Launching the third annual Canadian City Parks Report

Today, we release Park People’s third annual Canadian City Parks Report.

In the report, we focus on how parks can foster more resilient, equitable cities—not only as we recover from COVID-19, but as we address another looming crisis: climate change.

Park use during the pandemic spiked across the country as people flooded into outdoor spaces to seek safe ways to connect with others, experience nature, and get some exercise. Parks became more important to Canadians in their daily lives, but cities also faced new challenges with rising demands and public health considerations.

The Canadian City Parks Report documents these trends and challenges by gathering key data and leading practices from across the country. Whether you’re city staff, a community volunteer, a funder, a non-profit organization, a park professional, or a resident who loves city parks, we hope this report provides you with useful data and stories that both inspire and challenge you.

In this report, you’ll find the results of our April 2021 COVID-19 and Parks survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, interviews with a range of experts, as well as new data and practices from 32 participating Canadian cities. Stories and data are organized by section—Nature, Inclusion, Growth, Collaboration, and Activation—and city-specific data are available in City Profiles.

Among others, you’ll find stories and actionable take-aways on how cities can advance climate action through parks, how Black and Indigenous leadership can help reframe notions of park stewardship, and how we can deepen the intersection of public health and parks by taking into account cultural experiences.

You’ll also find a special section: Lessons From a Pandemic Year. This section dives deep into the ways COVID-19 impacted our park systems and our use of parks during the last year—both positive and negative—and the ways we can move forward together.

 

Key Findings

 

Parks saw high use and showed high value.

 

New challenges brought new ways of using parks.

 

Parks were recognized as critical public health infrastructure.

 

The equity gap was made clearer.

 

Climate action through parks is a growing priority.

 

There are two ways to read this report. It is available as an interactive website and as a downloadable PDF. The COVID-19 lessons, key insights, takeaways, and city data are included both online and in a downloadable PDF format. The stories—which share leading practices and interviews with city staff, researchers, and community leaders—are available exclusively on the website: ccpr.parkpeople.ca/2021.

 


 

Please also join us for a special webinar on Thursday, July 8 that will dive into the major findings of the report and our national survey on park use and COVID.

 


 

We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to The Weston Family Foundation for its foundational support in the creation and launch of this report.

 

 

We would also like to thank the RBC Foundation, Toronto Foundation, Maglin Site Furniture, and an anonymous donor for their support.

 

 


 

A report of this size is a team effort. First, huge thanks to the dozens of city staff that worked with us to compile city data, answer our questions, and respond to interview requests. We know this takes a tremendous amount of work and this report is not possible without you.

Lastly, thank you to the entire Park People team for their support and input.

Cover picture credit: Frankel Lambert Park Toronto, Adri Stark

Racism is a parks and public space issue: Park People and anti-racism one year on

Note: This piece discusses racial and colonial violence, including George Floyd’s murder, Islamophobic attacks, and residential school deaths.

In the days following George Floyd’s murder on a street in Minneapolis, Park People published a statement recognizing that:

“Park People cannot achieve its mission to ‘activate the power of parks to improve quality of life in cities’ without acknowledging that systemic racism, oppression, and injustice are part of the daily lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people in parks and public spaces.”

In that statement, we committed to: “begin dismantling systemic racism as an organization.”

Today, more than a year after Floyd’s murder, the barricades at the intersection renamed George Floyd Square have been removed to, as city council members said in a recent article, “help restore and heal the community.”

The same week that flowers and artwork were being collected from George Floyd Square, Canadians laid down countless pairs of shoes in public spaces as a tangible display of deep sadness and horror at the discovery of 215 Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at a former Kamloops residential school.

Even more recently, an Islamophobic terrorist attack in London, Ontario targeted a family of five out for an evening stroll on a public street. The event highlights how a simple activity that has been so essential for many of us during the pandemic—getting out for a daily walk—entails risk and danger for many racialized communities.

With these devastating events in mind, we at Park People are providing an update on our ongoing journey to embed a culture of anti-racism in our organization and in our work in parks and public spaces. To date, our efforts have been deliberately focused on creating a shared, internal understanding of systemic racism and how we can begin to adopt an anti-racist approach.

We humbly share the steps we’ve taken so far.

Establish Leadership and Accountability

In the summer of 2020, Park People established an Anti-Racism and Equity Committee to support the development of an Anti-Racism and Equity Framework and Strategy for the organization. The Committee’s purpose is to establish internal accountability, ensure anti-racism is an organizational priority and create tangible, measurable actions we commit to in our work.

The Committee created a draft Anti-Racism and Equity Framework, soon to be reviewed by Park People’s Board of Directors. The Anti-Racism and Equity Framework establishes the principles, organizational values, and commitments that Park People will use to guide all of its work.

Embed Anti-Racism into Purpose and Plans

Park People is currently updating its Theory of Change, the critical document underpinning every aspect of our work. We’re using this opportunity to embed an intersectional, anti-racist lens into all of our programs, partnerships, and communications. This updated Theory of Change will embed anti-racism into our organization at a fundamental level.

Examine, Improve and Measure Efforts

Park People is working with an expert in Organizational Development and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) to support our internal equity efforts. So far, we have conducted an internal staff survey and a full audit of Park People’s operations. The survey and audit have given us a preliminary understanding of staff experiences and knowledge and allowed us to benchmark our efforts to date.

Coming out of the survey, we have identified tangible policies and practices to help us become a more inclusive organization. For example, the survey identified that staff lacked a shared understanding of key terms like inclusion, equity, diversity, and reconciliation. One outcome of the survey was to create staff-led definitions of terms that will support more productive dialogue on equity issues.

In addition, we recognize that Park People is a white-founded and white-led organization with disproportionately few Black, Indigenous, and people of colour on its staff and leadership teams.
We have taken steps to ensure our hiring and internal policies are equitable and are committed to having a staff team that is more representative of the diverse communities we serve going forward.

Adopting a Learning Culture

We have dedicated time, space, and resources to train and educate our staff and Board of Directors to better understand and address systemic racism and white supremacy in our organization and work.

By providing both formal and informal learning opportunities across the organization we are working to make equity, diversity and inclusion a live conversation. To do this, we’ve established staff training, shared resources, and created spaces for conversations on equity, diversity and inclusion issues.
As our Anti-Racism Framework lays out, Park People is committed to creating space for shared learning and welcomes challenging conversations about racism and white supremacy in our organization and work.

Amplify Practices

Being released this month, the 2021 Canadian City Parks Report centres on an equity perspective. In the report, we explore how racial inequities mediate access to the benefits of parks for everything from mental and physical health to climate resilience. In the report, we highlight and celebrate the work of communities of colour who, despite facing greater barriers to park use, continue to act as park advocates and stewards building more inclusive public spaces.

In short, this year’s report demonstrates how race and inequity are inseparable from parks and public spaces and points to anti-racist pathways forward. It’s a critical shift we look forward to sharing when we launch the report. We are committed to using the approach featured in the report to move towards embedding anti-racism into every aspect of our work and culture.

Park People recognizes that our work is still in its early stages and that we have a great deal of progress to make in addressing systemic racism and white supremacy. We are committed to addressing the enormity of the task at hand and accept that we will make mistakes in the process. We will continue to have courageous conversations with each other, hold ourselves accountable as we learn, and keep moving forward.

