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

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Mapping parks in Toronto

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My coworker Kyle Baptista shared these cool hexagon-style maps of Toronto on Friday. According to BlogTO, they’re created by Willian Davis. The two I have here are parkland and addresses, but there is also TTC stops and schools.

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What’s interesting about these two maps is that the addresses map is actually a better representation of parkland in the city than the parkland map. The parkland map uses number of parks to create its density of colours and so you end up seeing darker colours in areas of the city with a lot of parks, even if those are small parks, and lighter colours in areas where you have a lot of parkland in one big park, like Rouge Park.

The addresses map, however, shows the city’s parks and ravine system in a kind of reverse way. If you focus on the lighter areas–the areas where there are less or no addresses–you can see the system of ravines and some of the larger parks, like High Park.

For comparison, here’s the map Kyle did of all the parks in Toronto:

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Anyway, maps are pretty.

Maps by Willian Davis

Bridging the divided city through a connected park system

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Lately there has been a lot of ink devoted to Toronto as a divided city and what to do about it. There have been great suggestions about reforming our political system for more locally-based decision making and building much needed transportation connections.

But for me—surprise—it’s our park system that is the most able to bridge divides and forge a city identity, representing both the diversity of our city and its interconnectedness. Each park is a great representation of local community, but it’s all tied together into a larger system.

The trick for a city as big and diverse as Toronto, I think, is figuring out how to nurture a sense of local place while at the same time plugging that into an understanding of connection at a larger, citywide scale. As the Toronto Star’s Divided City series has pointed out, part of the solution to the divided city must be a recognition of the need for local agency. Diversity our strength is our city motto, and so we should reflect that in our politics, policies, and planning. But how to forge unity from difference?

This reminded me of something that Thomas Bender wrote in a book about New York called The Unfinished City. He argues that in order to forge a metropolitan identity out of “a plurality of local publics” a city “requires an image of itself.” In his mind, these images are rooted in infrastructure, transportation and the environment, because they reveal our interdependence but have local impacts. Certainly transportation has been a part of the conversation here in Toronto, but it has tended to be one of division as we squabble over technology and who gets a fair share of the transit pie.

For me, parks and open spaces are the perfect image of the city as both a regional and local being. And our system of ravines and hydro corridors are the large scale pieces that stitch those local elements together. Just zoom out on Google Maps a bit and this system is revealed—the ravines travelling north-south and connecting the northern parts of the city to the waterfront (see title image), and the hydro corridors travelling roughly east-west (see below).

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If we want to reveal interdependence and a sense of shared identity as a city, then what better way than to celebrate the life-giving properties of our shared watersheds and the energy-giving properties of our hydro corridors as public space? These spaces are both intensely local and just as intensely regional in their scale.

Each of the parks along these systems have their own local character, but by presenting them as a larger connected system and building that narrative, these green corridors can become the visual representation of a city brought together through its local places.

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We have a few projects in Toronto that begin to fill in this image and create a larger identity from these connections, such as the North Scarborough Green Loop (pictured above), which was championed by a local resident and uses existing trails through parks, on-street connections, and part of the Finch hydro corridor. Also the master plan for a revitalized Lower Don Trail, and the overall trail system that is slowly being tied together through some of our hydro corridors and ravines.

It’s the Pan Am Path, though, that best expresses the idea, using the diversity in our neighbourhood parks by plugging them into a cross-city vision. It’s a plan that is both local and citywide in its scale. Its appeal is in that narrative of connections and its celebration of Toronto’s neighbourhoods in all corners of the city. And it does this by using what we already have largely in place.

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So if we truly want to bring the city together by celebrating what makes Toronto so great—our diversity—then what better way than articulating a vision of a cross-city network of local parks? The bones of this system are already here; we just need to build on the connections.

images: ravine map from Toronto’s Official Plan, hydro map from this Google Map someone made (I added in the Green Line hydro corridor above Dupont Street, though), Green Loop map from here, and Pan Am map from the Pan Am website.