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.

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.

A little slice of West Coast in Toronto on Rouge Beach

I don’t ride on the GO train often, so when I do I get that warm, fuzzy going-on-a-trip feeling. Even if it’s just for 30 minutes. Even if when I get off I’m still inside the City of Toronto (man, Toronto is really, really big.)

Recently I took the GO train along the Lakeshore East line to Rouge Beach on the farthest, most eastern edge of Toronto. It was one of those super-mild December days we’ve been having. I wore fingerless gloves and brought a big salad in a Tupperware container so I could eat it on the beach.

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Okay, so it was a little too cold to really enjoy my salad on the beach (stew would have been better), but Rouge Beach’s beauty made up for my slightly numb fingers. Once you get off the train, it’s a short 15 – 20 minute walk along a beautiful lakeside pathway to Rouge Beach. Along the way are several rocky outcroppings that act as small breakwaters. It was here that I found a log to perch on while I ate my lunch.

The rocky beach here is also full of old bricks that have been worn smooth and soapy-looking from the lake. I’ve seen bricks at Tommy Thompson Park before out on the Leslie Street Spit, but these bricks seemed much more lake-worn. There was not a sharp edge in sight.

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Farther on is the actual beach, which is definitely a place I’m going to come back to in the summer. I hear the water isn’t as clean as some of the other beaches we have in Toronto, but it’s a beautiful spot that made my West Coast heart soar.

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Since moving to Toronto just over 5 years ago, I’ve missed being by the water. This is a weird thing to say for someone living in a city by a lake, but I still find it difficult to get to the lake and find a place that feels as serene as some of the beaches in Vancouver. Rouge Beach definitely hit the spot.

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This is also where the Rouge River that runs through Rouge Park meets the lake in a wetland area that would be fun to canoe along.

There are a few great, dramatic bridges that cross the river just before it empties into the lake. Like this one that you walk underneath:

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And this pedestrian bridge that takes you over to the Pickering side:

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I briefly stepped over the Toronto/Pickering border, so I guess I can say I’ve been to a park in Pickering as well.

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Rouge Beach was one of my favourite park visits this year. You can take your bike on the GO train, so I think in the summer I’ll be coming back here many times with my bike and exploring some of the waterfront trails that continue east into Pickering.

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This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

A trip along Toronto’s (sort of) bicycle super highway, Route 22

Every few months, I see an article pop up about another city creating or planning for a “bicycle super highway” where cyclists can zoom along unimpeded in a wide separated path with the same comfort that we provide to drivers. There’s one in Copenhagen that stretches 22km to connect areas outside the city core and then there’s the planned 29km bike super highway in London, England.

Do we have any in Toronto?

I suppose some of the paths through the ravines—like the Lower Don Trail, which stretches from the lakeshore all the way up to roughly Eglinton, is a kind of superhighway–however, these pathways are really billed as recreational trails rather than commuter trails. There is little access into and out of them to surrounding roads.

But then there’s Route 22. I discovered Route 22 while searching on Google Maps for parks to visit in Ward 4. That’s when I saw the little grey squiggle running underneath Eglinton Avenue from Scarlett Road to Highway 427.

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Route 22, I learned, is an entirely separated cycling pathway that runs parallel just south of Eglinton for a total of about 5km. The irony is that the reason there was room to put in Route 22 during this section of Eglinton is that the roadway was widened in anticipation of the Richview Expressway—an expressway that was cancelled in the 1960s.

So we did get an expressway, it’s just one for cyclists. It’s also prettier than a regular expressway.

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Below is an example of what it looks like when Route 22 crosses a major street. There is a red strip that indicates the trail connection across the roadway.

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But the best part about Route 22 is that it actually seems to go somewhere. We have some great trails in Toronto, but they’re often severed, ending at the edge of a park. Lines on a map doesn’t make a cycling network. It’s the connections between those lines that matter.

On Route 22, you can ride west where the trail seamlessly links (see title image) with the West Dean Parklands, which has Mimico Creek running down its centre. From there you can ride another 4km south where the trail ends near Burnhamthorpe and Kipling. On the east side, Route 22 links in with the Humber River trails which take you up to Steeles or south to the Martin Goodman Trail, which you can take both west to Mimico or east to the Beach. This starts to look like–gasp!–a trail network.

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OK, so Route 22 is not going to find itself included on any top ten list of bicycle super highways (or probably even 20), but it’s perhaps one of the closest things we’ve got in Toronto.

This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

Bridging gaps to expand our park systems

If a park is there, but people can’t get to it, does it still exist?

As cities grow in population and land for new parks becomes more difficult to find, we must refocus on the accessibility of our existing park system. If we have a great big park next to a neighbourhood, but a rail corridor, highway, or other barrier separates the two, then can we really say that park serves that community?

There are two ways to add parkland to a city. One is to buy more land and build more parks. The other is to connect existing parks better to the people that could use them. Okay, so the second one doesn’t actually mean you’re adding land to the system, but making that existing land more accessible can have almost the same effect–especially if you’re connecting an underused park to people that want to use it.

