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.

The importance of whimsy in public spaces

Walking through downtown Montreal on a recent trip with a few friends, we came across something a bit strange. A bunch of logs dumped along a stretch of busy Saint Catherine Street. Did some logging truck tip over and leave its cargo behind?

Nope. The logs are a piece of public art titled 500KM that includes 1,000 logs meant to be a “metaphorical representation of river driving, the 19th century method of moving timber down Quebec’s rivers.” If you need a quick nostalgia break, click here (Canadians only, please).

People took selfies with the logs. They sat on the logs. They pondered the logs. The logs were, as far as I could tell, a hit.

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But this is Montreal, the city that has perfected the art of creating dynamite public spaces that practically have a magnetic pull: you can’t help but stop and stay awhile. Whether it’s a bunch of logs or giant projections on the sides of buildings at night or light strung up overhead in a park or fog that emerges from grates beside a pathway or maybe just the delight you get stumbling across a tiny cafe in a park.

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Montreal understands the importance of whimsy—of things that are fanciful and maybe sometimes even silly. Things that are done for the sake of being just plain fun. Montreal’s public spaces, especially the ones in the downtown Quartier des Spectacles, are a playground for both adults and children.

I mean, they actually have swings that play music as you swing, which, I’m sure, you’ll find directly referenced in the Oxford Dictionary definition of whimsical.

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And Toronto? Toronto is a lot of things. It’s boisterous, fast-paced, often boastful. But whimsical? Ummmmmm. I could only imagine the liability conversations and headaches in Toronto over dumping a bunch of logs in the middle of a downtown street.

We do have our moments, though. There’s the now under construction fountain coming to Berczy Park that features little statues of dogs and even a kitty.

And then there’s Sugar Beach, which is probably one of the most whimsical public spaces in the entire city with its faux-beach filled with white sand, oversized bubblegum pink umbrellas, and candy-striped granite boulders. It’s a beach where you could imagine finding Willy Wonka suntanning.

And guess what? Both the Berczy Park fountain and Sugar Beach are the brainchild of Claude Cormier, a landscape architect out of, you guessed it, Montreal.

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Sugar Beach has become an incredibly popular space. I spent a staycation day there last week turning my own shade of pink while lying in the sun reading. It was 2pm on a Tuesday. The joint was packed.

But Sugar Beach has also been a source of controversy where its very whimsicalness has been used as a slur against it. The message? Don’t design and spend money on things that are viewed as fun or, god forbid, silly. Utilitarian or bust.

But whimsy is important, as I learned walking the streets of Montreal, because our public spaces should provide us with a counterbalance to the hectic keep-your-head-down-until-the-weekend drive of the city.

Whimsy is about making a public space an invitation to play, to become a five-year old again–that magical time when everything around us inspired wonder. It’s walking the streets of a city and feeling delighted. It’s creating a sense that the city can be a festival.

Or, on a very specific level, it’s a man in a business suit swinging next to an eight-year old on the street, both laughing at the music they’re making.