Lessons from our Making Connections report for the Public Space Incubator

March 21, 2018

Jake Tobin Garrett

The overarching goal of our Public Space Incubator is to spark new ways of inhabiting and enlivening public space in Toronto—meaning all of our public spaces, from park, streets, laneways, schoolyards, hydro corridors, to any other publicly-accessible open space. This was also the subject of a major report that Park People released almost three years ago called Making Connections: Planning Parks and Open Space Networks in Urban Neighbourhoods.

If you’re still mulling over your idea for the Public Space Incubator (letters of intent are due Thursday March 29!) then you may want to read Making Connections to help expand your thinking about what’s possible in public spaces.

In a city like Toronto where neighbourhoods are getting denser all the time and new people are moving in, we need to think more creatively about public space than we have in the past.

We can no longer imagine our city as a series of single-purpose spaces—parks do this, streets do that, laneways do this—but understand how all of these spaces can work better together as a flexible network, offering opportunities for people to move, gather, and play at different times of the day and year.

Making Connections proposes eight guiding principles for how these new open space networks can be thought about. Here’s the highlights:


Proactively plan central green spaces as the heart of open space networks

Don’t think of parks as green islands plopped in the middle of the city, but as part of a web of open spaces—both green and not—that create a connected network. Think about how people travel through this network to get to different spaces and what you can do to improve those connections.


Create green connections that become places themselves

When thinking about these connections, it’s important to not to think of them simply as ways to get from A to B, but about how they can become places themselves. How do we create streets and bikeways that encourage people to linger and hang out? Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway, which incorporates gardens and seating along its route, is a great example.



Be flexible in design and use

In a dynamic city that is always changing we need our parks and public spaces to also change and adapt. This means designing streets that can easily be closed off to cars to become public plazas in the warmer months, or park furniture or children’s playgrounds that doubles as public art. How can we make everything do double duty? 


Broaden the park to include the space beyond its edges

Our largest public space resource is not our parks, but our streets, which make up nearly a quarter of the land area of the city. How can we improve the experience of our streets to make them more comfortable and welcoming? Finding space in the public right-of-way for small improvements like these parkettes put in along Dundas Street West can help make streets more park-like.



Find park space in overlooked and unexpected places

Sometimes when space is at a premium, you need to get creative. We can no longer rely on empty lots to convert into new parks, but have to look deeper for spaces we may have passed over before. Maybe it’s a laneway or traffic island in your neighbourhood. Or maybe, in the case of the Bentway, it’s underneath a downtown expressway!


Empower communities by building new partnership models

Cities can’t do it alone. Forging new kinds of partnerships with communities in public spaces is a necessary ingredient to ensuring a well-designed space is well-used, active, and welcoming. Partnerships are about recognizing the strength of various partners so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. What new governance or management models can we bring to public spaces that offer more community input?


Experiment and be nimble

Change is hard, especially when the things we want to try in a space are new to people. This is where pilot projects and experiments come into play. These projects allow you to test something in a space in a temporary way, evaluate its impact, and refine it based on your learnings. It’s a great way to build support for an idea by allowing people to interact with it in a real physical space. The Downtown Yonge BIA’s Celebrate Yonge allowed people to feel what an expanded public realm along Yonge Street would be like. Or in Vancouver, they create a pop-up plaza on a street that is now permanent because people loved it so much.



Create collaborations and pool funding sources 

Lastly, it’s important to build collaborations that go beyond the usual suspects. Reach out to public health agencies, social workers, artists, performers, environmentalists, psychologists…anyone who can bring a new perspective, challenge the status quo, and help create spaces that are functional and unique. How can a public space help achieve the goals of a local health organization? How can it create opportunities for artists to engage with people? For psychologists to study human behaviour?

For a deeper dive into the eight guiding principles, including case studies for each, check out the full Making Connections report.

photos of Comox-Helmcken Greenway from Brent Granby, Dundas Parkettes from PMA Landscape Architecture, and Celebrate Yonge from Downtown Yonge BIA.

Stay in the loop about Park People opportunities, programs & events

Subscribe to our newsletter!