How grassroots activism and grand vision are coming together in Montreal’s Grand parc de l’Ouest

This contribution from Christopher Dewolf is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

The plot of former agricultural land next to the Parc nature de l’Anse-à-l’Orme, on the western edge of Montreal, is fascinating in many ways. For one thing, it’s home to 270 species of flora and fauna that thrive within a mix of wetlands, woods and meadows. It occupies 365 hectares of land, making it one of the largest undeveloped—and until recently unprotected—swathes of natural territory on this island that more than two million people call home. But perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how few people seem to know it exists.

“At so many of the doors we knocked on, people didn’t even know that right beside them was this massive former agricultural land that was regenerating,” says Sue Stacho, Co-founder of Sauvons L’Anse-à -L’Orme. In 2015, when a huge new residential project called Cap Nature was announced for this parcel of land, she helped start a group to protect it from development.

“We worked really hard – blood, sweat and tears,” she says. “We had to do so much to communicate why spaces like that are so important.” They knocked on doors, and hosted events like a Mother’s Day walk through the woods and evening stroll to appreciate the frog population: “any type of exposure to the area that we could bring to it.”

 

 

 

It worked. In 2019, Montreal mayor Valérie Plante announced the creation of the Grand parc de l’Ouest, which will protect the area around l’Anse-à-l’Orme from development. But it goes much further than that: the new green space will be the largest municipal park in Canada, with a 30-square-kilometre expanse that includes active farmland, McGill University’s Morgan Arboretum, existing nature parks and previously unprotected natural areas that were vulnerable to development.

It’s a lesson in how grassroots activism can achieve tangible results. And it’s an opportunity to boost the amount of green space in Montreal, which has only 24 square metres per person, one of the lowest rates among Canada’s cities. But the Grand parc de l’Ouest is also a project of staggering scope, complexity and ambition. Not only does it span an area that is 15 times larger than Mount Royal Park, Montreal’s largest and most recognizable urban green space, it is a hodgepodge of different spaces crisscrossed by roads, railways and watercourses. It spans two Montreal boroughs and three independent towns, encompassing five existing nature parks and lands owned by McGill University.

 

A huge scale – and huge potential

 

The Grand parc de l’Ouest brings to mind other large, edge-of-city parks, such as the Rouge National Urban Park near Toronto, Fish Creek Provincial Park in Calgary and the Blue Mountain Wilderness Connector in Halifax. Like these, the Grand parc de l’Ouest has the dual mission of protecting biodiversity while giving urban dwellers access to nature. Those goals are not always easy to reconcile. In 2019, Parks Canada developed a detailed management plan for Rouge Park with the goal of balancing the needs of agriculture, recreation and conservation. The Nova Scotia Nature Trust, a charity that manages land across the province, is taking a similar approach in its stewardship of Blue Mountain.

For the Grand parc de l’Ouest, the challenge becomes particularly obvious when you look at its location on a map. Autoroute 40, one of Canada’s busiest highways, runs straight through the park, and in 2023 the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) metro system will open with a station at l’Anse à l’Orme, with trains arriving from downtown Montreal every 10 minutes. That will make the park very easy to access but could pose a problem when it comes to managing human impact on sensitive natural areas. On top of everything, the Grand parc de l’Ouest will be run not by Parks Canada or a provincial authority, but by the City of Montreal, which has more limited experience in managing natural areas.

All of that adds up to something with extraordinary potential – and no shortage of pitfalls.

“It’s been a long time in Montreal since we’ve seen the willingness to make these big gestures,” says Jonathan Cha, a landscape architect, urbanist and heritage consultant. “The challenge will be grouping all of these different natural spaces together. It’s a project that will require a lot of time, a lot of money – a very long-term project. But it’s a grand vision. There’s almost no space leftover on Montreal Island and this secures it for the benefit and well-being of the population.”

 

The fruit of community activism

 

That this natural space came to be left undeveloped in one of Canada’s largest and most densely populated cities is the result of a half-century of effort by environmentalists and community activists. As with other parts of Montreal, the western third of the island – a dangling apostrophe of land buffeted by Lake St. Louis, the Lake of Two Mountains and the Rivière des Prairies – was once a lush broadleaf woodland frequented by people of the Haudenosaunee nations that lived in the region. After the arrival of French colonists in the middle of the 17th century, the colonial administration gave control of the land to the priests of the Sulpician Order, who divided it into strips of property to be farmed by colonists.

Aside from a handful of villages and early railroad suburbs, the West Island remained largely rural until after the Second World War.

“Even the tree-lined seigneurial property boundaries were still in place,” recalls historian George Vassiadis, who moved to the West Island as a child in 1968. Things changed quickly with Montreal’s postwar suburban expansion. “For the first few years after we moved into our new duplex on Spring Garden Road, the view across the street was of fields which had only recently ceased to be cultivated,” Vassiadis wrote in the arts journal Montréal Serai. “By the mid-1970s the fields had been replaced with houses.”

As bungalows and strip malls quickly ate away at farmland, developers turned their attention to some of the area’s last pockets of woodland. In 1977, plans were drawn up to raze the Bois-de-Saraguay, a biodiverse pocket of forest next to an old village, and replace it with apartment blocks, single-family houses, two shopping centres and a marina. Nearby residents successfully fought the plans, leading to the creation of Montreal’s first nature park. In 1979, Quebec’s government gave the regional council, the Montreal Urban Community, the power to develop a whole network of nature parks, including several that will now be part of the Grand parc de l’Ouest: Rapides-du-Cheval-Blanc, Bois-de-l’Île-Bizard, Cap-Saint-Jacques and l’Anse-à-l’Orme.

Conservation is the focus in each of these parks, but they are also popular recreational spots for people from across Greater Montreal. The largest of the parks is Cap-Saint-Jacques, which every weekend attracts thousands of people, most of them arriving by car, although that could change when the REM offers rapid transit access. In the winter, they rent fat bikes or snowshoes and head off into the woods. In the spring, they drizzle maple syrup onto oreilles de crisse – crispy pork rinds – at the park’s sugar shack. And in the summer, a broad, sandy beach beckons with views across the Lake of the Two Mountains.

Although these nature parks already cover a significant amount of land, they were broken up by private property that was long coveted by developers. For decades, much of that land had been protected by special agricultural zoning, but when the zoning was lifted in 1991, a resulting tax increase forced many farmers out of business. Over the years, the now-abandoned lands steadily returned to a more natural state. “There’s a whole range of wildlife that had been returning to these lands that had now been left fallow waiting for a development project to come along,” says David Fletcher, who co-founded the Green Coalition, a West Island environmental watchdog, in 1988. “All these animals that are iconic in eastern Canada, like the fisher [a member of the weasel family] and the white-tailed deer, were finding their way back to Montreal.”

Sue Stacho, who has been involved with the Green Coalition since the early 2000s, came across the abandoned farmland next to l’Anse-à-l’Orme one day while riding her bike.

“It’s this amazing place. Natural,” she says. “It wasn’t managed with trails and park benches everywhere. There are thermal pools in the spring. There are wetlands. Every time I went, if I went in a new way, I would find something new to learn about. If you know your way around, you can be out there all day.”

In 2015, a proposal to develop the land was announced. Known as Cap Nature and billed by its developer as “an environmentally responsible neighbourhood,” it would have preserved 180 hectares of the old farmland, but the remaining 185 hectares would be replaced by 5,500 housing units. Stacho and other members of the Green Coalition decided to fight it. Banding together to form a pressure group called Sauvons l’Anse-à-l’Orme, they succeeded in recruiting a host of other environmental organizations – including the Suzuki Foundation, CPAWS Quebec and the Sierra Club – to join their cause.

