Transitioning streets to pathways to create physical distancing during COVID-19: a look at Canada and beyond
During COVID, health officials are still recommending people get out for some exercise when needed. But going for a walk, jog or cycle while maintaining physical distancing can be a monumental challenge in dense cities.
Because of this, there’s momentum building for designating open streets for people instead of cars in urban neighbourhoods the world over.
Globally, in the era of COVID-19 Bogota was first to respond by designating open streets so people could enjoy the outdoors while following physical distancing requirements. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Bogota is a forerunner in pedestrianizing streets. The city has had a free-car Sunday program called Ciclovia (Bike Ways) since 1974 in which over 70 miles of streets are car-free. Today, this program operates full time.
Many US cities followed Bogota’s lead. In Washington, D.C., advocates are calling for the closures of select streets pointing to those that extend or are adjacent to existing trails to create more seamless active-transportation networks. New York City, established car-free streets in four of the five boroughs, but before long, the pilot was shut down.
This new demand for open streets, in Canada and around the globe, demonstrates that now, more than ever, we understand the crucial importance of open public spaces and their role in providing quality of life in our cities.
People are seeking more room to move, and our streets can become pathways to provide new avenues for active transportation.
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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.
Parks and the creation of social capital
I had a friend in university who would pass the same person each day. Their schedules just matched up so they walked by each other at the same time in the same spot. It got to the point where they would nod hello or say hi to each other—their only interaction. My friend called this person her “vortex friend” and I’ve since become obsessed with the importance of vortex friends for making us feel like we’re part of a community.
I thought about this anecdote while reading the Toronto Foundation’s ground-breaking research report into Toronto’s social capital, which examines the levels of group trust, civic connection, social networks, and local agency in Toronto. It’s a fascinating look into our city and provides some interesting intersections with research that we’ve done here at Park People into the social impacts of parks.
In our Sparking Change report from 2016, we spoke with park volunteers, non-profit leaders, and city staff from municipalities in the US and Canada who were doing hands-on work in local parks in underserved neighbourhoods to better understand the social impacts of that work.
Our research found that engaging in local parks can help create a sense of shared ownership, increase civic engagement, reduce social isolation, and provide a place for people to meet across difference. All, by the way, important elements of increasing social capital as detailed in the Toronto Foundation report. Parks achieved this, largely, because they provide a way for people to meet their neighbours—to build connections with people, including those different from them in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic status, or race and ethnicity (what the Toronto Foundation report calls “bridging capital”).
The power of just saying hello
One of the interesting things we found when reviewing the academic literature around social connections was the importance of the casual connections in our lives, even if it’s knowing someone just enough to say hello. As we wrote in our Sparking Change report:
The casual interactions between people in parks—a simple hello, nod, or wave of the hand—are small but powerful. The results of these interactions—what some researchers call “weak ties”… can lead to greater feelings of safety, social support, and reduced feelings of social isolation. The creation of these ties contributes to social capital—the social connections, trust, and support that are important not only for strong, healthy communities, but also for developing networks that can link people to opportunities, such as jobs.
While the Toronto Foundation report doesn’t explicitly use the term “weak ties,” it does highlight how critical knowing your neighbours can be.
It turns out knowing your neighbours is super important—and not just for borrowing that cup of sugar—but for fostering a higher sense of trust, engagement, social network, and belonging. For example, over half of those surveyed who said they know their neighbours rated their sense of belonging as strong, while only six percent of those who don’t know their neighbours did the same. That’s a big gap.
Park as social infrastructure
As we always say at Park People, parks are not simply patches of grass, but critical pieces of social infrastructure in our cities that can help fuel communities that are more socially connected.
The park as venue for social connection is particularly critical in a city as rich and dense in high-rise towers as Toronto—both in our downtown and the inner suburbs.
As the Toronto Foundation report points out, people who live in single-detached dwellings (houses) are much more likely to know their neighbours than those of us who live in high-rise apartment buildings. We know at Park People that providing a great, well-maintained park nearby with amenities and programming that draws people out and gives them a reason to stay, can help us meet our neighbours, even if we live 30-storeys up in a box in the sky.
Not all parks are created equal
Of course, the social benefits of parks don’t just happen because you have a park nearby. As with almost all things, there is an equity lens that needs to be applied. Our own literature review found that the quality of a park (how well maintained it is), the amenities provided (how it meets our needs) and the programming in that park (how engaging it is) is critical in encouraging people to not just come out to a park, but interact with others.
