and enhancing natural systems that perform functions such as stormwater management, habitat creation, heat reduction, air purification, and more.

This doesn’t mean of course that we should seed every lawn in our parks with wildflowers and native grasses—we need lawns for lounging, social events, and sports after all—but it does mean prioritizing a more intentional, integrated approach to park (and city) planning that takes an ecological systems view and works across our cities departmental silos.

Putting A New Approach into Practice

Bev points to Toronto’s new Ravine Strategy—the first ever for the city—which lays out a framework for how the city’s vast network of ravines can be better protected, enhanced, and enjoyed in the face of all the challenges that come with being sensitive natural environments squeezed from the big city around it. The Ravine Strategy takes a holistic rather than siloed approach to revitalizing ravines involving input from staff from city planning, parks, recreation, economic development, and water.

Similarly, but on a smaller scale, Toronto’s Green Streets pilot program, has transformed several under-used portions of roadway into small green spaces. These spaces offer places for community members to gather, but also contain stormwater management infrastructure. This layering of benefits—safer roads, community green space, stormwater infrastructure—is the key to a smarter, climate resilient city. Plus, it unlocks potential new funding for green spaces through funding from municipal water departments which collect water and sometimes stormwater fees. Zooming out, you could see how this program could be a way to celebrate and make visible the city’s buried streams or targeted for areas that are at risk for flooding.

Understanding and prioritizing investments in parks and park systems as infrastructure is critical, especially in an era of increasing extreme climate events including droughts, flash floods, ice storms, and more. If past eras of park development were based on creating islands of nature in the city or places for people to recreate, this new era must be predicated on integrating natural systems at the foundation of our city building.

Read the Green City report to learn more about how park systems thinking can buffer the impact of climate change on cities.

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

 

The Under Gardiner points to new possibilities for public space in Toronto

I spent much of 2015 gallivanting around Toronto and looking at various parks as part of my goal to visit a park I hadn’t been to in every corner of Toronto as a way to explore the city. In the end, I saw over 80 parks in every ward of Toronto, from small parkettes to community gardens to sprawling ravines.

I decided that a good way to end the year was to look toward a future park–a space that hasn’t been created yet, but is slated for a major reimagining that has caused both excitement and raised eyebrows around Toronto: the Under Gardiner.

Set to open in 2017, the Under Gardiner will connect multiple communities together by repurposing leftover space underneath an elevated expressway in Toronto’s downtown core, transforming it into a 1.75km programmable public space.

For my walk, I met local Councillor Joe Cressy and urban designer Ken Greenberg, who is intimately involved with the project, at the Under Gardiner’s eastern start by Spadina.

Here the space is at its most unattractive currently. The Gardiner is obviously in need of repair (work that is in progress) and the ground is muddy and strewn with garbage. But its potential as a linear trail is plain to see as you stare down the telescoped length of the thing.

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It’s also right smack against some incredibly dense and growing neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods (CityPlace, Liberty Village, Fort York) are not actually that far apart from each other, but because of the Gardiner, the rail corridor, and some busy roads, feel worlds away. Tying them together with this trail is a way to plug these neighbourhoods better into each other and the rest of the city–something both Joe and Ken spoke about with excitement.

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As we walked west, the aesthetics improved drastically. The Gardiner pulls itself up in height, causing the traffic noise to recede and the area to become brighter and cleaner.

The most surprising thing about the walk was how new condo developments that have sprouted up around the Gardiner have already begun to reclaim the space underneath. They’ve added paint, light features, bicycle parking, and in one case, a giant boulder. Some have lobby areas that open directly onto the space.

The city is already growing in around the expressway, almost absorbing it like those trees you see that have grown up and through a nearby chainlink fence.

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And more of this is slated to happen in the next few years. Here’s a Loblaws redevelopment in progress right now that will create a new link under the Gardiner just to the east of Bathurst.

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Part of the challenge of the Under Gardiner is connections–not just to the surrounding neighbourhoods and the many parks and public spaces nearby, but along its own length.

Here, as the Gardiner marches over Fort York Boulevard, Ken spoke of a pedestrian bridge that could hang suspended from the Gardiner, to allow cyclists and pedestrians to continue along the length of the Under Gardiner without having to cross this busy roadway.