 

 

 

 

Citizen support was particularly crucial to their effort, which drew the attention of Projet Montréal, a municipal political party with a focus on sustainable development. “Once they learned about the space and realized there was real momentum growing for the protection of it, they were always around,” says Stacho. When Projet Montréal won a surprise victory in the 2017 Montreal elections, the wheels for the Grand parc de l’Ouest were set in motion.

 

A new park – but now what?

 

The announcement of the park in September 2019 was greeted by the threat of lawsuits from landowners, including the developers of Cap Nature. By the end of that year, however, the city had managed to negotiate the purchase of most of the privately-held land in question. “There’s still about 40 to 45 hectares in private hands, but there’s no way a viable project could work,” says Fletcher. He considers the park a victory. “It’s been a very long haul. Quite a tumultuous three decades. We’ve been on guard with those lands for all that time.”

Fletcher gives special credit to Stacho, whose ability to raise public awareness of the old farmland is what opened the door to the new park.

“She’s a very energetic woman and her team did a remarkable job in bringing that to a conclusion,” he says. Now the conclusion of one chapter is leading to the beginning of another: the process of actually developing the Grand parc de l’Ouest.

Public consultations began last year, with most activities taking place online due to the pandemic. The challenge now will be to balance different visions of what the park should be. Stacho wants to see an emphasis on conservation, but some West Island residents are eager for more recreational opportunities, with some even raising the possibility of motocross trails in a recent online roundtable discussion. The green space is also used for hunting deer and trapping beavers, which the province recently declined to ban despite pressure from Montreal. “I’ve gone out and seen signs of activity there like shotgun shells and rifle cartridges left on the ground,” says Fletcher. “The kind of trapping taking place there is wire snare – it’s brutal. Absolutely horrific.”

Jonathan Cha points out that, beyond its natural spaces, the Grand parc de l’Ouest includes plenty of built heritage, including stone walls and houses from the French colonial era. “You need a very fine-grained knowledge of the territory to come up with a plan for it,” he says. There’s also the question of active agricultural lands, which make up a significant proportion of the new park. “Who will manage those lands?” asks Cha. “Farmer-proprietors? Co-ops? The city will need to create a new model to manage a park like this. There will need to be an additional layer of expertise on top of what they’re already used to.”

 

 

It will be a generational process, he says. “You need to have people around the table who are going to be there for a long time. There has to be a continuity in the process. The challenges are so big and numerous and the area is so vast and complicated there isn’t anyone person who can grasp everything that is going to be happening.”

What it comes down to is something Sue Stacho realized in her fight to save l’Anse-à-l’Orme: parks need people. It was the local community that rallied to protect this land from development, and it was through the collective action of many different people that the Grand parc de l’Ouest was created. Now those same people—and many others—will be needed to shape, sustain and nurture the park for decades to come.

 

 

 

About Christopher Dewolf

 

Christopher DeWolf is a Montreal-based journalist who focuses on cities and culture. Previously based in Hong Kong, he is the managing editor of Zolima CityMag and a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post, Eater and other publications. His book “Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong” examines the tension between grassroots and top-down views of urban life.

 


 

Thank you to our generous supporters:

 


 

This contribution from Christopher Dewolf part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

Montreal Forum in Focus: The power of Montreal’s city parks

Take a moment to think about what places brought you the most joy, peace, or escape during the pandemic. Does your local park come to mind? Your daily walk through the shaded trees? Seeing your neighbours, friends, and community enjoying the sun on a scorching summer day or a cold winter one? Perhaps seeing dogs run after a frisbee, unaware of the global crisis? Or hearing kids laugh on the playground, unfazed by it all? 

City parks were a central part of our communities, neighbourhoods, and daily lives long before the pandemic began. However, this past year has really shone a light on how essential they are for our well-being. 

 

 

The Montreal Park Forum

 

It is in this context that we are launching the very first Montreal Park Forum. The Forum is the first event of the new Réseau des amis des parcs de Montréal – a new collaboration between Les amis de la montagne, le Centre d’Écologie Urbaine de Montréal, le Conseil Régional de l’Environnement and Park People – all supported by the Fonds d’initiative et de rayonnement de la métropole (FIRM) and TD Ready Commitment, Founding Sponsors of Park People’s National City Park Network.

At the Montreal Park Forum, we’re inviting park enthusiasts, community park groups, urban planning and park professionals and non-profit organizations dedicated to city parks to come together to promote, protect and activate the power of Montreal’s awesome green spaces.

 

 

What’s on the Agenda?

The Forum will feature a keynote presentation from Adrian Benepe and Nathalie Boucher on the power of city parks. You can also attend a powerful panel highlighting multiple perspectives on environmental justice. Finally, attendees can participate in several engaging networking sessions connecting Montrealers to the park issues they care about and the people who make up the Montreal park movement.

The panel discussion focuses on equity in city parks, from both environmental and social perspectives. The panellists include Anne Pelletier from the Public Health of Quebec, Jérôme Dupras, Director of the Laboratory of Ecological Economy at the Institute of Temperate Forest Sciences, Michel Lafleur, President of the citizens’ group Les Amis du CAP Jarry, and Lourdenie Jean, founder of “L’Environnement, C’est Intersectionnel” (The environment is intersectional).

 

Lourdenie Jean, fondatrice de «L’environnement, c’est intersectionnel»

 

Lourdenie Jean has long been a leader and advocates for intersectionality in the environmental movement. Two years ago, she created the initiative “L’Environnement, C’est Intersectionnel” (ECI) in order to deepen and inform the discourse on environmentalism including removing barriers to participating in the movement, how environmental impacts are differently experienced by marginalized communities and how to avoid reproducing power problematic structures.

“Environmentalism is an intersectional issue. Often, ecological crises result in a loss of autonomy for marginalized communities,” Lourdenie explains. She researches how ecological crises do not impact communities equally. People, living in more marginalized, less well-served urban developments with less green space, are more likely to face other, related issues: “I talk about how racialized neighbourhoods, where developments are made out of concrete, are spaces where racialized people are far more likely to experience police brutality and domestic violence.”

Anne Pelletier, Regional Program and Research Coordinator of Public Health at the CIUSSS du Center-Sud de Montréal echoes Jean’s perspective: “Having green spaces in urban areas increases our resilience in times of crisis.” Indeed, it has been proven that in addition to being beneficial for our mental health, parks build social connections in our communities.

 

 

 

Pelletier’s research also shows the links between lack of green space, climate change and health. For example, in cities, the loss of the urban tree canopy creates urban heat islands and increased pollution, which can have devastating health consequences in vulnerable communities,  explains Pelletier. 

The pandemic has allowed us to make connections, and deepen our approach to the concept of resilience in times of crisis and how it particularly impacts vulnerable populations. Above all, it showed us how parks build both social and environmental resilience”. 

As Montrealers, we’re proud of our green spaces. From the smallest parkette to the most majestic large urban park, we identify with our green spaces. Parks are spaces that Parks are where we have meetings, exercise, escape, find peace and connect with nature. Now, more than just spaces for our health, we see the role of city parks in addressing social cohesion, equity and well-being. 

Join the Réseau des amis des parcs de Montréal May 26 & 27 and discover, celebrate and activate the power of parks at the first Montreal Park Forum. 

 

Register now

 

 

   

 

The Montreal Park Forum is hosted with Les amis de montagne and in partnership with le Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal and le Conseil régional en environnement de Montréal

 

 

The Montreal Park Forum is supported by the Government of Québec and the TD Ready Commitment.