That’s why so much of our work focuses on distributing the benefits of high quality, engaging parks beyond the high-profile parks, often downtown, that already achieve a lot of them.
We do this through our Sparking Change program (named after the research we did), where we provide capacity building and micro-grants to those living in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas in Toronto to help them animate their local park. But we also do this through programs like Arts in the Parks, where we work with the Toronto Arts Council to bring arts programming to parks outside the downtown core, and our own TD Park People grants, where we fund small community events in parks in five different Canadian cities.
So the next time you’re out in the park, be sure to nod hello, and know that you’re doing your part to make your community feel a little more socially connected.
2018 Toronto parks budget proposes little change
Another year, another dollar. It’s budget time in the City of Toronto again and this year—an election year, mind you—we’re seeing another budget that keeps our heads above water, but doesn’t invest in new or enhanced services for our parks.
The budget must still go through the political process including a final vote by City Council, so expect some changes, but here’s our key take-aways from what is proposed right now:
Our city and park systems keeps growing, but our operating budget? Not so much.
This year’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation operating budget shows a zero percent increase over last year’s budget. Last year’s budget was essentially flat as well. This despite the fact that during that time we’ve added new residents and new parks to Toronto.
While we have money to build and improve parks in Toronto (thanks to a levy on development that goes towards parks), where we fall flat year after year is mustering the willpower to invest in our parks operations.
We can’t continue to propose new parks, including big and expensive ones (Rail Deck Park), and approve new master plans (Ravine Strategy) without making a commitment to meaningfully increase operating funding to pay for these things. Something’s gotta give.
New plans and projects require political willpower to fund their implementation
Make no mistake, last year was an exciting one for parks. Not only did we see new and redesigned parks—like Trillium Park, Grange Park, and Berczy Park—we saw the undertaking of new, much-needed citywide parks plans.
This includes approval of the Ravine Strategy, which will guide investment in what is arguably Toronto’s greatest natural asset—our ravine system—and plans like the Recreation and Facilities Master Plan (approved in 2017) and the Parkland Strategy (ongoing) that lay out citywide strategies for ensuring our parks keep pace with population growth and demographic change.
We also saw big, exciting projects like Rail Deck Park continue to move forward, with City Council approving re-designating the space above the rail corridor for park use. This was an essential step to preserve this space for a future park.
But we’ll say it again: these plans and projects require a real conversation and commitment to funding their implementation. Our last citywide Parks Plan offers a cautionary tale.
Five years after our five-year Parks Plan we still have a bunch left to do
City Council approved the five-year Parks Plan in 2013 with a host of recommendations for new services and investment. Five years later as that plan reaches its end, while the City has acted on a number of its recommendations, we still have several unfunded initiatives.
Previous operating budgets kept saying funding would be considered in the next year’s budget. And then the next year. And the year after that. It’s worth noting this is the same language found in this year’s budget for the Ravine Strategy, which says that funding will be considered in the 2019 budget.
Staff outline that it would take an investment of a total $8.6 million through 2018 – 2020 to fund the remaining elements of the Parks Plan, including money for community engagement, horticultural displays, community gardens, and enhanced maintenance.
This is not frivolous spending. It’s an investment in the quality of our parks and public spaces, which can positively impact park use and neighbourhood pride—not to mention help make our city look good to tourists and visitors.
Climate change and extreme weather are causing real financial impacts
Last year was a particularly bad one for damage to our parks from extreme weather with heavy rainfalls causing floods. This was especially evident in our beloved Toronto Islands, which were closed for much of the summer and experienced a 50% drop in ferry traffic as a result. The cost resulting from storm damage is estimated to be about $8.5 million.
CBC reported that this repair work is not yet fully funded in this year’s budget. We need to repair and restore our park system no doubt, but we also need to think ahead about how we can better design our parks to mitigate the effects of climate change.
As we wrote in our Parks Solutions Brief on climate change and parks this summer, it’s time we invested in green infrastructure in our parks. These are elements like bioswales, rain gardens, and retention ponds that soak up, filter, and store rain water where it falls, rather than overwhelming underground pipe systems and causing floods.
We should be taking the opportunity to incorporate this type of green infrastructure into new parks and redesigned ones so that we can get ahead of future storms.
