What does ‘park acquisition’ mean when we’re building parks in the air?

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A few weeks ago a rendering of a park in the sky from Metrolinx and developer Ivanhoe Cambridge made the rounds in Toronto. It would be built as the pedestrian connection for two proposed towers that flank the rail corridor.

The Ivanhoe Cambridge proposal is not the first time that a ‘park in the sky’ has been proposed for Toronto, though.

A few days ago I was looking through old parks and open space plans for the Fort York neighbourhood and saw that the spot where we’re now getting a pedestrian and cycling bridge was originally proposed as a “land bridge” that would connect new parks below Stanley Park with new parkland south of the rail corridor and Coronation Park.

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That plan says that the crossing over the rail corridor “should be developed as a broad land bridge to extend the sense of landscape continuity…” and provide space for cyclists, pedestrians, and possibly emergency vehicles.

It’s a compelling idea, but the land bridge raises an interesting question: where could the money have come from?

In Toronto, every residential development must either dedicate 5% of its land as parkland or pay the city an equivalent amount in cash. This money is then used for park development and acquisition of new parkland. Ontario’s Planning Act Section 42 (15) states that this money can be “spent only for the acquisition of land to be used for park or other public recreational purposes.”

So, what about a land bridge? You’re not acquiring land, but you are building more of it and linking parks together. Is that an appropriate and allowable use? What about building a park island, like they’re proposing in New York? Would that count? Or how about “acquiring” street space like they did in Seattle, where park acquisition funds were used to build Bell Street Park?

Anyway, redefining what acquisition means or clarifying what it could mean is an interesting question to think about as we begin to look at more outside-of-the-box ways to create new parks or link them together.

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Want a linear park for your city? Get in line.

Up high, at grade, underneath, below ground, around, sideways and longways, it seems that every city everywhere wants to build a linear park. Usually constructed along a piece of active or disused infrastructure like a rail or hydro corridor, these parks help connect communities and provide unique green spaces in locations that may have been viewed as leftover or unusable before.

Here are some “line” projects. Did I miss one? The answer is yes. Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it in.

If there’s one thing I learned from this exercise it’s that I want very much to live forever in the soft-focus world of architectural renderings where it’s always the golden hour and there is always at least one bird swooping above majestically (seriously every rendering has a bird, except for the underground park).

High Line, New York

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The High Line is a–oh, who am I kidding you already know. The third section of this elevated park opened in September and the whole linear park has sparked billions in private investment nearby. It wasn’t the first project to reuse old infrastructure to create a linear park, but it definitely was the one no one would shut up about afterwards. And for good reason. It’s beautiful and gives you a perspective of New York that is entirely unique.

BeltLine, Atlanta

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I had the pleasure of seeing Ryan Gravel, the man behind Atlanta’s BeltLine project, speak when here was here in Toronto a few months ago. He made me simultaneously excited about the project and ashamed that my Masters thesis did not spark a multi-million dollar public works project as well. Gravel wrote his thesis on the opportunity of creating a transit line and linear park with trail along a 22-mile loop of rail lines that ring Atlanta. And then he did what almost no one ever does: he turned his Masters thesis into reality. Portions have been built, but this will be a multi-year process and the way that Gravel and the Beltline team have done the ground game to earn community support for this project is inspiring.

Green Line, Toronto

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If built, the Green Line would transform a 5km hydro corridor into a linear park. There was an international design competition in the summer of 2012 that helped spark interest in the idea and now the organization I work for, Toronto Park People, has helped form Friends of the Green Line, a group of interested citizens and local residents, to advocate for the project. There are currently nine city parks along the route, but they are disconnected and the route is broken up by roads, grade changes, fences and parking lots. A master plan is needed to pull all the elements together and provide a cohesive vision for the entire route as a connected whole. If built it will run through several city wards and areas that are identified as low in parkland and then end conveniently near my apartment.

Underline, Miami

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If you can’t build on it, then build under it. That seems to be the thought with Miami’s proposed Underline project which would transform the 10-mile stretch underneath an elevated Metrorail line into linear park and active transportation corridor. The Underline just released an RFQ for a master plan, so have it all you designer people. This project reminds me of a very pretty version of the Central Valley Greenway in my old hometown of Vancouver which largely follows the path of the elevated SkyTrain from Vancouver to New Westminster.

Lowline, New York

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This proposed project would see an old underground trolley terminal in the Lower East Side turned into an underground park by using “remote skylights” to focus sunlight underground and let plants grow (a.k.a. witchcraft). There is something slightly apocalyptic about the whole proposal of a park underground. Even just looking at the renderings gives me a weird combined sense of wonder and dread. But if the world ever ends rendering the surface of our planet unusable, you’ll find me there.