 

Flyover Park: Empowering the next generation of city builders in Calgary

This contribution from Ximena González is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

On an early spring day in Calgary, Flyover Park buzzes with activity and playful laughter. Surrounded by friends, a couple of teens sway off a face-to-face swing, while tweens leap through a bamboo jungle (a three-dimensional climbing course not for the faint of heart).

Sheltered by the shade of a flyover above, a family competes in a fierce ping-pong game while, behind them, a mother helps her youngest go up the hillside playground. An assortment of languages fills the air: English, French, Spanish.

In this context, it can be hard to believe that just three years ago this space was a dingy field of gravel. “It was full of litter, graffiti, needles, people’s clothes—it was just not safe,” says Ali McMillan, planning director at the Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association (BRCA).

Built in 2020 with funds sourced by Calgary’s Parks Foundation, a non-profit whose mandate is to support the creation of new parks for the enjoyment of all Calgarians, Flyover Park materializes the vision of a group of engaged residents who dared to think outside the box and reclaim an underutilized space full of potential.

“We didn’t really have an idea where it was going to go,” McMillan says about the group’s initial vision. “We wanted to do some tactical urbanism to basically get people’s minds thinking differently about the area,” she explains.

Launched by residents as a small intervention, the project would morph into a lasting change for the community—and the first project of its kind in Alberta.

 

“Bamboo” climbing poles. Photo by Ximena Gonzalez.

 

Residents reclaim a ‘left-over’ space

Located at the south end of Bridgeland, between the neighbourhood and the Bow River, Flyover Park sits under an overpass known as the 4th Avenue flyover. It’s part of a complicated interchange of roads and bridges that connects Calgary’s northeast across the river to the city’s downtown and East Village.

The site where Flyover Park is today sat empty for nearly two decades. “A lot of us didn’t know that the flyover was even there,” says Miles Bazay, a student who used to go to Langevin School, a K-9 school located just 300 metres north of the site.

Year after year, thousands of Bridgeland-Riverside residents would drive, walk, or cycle by this derelict space.

“This is the first thing a lot of people see when they come from downtown into our community, and the impression was not good because it was just basically a dirt patch,” McMillan says. This unsightly welcome didn’t reflect the unique character of the neighbourhood.

Filled with homes that predate the 1960s, modern multi-family buildings, and an assortment of locally-owned shops and restaurants, Bridgeland-Riverside is one of Calgary’s most vibrant inner-city communities. These characteristics have attracted a young and diverse population to the neighbourhood.

Improving the condition of the empty space under the flyover would connect the neighbourhood’s parks, community gardens, sports fields, and bike lanes to Calgary’s Bow River Pathway system, a 48-km long network of multi-use trails. Nearly a quarter of the community’s residents walk or cycle to work, many of whom use this network.

Despite this connectivity potential, the City of Calgary had no plans to activate the space. But in 2016, inspired by the work of Jason Roberts’s Better Block Foundation, McMillan decided to spearhead her own tactical urbanism intervention.

“[Tactical urbanism] opens your eyes to how you see your community and that your voice matters,” she says.

 

The power of small interventions

 

Tactical urbanism is a citizen-led movement that gained force in the 2010s. The movement encourages residents to test ideas that reclaim and transform forgotten public places into vibrant community hubs—one temporary intervention at a time.

Installing pop-up parks in neglected spaces is a common tactic used by residents to test their ideas, and many of these projects lead to permanent upgrades. Flyover Park would become Calgary’s first tactical intervention to become permanent.

Under McMillan’s direction, the BRCA created a task force to put together a plan to enhance the space.

The goal of this plan was “to design an enjoyable public environment” and “to create a gateway into the community of Bridgeland-Riverside.” This thorough document outlined the design considerations and aesthetics that would guide the project through completion.

To improve the public realm, the task force drew ideas from projects in cities around the world such as Superkilen Park in Copenhagen and Drapers Field in London.

But despite the successful precedents, getting the project off the ground was no easy feat.

“It’s a really unique site there—we have not done an urban park in the ‘left-over’ transportation infrastructure anywhere in Alberta,” McMillan says, emphasizing the initial skepticism from a number of stakeholders, including the neighbours themselves. “A lot of people couldn’t see past what the area actually was… It was a lot of fighting perception and trying to show people it could be different.”

In 2017, McMillan and the task force carried out the first tactical intervention in the space.

“The first thing we did was a windmill garden. We put like 20 windmills—just stuck them in the ground in the middle of winter,” McMillan recalls. It helped catch the attention of future partners.

Over the course of a year, these kinds of small interventions led the BRCA to partnerships with the City of Calgary, Bridgeland’s Langevin School Grade 6 students, and the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. The inclusion of the Grade 6 students in the project would prove to be integral to the development of the project—and an educational opportunity not just for the children, but for everyone involved.

 

Early conceptual image based on student ideas. Courtesy of the City of Calgary.

 

An all-around learning experience

 

In 2017, the transportation department at the City of Calgary had just completed the city’s pedestrian strategy, but while the council hadn’t yet allocated any funding to it, the department was keen to support a low-budget grassroots initiative.

When Jen Malzer, a transportation engineer at the City of Calgary, learned about the BRCA’s efforts to transform the space under the 4th Avenue flyover and connect Bridgeland to the river pathway, she and her team seized the opportunity.

“We didn’t have funding to hire consultants, which is normally how we might approach a project,” Malzer says. Having the Langevin School Grade 6 students and the University of Calgary landscape architecture master’s degree students on board, Malzer’s team took a different approach. “We could just enable students to dream about the parts of the project and give expertise where we could,” she says—an unusual role for city staff.

Accustomed to the back-and-forth of stakeholder engagement sessions, for Malzer’s team this project was an opportunity to “give up some of the control.”

Furthermore, as part of the pedestrian strategy, the city was developing a tactical urbanism program; participating in the flyover project helped city staff gain an in-depth understanding of the process.

“This really gave us a good insight into what the city’s role should be when we’re working with communities,” Malzer says. “We learned about the power of elevating different voices.”

And in this case, it was the voices of the Grade 6 students. While children are always welcome to join engagement activities led by the city, Malzer says, they rarely actually do so. The Grade 6 students would become front and centre for the project. “It was a really cool experience. I never thought that we could get to do something like that,” says Bazay, who was part of the class.

Sixty Langevin School Grade 6 students were able to take part in this project thanks to the foresight of their teachers. “[Ali McMillan] was looking for some students to be involved in working with the city and just talking about areas of Bridgeland that are a little bit neglected,” recalls Kate Logan, one of the teachers. She and Elaine Hordo, her partner teacher, jumped at the opportunity. “We were looking for something to get these kids involved in some kind of action project, something to make a difference in the community,” Logan adds.

Excited about the potential of the space and the learning opportunities for the students, Malzer helped coordinate educational sessions with an assortment of city departments, giving students a solid background that would inform their vision for the space. “I was able to bring in a lot of different experts: urban foresters, designers, water engineers, to give students a little bit of context about what are some of the things to think about,” Malzer says.

This experience enabled the children to think about the possibilities for the space.

“We spent a lot of time at the flyover site, just looking around,” Logan says. They also visited other parts of the city and observed the different uses a vacant space could be given to revitalize it and build community.“Our class decided to do something with that space,” Bazay says. “It was a really good space, it just wasn’t being used in the right way.”

