Finding and Funding Parks through Toronto’s new Parkland Strategy

The City of Toronto’s new citywide Parkland Strategy, approved by City Council this week, will guide investment in parks acquisition and improvement in the city over the next 20 years. It’s a welcome planning document, though one we needed ten years ago.

By now it has become a familiar refrain: Toronto is growing — and growing up — fast:

In this future city, parks will play an even more critical role in meeting the social and recreational needs of city dwellers, not to mention their importance in providing ecosystem services like stormwater management that will help the city adapt to a changing climate.

Even before accounting for this projected growth, Toronto has been struggling with parks provision.

This is not a challenge Toronto faces alone: Park People’s Canadian City Parks Report, which tracks trends in city parks, found major cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal make up the bottom three cities in amount of parkland per person.

The new Parkland Strategy states that the average amount of parkland per person in Toronto today is 28 square metres – roughly the size of a single tree’s canopy. That number drops to 8.7 square metres if you include only maintained parkland (like your friendly neighbourhood park) and remove natural areas like ravines. 

If the City doesn’t acquire new parkland, it estimates the average amount of parkland per person will drop 14% (to 24 square metres) by 2033.

Worse, nearly 1/5 of the city — in neighbourhoods that see the most intense growth — would see a drop of 25% or more in parkland per person. You can see that reflected in the map below, with areas in red showing the largest drop in amount of parkland per person due to projected growth.

The Parkland Strategy seeks to ensure that we don’t end up in that situation by setting out a framework to guide where to prioritize park development.

However, with the rapid pace of property development in the city, and recent changes to how parks are funded in the province’s More Homes, More Choices Act (aka Bill 108) approved in June, this goal will be an uphill climb.

A strategy in four themes

The Parkland Strategy organizes its actions into four themes: expand, connect, improve, and include. Each one drives the policies and recommendations within the report. We’ve paraphrased a few actions from each that we thought were of particular importance.

Expand

Improve

Connect

Include

A new park provision measurement tool

The Parkland Strategy provides a much-needed update to the Local Parkland Assessment Cells model based on 1996 census data that the City has been using since 2001 to identify priority acquisition areas.

The new Park Catchment Tool measures park provision by looking at how many people are within a 500m walk of a park (about 5 minutes) and the size of the park itself, helping to identify neighbourhoods with lower rates of parkland per person.

In addition, the Strategy includes a new equity-based lens that takes into account factors like income in calculating the need for green space. This is a park planning tool that more cities are developing, ensuring scarce public dollars are being distributed to neighbourhoods most in need.

For example, Vancouver’s recently approved VanPlay Parks Master Plan also includes an equity-based decisions-making tool. Similar to Toronto, it allows the City to layer on different indicators, such as areas of growth, low income, and demographic information to find areas of need.

Creative new methods for park building

The Strategy also recognizes that as Toronto grows, available land for parks becomes scarce and expensive. This means the city must get more creative, looking to develop parkland along rail corridors, in hydro corridors, and under highways.

We can see this already taking place through projects like the proposed Rail Deck Park, the planned Green Line park in the Dupont hydro corridor, the planned Meadoway in the Gatineau hydro corridor, and The Bentway linear public space underneath the Gardiner Expressway.

In addition to these creative projects, we need to rethink how parks interact with adjacent streets—an idea with transformational potential for how we experience public space as a connected network.

The City has done this at a small scale in park redevelopments like Berczy Park, which included the redesign of adjacent Scott Street, but the idea has yet to become standard practice. The Strategy advocates for looking for more of these opportunities.

Realizing this will require better coordination of roadwork and park revitalization timelines and budgets to ensure opportunities to co-design these spaces are maximized. But with nearly a quarter of the land area of the city made up of streets (compared to 13% in parkland), the opportunities are considerable.

These are strategies that we also outlined in our 2015 Making Connections report on planning parks and open space network in dense urban neighbourhoods. 

Putting the Plan into Action

All of this, of course, will take money.

With the passing of the province’s More Homes, More Choices Act (Bill 108) in June, the question of where the money will come from to fund the Parkland Strategy is unresolved.

That act created a single Community Benefits Charge for parkland and other community benefits, effectively removing Section 42 parkland and Section 37 density bonusing tools, leaving the City with the task of drafting up a new strategy for paying for parks.

There are many unknowns regarding what impact this new legislation will have on the City’s ability to fund park development. The question of whether Toronto’s parkland is able to keep up with its population and development growth or falls further behind in provision of green space hangs in the balance–and so too then does the future of a city that hopes to remain green and resilient for years to come.

This article was originally published in slightly different form in Novae Res Urbis Toronto November 22, 2019.

Vital Signs showcases where parks are vital

The release of the Toronto Foundation’s annual Vital Signs report has provided Torontonians with both a wide and deep look into our city. There are a lot of bright spots and also a lot of areas that require us to do more work to ensure that Toronto is a city that is inclusive, equitable, and resilient.

Here we highlight three key areas where parks intersect with some of the report’s findings. 

Parks and Resilience

Vital Signs offers a glimpse into Toronto’s climate change future that should give us all pause.

The cost of damage from extreme weather has increased four times in the last decade. In the next thirty years, it’s predicted that Toronto will suffer from 2.5 times more extreme hot weather days and that the maximum daily rainfall amount could double by 2050, causing even more flooding and damage to parks and neighbourhoods.

As we wrote about in our Resilient Parks Resilient City report and our recent blog on parks and climate change, parks play a huge role in helping cities adapt to an environment that is wetter and wilder.

Parks do this by moderating air temperatures, soaking up stormwater, cleaning the air of harmful pollutants, and more. We recently spoke to the Globe and Mail about this very fact. 

In Toronto, the ravines are paramount to the city’s ability to mitigate the effects of climate change. As the green network that threads throughout the entire city, the ravines provide key natural spaces that perform important ecological services like stormwater management and reducing the urban heat island effect.

In 2017, Toronto approved its first ever Ravine Strategy, which aims to maintain and improve the health and resilience of this incredible natural feature. While the strategy is excellent, it also needs funding approved for its implementation. This should be a key focus in upcoming budgets. 