The State of Good Repair Backlog continues to grow
Speaking of repair work, the State of Good Repair backlog for Parks, Forestry, and Recreation is not getting any smaller. This is what the City calls the build-up of repair work that needs to be done to keep parks and recreation infrastructure like field houses and community centres in tip top shape. Staff note it will grow to $600 million by 2027 from the current $457 million.
It may not be the flashy spending that allows politicians to cut ribbons on new facilities or parks, but we need to up our game to ensure our existing facilities are kept in good repair. Keeping on top of minor repair work ensures we don’t have to spend much more later on when things really break down, a point city staff made in the recent Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan.
Make no mistake, there is much to celebrate in our park system in Toronto. The work that has happened in the last several years by the City, community partners, and non-profits has put a renewed focus on our parks and public spaces. We’ve created some great new public spaces, experimented with innovative partnerships like community-run cafes, created new permit categories to encourage arts programming in parks, and continue to think big and outside of the box with projects like The Bentway and Rail Deck Park.
But the challenges we outlined above deserve attention if we are to continue to build a strong, dynamic park system together.
You can check out the proposed operating and capital budgets for yourself here and here. We encourage you to contact your city councillor and let them know how important investing in our parks operations is to you. You can find a listing of City Councillors and their contact information here. City Council will vote on the budget the week of February 12.
What TOcore means for downtown parks and public spaces
Years of work on TOcore, a new downtown Toronto master plan, are coming to fruition, including a new parks and public realm plan that will guide development of parks and public space in the downtown for years to come.
The draft plan was released last week–and there’s a lot to dig into. Here we’ve distilled the plan into a few key areas we think are important to highlight, as well as some areas that we think could be improved.
A focus on knitting together existing parks and open spaces
Many of the park ideas in TOcore follow from the guiding principles we laid out in our 2015 Making Connections report for planning park systems in dense areas. That report proposed focusing on connections and creating flexible networks that include different forms of open spaces (parks, streets, laneways, schoolyards, hydro corridors) to take advantage of all the available open space in dense areas.
TOcore delivers on many of these principles through a few different initiatives. Most notably is the proposal of a downtown green space circle that builds on the existing system of parks, ravines, and trails around downtown (including the Green Line, which we were happy to see). The core circle will be strengthened and built over time, with the ultimate goal of creating a continuous, navigable path. This has a similar kind of flavour as the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis—a stunning 50 mile pathway weaving through many of the city’s lakes, green spaces, and neighbourhoods.
Another key network idea is the Stitch, which is actually a series of public space projects that work to overcome barriers like the rail corridor, Gardiner Expressway, and Lakeshore Boulevard to create better connections along and to the waterfront. The under-construction Bentway under the Gardiner Expressway’s west section and the proposed Rail Deck Park are likely the biggest of these projects. You often hear people say that Toronto is a city cut off from its waterfront and this idea aims to stitch that cut back together.
A push for more neighbourhood-level parks planning
Again following from the guiding principles in our Making Connections report, TOcore proposes a series of park districts, which would be a “cohesive local network of streets, parks and other open spaces centred on one or more community parks that serve surrounding neighbourhoods.”
Neighbourhood-level park planning is important. Currently, we plan parks at the individual park level, focusing on the amenities, programming, and design of a single park. Planning our parks with a more zoomed-out neighbourhood view will allow us to better plan, design, and program parks as a complementary system.
This is particular important in the downtown where over three-quarters of parks are relatively small. Maybe you can’t have a playground and soccer area and bake oven and outdoor gym all in the same park, but if we plan at the neighbourhood level we could include those amenities within a system of smaller parks within a short walk of each other. Neighbourhood-level park planning allows both designers and community members to make better decisions and avoid duplication.
For example, I went to a park design meeting a few years ago where residents at the meeting nearly chose the exact same play structure that was put into a nearby park a year earlier because there was no overview at the meeting of any of the other parks in the neighbourhood.
At this stage it’s unclear what a “park district” will actually mean on the ground in terms of planning and design changes, but it could be an important step forward for park planning in Toronto if done right.
More protection for sunlight in parks
A welcome proposal, but one that is likely to receive pushback from the development community, is to designate a series of no-new net shadow parks—basically parks where developments can cast no additional shadows. A map of the parks is below, but it includes parks like Ramsden Park, Queen’s Park, Grange Park, Allan Gardens, and Moss Park.