When the University of Calgary graduate students led a design charrette in the spring of 2017, the children were more than ready to provide their input. During the initial design session, Ben Hettinga, then one of the University of Calgary students, recalls being impressed by the ideas of the Grade 6 students. “There were normal kid things like playgrounds and fun pieces, but their focus also seemed to be on making the space welcoming and safe for everyone.” This sentiment is echoed by Malzer, “the students were really clear that the project should make play fun for everyone, not just kids.”

Integrating all of the students’ knowledge and ideas, the design produced by the landscape architecture students went on to earn an honourable mention at Calgary’s Mayor Urban Design Awards and win a National Urban Design Award. “We were just having fun with it—ideas that we thought would just brighten up the space,” Bazay says humbly. “We never really thought that it would get built but then we got funding and it was really exciting for our class.”

 

Through this experience, the Grade 6 students learned valuable lessons on city building, an opportunity few Calgarians get to experience at such a young age. According to Logan, this project taught her students about the importance of civic engagement, “knowing that as a citizen you have a responsibility for yourself and others and that the decisions you make impact others.”

The involvement of the Langevin School was also key to gaining momentum, McMillan says, as the participation of the Grade 6 students led to project seed funding from the Calgary Foundation. “With this funding, we painted the road and bought chairs and picnic tables; we built planters and that sort of thing,” she says.

And this action was key, as it was an opportunity to test their ideas and to prove the community’s interest in such a space. The success of the temporary improvements in the summer of 2017 solidified the partnership with the Parks Foundation and led to further improvements such as the painting of a mural and the installation of a ping-pong table.

 

Painting the road as a tactical intervention, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ali McMillan.

 

Materializing the community’s dreams

 

In the spring of 2019, Calgary’s Parks Foundation announced the construction of a permanent urban park was moving forward thanks to a donation from the Alberta government.

“I never thought that we could have such a big impact in the community,” Bazay says.

Although the design of the space went through several subsequent iterations, and a number of features were scrapped at the construction stage, Flyover Park does capture the essence of the youth who helped propel the project.

“It’s not your typical playground. We tried to design something for everyone in some of those groups that didn’t have a place to be,” McMillan says.

Besides playground equipment for all ages, the design layout includes an esplanade to accommodate food trucks and outdoor events, providing recreation opportunities for adults and kids alike and reflecting the spirit of inclusiveness shown by the Langevin School students.

The tactical nature of the project also helped it move forward swiftly. By contrast, the Bow to Bluff corridor in Sunnyside, a similar project in Calgary’s inner-city also spearheaded by community residents but taking a more conventional approach, has taken nearly a decade to materialize.

These tactical interventions have also helped inform other city-led improvements for the community’s main streets, such as the 1st Avenue NE Streetscape Master Plan, which aims to improve the pedestrian and cycling experience and connect Bridgeland’s amenities, including Flyover Park, with the Bow River Pathway.

But ultimately, the BRCA did more than transform an empty space into a vibrant community hub—the efforts of the community also helped empower a young generation of city-builders.

“I think we definitely learned a lot about what we can actually do to change our communities,” Bazay says. “And if more students could get involved with projects like this, I think that would be really great for the community.”

 

 

About Ximena González

Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary. Her work has appeared in The Sprawl, The Tyee and The Globe and Mail.

 


 

Thank you to our generous supporters:

 


 

This contribution from Ximena González is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

Park People launches first-of-its-kind network for Canada’s large urban parks

Les Amis de la Montagne, Stanley Park Ecology Society and High Park Nature Centre, three of Canada’s most successful and longest-standing park-based non-profit organizations, were among the 100 Delegates in attendance when Park People launched its national network at the Heart of the City Conference in Calgary in 2017.

 

As Park People expanded its national programs and launched the first Canadian City Parks Report, we learned of the immense impact of these groups. For example, while four million people visit Banff National Park every year, over 8 million visit Mont-Royal – 30,000 times more visitors per acre of parkland. In fact, taken together, these three large urban parks see more than 17 million visitors every year.

 

Over the course of the pandemic, Park People began hosting a series of virtual “cinq a sept” sessions with large urban park organizations to delve deeper into how we could best serve these groups so they could, in turn, maximize solutions to make our cities greener and more resilient in the face of a changing climate. We learned that these large urban parks need recognition and funding to support their immense contribution to climate change and community resilience.

 

During the pandemic, Canadians flocked to Mount Royal, Stanley Park and High Park in never-before-seen numbers. In Park People’s own survey, we found that almost three-quarters (70%) of Canadians said their appreciation for parks and green spaces has increased during COVID-19. It’s clear that even as vaccines bring the end of the pandemic into view, there will continue to be unprecedented pressures on the unique ecosystems found in these parks.

 

 

Credit photo: Les amis de la montagne, Camp de jou, Freddy Arciniegas, 2019

 

Today, Park People is excited to be launching Cornerstone Parks, the first-of-its-kind national collaboration to revitalize the green infrastructure of the country’s largest urban parks and celebrate their incomparable value to overall wellbeing. We call them ‘Cornerstone Parks’ to express how central they are to our cities.

 

A Cornerstone Park is defined as a large urban green space that contributes biodiversity, ecosystem services, and multiple parks uses to the community at large. In these parks, City staff, local and park-based NGOs, and community leaders facilitate activities focused on environmental education and stewardship, to engage people from diverse backgrounds in connecting to nature and to each other. These Cornerstone Parks provide invaluable environmental and social benefits to our urban environments that make our communities healthier and more resilient to the effects of climate change.

 

In the first year, Park People is bringing these three groups together to support their ecosystem revitalization efforts. In Toronto’s High Park, funding will improve wetland health and restore the globally rare Black Oak Savanna habitat by removing invasive species. Efforts in Montreal’s Mont-Royal will likewise mutually benefit the park’s forests and wetlands. Through planting and stewardship work, the restored marsh will be better able to absorb stormwater thus improving groundwater quality and the habitat for species. This will reduce erosion and surface water runoff that damages the forest. In Stanley Park, by planting 500 native trees and shrubs and removing 10,000 square metres of invasive species, efforts will enhance the health of this coastal temperate rainforest that serves as a powerful carbon store and wildlife habitat in downtown Vancouver.

 

Sara Street, Executive Director of High Park Nature Centre says: “Today, we understand nature’s role in restoring our sense of well-being. We need to go further and take a bigger view on how restoring nature actually makes our cities more resilient to the impacts of climate change.”

 

In addition to supporting critical restoration work, Cornerstone Parks will act as a backbone to connect these large urban park NGOs together to establish a forum for the exchange of knowledge and sharing of best practices. The Cornerstone Parks program will be underpinned by a rigorous impact evaluation to measure and amplify learnings about the value of large urban parks for community well-being and ecosystems.

 

 

Credit photo: Stanley Park Ecology Society

 

Dylan Rawlyk, Executive Director at Stanley Park Ecology Society says:

“By working as a group, we can make a greater difference, scale up our work and tell our collective story in a way that none of us can do alone.”

Hélène Panaioti, executive director of Les amis de la montagne echoes this sentiment:

“Cornerstone Parks recognizes we have so much to share with, and so much to learn from, our fellow non-governmental parks organizations across the country. Park People is bringing much-needed awareness to how important these green spaces are, and providing us with the necessary framework to revitalize the ecosystems.”

 

The long-term vision of the program is to ensure that there is an ecologically and socially vibrant Cornerstone park within reach of every urban Canadian. Park People’s Program Director Natalie Brown says,

“Large urban parks offer so much value for cities. Park People’s providing a backbone to strengthen their work and galvanize support for more large urban parks. There’s no question that there are large-scale precious landscapes that could serve climate change and community goals. We couldn’t be more excited to help make it happen.”