Parks and Growth

As Vital Signs notes — using statistics from our first Canadian City Parks Report — Toronto has on average of 2.4 hectares of parkland per 1,000 people. While this is on the lower end, it’s also in line with other major urban centres like Montreal (2.7ha) and Vancouver (2ha). 

This showcases the difficulty of ensuring parks keep pace with cities that are growing in both population and density. Indeed, growth is a big feature of Vital Signs, with the report stating that Toronto grew by more than 77,000 in 2018 alone. Toronto’s parks also aren’t evenly distributed, with some areas of the city requiring more investment in new green spaces to keep up with this growth.

Toronto is on the right track by investing heavily in growth-focused plans, such as the Facilities Master Plan, TOcore Parks and Public Realm Plan, and forthcoming Parkland Strategy. These strategies are key in understanding where investments in parkland and recreational facilities are most needed. 

However, strategies are only as good as the dollars we have to invest in their implementation. With changes made by the Provincial government to how cities collect development fees that can be spent on parks and recreation facilities, there is much uncertainty about the financial underpinnings of these parks strategies. 

Ensuring these plans are funded remains a critical challenge, especially as the Province releases the new regulations that will govern these new rules.

Parks and Social Isolation

Parks are places of nature, but they are also places of people. Many of us head to our neighbourhood park to hang out with friends and family, meet community members, or simply people-watch. 

There are some worrying trends in Toronto’s social fabric that Vital Signs highlights. For example, some populations like people living on lower incomes, newcomers, and young people have a weaker sense of belonging, are more likely to feel socially isolated, or have less people they can call on in an emergency situation. 

As our Sparking Change report found, parks can be powerful enablers of social connection that combat social isolation, but this depends on having a park that contains the right amenities, is well-kept, and well-programmed. 

In fact, a recent study of US parks found that each additional supervised activity in a park leads to a 48% increase in park use, making parks engines that power human connection and community. Events and activities provide an opportunity for people to come out and meet new people, building their local social networks and creating a greater sense of belonging. 

One effective way to do this is through arts events. Vital Signs found that people living on lower incomes lack access to arts events.

Our work with the Toronto Arts Foundation on its Arts in the Parks initiative for the last three years has seen us connecting local community groups with artists in neighbourhoods outside the downtown core. This provides community members with an opportunity to engage with their neighbours and participate in an arts event without paying an entrance fee.

While many people appreciate the intrinsic value of parks, they are not often part of the conversation when talking about critical resilience infrastructure and investment in social services. However, as we’ve outlined here, parks play important roles in addressing many of the issues raised in the Vital Signs report. 

 

Vancouver approves an equity-focused parks strategy for the future

Following a multi-year effort, last week the Vancouver Park Board approved its citywide parks and recreation master plan. Dubbed VanPlay, it will guide investment in parks and recreation for the next 25 years. Vancouver is the only Canadian city—and one of the only in North America—with an elected Park Board that governs the city’s green spaces.

VanPlay was necessitated by a much-changed, much-grown city bumping up against a number of challenges such as equity, population growth, and changing demographics and needs. 

For example, despite the fact that Vancouver has more parks now than it did 25 years ago, the amount of park space per person has declined by one third due to population growth. In short, people have outpaced parks. 

In the Canadian City Parks Report, our survey of Canadian park systems released this summer, Vancouver ranked lowest in average park provision with 2 hectares of parkland per 1000 people (see graph below). While this was low, it was also in line with other major urban centres like Toronto (2.7ha) and Montreal (2.4ha), showing how growth and density is challenging park systems across the country. 

Despite falling lower on parkland provision, Vancouver shone in the Canadian City Parks Report, which compiled data, but also surfaced stories about leading practices. 

Vancouver showed its dedication in striving for a progressive park system through policies such as instituting all gender park washrooms and performing a colonial audit of the city’s park system.

Vancouver brings that progressive focus to VanPlay. This is a report that features quotes from Audre Lorde, an explanation of intersectionality, and a diagram outlining the spectrum of privilege and oppression.

Vancouver’s focus on park equity stems from a recognition that the city’s park development has been historically uneven, creating inequities between neighbourhoods in park access and quality. 

As our cities explode with growth, it’s critical that we reckon with past planning and patterns of growth that have created uneven access to quality parks. We know parks provide multiple environmental, social, health, and economic benefits that everyone in a city should be able to share in equally. But how do we know where to invest limited public dollars?

The breakthrough in VanPlay is the use of geospatial data (a fancy way of saying data that is tied to a certain location, like income in a particular neighbourhood) to identify underserved areas where increased investment in parks should be targeted. 

The Park Board is calling these areas Initiative Zones. 

Initiative Zones were identified by examining three layers of data:

  1. Park access gaps: Areas where people are more than a 10 minute walk to a park and/or areas that are served by less than 0.55 hectares per 1000 people.
  2. Demand for low barrier recreation: The number of residents that have registered for the city’s Leisure Access Program, which provides low-cost recreation access.
  3. Tree canopy gaps: Areas of the city that have less than 5% tree canopy coverage. 

Now that this model has been created, the Park Board can layer other factors over time to reveal more nuance or target specific policy areas. 

These additional layers could include income, survey data on community engagement and satisfaction, locations of past capital investments by the city, and demographic data such as age. 

For example, the Park Board shows how layering on the city’s growth areas can provide further guidance on where to direct funds. Areas of the city experiencing growth pressures can often meet parks investment needs through the development process, whereas areas that are low or no-growth — but may rank as underserved — don’t have that same opportunity. The report concludes that equity strategies should target these lower growth areas for public investment. 

As Park Board Commissioner Camil Dumont told Mash Salehomoum, Park People’s Vancouver Program Coordinator, at the meeting where VanPlay was approved:

For me, this is the ultimate set of goals to inform my decisions. The sweeping and explicit prioritization of equity in such a monumental report really makes me proud of the work that we do at the Park Board.” 

Of course, data only tells part of the story — a fact that the Park Board recognizes. The report’s recommendations include on-going engagement between communities and the Park Board to assist in interpreting the data and understanding the lived experience behind it. The Park Board also has plans to make this data publicly available online through a mapping tool on their website.