Sunlight is a finite resource and once it’s gone, it’s likely gone for good. In a city as rapidly developing with tall towers as downtown Toronto, it’s critical that we ensure we are not casting our existing parks and public spaces into shadow. As anyone walking outside in September and April knows, direct sunlight on parks allows us to enjoy them in those months when the air has a chill to it. Direct sunlight is also needed for the trees and lawns everyone loves so much in our parks.
A stronger focus on partnerships and community participation
This one is core to what Park People does–promote the importance of community engagement in public spaces not just during the design phase, but long afterwards to help animate and steward our parks.
To this effect, TOcore includes some positive policies supporting new governance models for parks, Indigenous partnerships, and community stewardship. We’ve seen positive moves with a new conservancy set up to run The Bentway and a community committee for Grange Park. The proof, however, is always in the details and the implementation. We looking forward to working with the City and community members to bring these policies to life.
A land-first policy for downtown park acquisition
This one might make your eyes glaze over a bit, but it’s important. The City is prioritizing acquiring land within new developments for parks as opposed to accepting cash from developers that the City would use to purchase parkland elsewhere. I’ve explained how Toronto develops and pays for new parks in more detail in other blog posts, but the gist is that each development is required to provide either land or cash for parks.
The City often takes cash rather than land because taking land would often result in a very small sliver of a park on high-rise tower sites. But the problem is that the City has a very difficult time finding land to buy for parks in the downtown—both because finding good undeveloped spots is difficult, but also because it’s extraordinarily expensive. Prioritizing land then makes sense.
However, the way park development is funded in Toronto is through a redistributive policy that sees 50% of the cash from a new development’s park levy spread across the city to fund park projects in areas of the city that don’t see as much development. Through this policy, downtown has actually contributed many millions of dollars toward park development in other neighbourhoods. A land-first policy in the downtown should also be accompanied by a review of how this may affect park funding in areas outside the downtown.
So, that’s the highlights. What about what we think could be improved?
Integrate green infrastructure within parks planning
If the past several months has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be aggressive and innovative when it comes to creating a city that is resilient to climate change. Extreme weather will bring more heavy, sudden rainstorms to Toronto that stress our infrastructure, causing flooding and damage to both property and our natural environment.
While green infrastructure is mentioned within TOCore, the plan does not include specific policies to incorporate green infrastructure into downtown parks. We think this is a missed opportunity.
Integrating green infrastructure within park design is one of the recommendations we made in our recent Parks Solutions Paper on green infrastructure called Resilient Parks, Resilient City. Other cities, like Copenhagen, are way ahead of us in incorporating green infrastructure into public spaces by designing parks and streets to flood and celebrate rainwater.
We can learn from Copenhagen, but we can also learn from our own successes. Corktown Common was designed as a flood protection berm and includes important green infrastructure elements to manage rain onsite and use it as a resource to actually water plants and trees in the park. We should be exploring opportunities to incorporate green infrastructure into any new park or park redesign that we undertake.
Reimagine streets as part of our public space system
Our largest public space resource in the city is not our parks, but our streets. The land within the public right-of-way makes up almost 25 percent of the land area of the entire city, whereas parks are 13 percent. This makes them an important resource for open space, especially in the downtown where every inch counts.
TOcore should include policies that promote better incorporating streets into park planning.
Perhaps this is by redesigning streets alongside parks to better incorporate them into the park. The City did that in the recently opened Berczy Park (above photo) where an adjacent street was designed so that it could easily become a plaza extension of this small downtown park when needed. Or perhaps it means looking at opportunities to turn streets into part of a park, like Vancouver did to expand an existing park at West 17th Avenue and Yukon Street.
There’s lots of potential here, but it requires creative thinking and cross-divisional partnerships between transportation and parks. Embedding this within policy in TOcore would be a good first step towards shaking up how we plan parks to include streets as well.
Bring this thinking outside the downtown
While we recognize the importance of a downtown-focused plan, many of the park-related ideas in TOcore can act as blueprints for how we can better plan and design park systems in other areas of the city. There is a great opportunity with the in-progress Parkland Strategy, which is a citywide park acquisition and connection plan. We hope that many of the ideas around flexibility, connections, and neighbourhood-based park planning are also being considered within the Parkland Strategy.
TOcore is a big, ambitious, and much-needed plan, but, as we mentioned already, the proof of a plan is in its implementation. Many of these ideas will cost money–sometimes a lot of money. They will require doing things in new ways and they will require partnering with non-profits, like Park People, and community members.
Launching TOcore is an accomplishment, no doubt, but putting it into action will be the true test.
