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?

When is a street not a street? When it’s a park, of course

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I’m so excited to see that Open Streets Toronto, which proposes opening up a stretch of Bloor Street for four Sundays this summer to people rather than cars between High Park and Withrow Park, is gaining momentum.

We don’t often think of them this way, what with all the vehicles rumbling along them 24/7, but the streets of our cities are our largest public spaces.

In Toronto, for example, there are 5,617 kilometres of roadways comprising 27.4 percent of the city’s area. To put that in perspective, parks and open spaces cover just about 13 percent of Toronto.

So it’s not surprising that in dense cities where new land for parks is difficult to come by, people are looking at streets that can be permanently or temporarily opened up to people to create new open spaces and pop-up parks. These not only get people outside, they allow people to experience their city in new ways and help connect neighbourhoods.

There is probably a health argument here somewhere, but forget about that eat-your-greens stuff for a moment. What about a fun argument? Shouldn’t we be allowed to play in the street for four Sundays in the summer?

No, say some people. Streets are for cars, trucks and busses. It will cause gridlock, chaos, anarchy.

There are 2,232 hours in summer where Bloor Street is open for cars (okay, okay there are some other smaller street closures for festivals, I’m spit-balling here). Open Streets Toronto is proposing to use 20 of those hours (five hours on four different Sundays) for people only. That’s a pretty small percentage of hours that cars won’t be able to travel east-west this summer.

0.0089 percent to be exact.

If this was a pie chart, this slice of time would be so thin as to be almost invisible. Here, look:

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North American cities from Austin to New York City to Vancouver have already experimented with opening up stretches of roadway in the summer in similar programs to Open Streets Toronto. So far their economies are doing okay, fingers-crossed.

I was in New York City a few summers ago and stumbled upon Summer Streets, which opened up portions of roadway in Manhattan to people. I borrowed a free bike and zoomed up towards Central Park with thousands of others. I passed people doing yoga, taking dance lessons, or just walking around.

Everyone was giddy about the fact that they were in the middle of Park Avenue. For a few hours on a sunny summer day, the street lived up to its name.

[If you’re in Toronto, be sure to write to the City’s economic development committee with your support of Open Streets Toronto before Tuesday, April 15th. The Open Streets Toronto proposal is on the agenda for the committee’s April 16th meeting. Check it out here.]

photo from Viva Streets Austin, Flickr (cc)