It’s not hard to see what a powerful analytical decision-making tool VanPlay could become.

Other VanPlay highlights

 

Water, resurfaced

Vancouver is a city defined by water. When I lived there, I loved running along the seawall, or watching cargo ships unload at Crab Park, or chasing bunny rabbits at Jericho Beach. Water in Vancouver seems to be everywhere. And yet, as the report notes, 91% of urban streams in the city have been buried throughout its history.

As part of the City’s work on biodiversity as well as creating a city more resilient to the extreme rainfall events made more common through climate change, the VanPlay strategy aims to bring more of these streams back to the surface. This will create more natural habitat, new amenities for people, and also help manage rainwater during storms.

Streets to parks

We don’t think about it often, but streets represent the largest amount of public space we have in our cities—often about a quarter of the entire land area of a city. In Vancouver, streets represent 32% of the city’s land area, while parks sit at 11%. That’s a big public space resource for a city struggling to meet the public space needs of its growing population. 

Vancouver is already a leader in rethinking streets as public space, and VanPlay encourages more of this thinking with a recommendation to work with Planning and Engineering to create parklets, street closures, laneway activations and more.

Connectivity enhancers

Connectivity is another big feature of VanPlay. Vancouver already boasts the longest continuous waterfront trail in the world (the 28km sea wall that wraps around downtown) and a burgeoning system of bike lanes. VanPlay hopes to take this further.

An interesting element in the report is what the Park Board is calling “network enhancers.” These are elements—like bike repair stations, wayfinding, lighting, and seating—that bolster connectivity by increasing utility, safety, or pleasure between destinations.

Perhaps your walk between school and the park includes a small pollinator garden, a place to fill up your water bottle and a colourful piece of public art. 

We can’t always thread our city together with linear parks, but we can use these “network enhancers” to make the experience more enjoyable.

View the full VanPlay report here. You can find Vancouver’s City Profile in our Canadian City Parks Report here.

‘Percentage of land area’ and ‘network enhancer’ images courtesy of Design Workshop from VanPlay.

 

Four ways parks help address climate change

By Jake Tobin Garrett, Policy and Planning Manager

As Park People staff prepare to participate in the climate strike this Friday, September 27th at the rallies in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, we have turned our attention to the ways in which parks play into this conversation. 

In addition to the social, health, and economic benefits of parks, our shared green spaces are powerful ecological forces worthy of increased investment.

Here are four ways parks help combat and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Parks reduce the urban heat island effect

Last year Montreal suffered from a devastating heat wave that left 66 dead. When the City plotted the deaths, they found that people who lived in neighbourhoods deemed heat islands—where temperatures rose higher than in other neighbourhoods—were twice as likely to die.

As the Toronto Star noted, the heat islands divided “the cool, treed areas from the hot concrete-covered ones.”

Urban areas can feel as much as 12 degrees hotter than rural areas due to pavement, brick, and concrete surfaces that absorb the sun’s heat. One Montreal city councillor said that urban greening projects such as tree planting and green walls can be a way to combat this effect, and help cool some of these particularly hot neighbourhoods.

How does this work? Think of green spaces as natural air conditioners.

Increasing the tree canopy increases shade, which helps shield surfaces from the sun, reducing their ability to absorb heat. Trees and other vegetation also help cool the air around them through a process called evapotranspiration, which is basically when plants sweat. Water evaporates into the air through the leaves, cooling the air around it in the process.

As temperatures continue to rise in cities across the country, features like tree-lined streets and well-tended parks to keep things cooler will become ever more important. 

Parks mitigate flooding from extreme weather

Another devastating impact of climate change has been increasing extreme weather events such as heavy rainfalls, known, poetically, as cloud bursts. In these events, stormwater systems can be overwhelmed by too much rain in a short period of time, leading to flooding. 

As we documented in our Canadian City Parks Report, flooding continues to impact Canadian cities.

Calgary’s Bow River overflowed due to heavy rainfall in 2013, causing widespread property damage and evacuations. Flooding caused 4 million dollars worth of damage to Oakville’s waterfront in 2017 — the same year high water and flooding caused millions of dollars in damage in Toronto, and the closing of the popular Toronto Islands park for the summer. And this past spring, heavy rainfall caused flooding in many communities in Ontario and Quebec. It goes on and on. 

Sudden storms can also lead to the release of raw sewage into waterways. This is because cities were planned with systems that combined stormwater and sewage pipes into one. When those systems are overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of stormwater they vent untreated water into nearby lakes, rivers, and oceans. 

This impacts water quality. High E.coli readings at some beaches in Vancouver closed them this summer and Ontario’s environmental commissioner found that sewage flowed into southern Ontario waterways over 1,300 times in the year between April 2017 and March 2018.

The amount of paved surfaces in our cities only further contributes to flooding and overwhelmed stormwater systems, which is where parks, as soft landscapes capable of absorbing water, come into play. 

As our Resilient Parks, Resilient City report noted, turning our streets, public spaces, and parks into sponges through green infrastructure can help address flooding. Green infrastructure includes engineered natural elements — rain gardens, bioswales, retention ponds — that help to store, soak up, and treat rainwater where it falls, rather than whisking it away through underground pipes. 

Green infrastructure can relieve pressure on aging stormwater systems, but also contributes to more beautiful, biodiverse cities through the creation of more green space.

Despite that, our Canadian City Parks Report found that while Canadian cities were experimenting with small-scale green infrastructure projects, less than half had strategies for scaling the practice up across the city. That work is urgently needed.

There is some great work happening in Canada, though.

Toronto’s Corktown Common includes a flood protection berm and a wetland that helps to stop and soak up water. Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy coordinates green infrastructure projects across the city, including a new plaza built last year that can soak up water from over 1,000 square metres of impervious surfaces in the neighbourhood around it. And Calgary just finished the first phase of West Eau Claire Park along the Bow River, which safeguards neighbourhoods from flooding.

Parks suck up carbon from the air

While governments and oil companies experiment with technology that can capture carbon from the air and store it underground, we already have a natural, tested way of removing carbon from the air and storing it: trees. 