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As we got to the western section of the Under Gardiner near the Fort York Visitor’s Centre and the large, open green spaces that exist around it, the work that the City is doing on the roadway was obvious in the shower of sparks coming down.

This is where the Gardiner is at its highest point and the effect is pretty dramatic–a big soaring roof built overhead. The Visitor’s Centre, a wonderful building that opened not long ago, opens itself up under this section of the Gardiner and long imagined this stretch as a public space.

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I know some are skeptical about this project with concerns ranging from air pollution, to noise, to it just being a “gross” space, but a visit to the actual area quickly dispels a lot of those. Air quality testing will be done, which is good. And the traffic noise is really only noticeable in the east section by Spadina. I’ve been to parks in Toronto that are far more noisy from busy roadways nearby.

I think a city that is maturing as it grows is one that begins to look deep within itself to locate spaces previously discarded as useless to find the useful things about them.

You see this in Vancouver, Montreal, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and many other North American cities that are finding creative ways to layer uses, create flexible spaces, or repurposes forgotten areas as public space–whether this is parks in alleyways, along old rail lines, under elevated roads, on top of roads…the list is endless.

It’s an exciting time for public space in cities and I hope the Under Gardiner sparks a conversation about where some of these opportunities might exist in other areas of the city.

You can visit the Under Gardiner project website here.

This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

 

Grange Park and the trouble with park edges

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There are lots of neat things about the redesign of Toronto’s Grange Park by Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, from an expanded playground area, to new water features, to more trees. And all those are well documented here on Urban Toronto. Or you can watch the fancy fly-through rendering which contains, inexplicably, a man who appears to be carrying on an animated conversation with a fountain at the 1:10 mark.

But I don’t want to talk about all that. I want to talk about edges. Because I’m really, really excited about Grange Park’s new edges.

Right now the park’s longest edge, which runs along Beverley Street, contains a black iron fence with two openings that allow people inside the park. Here’s what it looks like now:

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The redesign would remove that fence and build raised gardens with low fences (see title photo) and rippling benches down the Beverley Street frontage instead. Right now, Beverley Street doesn’t really have much relationship to the park–it feels like its backside. The fence is so high that it makes the park feel almost like someone’s private yard (which, in fact, it once was–so there’s that).

Fences keep people on the sidewalk and pathways, yes, but you also risk creating dead zones and unfriendly atmospheres with the bad ones. No one really wants to snuggle up against a fence, as then local councillor Adam Vaughan pointed out at an earlier design meeting for Grange Park. In a way it can actually end up decreasing the amount of usable park space because people stay away from them. The new edge will change that dramatically:

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There was a man who spoke at the same meeting as Vaughan, who argued in defense of the fence. He said the fence was important to help people distinguish between “city space” and “park space.”

What he was concerned about, I think, was that removing the fence would also remove part of what makes Grange Park feel different or special from the rest of the city. It makes the park less a place to just carelessly cut through because you must consciously enter it.

And park edges do need extra consideration because they can quickly become the rattiest parts of the park, especially along long frontages. You often find dead strips of yellow grass or dirt trails where people have overflowed from the sidewalk. Fences help keep people off grassy and sensitive areas and corral people into using predetermined pathways. And too soft an edge where a park meets a busy street can mean people stay farther into the park as a buffer to get away from the traffic.

But I think the proposed garden ripples with their raised beds and seating will create a kind of soft, more porous fence for Grange Park that still allows you to feel you have “entered” the park without creating that hard, unfriendly edge that the fence does.

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A fence or a hard edge can be a part of what makes a good park, too. It depends what kind of message you want to send and how that barrier is designed and interacts with the park and the street. Central Park (above) is surrounded mostly by a low stone wall that solidifies that park’s image as a pastoral green oasis. That stone wall is actually an inviting and important feature of the park, creating a welcoming edge.

And I’ve long thought the large park near my apartment, Christie Pits Park, needs some extra treatment along its long Bloor Street frontage other than the current grass-meet-sidewalk situation. It doesn’t have to be elaborate by any means, but I think the park edge would benefit from a bit more definition and interaction with the street and help make that part of the park near the road more inviting.

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So: edges. Hard and soft, good and bad, depending who you ask, what they are doing, and how they are doing it. Simple, right?

