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?