Planting trees may seem like a small act, but reforestation is the most effective way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

According to National Geographic, there’s enough land around the world to plant new forests to cut carbon by 25 percent. This would erase “nearly 100 years of carbon emissions.” Apparently, Canada has 78 million hectares that could be reforested. Not bad.

Trees and other plants capture carbon from the air through the act of photosynthesis, removing it from the air and storing it within themselves. The carbon is then only released if the plant is burned, which is why the recent spate of large forest fires in British Columbia and Alberta are so concerning–a trend that is only likely to get worse

Forest fires release all the carbon sucked up by those trees back into the air. In fact, it was found that California’s 2018 wildfires released as much carbon into the air–68 million tons–as the state does in providing a year’s worth of electricity.

Cities across Canada have tree planting programs in place, with varying targets. 

Mississauga is partway through a multi-year plan to plant one million trees in the city by 2032, having planted over 340,000 so far. Victoria has committed to a more modest, but still beneficial, 5,000 trees planted by 2020 as part of the United Nations Trees in Cities Challenge.

Vancouver is on track to reach its goal of planting 150,000 trees in the city by 2020. And in Ontario, the provincial government backed down from axing its tree-planting program after public protest in 2018, which has a goal of planting 50 million trees in the province by 2025 (it’s about halfway there).

So, hug a tree. Or better yet, plant one–lots of them. 

Parks provide space to come together

This benefit doesn’t deal with the science of evapotranspiration or the engineering of green infrastructure, but instead with social capital and good ol’ fashioned meeting your neighbours.

With climate change being such a large and often intangible force in our lives that can cause anxiety, stress, and feelings of helplessness, the benefits of parks to provide a collective space to gather becomes even more crucial. 

Take this recent example from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where, after being ravaged by a hurricane, community members gathered at a park bake oven to provide food and warmth for families without power. Other community park groups contribute to a cleaner environment by hosting park clean-ups, tree planting, and even zero-waste picnics.

An existential threat like climate change can spin us apart from one another or it can be a force to drive us together–and our parks and public spaces, as sites of gathering, will become only more important to ensuring that we join with our community in calling for action.

Join us and thousands of others at the Global Climate Strikes across the country on Friday, September 27. For more information on finding a rally near you, click here.

A conversation with Brianna Aspinall about learning to talk about climate change

In light of the Global Climate Strike taking place this week in cities around the world, we spoke with our very own Brianna Aspinall who, in addition to her community engagement work at Park People, also heads up Carbon Conversations TO

In this blog, our Manager of Policy and Planning, Jake Tobin Garrett, chats with Brianna about how to talk about climate change with empathy, how to stay positive and motivated in the face of such a large issue, and why a mix of hope and anger is a good thing.

Jake Tobin Garrett: Tell me a little bit about Carbon Conversations TO and how you got involved.

Brianna Aspinall: Climate change can be pretty paralyzing, so with Carbon Conversations TO, which is based on a UK group, we try to help people move from those feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness to action. The structure of Carbon Conversations TO is a small-group guided discussion over a 6-week period where we meet for two hours a week. We discuss elements like personal carbon footprints, how people feel about those and climate change at large, and what actions we can take. We also developed a workshop to help people in their journey to talk to others about climate change.

The reason I worked on bringing it to Toronto was really out of love for my partner who was struggling after seeing a documentary on climate change. He was quite sad and felt a little hopeless for the world. Seeing that at home everyday made me want to try to find a solution. 

JTG: Why is it important to have these conversations about climate change with people in our lives?

BA: I think about the metaphor that if your house is on fire, then you better learn how to talk about it with the people in there. It’s a big house and you don’t know everyone, but you better figure out ways to cooperate and collaborate, even though you might all be feeling a little anxious. 

JTG: How do you see your work on climate change intersect with your work at Park People?

BA: A big reason I started working at Park People was because I wanted to also focus on social issues. I think they’re quite interconnected with environmental issues, yet those groups don’t always work together. So I wanted to immerse myself in an environment where I would learn more about community development work. 

When you think about resiliency, it’s strong communities—communities that know each other and have strong networks—that are way more resilient, right? There are cool moments like we saw recently in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where community members came together to share food at a park bake oven after the hurricane. And so that’s why I think the work that Park People does is super important and connected to climate change. 

Credit: City of Toronto, Matt Forsythe

JTG: Do you have tips for people to have conversations about climate change? I feel like those conversations can often get very personal, where people can feel like their individual choices are being judged—like they have to fly for work or they have to drive their kids to soccer practice. 

BA: The first thing we tell people is to learn about your own connection to climate change and climate action. Learn what your carbon footprint is and your reaction to that footprint. Are you proud of certain things you’re doing or are you overwhelmed? That will hopefully give you a little bit of empathy when talking to others, because it’s not easy to change. 

Instead of coming from a place of judgment and assumptions, come from a place of curiosity. That might look like talking less and listening more. Asking more open ended questions.

JTG: Just good skills for having a good conversation anyways! 

BA: You will learn a lot from people, it’s kind of cool. Another thing you can do is focus on feelings. It’s quite common that people start coming from a place of blame, because they might be trying to defend themselves by putting responsibility on bigger actors like government or business. Those bigger actors definitely have a lot of responsibility and power, but we’re also a part of it. 

I try to focus on the emotion instead of the content. I might say “Oh, it sounds like you feel a little disempowered” or “It sounds like you feel like you can’t make a difference” and see where that conversation takes us. Because then you might understand them a little bit more, and help them get out of that negative space. 

JTG: What do you say to those that feel helpless, or that their individual actions—like biking to work or using a metal straw—are so infinitesimally small in the face of such a large issue? Do individual actions really matter in the face of climate change?

BA: I understand that people feel that their individual actions may not matter. I get into that mindset, too. But then I try to get myself out of it, because if you really think about it, it’s such a complex challenge. You can’t just have one group acting, because there isn’t just one clear solution.

JTG: Right, it’s not just: we have a carbon tax, now the issue is solved.

BA: Right, because you might not elect someone who advocates for a carbon tax if you don’t have people talking about climate change and understanding what is needed. We’re at a point where it’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about taking your own individual action because you’re a part of the big puzzle. And then also holding business and government accountable—thinking about your vote as a way to push for better climate action and better social justice as well. 