Through its National Network, Park People will identify other large parks across Canada where investments and a connection to the network will provide maximum ecological and community benefits.

 

 


 

Made possible by the generous support of

 an anonymous donor

 

Ten years together in city parks

It’s hard to believe, but Park People is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year. Our very first Toronto Park Summit happened on April 12, 2011.

We are delighted to celebrate Park People’s tenth anniversary with you this year. Back then, Park People had a small and passionate staff who, in the start, quickly created a meeting place for those who cared about parks. It was simple, but that’s how it started. We would never have imagined ten years later how much we would grow.

As we celebrate our tenth anniversary, we celebrate the partnerships, friendships, and connections we’ve made over the years in city parks across Canada.

Your support has been invaluable to us making this milestone.

We know city parks have a remarkable capacity to enhance our cities, connect our communities, improve the quality of life for citizens of all ages. COVID has shone a light on parks’ role in, preventing social isolation and loneliness and providing people with a renewed appreciation for nature’s healing properties.

Today, our National Network comprises 1,055 park groups in 95 Canadian cities representing every Canadian province. We deliver a wide range of innovative and supportive programming in underserved communities fostering a sense of belonging. With strong community partnerships, research, services and outreach, we encourage creative park projects and events and community engagement across Canada, reaching over 50,000 people a year!

But we never could have accomplished any of this without you!

This spring, we aim to raise $10,000 to celebrate ten years of Park People and look to the next decade in city parks. We are reaching out to you and the nearest and dearest members of our network for support. Your donation to Park People will directly impact our work as we continue to grow Nationally and advocate and enhance urban parks across Canada at a local level.

Please donate today and help us celebrate ten years of Park People. To make a donation please visit our website at www.parkpeople.ca/donate. If you have any questions regarding your support please contact Michelle Cutts, Development Manager at mcutts@parkpeople.ca.

Reaching our goal of $10,000 will help us look to the future of Canadian city parks.

Dave Harvey,
Executive Director, Park People

 

Donate today

 

The cover photo was taken prior to March 2020.

How have you used parks during COVID-19?

What have parks meant to you in the last year? Help shape the future of city parks by telling us how you’ve been using parks and green spaces during COVID-19, and how you think parks can best serve us moving forward.

The survey learnings will be featured in Park People’s 2021 Canadian City Parks Report and shared with municipal parks staff and our network of park professionals and enthusiasts across Canada.

As a thank you, at the end of the survey you’ll have the opportunity to enter a draw for one of three $100 VISA gift cards.

The survey will end on April 26th, 2021.

Answer the survey now!

Park People Ten Years Out: A Reflection and a Look Forward

This contribution from Ken Greenberg is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.


Parks have a remarkable capacity to enhance the city, connect communities, improve the quality of life for citizens of all ages, overcome social isolation and loneliness and provide access to the healing properties of nature.

When people come together around their parks they increase social capital and develop deep roots in their communities, strengthening networks and overcoming polarization by directing attention and resources to underserved areas and populations.

One critical question has been, how to meet an ever-expanding demand for park space as urban populations grow and intensify. The key demand of city residents across Canada, expressed over and over in community meetings about intensifying development, is the call for more and improved parks and open space as part of an expanded public realm.

This is the dilemma. How can Canadian cities get ahead of the intense development curve to shape a dynamic and growing city around a forward-looking program for expanding their network of parks?

Another critical question revolves around how to ensure that all areas of the city and in particular disadvantaged neighbourhoods that lack meaningful park space are well served and treated equitably. In some cases, while there are open spaces that may appear as green on a map, they lack amenities and are hard to access for much of the population, poorly related to people’s daily lives.

When Covid-19 burst on the scene in 2020, if anything it functioned as a ‘particle accelerator’ highlighting deficiencies and vulnerabilities and in many cases pushing us to do things we were already trying to do more rapidly and nimbly. Among other things, it has put an intense spotlight on our need for parks as a vital release from our forced confinement.

What follows are some thoughts on where the lessons of this moment might take us in the next decade.

In dozens of cities around the world, we are seeing an irrepressible demand for safe and accessible outdoor space and people have been taking to their parks like never before. The park has become Canada’s version of the Italian piazza, our essential shared commons. I see it in my neighbourhood in Toronto, where every available park space has become an intensely used outdoor living room for all ages late into the evening hours and even in winter.

This intensified use of our parks is a reflection of the desire to be outdoors while respecting physical distancing, but it is also revealing an entirely new way of seeing and using the city and being with each other and as we experience this change in our lives, the momentum is unlikely to be reversed post-Covid. The ‘improvised’ shift is dramatically accelerating a movement that was already underway.

On the one hand, an increasing desire for urban living was already leading to a greater need for shared public space. Meeting this need in traditional ways was thwarted by high land costs for acquiring traditional parks.

The need for more space was accompanied by a change in how we use that public space and the kinds of experiences we seek, more fluid and interconnected, leading to new forms like linear “greenways” reflecting the shift from auto-dependent lifestyles to active movement — cycling and walking.

 

 

Covid 19 raised the ante. It begs the question of what our next public spaces will be as we continue to evolve into great and densely populated cities.

The current moment offers some clues. It is not only about the quantity of public open space — in conventional planning terms we were focused on the square metres of parkland per inhabitant within a given radius — and while this is important, it is actually more important to focus on the quality and usefulness of that space and how it enhances our lives.

We are now seeing dramatically how public space is not a frill or a non-essential “nice to have.” A generously endowed and welcoming network of public space offers significant benefits to public health, both physically and mentally.

We were already in the midst of a public health crisis, exacerbated by sedentary lifestyles where an overreliance on the automobile and a tendency to spend long hours in front of screens has produced an epidemic of obesity as well as increases in diabetes and heart disease — especially alarming among children.

This health crisis puts a premium on public spaces where people of all ages can get out and participate in active pastimes, from simply walking and cycling to a whole range of year-round sports and athletic activities close to where they live and work, making these health-promoting activities part of their daily life routines.

Betsy Barlow Rogers the founder of the Central Park Conservancy, presciently commented that “as the city becomes more park-like, the park becomes more city-like”. In other words, a fusion as the hard boundaries are breached. The entire city can become greener and more park-like and connected for people on foot and on bicycle.

Fostering residents’ ability to move around relatively freely and experience more of the city this way will help to break down the perceived barriers between neighbourhoods and districts as flows become more continuous. The elements of the public realm that serve as green links between areas will play a vital role in helping to make the city feel like a seamless whole. In this spirit, London has declared itself an entire National Park City.

With time, it can be anticipated that the examples of connection that we are creating ‘on the fly’ today will become the rule. With the shift to a more expansive sense of a park-like public realm, a new liberating “reading” of the city will emerge, no longer orienting itself only or primarily by highways and major arterials but increasingly by connected networks of common space serving as guideways throughout the city.

When we look at the city through fresh eyes, this reopens the question of what constitutes a park. Putting together all the pieces of the public realm — laneways, street redesign, ravines, hydro corridors, rail lines, stormwater management systems, flood-proofing plans, and transportation initiatives, a vastly expanded public realm can emerge, one that addresses many of the city’s current deficiencies. This new realm will be different, both in scale and kind.

Rather than discretely bounded public spaces carved out of a grid of street blocks — parks and squares — this new kind of public space has the potential to become the fully continuous, connective tissue of the urban fabric itself.

