4 things to think about when planning signature parks

Last week, I went to the Urban Land Institute Conference in Toronto to see a panel discussing signature parks, including Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, New York’s High Line, and Chicago’s Millennium Park. The conversation was in the context of Toronto’s future Rail Deck Park and the lessons learned from these other projects. Here’s four things I came away thinking about.

Signature parks can act as idea incubators

The Executive Director of the Rose Kennedy Greenway—the conservancy that runs this linear park in Boston–made an interesting point when he argued that signature parks, especially ones that are run by or in partnership with non-profits, are able to experiment and test new ideas in a way that cities are not able (or willing) to try in the wider park system. In this way, they can act as incubators for creative programming and policy change. His example was allowing people to have a beer in the park—the Greenway will be opening a beer garden this summer.

Because signature parks are labelled as unique, they are perfect testing grounds for new ways of doing things that may not work in more traditional parks. Perhaps it’s music or visual arts or food (or beer). Toronto’s Bentway seems like a good candidate for seeding new ideas in public space, especially because it’s not exactly a “park” as we normally understand it, but a linear public space underneath an elevated expressway.

Programming is key to creating more inclusive spaces, but it can’t just be about delivering programming

When asked how they were working to create more inclusive spaces out of these downtown parks, all the panellists stressed attracting people to the park by providing meaningful (and free) experiences for a wide diversity of people. Inclusivity, they argued, came from programming that gives creativity across the entire city a platform, both by acting as host to groups doing their own programming and by working to create programming with others where the capacity might not exist yet.

Unfortunately, the panel discussing these ideas was far from inclusive, consisting of men who were, I believe, all white and pretty close in age. The entire discussion, including this question, would have benefited from other voices being centred.

I think that extends into managing and programming parks, as well. Providing free programming is great, but creating a grant or support system to work with community groups and others to create their own programming, support local artists, and share decision-making is a critical part of ensuring a public space remains inclusive and rooted in local community. It’s not just about delivering programming, but engaging people in co-creating that programming—and paying them to do so.

A great example of this (thought not a signature park like the ones being discussed) is Corona Plaza in Queen’s in New York, which was created by the Queen’s Museum as part of the City’s Plaza Program to turn under-used road space into public space. A key goal of the space was to create what they called a “dignified space for immigrants” by ensuring that programming in the space didn’t just reflect the local community, but was actively created by residents. In order to do this, they hired a community organizer from the neighbourhood and also commissioned artists to run programs and performances in the plaza—tapping into local talent, building capacity, and providing funding.

You can read more about this in this excellent report that documents their approach.

Signature parks provide an opportunity to experiment with new funding mechanisms 

Signature parks often come with high price tags—not just for construction, but also for maintenance and operations afterwards. While public tax dollars remain a key base for many of these signature park spaces, rightly so, new revenue tools are often needed to raise funds to pay for the extras, like special design features and heavy programming.

Some signature public spaces use earned revenue from events and third-party programming to fund their own free programming, maintenance, and operations. Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, for example, leans on this model. Some rely heavily on philanthropy and donations, raising their funding each year, such as the High Line.

Other mechanisms are tax-based. For example, Millennium Park uses Chicago’s hotel tax to fund $9 million of its annual operations and maintenance. This is an interesting model when you think about how much Millennium Park has become a draw for tourists to Chicago—the park is the number one attraction in the Midwest. The more tourists that are drawn to Chicago to visit the park, the more money for the maintenance of the park.

Governance, financial mechanisms, and design need to thought of up front together

Both the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the High Line are managed by independent non-profit organizations rather than the city government. In Toronto, the Bentway Conservancy is the first of its kind in the city—a non-profit set up to manage and program the space on behalf of the city, including raising funds to support its ongoing operations.

An interesting point was made by Jaime Springer—who worked on the report that recommended the creation of the Bentway Conservancy (full disclosure: so did I at Park People) and consulted for the creation of the High Line.

Jaime argued governance and financial mechanisms need to be thought of up front in the development of a park along with the design. It’s important to do this at the same time because certain design ideas can support (or hinder) different governance and funding models. For example, if you hoping to rely on concessions or events to fund the space then certain designs will make more sense. Developing the governance, financing, and design together means you can ensure they all fit well and complement each other. While there are governance and financing models out there, each space is unique and will require its own variation to make it sustainable.

photo of Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate (aka the bean) by Yamaira Muniz on Flickr CC.

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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

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.

Seattle’s new park tax district would raise $54 million per year

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Toronto’s parks face a maintenance backlog of $295 million in 2014. That number is expected to grow to some $360 million by 2018. That’s a lot of broken benches, crumbling pathways, and cracked tennis courts. While money for buying and building new parks can come from levies on development, maintenance funding cannot.

Seattle is also facing a big maintenance backlog—in the ballpark of $270 million. So what’s their solution?

The mayor, Ed Murray, is supporting a proposal for a new metropolitan park district that will levy a—hold onto your hats—property tax. This proposal is different than a “park improvement district,” which some cities have created to fund specific parks by levying a tax on businesses and sometimes residential properties in the immediate vicinity of the park.

Seattle’s park district would mirror the boundaries of the City of Seattle and would start with a levy of 42 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value. So a house assessed at $400,000 would pay $14 more a month, or about 50 cents a day. This would raise $54 million per year.

$54 million! Per year!

The bulk of this money would go for maintenance and upkeep, but some would be set aside for programming for disadvantaged populations, funding for park partnerships to activate the city’s downtown parks, creating new parks on city-owned land, and increasing hours for and improving community centres. But who wants any of those things, right?

The creation of the park district creates an on-going, stable, and dedicated revenue source for the city’s parks. Many politicians stammer when asked about property taxes, but the reality is, especially for Canadian cities, it’s the major revenue tool they’ve been given.

Could Toronto use something like this? To put into context: $54 million represents a full third of the $168 million in the 2014 capital budget for Parks, Forestry and Recreation and $7.5 million more than the city is spending on the state of good repair backlog for parks and recreation in 2014.

I think Seattle mayor Ed Murray sums up the need for increased parks funding best here:

“We understand that a safe, active, and accessible parks system is an essential part of a healthy, vibrant, thriving city. By providing sustainable funding for much-needed repairs and improvements at our parks, we have an opportunity to be more than grateful beneficiaries of a previous legacy–we can create our own legacy for future generations.”