JTG: An important message considering we’re in the middle of a federal election. 

BA: There are some good groups like Lead Now’s Cooperate for climate campaign, 100 Debates for the Environment, Our Time for a Green New Deal that can help you choose candidates that are thinking about climate justice. 

And don’t underestimate how your actions might inspire others. I think about it as a drop falling into a calm lake—that ripple effect. You see it with Greta Thunberg, where she started on her own and now she’s created this mass movement. 

We all might have our own inner mini-Greta. I went to a restaurant and brought my own container. The person near me said, “Oh, cool. I should bring my own container.” Not everyone tells you that they’re inspired by you, but don’t be fooled. You probably are inspiring people. You might be inspiring yourself every day by acting along with you values. And then you’re actually building a way forward. 

We have ideas of what the world might look like where it’s better for everyone, more socially just and better for the environment, so we need to build that by showing people what that looks like. Doing the right thing does not always mean that you’re sacrificing your happiness. There’s also happiness in these different types of actions. 

JTG: It feels like a very interesting moment in time right now around climate change. We have Greta and this youth movement, a kind of swell of activism around this issue, but at the same time we’re also getting these incredibly grim scientific reports, and increasing instances of wildfires and flooding and ice melting in Greenland, and all sorts of catastrophic events. How do you feel about this particular moment that we’re existing in around this issue? Do you feel hopeful?

BA: I feel a mix of hope and despair, sadness, and anger. Depending on the day. I just try to embrace that and continue building my own hope by acting. 

But I think it’s such an opportunity, because if you look at the science it’s still very grim and scary, but there’s still time to act, literally right now. And putting money into climate change might also mean putting money into housing affordability and other problems that we face as a society.

I sometimes avoid the grim and scary side—reading about climate change effects—but I do think it’s important to remind ourselves of the urgency. Holding that balance of hope and urgency, or outrage, is super important to help us move forward.

To learn more about Carbon Conversations TO and how you can get involved and their upcoming workshop this November on how to talk about climate change, visit their website at www.carbonconversationsTO.com. You can also sign up for the group’s newsletter and follow them on Facebook.

title photo by Erick Dransch

Big plans for a big park in Montreal

Earlier this month, Montreal’s mayor made a big announcement that one local activist called “Christmas in summer,” when she unveiled a vision to create Canada’s largest city park, Grand parc de l’Ouest. 

Situated on Montreal’s West Island, the park would stitch together existing and newly created parkland to create a connected green space system 3,000 hectares in size (that includes 1,600 hectares of new parkland).

For the record, that’s 7.4 times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, 18.6 times the size of Toronto’s High Park, and 10.7 times the size of Montreal’s own Mount Royal.

The idea was spurred on by years of work behind the scenes by local activists and environmentalists, including Sue Stacho, who told the Montreal Gazette that the project “sets a precedent for the protection of natural spaces in urban environments in the rest of Canada.”

Recently, the federal government provided a boost when it announced $50 million in funding for the project, tying the financial support to the park’s potential to mitigate flooding and alleviate the effects of extreme weather.

This is certainly good park news for Canada’s second largest city, one that falls on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of park provision per thousand people as profiled in our Canadian City Parks Report released in June. 

Hectares of parkland per 1000 people, Canadian City Parks Report 2019, Park People

Other large Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto struggle with the same challenge. Finding space for the creation of new parks is difficult in dense, urban areas undergoing pressures from development. 

As populations surge, more and more people live within the same area, putting pressure on existing parks. In fact, Montreal city staff state pressure from dense populations means the maintenance cost for parks in Montreal is higher than in other Canadian cities.

Increasing the amount of park space accessible to Montrealer’s, especially park space that features naturalized environments, will also help residents connect with nature without needing to leave the city limits. 

This project mirrors work that was done, and continues to be done, to create Canada’s first national urban park, Rouge Park

Managed by Parks Canada, the over 6,200 hectare Rouge Park is situated within the cities of Toronto, Pickering, and Markham, accessible by local transit to the nearly 6 million people who live within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. It includes many kilometres of trails, beaches, and even a campground. 

For those who find provincial and national parks inaccessible due to distance, these large nature parks within city boundaries are critical. 

Large nature parks are also key for protecting urban biodiversity and for the ecological services they provide, such as cleaning the air, water, and mitigating urban heat–all of which will only become more important as climate change increases stress on our cities.

Le grand parc de l’Ouest speaks to a growing trend in urban park planning to focus not just on opportunities to expand park space, but connect existing spaces better together—especially in dense, urban areas.

Connecting parks creates better accessibility of park systems for people, but can also create crucial wildlife corridors that protect and enhance important natural habitat that has been lost to urbanization.

We profiled some of this recent work in our 2015 Making Connections report, and included a dive into Halifax’s new Green Network Plan in our 2019 Canadian City Parks Report. 

Connecting parks into cohesive networks—as opposed to planning them as postage stamp green spaces—is an idea that harkens back to the first eras of what is considered modern city park building. 

That’s when landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted devised 19th century park systems that focused on green spaces, large and small, connected through a network of linear parks. 

Great examples of this form of park system building can still be found in cities like Boston, where the Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace connects 450 hectares of parkland throughout the city. Olmsted also designed Montreal’s Mount Royal Park (as well as, of course, New York’s Central Park). 

There are still some major hurdles before Le grand parc de l’Ouest can be implemented, however, including the fact that large portions of the proposed new green spaces are owned by developers. 

Montreal’s mayor, Valerie Plante, says she is hoping to buy that land back to secure it as green space.

Large Canadian city parks

 

 

Green Line Implementation Plan already being put into action

With land in cities becoming scarce and expensive, we need to get creative about how we provide new parks for growing communities. By using existing land within an urban hydro corridor to create a linear park and trail, the Green Line in Toronto is an innovative way of creating new green space and pedestrian connections in neighbourhoods that need them. 