This more expansive idea of the entire cityscape as a landscape, where flows become more organic and seamless in some ways gets us back to an indigenous pre-colonial sense of the land we inhabit as a generous shared “commons,” no longer hard-edged and hemmed into defined boundaries.

Capitalizing on this expanded perspective of what a park is and can be will be the emerging agenda for the next decade, and Park People will play a vital role in shaping that agenda.

For the past decade, Park People has been advocating for enabling parks to reach their full potential, by opening up to more community-initiated life and activity, making more use of volunteers, running local cafes, food stands, and community gardens, bringing more sources of funding and sweat equity and engaging underserved communities.

 

 

 

When Park People was founded in 2011, I was privileged to serve on its Board, and later my wife, Eti served on the Board as well. Park People, with its highly talented and passionate staff, quickly became a meeting place for those who cared about parks, linking park groups from across Toronto who were unaware of each other’s existence.

Its role was part lobbying, part networking, part sharing experience, and overall gaining strength in numbers in dealing with city hall. Soon city staff and politicians also began to see Park People as an essential ally and a conduit to local communities.

That was how it started, but who could have imagined how far Park People would come in the following years. The first five years were dedicated to connecting and supporting Toronto’s robust network of community park groups, park professionals, non-profit groups and funders.

But as Park People continued to grow, other cities across Canada were paying attention and expressed their own needs for an organization and network to support their work in parks. So in 2017 Park People launched its National Network at its first National Conference in Calgary.

Now, in 2021, as Park People celebrates its tenth anniversary, the Park People Network is made up of 850 park groups in 46 Canadian cities, in every Canadian province. There are 30 staff across Canada with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

The board is national and includes many dedicated park champions, city builders and leaders. Park People’s Canadian City Parks Report, now in its third year, is Canada’s only report on the trends and challenges facing city parks. A range of innovative programs supports programming in underserved communities, creative park projects and events, and community engagement across Canada.

Several park initiatives manifest what Park People calls “the power of parks” and will be profiled in this series marking the organization’s ten-year anniversary.

As these examples attest, the prospects for innovation in park development and stewardship in Canada are very promising. A strong foundation has been laid in the past ten years by Park People, identifying needs as well as opportunities, mobilizing community resources and stimulating Canadian cities to act. In the process, new horizons have been opened up. It will be inspiring to experience these remarkable new park spaces and see what comes next.

 

 

About Ken Greenberg

 

Ken Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher, writer, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto and Principal of Greenberg Consultants. He is a recipient of the Order of Canada and served on Park People’s Board of Directors for eight years and played an integral role in establishing the organization.

 


 

Thank you to our generous supporters:

 


 

This contribution from Ken Greenberg is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

From Railway to Greenway: How Vancouver is transforming a rail line into a destination park

This contribution from Jillian Glover is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

As a child growing up on the westside of Vancouver, the railroad track along the Arbutus Corridor ran behind the tall hedges of our backyard. My sister and I would play along the tracks with neighbourhood kids, often leaving pennies behind to discover them flattened by passing trains the next day.

 

 

Children have a way of turning any space, even an industrial rail line, into a place for social gathering and play. Almost 40 years later, many cities around the world have adopted out-of-the-box thinking, converting underused industrial land into public spaces. This innovative approach to park design includes the Arbutus Corridor, which the City of Vancouver purchased in 2016 and is working to transform into the Arbutus Greenway, a ribbon of pathways and parks through the heart of Vancouver’s westside.

 

“The Arbutus Corridor has a history and it runs through parts of the city that in everyone’s minds are already developed,” says Antonio Gómez-Palacio, a partner at DIALOG, the urban planning firm that led the design and engagement process for the project. “Converting it to a greenway was an act of tenacity and creativity, working with the community to see the world in a different way, and to see a park there waiting to be discovered.”

 

The Greenway’s history spans over 100 years – from its beginnings as a railway for passengers and local industry, to contentious negotiations between the City of Vancouver and CP rail for its purchase. Today, it is an active transportation pathway that runs from the tourist destination of Granville Island to Vancouver’s southern edge, overlooking the Fraser River. In the future, it will become a multimodal corridor linking a series of destination parks and public spaces, and in the meantime, the local community has found creative ways to bring people together along its path.

 

From railway to greenway

 

 

The Arbutus Corridor, originally called the Vancouver & Lulu Island Railway, was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1902 to connect Vancouver to the Richmond community of Steveston, home to a bustling fishing and canning industry.

In 1905, the BC Electric Company leased the line from the CPR, electrified it, and began running a passenger rail service called the Interurban. It departed from the north end of the Granville Bridge, travelled through the westside neighbourhoods of Vancouver, and ended in Richmond. Interurban trains ceased operation in 1952, but short freight trains continued to use the Arbutus Corridor until 2001 (one of its last customers was the Molson Brewery). After that, the tracks remained dormant for 15 years.

 

 

Throughout that time, the idea of developing a greenway along the corridor was part of Vancouver’s future plans. Council passed the Arbutus Corridor Official Development Plan in 2000, which proposed turning it into a multi-use transportation greenway. In 2014, the City of Vancouver was finally in negotiations with Canadian Pacific (CP) to purchase the land, which runs through some of the most valuable property in North America; however, they couldn’t agree on a price. As a result, Canadian Pacific threatened to run trains along the line and started tearing out adjacent community gardens in preparation.

This action hastened negotiations and an agreement was reached in March 2016, with the City buying the Arbutus Corridor for $55 million. At the time, then-mayor Gregor Robertson said the 42 acres would be used as a greenway with the possibility of light passenger rail in the future.

 

Activation now

 

 

The City didn’t wait for those plans to be finalized before making the corridor available to the public. Within a year, Vancouver built a temporary 9.5 km asphalt path along the rail line that connected six communities on the city’s westside.

The interim design for the Arbutus Greenway has been in place for over four years and is widely used and embraced by the local community. It now attracts thousands of people every day, providing an opportunity to walk, bike, and roll from False Creek to the Fraser River. According to a health study of the Greenway conducted by INTERACT from 2016-2019, the usage grows exponentially every year and, overall, it is seen by the community as a safe natural oasis in the city where you can go for an uninterrupted, smooth stroll and have informal social interactions.

 

“It has opened up a new avenue of meeting and greeting people and getting to know neighbours,” said one study participant from the Marpole neighbourhood.

 

“It just feels spacious and open. I feel like I’m suddenly in the midst of nature in the middle of a very busy city, and it’s just peaceful,” said another study participant from Kerrisdale.

 

In 2018, Vancouver City Council endorsed enhancing the path to give people more places to gather, rest, and enjoy the surrounding landscape. This decision kicked off the planning process to create the Arbutus Greenway. The Greenway’s ambitious plans are not expected to be completed until 2034, but in the meantime, many local organizations have worked to activate the existing space with grassroots projects that demonstrate its potential.

 

 

The Arbutus Greenway Neighbour Hub dubbed a local “lending library of things,” was created by Neighbour Lab, a design and urban planning cooperative, in collaboration with the Thingery. A seating area and a bulletin board were set up to enable the community to share information. The showpiece installation was a hand crank that passersby could use to produce kinetic energy to charge cell phones.

 

“We launched the Neighbour Hub to create a community hub and gathering spot along the Arbutus Greenway,” says Stephanie Koenig, Content Developer for Neighbour Lab. “We designed and built the project together with a neighbourhood stewardship team. We also had a neighbour passing by as we were installing who ended up helping build a free library on the side!”