When a park lives more for its design than for its people

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Last month Toronto’s newest park, June Callwood Park, opened just south of Fort York. Designed by gh3, it’s a beautiful plaza with granite pavers, trees, and, its most eye-catching feature, bubble-gum pink elements threaded throughout that will find much love on Instagram, I’m sure.

And yet, after visiting the park I felt disappointed.

June Callwood Park seems like a park that lives more for its design than for its people. As a piece of art, or a theatrical set, the park is wonderful. It has a compelling narrative behind its design in recreating the sonic waves of a June Callwood quote (“I believe in kindness”) in its granite pavers. Its pink highlights add the whimsy often lacking in Toronto parks.

But the park doesn’t make me want to stay and linger. In fact, it seems designed to let you flow through it and come out the other side with a few good pictures (though kids did seem intrigued by the pink maze-like structure).

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It’s not fair to really judge a new park before its had a chance to integrate itself into the surrounding community, though. Often people will find weird, creative, unintended uses for a space. This may happen at June Callwood Park. Maybe they’ll add more seating. Maybe the trees just need to grow taller.

But hyper-designed public spaces seem to disinvite participation, which I think is a crucial part of a successful park. People need to feel they can make it their own, adopt it and hack its elements to suit their own needs.

When a park’s design is so fine-tuned and seemingly perfect already it presents itself as a toy which, rather than being played with, should instead be left in its packaging and admired from afar.

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That’s not to say that the design of June Callwood Park is perfect. In fact, there are some key issues. One is that the gravel tree pits are flush with the granite of the park, meaning that small gravel pieces are already scattered throughout its surface. Another is that small changes in grade in the park’s south end create two inch lips that are hard to see and will present accessibility issues.

We should want our parks to be beautiful. We should advocate for designs that are unique, whimsical, and bold. But we also need to be sure we aren’t creating museum pieces, but spaces that can be used and lived in.

What Vancouver’s Mid Main Park can teach us about small parks

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I love tiny parks—the more itty-bitty the better—and when I was back in Vancouver recently, I made sure I went to visit the relatively new Mid Main Park at Main and 18th Street done by Hapa Collaborative. I had been watching the design process from my perch in Toronto and was excited to see what it looked like in person. In short, the park is awesome, and it can teach us a lot about how to create great small parks.

There are a few reasons why this park is great. One is that it uses its space incredibly well, creating different rooms in a pretty tiny park by changing the elevations, using curved pathways, and incorporating distinct design elements in different places. It’s also located at an interesting bend in Main Street and creates a nice place to stop and people watch.

The other reason though is found in the whimsy of its design. As this recent post in the excellent blog The Dirt points out, the design of the park was meant to evoke the feel of a nearby ice cream shop that had closed in the 1980s. The park includes candy-red stools, a sculpture that resembles bendy straws, long concrete benches, and a small grassy knoll. Too many times, small parks are left as a patch of grass with a bench or two when they can be so much more. Dare to dream big, tiny parks!

The final reason is that the park is also an excellent example of what can happen when a city reclaims under-utilized roadway for park space. The design called for the closing of a slip lane on the western portion. Closing this lane and turning it into part of the park allowed this piece of public space to be stitched back into the city.

image from Hapa Collaborative

Yes in my backyard park

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How do you create a park that entices people to come out in a place where everyone has their own private backyard “park” to hang out in? You turn the park into the most awesomest backyard of all.

With designs for a new waterfront park in Tulsa, Oklahoma landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates are doing just that. The park will feature tons of space for children to play in, but also BBQ and picnic spaces, and a “Lodge” with an indoor fireplace and an “informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees,” says the Architects Newspaper.

This made me think of something I’ve heard from a lot of people in Toronto lately who live in the more suburban areas of the city, which is that their parks need to offer them more of a reason to go there.

Designing parks can’t just be about putting in a few benches, some trees, a lawn, and then sitting back and waiting for everyone to come running. Especially when you’re in a part of the city where a bench, a tree, and a lawn is what they have fenced in behind their own houses.

Sure, maybe we can’t all hire MVVA to come and build us an “informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees,” but top-notch design isn’t the only way to entice people to parks. Program the park with farmer’s markets or kid’s art classes or outdoor yoga or mimes trapped inside invisible boxes—whatever, every community’s different. But give that park a centre of gravity and people will be pulled in from the neighbourhood around it.

image from MVVA