The Green Line started as a community initiative with an ideas competition in 2012 spearheaded by local resident Helena Grdadolnik of Workshop Architecture. Park People got involved in late 2013 to help build support for the idea at the City and lead events like community walks, photo exhibits, mural parties, pollinator gardens, and more.  Huge, heartfelt thanks to the many, many community members that contributed time, energy, and expertise over the last several years. 

All of this work helped push the project forward, harnessing community energy and political support to keep the dream of a connected linear park alive. We always believed that this project is important to the local communities through which it runs, but also in promoting a vision of what creative park thinking can accomplish. 

That work resulted in the City of Toronto hiring a team of consultants led by DTAH and Workshop Architecture in 2017 to produce a Green Line Implementation Plan–the final version of which was recently released and featured in CBC. Park People was a partner with the City on the plan, providing comments throughout the process.

An implementation plan was critical since the parks along the Green Line have only ever been planned and designed as single parks, not as a longer, cohesive public space. Creating a plan that laid out how to connect and improve the entire 5km together is key in building the Green Line over time. 

In fact, as we’ll outline below, two new parks are already scheduled to be designed and built as part of the plan, which is very exciting news!

The plan proposes…

What the Green Line could look like

The plan proposes the Green Line as a connected trail from Earlscourt Park in the west to just west of Spadina Road in the east. The trail would run through existing and new parks, across roadways using new signalized crossings, and through and around the existing parking lots east of Christie. In time, those parking lots could become new green spaces as parking needs change in the neighbourhood.

As an overall master plan, the plan’s goal was finding a way to stitch the entire 5km route together into something cohesive, safe, and beautiful. To do so, the plan includes design principles related to pathway design, materials, plantings, lighting, and furniture. 

While it does lay out some ideas for where specific amenities like dog parks, public art, and community gardens could be placed, the detailed park design and the placement of these features will happen through a separate public consultation process as those parks are being designed—just like other parks in Toronto. 

Green Line = parks + streets

When you have a 5km linear park that threads through neighbourhoods, including parking lots, and across roadways, you need to think about streets as much as about green space. The Green Line is about creating new and better green space to be sure, but it’s also, critically, about creating connections.

To do so, the plan proposes new pathways as well as six new signalized intersections so people won’t have to dart out through a gap in traffic to get from one park to another anymore–something that frequently happens today and creates unsafe conditions. The first of these traffic lights at Dovercourt and Geary is being installed this summer.

The plan also proposes a number of improvements to streets that run alongside the Green Line, including most significantly Geary and Bridgeman Avenues.

On Geary, for example, the plan proposes new traffic calming measures like narrowing the roadway, which also increases room for sidewalks, green space, and tree planting. This will help create a more inviting, walkable public realm for an area that is already a community hub with restaurants and services for this growing neighbourhood.

 

The Green Line is not your average park

The Green Line is often compared to New York’s High Line in the media, but in fact it’s nothing like it. While the High Line was built on a decommissioned elevated rail line, set apart from city streets, the Green Line must be built at ground level through an active electricity transmission corridor that crosses several roads. This presents opportunities to create a unique space, but also some very difficult challenges.

The land in the hydro corridor, including the current parks and parking lots, is actually owned by the Province of Ontario and operated by Hydro One. In order for the City to create new parks, it must license land from the Province and abide by Hydro One’s regulations related to safety and access in the hydro corridor–regulations that have become more stringent since the original parks were created in the corridor in the 1970s. 

For example, Hydro One’s technical requirements meant trees are only allowed to certain heights because of the high-tension wires overhead and amenities, like benches, need to be spaced out from the base of towers to provide access for maintenance vehicles. 

It also meant, unfortunately, that the pedestrian bridges over the roadways, dreamed up in the initial community-led ideas competition in 2012, were not allowed by Hydro One, despite the design team and City trying many different iterations of how they could work.

All of this is to outline both the challenge of constructing parks within active hydro corridors and the opportunity that the Green Line Implementation Plan provides in laying out a method for doing so, which could act as a lesson for other hydro corridor parks. 

The plan will take time to build, but new parks are coming soon

The Green Line was always going to be a long-term project, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t see big improvements to the Green Line within just a few short years. 

A few of the priority projects the plan targets to begin within three years include:

The City also just announced that the as the first step toward implementing the Green Line plan, the City’s Parks Forestry and Recreation division is moving forward with two of the park projects identified in the plan. 

PFR will engage in further public consultation, detailed design and tendering of two new parks: one on Geary Avenue which will expand the existing Geary Avenue Parkette and the other a new park in two sections flanking the hydro station on Macpherson Avenue near Davenport. Construction is anticipated to begin in late 2020 with completion in 2021-2022, pending approval of the capital budget.

Plans are great, but they are only as good as the budgets that support their implementation, so it’s great to see the City putting money into the plan to get new parks completed quickly.

When parks pop-up, butterflies pop in 

The coolest thing happened in the middle of a Toronto strip mall parking lot along Lawrence West in Scarborough last month: a monarch butterfly came to visit. 

No, it wasn’t looking for lunch at The Wexford Restaurant (though I hear it’s good)–the butterfly was attracted by over 360 native pollinator plants that were part of a pop-up park installation called WexPOPS. 

WexPOPS, led by artist and Master of Landscape Architecture graduate Daniel Rotsztain and University of Guelph professor Brendan Stewart, was intended as a project to support community-use and social gathering. It was one of five projects funded through Park People’s Public Space Incubator program in 2018.

But the design also included lots of native plants, supplied by Native Plants in Claremont, thanks to the collaborative design process between local community members and University of Guelph landscape architecture students. 

“We selected a wide variety of native perennial wildflowers and meadow grasses — 29 species in all — and we certainly hoped to attract bees and butterflies and other insects, but we’ve been completely amazed at the results,” Brendan Stewart said. 

“It’s been quite dramatic to watch the monarch’s progress from larva to adult butterflies, and to see how much milkweed they eat in the process. The garden is constantly buzzing and visitors tend to be surprised and delighted to experience this much life in the middle of a huge parking lot.”

It’s a striking example of how small pin-pricks of nature in an otherwise sea of pavement — even in temporary spaces — can help support biodiversity and threatened species, like pollinators. 