 

Finding public space in the built-up city

 

The next step in the Greenway’s evolution will be to implement the permanent transformation of this space, so that it becomes not just a pathway but a multifaceted destination both for the many neighbourhoods along the route and for people across Vancouver.

 

In the words of the City of Vancouver, “The Arbutus Greenway is a defining element of Vancouver’s urban landscape. It is envisioned to be a destination inspired by nature and stories of the places it connects.”

 

Greenways are linear parks for pedestrians and cyclists that connect nature reserves, cultural features, historic sites, neighbourhoods, and retail areas. Vancouver’s most popular greenways have typically been purpose-built and along the waterfront, like the Stanley Park and False Creek seawalls. The Arbutus Greenway is the first greenway connecting the north and south side of Vancouver through an existing built-up area, using repurposed industrial land.

The plan for the Arbutus corridor is part of a growing urbanism trend toward transforming obsolete infrastructure into public space. One of the most famous examples is the High Line in New York City, a 2.33 km-long elevated linear park created on a former New York Central Railroad spur. Since opening in June 2009, the High Line has become a tourist attraction that, by 2019, had eight million visitors per year.

Projects like the High Line and Vancouver’s Arbutus Greenway exemplify the challenge of finding park space in the built-up city. When there isn’t a parking lot to convert into a park, cities get creative to find other underused pockets of land. In Canada, Toronto’s Meadoway is turning a hydro corridor in Scarborough into a 16-kilometre stretch of urban greenspace and meadowlands. The city also launched the Bentway to turn previously unused space under the Gardiner Expressway near the lakefront into a linear park.

In 2020, the need for more urban parks like these reached a fever pitch as cities struggled with citizens in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic demanding more access to nature. It became clear that parks aren’t just “a nice to have,” they are necessary to our wellbeing.

 

According to a Park People survey in June 2020, 80% of Canadians said parks had become more important to their mental health during the pandemic. As one respondent wrote, “Living alone has meant that walks and outside visits are the only social contact I have had for 4 months. I would have been a mess without access to parks, ravines, trails, and the waterfront.”

 

A journey, and a destination

 

 

The Arbutus Greenway will be a journey, and also a destination. – City of Vancouver

 

In 2017, the City of Vancouver worked with DIALOG, a Canadian urban planning and design firm, to kick off a large public engagement campaign on the future design for the Arbutus Greenway

Before the City launched the official public engagement process, there was already buzz and excitement at the community level. City staff initially put out markers along the Arbutus Corridor to start the conversation on its future and received a large volume of responses from local residents. Overall, people wanted the Greenway to be a safe, accessible transportation route with opportunities to socialize and connect with nature:

 

“It should be a car-free corridor with plenty of opportunities for people to slowly travel its length, stop and enjoy nature, have a bite to eat at nearby restaurants. Parks and open spaces to relax.”

 

“I would like to see re-introduction of local wildlife if it all possible, more birds,
more pollinators. I want to feel like I’m out in nature while in the middle of the city.”

 

“That is why making the Greenway a people place, instead of just a multimodal corridor, became such a priority,” says Mr. Gómez-Palacio. “There was already so much grassroots involvement and it kept that spirit of park and placemaking front and centre throughout the design process.”

 

As part of the planning and design process, the Arbutus Greenway project team had 7,000 touchpoints with members of the public at over 50 events, including a multi-day design workshop, numerous stakeholder workshops, open houses, and online surveys.

Community organizations such as the Vancouver Public Space Network were involved in the public engagement process from the start, to ensure that the Greenway would include vibrant public spaces and meet the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.

 

 

“We advocated for a design that had a strong pedestrian-primary focus, consistently separated ‘all ages and abilities’ bike routing, clear routing for the future streetcar – and, yes, lots of greenery for the greenway,” says Naomi Wittes Reichstein, Arbutus Greenway project lead for the Vancouver Public Space Network.

 

Reichstein’s mention of a streetcar references a major factor in the design for The Arbutus Greenway: future plans for a light rail transit (LRT) line. Although plans for an LRT remain part of the overall vision for the Greenway, the project’s focus has always been people.

 

“We have been involved in many designs like this and the biggest vehicle always wins. The Arbutus Greenway project was flipped, the first priority was making it a people place, not the streetcar. I have not seen this before or since,” says Gómez-Palacio. “We’ve made sure that any community programs are not lost when the streetcar is eventually built.”

 

The City of Vancouver summarized the consultation process in this way:

“The vision for the Arbutus Greenway was born out of significant public engagement on both what people’s aspirations for the greenway were and what they valued in terms of uses, activities and experiences. A number of overarching themes emerged over the course of the planning process. These include a desire for: safe, comfortable, and accessible design; places for social interaction, play, and relaxation; and opportunities for urban ecology and urban agriculture.”

 

The vision

 

The Arbutus Greenway connects several Vancouver neighbourhoods including Kitsilano, Arbutus Ridge, Shaughnessy, Kerrisdale, and Marpole. Reflecting this diversity, the long-term vision for the greenway is divided into eight distinct character zones that offer respite and reflect the look and feel of these surrounding neighbourhoods. This vision includes activated spaces that create a place for movement and a place to linger.

 

 

One zone in a retail section of Arbutus Ridge will become an “Electric Alley,” referring to the presence of utility poles and its adjacency to Broadway, a busy retail and movement corridor. This zone will provide an urban backdrop with two plaza areas that eventually connect to SkyTrain’s underground Broadway extension, as well as large overhead frames for public art, lighting, and weather protection.

 

“We wanted to build on the existing character of these communities,” says Lindsey Fryett-Jerke, urban designer at DIALOG. “At the future Electric Alley, we observed kids selling lemonade and people selling clothing, so a theme of informal commerce emerged and we designed long, wide benches where people could display things.”

 

“At the Greenway’s southernmost point,” says Fryett-Jerke, “people watch planes landing at the airport, so we created a lookout tower.” That final zone, dubbed “The Lookout,” will boast a multi-storey viewing platform that provides views of the Fraser River Delta, Vancouver International Airport, and the San Juan Islands.

 

 

The other 6 zones will feature spaces to socialize and commune with nature. The “Harvest Table,” themed around food, will feature edible landscaping, long community tables for dining al fresco with neighbours, and a flexible space for pop-up activities. “The Ridge” and “Woodland Bend” will create nature sanctuaries, while the “Garden Path” will provide a wetland, boardwalk, and community kiosk. Gathering and activation areas will be created through large plaza spaces at “Kerrydale Pass,” the largest retail and civic hub on the greenway, and at the “Marpole Meander,” with a large community garden, ping pong and game board tables, a giant chessboard, hammocks, a bike skills course, a community “sharing” shed, and overhead frames for lights and public art.

It is anticipated that Greenway construction will occur across four successive capital plans (developing two-character zones with each plan).

 

“The Arbutus Corridor was always considered the backside of the neighbourhoods it ran through,” says Gómez-Palacio. “With this new design, we are flipping it to the front and converting it 180 degrees to make it safe, welcome, and open for everyone.”

 

Over thirty years later, this hidden play space from my childhood will be transformed into a destination that spans the entire city for people of all ages and abilities to enjoy.

 

 

About Jillian Glover

 

Jillian is an accredited communications professional specializing in transportation and urban issues. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies degree from Simon Fraser University. She was born and raised in Vancouver and writes about urban issues at This City Life —named one of the best city blogs by The Guardian.

 


 

Thank you to our generous supporters:

 


 

This contribution from Jillian Glover is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

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