Take this example from New York:

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New York is building a pedestrian bridge to connect people over the West Side Highway to Riverside Park on the other side. Currently, the park is only accessible–if you can call it that–by going up and down a bunch of stairs and through a tunnel (which some residents noted feels unsafe). The new $24 million bridge is under construction right now and will make a more direct connection.

Toronto has long had a proposal to create a connection over the rail corridor in the South Niagara neighbourhood just north of Fort York in order to link a growing community to larger park spaces and the waterfront to the south (I’ve written about this before).

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Originally, the plan called for a land bridge that would basically create new parkland over top of the rail corridor (see above image). What’s now being proposed, however, is a pedestrian and cycling bridge that would connect new parkland being created just north of the rail corridor, with the already established large, green areas to the south. The title image to this post is one proposal for that bridge.

Also in Toronto, the Green Line proposal would require pedestrian bridges to link up different parcels of hydro corridor parks over top of the underpasses that have been carved out to allow drivers to flow underneath a rail corridor directly to the south. (Full disclosure: I work for the charity advocating for this project.) Link up these parks with bridges and you have a 5 kilometre continuous linear park. Don’t build the bridges and you have still useful, but much smaller disconnected skinny parks.

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Creating good connections between parks can be like knocking down walls in a house. There is essentially the same amount of space as before but it feels larger and more immediate.

It can also help parks increase their reach–a critical element for a growing city. A park that may have taken 25 minutes to get to by some hellish circuitous route, may now only take 5 minutes over a direct bridge crossing. The actual effect for people can be like adding new parkland. And, as we seen in the Fort York bridge example, these can become key elements of a cycling network.

So yes, of course, as cities grow we should be looking at opportunities to increase the amount of parks we have by acquiring more land. No amount of connections between parks can account for parks in high-density areas that are over-crowded already.

But I think sometimes we can get over-focused on the land acquisition issue as if it was the only solution to expanding the park system. Sometimes a better strategy is to look deeply at the parks you already have and make sure they are used well, connected to and serving the people they can. And if they’re not, then find a way to bridge that gap–sometimes literally.

photo credits: Landmark, NY Times, DTAH, Workshop Architecture

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.

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.

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?

When a park lives more for its design than for its people

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Last month Toronto’s newest park, June Callwood Park, opened just south of Fort York. Designed by gh3, it’s a beautiful plaza with granite pavers, trees, and, its most eye-catching feature, bubble-gum pink elements threaded throughout that will find much love on Instagram, I’m sure.

And yet, after visiting the park I felt disappointed.

June Callwood Park seems like a park that lives more for its design than for its people. As a piece of art, or a theatrical set, the park is wonderful. It has a compelling narrative behind its design in recreating the sonic waves of a June Callwood quote (“I believe in kindness”) in its granite pavers. Its pink highlights add the whimsy often lacking in Toronto parks.

But the park doesn’t make me want to stay and linger. In fact, it seems designed to let you flow through it and come out the other side with a few good pictures (though kids did seem intrigued by the pink maze-like structure).

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It’s not fair to really judge a new park before its had a chance to integrate itself into the surrounding community, though. Often people will find weird, creative, unintended uses for a space. This may happen at June Callwood Park. Maybe they’ll add more seating. Maybe the trees just need to grow taller.

But hyper-designed public spaces seem to disinvite participation, which I think is a crucial part of a successful park. People need to feel they can make it their own, adopt it and hack its elements to suit their own needs.

When a park’s design is so fine-tuned and seemingly perfect already it presents itself as a toy which, rather than being played with, should instead be left in its packaging and admired from afar.

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That’s not to say that the design of June Callwood Park is perfect. In fact, there are some key issues. One is that the gravel tree pits are flush with the granite of the park, meaning that small gravel pieces are already scattered throughout its surface. Another is that small changes in grade in the park’s south end create two inch lips that are hard to see and will present accessibility issues.

We should want our parks to be beautiful. We should advocate for designs that are unique, whimsical, and bold. But we also need to be sure we aren’t creating museum pieces, but spaces that can be used and lived in.

An urban canoe ride on Toronto’s Humber River

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Over labour day weekend I’m off to Ontario’s huge Algonquin Park for a five day canoe trip, but I wanted to get out before that to warm up all my canoe muscles.

So last night my partner and two friends and I rented canoes and took a lazy paddle down Toronto’s Humber River from about Bloor Street to the lake.

It’s pretty amazing to be able to take the subway to a river and then walk underneath the station’s bridge to find a canoe rental place all set up. We paid our money and walked our canoes down to the river’s edge—easy as that. The river is very tame, so coming back up is just the same as going down.

I was surprised at how quickly and completely the city disappeared once we got out onto the water. It was hard to believe that only 15 minutes before I had been crammed armpit-to-face with rush hour travellers on the subway.

Toronto is lucky to have an incredible system of ravines and rivers that thread their way through the city down to the lake, but I don’t think we take advantage of them as often as we should. I know I don’t. It’s easy to forget how close all these spaces actual are to us when we speed over them or through them in cars, busses or on subway trains.

I even got to canoe under a highway—how often do you get to do that?