Emerging research backs this up, too. A recent study explored the potential of temporary pop-up parks (cutely acronymed PUPS) to support greater species diversity. 

Large scale green spaces are critical, but the study author points to research showing that the quality and density of ground-level plants — like the native plants populating WexPOPS — can have a greater degree of influence on species diversity than factors in larger green spaces, like tree density.

The conclusion: don’t discount the importance of small spaces. 

This should come as welcome news to Canadian cities who are hard at work trying to restore natural habitat lost to urbanization and increase biodiversity. Supporting biodiversity was a key trend we found in our 2019 Canadian City Parks Report–which surveyed 23 cities–released in June.

In particular, Toronto is doing some creative work with a newly approved Pollinator Strategy. The City just launched its first PollinateTO community grants, which fund small-scale pollinator gardens cultivated by local residents. As WexPOPS shows, these initiatives can have quite positive impacts, when using the right native plant mixtures for local species. 

Vancouver is also working to create small pollinator gardens in the city. A pop-up pollinator park planted at 5th and Vine in 2016 on a small 0.3 acre site packed in 1,500 community-planted pollinator plants. A citizen science survey observed the second highest number of pollinator species within the garden compared to other observed park sites. 

Red Deer has designated four official pollinator parks where city staff handpick weeds and pesticide use is banned. And Hamilton’s Pipeline Trail features small pollinator gardens along its route tended by local community members. 

You can read more about how cities across Canada are supporting pollinators and urban biodiversity by reading about it in our Canadian City Parks Report.

Back in Scarborough, the team behind WexPOPS will be taking down the pop-up near the end of August, meaning the parking spaces it occupies will go back to housing cars rather than plants and people. 

A critical question in thinking about the viability and importance of pop-up parks in contributing to urban biodiversity is what happens after the pop-up pops down?

For the team behind WexPOPS that question was something they thought of from the very beginning. The plants will be transported to a local hydro corridor, which is undergoing its own transformation as a 16km linear park and trail called The Meadoway, where they will be re-planted. 

This is a great solution, but there’s also an opportunity here to think about how these pop-up park projects can literally seed change in their own location. 

For example, the plants repurposed within the stripmall parking lot itself. It’s these hardscape urban landscapes that require the most attention and care if we are to truly re-green our city, restoring some of the natural habitat we stole when we paved it over. 

Some may look at micro-gardens like WexPOPS sitting in the middle of a parking lot and wonder: what good is this actually doing?

But as WexPOPS shows, if you build it butterflies will come.

photos of WexPOPS pollinators by Brendan Stewart and photo of installation by Park People.

Supporting fitness in parks at any age

As Canada’s population ages, ensuring parks meet the needs of older adults is a common goal across the country. This is also a trend we highlight in our new Canadian City Parks Report, which tracked leading practices in parks in 23 Canadian cities. 

Being age-friendly means designing parks that are universally accessible, but also thinking about what different amenities and programming are needed for people as they age. And, as places of recreation, understanding how to support and encourage physical activity for all ages is key.

For example, Toronto just opened a new seniors-focused fitness area in North York’s Godstone Park. The project was funded through a participatory budgeting pilot that allowed residents to vote directly on community improvements, proving amenities for older adults is not just something city planners are prioritizing, but residents, too. 

And a recent study of US neighbourhood parks shows why prioritizing age-friendly amenities and programming is so important: while seniors made up 20% of residents, they only made up 4% of park users. As we look towards a future of increasing older populations, we need to ask ourselves: “How can we improve that?”

Here are a few key learnings from the Canadian City Parks Report on supporting older adult fitness and recreation in parks:

Make it social

Creating safe and fun spaces to take part in physical fitness was a big focus in Canadian cities. But creating a fun and inclusive social environment is also a key part of creating places for people as they age. 

This social element is especially important as more and more people live alone, including seniors, leading to concerns about a loneliness epidemic in Canada and the increasing health risks that come from social isolation. 

One solution? Make fitness social.

Recent UBC research published in the Journal of Health Psychology indicates that for seniors, exercising with people their own age increases the likelihood of regular exercise and fosters a sense of belonging.

But we can also create opportunities for social connection between people of different ages. 

For example, as we highlight in the report, Calgary situated one of its pop-up fitness gyms next to a playground, making it convenient for people to access and allowing parents and grandparents to enjoy their workout while their kids play. 

And in Toronto, our Walk in the Park program trains older adults to create and lead walking clubs through parks in their own neighbourhood. This provides people a safe, welcoming space for physical activity and exploration of parks and trails in their neighbourhood, but it has also helped create new friendships and a greater sense of belonging. 

In fact, the number of people that reported feeling a strong connection to their local community more than doubled from the start of the program. 

Get ready for pickleball

Quick, what’s one of the fastest growing sports? Nope, not baseball. It’s a game called pickleball and it has become a sensation south of the border and here in Canada as well.

The game, which is played with a paddle and wiffle ball, is low impact sport that prioritizes finesse over speed and power, making it a particularly good sport for older adults to play.

This fact made pickleball one of the most common recreation trends we heard from cities in our Canadian City Parks Report. Demand is high, necessitating some quick planning from cities on how to support this new sport. Some, like Waterloo, are even looking into converting existing tennis courts into pickleball courts. 

Oh, and that name? It comes from a dog named Pickles, who kept stealing the wiffle ball from the first folks who played the game back in 1965.

Reduce barriers to learning

Putting outdoor gym equipment in a park does not automatically mean that people are going to use it. Sometimes just learning the rules or a new technique can be enough to keep people from trying something new. 

Some cities, like Prince George, are helping people overcome this by creating supportive social environments through a “try-it” fitness program. This program encourages people to try different recreational activities in a judgement-free setting, like tai chi, learning to run, and yes, pickleball. 

Calgary takes a similar track with its pop-up fitness gyms, which brings outdoor equipment to different parks across the city and are geared towards folks over the age of 65. The program includes free fitness instruction to help boost people’s confidence in using the equipment and promote social activity. 

And in Saskatoon, the River Landing Outdoor Fitness Circuit, which has great views of the South Saskatchewan River, includes wheelchair-accessible equipment and instructional plaques to encourage everyone to participate, no matter their ability or comfort level. 