The 606, Chicago

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Okay, I cheated. It’s not of the X-line nomenclature, but I wanted to include The 606 from Chicago because it follows along the same lines (yuk yuk) as the others. This project is turning the unused elevated Bloomingdale rail line into a linear park with, you guessed, a pedestrian and cycling trail. The project, which broke ground in 2013, will connect six neighbourhood parks and serve 80,000 people within a ten minute walk.

images are taken from the respective project websites, except for the High Line which is my own photo.

A $170 million park island may be coming to New York, largely dreamed up and paid for by one rich guy. Is this good?

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Yesterday I woke up to the above picture of a proposed park island in New York’s Hudson River along with breathless reporting about the very, super, incredibly rich person behind the vision and the money to get it built.

The low down: Media mogul Barry Diller will pay a heart-stopping $130 million of the cost of this park island, while the City, State, and Hudson River Park Trust will kick in another $39.5 million. The park will feature performance spaces that, it seems, Diller has already figured out everything for. He has offered to pay for operating costs for 20 years. Diller originally pledged $35 million to help the Hudson River Park Trust revitalize Pier 54, but then he got some big ideas and his commitment became also big.

And so: park island.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to see such an incredible level of private interest and investment in a public park. But on the other hand, it’s troubling to see such an incredible level of private interest and investment in a public park.

I’m not saying private investment in public spaces is bad–it can do a lot of good for cash-strapped city park departments, but it should be grounded within an open public process and local community needs.

As Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates told NY Daily News: “Diller is obviously being extremely generous, but private citizens are being able to dictate public spaces,” adding that “the public has been completely left out.”

Diller’s own comment made me cringe a bit. “We are so luck as a family that we get to do this,” he said.

It is also interesting to note how this announcement of Diller’s $130 million dollar gift to build a mega-park is almost the perfect mirror image of the $130 million the NYC Parks Department announced a few weeks ago to revitalize 35 community parks in low income neighbourhoods as part of Mayor de Blasio’s new park equity focus.

Now it seems de Blasio has even out-Bloomberged Bloomberg with the park island deal.

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I’m not writing this to be a downer or proclaim that I think that the park island is a bad idea. I don’t know enough about the specifics of the Hudson River Park Trust or the park needs in that area.

But we should be critical and ask questions about very large private investments in public space that come from one person who has dramatically shaped the final result without, it seems, much input from the public.

It’s easy to get starry eyed from dreamy renderings and jaw-dropping proposals, but once we get a chance to wipe the dazzle from our eyes, we should ask ourselves a few questions.

Questions like: How much was the public consulted or not consulted about this idea? How much say did the City have in shaping the proposal? How much say does Diller have in what gets built and how it operates? Will he walk away from the project if changes are proposed? What happens if (when) the cost of the park goes up? Who covers that? How expensive will this be to maintain when Diller’s 20 year operating agreement is up and the infrastructure is old? Who does it serve? Who does it not serve?

Then there are other questions like: is it even smart to build a park island when climate change means more superstorms in New York’s future?

Just because someone offers to pay for something spectacular doesn’t mean you should do it, or even that it’s a good idea. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should just applaud and say go for it. As Croft said, we have to think long and hard about what it means to have one very rich person dictate the shape of our public spaces largely without community input.

Now that it’s out in the public, there will be a debate. And I hope it will be vigorous.

images by Heatherwick Studio

Three cool ways NYC Parks uses data publicly

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Lately I’ve been looking around at what other parks departments do with park data. What do they collect, what is it used for, and how do they share it, if at all, with the public? Here are a few cool things I came across from the New York City Parks Department.

1. Whether you use foursquare or (more likely) not, check out the real-time check-in map for New York’s parks. Each green dot represents someone checked in to a part of a park, with a big green blob flashing up when someone new checks in. I’m not sure how useful this data is considering the highly selective group of people who use foursquare, but it sure is fun to watch.

 

2. NYC Parks also has a very detailed, public map of not only all its parks, but also all the things you will find in that park. You can zoom in and locate your favourite park monument, or the handball court closest to you, or the accessible entrances. It even has the plaza spaces created along Broadway and other streets. It’s a great planning tool, but also great for the public to just understand the amenities in their park system.

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3. The third cool thing is maybe a bit nerdier, if that is even possible. The City’s Parks Inspection Program, which inspects parks for cleanliness and maintenance issues, publishes the results online. Before your eyes glaze over, let me tell you why this is great. It’s great because it allows residents to understand generally how their parks are doing and whether they are improving over time, which is hard to do just on your own walking through the park every so often. What would be really great is if more detailed data was also published on the different elements in the park: pathways, benches, garbage, etc. But this is a good start.

Parks are public spaces and so it’s only fitting that the data that goes along with them is opened up to the public as well.