Keep it simple

But you don’t necessarily need fancy equipment to get people moving outdoors. 

Research from the RAND Corporation’s neighbourhood parks study found that a huge predictor of how active people were in a park was whether there was a walking loop or not. The study found that parks with walking loops had 80% more park users and that people observed engaging in at least moderate exercise was 90% higher than in parks without walking loops. 

This aligns with what we found in our Canadian City Parks Report, where cities across the country reported that walking trails were one of the amenities frequently asked for by residents in parks. 

If you found this helpful, find even more inspiration from across the country on the topics of growth, nature, activation, collaboration, and inclusion by reading the Canadian City Parks Report.

 

Bill 108: New Ontario government rules are bad for parks and bad for cities

Last week, the Provincial government introduced Bill 108, which proposed changes to key tools that fund infrastructure and services in Ontario cities, including parks. It will dramatically curtail the ability of cities to provide parks for future generations.

Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro wrote an article detailing these changes and how they impact the ability of cities to pay for new and redeveloped parks.

With so many cities in Ontario rapidly growing and densifying, putting aside land for parks doesn’t just happen–it requires strong regulatory & financial tools. Bill 108 removes or alters many of them.

Park People is alarmed at these changes, the lack of details, the rushed process, and limited ability for municipal and public feedback. We urge the government to slow down and consult with municipalities and the public.

Toronto’s Chief Planner Gregg Lintern provided a good overview of the changes and their impacts to city council. We’ve included some of the images from that presentation in this blog, but you can see the whole thing here.

What happens currently?

Under the current rules in the Planning Act’s Section 42, Ontario cities are allowed to require developers to provide onsite parkland or, if that isn’t feasible or desirable, to provide cities with the cash value of that land. The idea is that cities could then go out and purchase a piece of land somewhere else (nearby, hopefully) to create a park.

The basic premise is that growth pays for growth. New buildings mean new residents mean more demand for parks. Therefore, new buildings should also help provide for that new demand through either land or cash for parks.

This growth pays for growth premise is a critical part of our planning process. It’s also expressed in tools like Section 37 and Development Charges, which can be used for parks. Both tools compel developers to pay for a portion of things like water and sewer infrastructure, transit, daycares, public art, etc. All things that are important for quality places to live.

What’s been proposed?

The bill combines parkland dedication (Section 42) and density bonusing (Section 37) into one tool called a Community Benefit Charge. It severely curtails the ability of cities to require developers to provide parkland onsite. It also removes the ability of cities to use Development Charges, another growth-funding tool, to collect money for parks.

The new rules compel cities to spend the majority of the money they collect each year. This will make it harder for cities to save up for larger park projects and land purchases.

Cities can choose to keep a limited version of the parkland dedication by-law, but one that strips them of the ability to collect land or cash based on number of units built. It would only allow cities to require 5% of the land area of new developments be dedicated to parks. This may seem technical, but it matters. Hugely.

In the high-density developments that we’re seeing in the GTA, basing parkland dedication on land area alone limits the amount of parkland a city can get. Requiring 5% of land area works in lower density subdivisions. But when you have a small site for a high-rise tower, setting aside 5% of the land doesn’t give you much usable park space.

This is why, for decades, the Province has allowed cities to require parkland based on number of units being built–a direct relationship to how many people will be living in a new development.

Under the new provincial rules, even if cities wanted to keep this dramatically limited parkland dedication by-law, it would mean forgoing the ability to institute a Community Benefit Charge. Cities will have to choose.

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How will this affect parks?

The bill will hinder the ability of cities across Ontario to provide parkland for the future, full stop. This is something we’re already struggling with as land becomes more scarce and expensive. It also throws years of recent planning into disarray.

Many GTA cities, including Toronto, have done a lot of parks planning in the last five years to get a handle on growth. These plans were developed with the ability to fund them through Section 42 in mind.

For example, the billions of dollars needed to fund Toronto’s new recreation facilities master plan, or to build out Richmond Hill’s 2013 Parks Plan. At the very least, scrapping this tool will require revisiting these plans and their financial underpinnings.

In fact, Richmond Hill just went through a prolonged court battle against developers to uphold their Section 42-provided parkland dedication rights to pay for the new parks the city needs for the future. Now that too is thrown into disarray.

Toronto city staff came up with some stark examples of how allowing cities only to require 5% of the site area be dedicated to parks (as opposed to basing it on number of units) would affect recent developments. Spoiler: there would be less park space.

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Why should you care?

If you’re reading this, you probably already do care. We don’t have to tell you about the power of parks to promote positive mental health, contribute to biodiversity, create more connected communities, and reduce social isolation. We could keep going, too.

Ultimately this comes down to a sense of responsibility, of a duty to create a livable city for future generations. This is especially urgent because parks are a key piece of infrastructure to help cities adapt to more extreme weather caused by climate change. Canada is warming at twice the rate of other places in the world. Parks aren’t optional. They’re fundamental.

Just think: when you visit a park now, you are the beneficiary of planning that often happened many decades ago.

When we require land from developers to create a new park, we’re not only doing so for current residents, or even the new residents moving in—we’re creating a legacy that will be enjoyed for years to come. This proactive city building is our responsibility.

Has this got you worked up? Go outside to your local park and take a deep breath. Feel more relaxed? Good. That’s one of the many benefits of parks. Now go back inside and write your MPP a strongly worded email.

In fact, here’s a template for you:

I am writing to express concern over Bill 108 and specifically the changes to how cities provide and fund parks through development. This bill removes and alters important tools available to cities that fund critical infrastructure, like parks.

Currently, Bill 108 requires cities to choose between parkland dedication and instituting a community benefit charge. Both are necessary to create livable communities. 

Allowing cities to require onsite parkland dedication is a key tool for growing cities, especially as land prices rise. This makes acquiring land through purchase much more difficult.

Parks are not simply places to relax and play, but critical pieces of infrastructure that help clean air, water, regular temperature, and mitigate the effects of extreme weather.

Please put the brakes on this bill and provide more time to consult with cities and their residents on a responsible way to provide the parks our growing cities need.

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