Staff submitted the draft plan to the Planning and Growth Management Committee last week and it will now go to council for a vote the first week of October. You can view Park People’s letter to the committee here and also read the plan for yourself here. If you’re busy (who isn’t?) then you can peruse the staff presentation slides, which give a good overview of the plan.
What we can learn from Copenhagen’s plan to create a more climate-resilient city
As the images of flooding and damage in Houston from Hurricane Harvey continue on the front pages of newspapers and on social media, it’s a good moment to think about how ready Canadian cities are for managing extreme weather.
As we wrote about in our Resilient Parks, Resilient City park solutions brief last month, climate change in Canada is leading to more and more extreme weather, causing stress on our urban environments. This includes droughts and heat waves, but also heavy rainfall that can lead to flash floods and long-lasting damage to our cities.
Toronto just experienced what climate change means in a very real way when heavy spring rain caused flooding that closed Toronto Islands for most of the summer. Parts of Montreal have also experienced flooding from heavy rainfall this year. And only a few years ago, Calgary experienced severe flooding that caused the evacuation of neighbourhoods and killed several people.
All of this was on my mind when I went to the City Parks Alliance’s Greater Greener conference in Minneapolis/St. Paul at beginning of August where I was able to hear Lykke Leonardsen speak. Leondardsen works in sustainability at the City of Copenhagen and spoke about that city’s climate adaptation plan (well worth a read) and cloudburst management strategy which relies heavily on green infrastructure investments.
We covered green infrastructure and its different elements in the Resilient Parks park solutions brief, so I won’t go into detail about that here. But I do want to share a bit about what I heard from Leonardsen at the conference and the amazing, forward-thinking work that Copenhagen is doing to climate-proof their city by rethinking their streets, parks, and other public spaces to transform stormwater from a liability into a celebrated resource. There is much we can learn in Canada from Copenhagen’s approach.
Build parks to flood
By now people are likely familiar with the idea of parks being designed as places that can also capture and hold water during storms or protect a city from flooding. We have some great examples in Toronto, including Corktown Common, which we covered in our Resilient Parks, Resilient Cities report.
But Copenhagen is taking this a step further, engineering public spaces, both hard-surfaces and soft green areas, to hold water and use it as a resource in the park. Their newly built Tasinge Plads (title picture) captures not just the rain water that falls on the park, but water from the surrounding neighbourhood during storms. This helps reduce flooding, but it also creates a unique park where large upturned umbrellas capture additional rainwater and create a playful element.
A park built to flood doesn’t have to be green, however. It can be a hard-surface plaza, basketball court, or other playing surface that is designed to capture water during a storm, transforming it into a kind of reflecting pool while the water drains away–like Copenagen’s Enghave Park.
Create rivers out of streets
Part Copenhagen’s plan calls for Cloudburst Boulevards, which, despite being beautifully poetic, perform a very important function when it rains. These boulevards are designed with depressions, like bioswales, and other graded-areas that essentially become small streams during heavy rainfall events, slowing down, soaking up, and guiding rainwater.
It also has the added benefit of creating what could be a really delightful amenity from the water that we usually see rushing down the gutter, picking up cigarette butts and other garbage along the way, before pooling around clogged drains on city streets. Apologies for the poor image quality below, but this is a picture I took during Leondardsen’s presentation of a Cloudburst Boulevard in action. You can see more images in this presentation.
Find a win-win-win solution
Finally, all of this will actually save Copenhagen money. And not just a little bit, but a huge amount. Forget for a moment the cost of damage from storms (although it can be huge–Toronto’s July 2013 storm caused $1 billion in property damage insurance claims), which this plan will surely help mitigate. Focus instead on the cost of just implementing the infrastructure improvements to cope with extreme weather and increased rainfall. Copenhagen’s plan, which relies on a combination of green infrastructure elements and more traditional “grey” infrastructure (like pipes and treatment plans), will cost less than half of what it would have cost to implement a plan based entirely on grey infrastructure.
That’s an impressive saving. But there’s more. Because green infrastructure also usually results in new and improved public spaces and parks, you get the added benefit of a stormwater infrastructure investment that also provides a visible public recreational and aesthetic benefit.
Save money, build infrastructure, improve public space. That’s a nice set of wins.
Resilient Parks, Resilient City: The role of green infrastructure and parks in creating more climate-adaptive cities
Park People’s Park Solutions Briefs explore the challenges and opportunities facing city parks in Canada by offering inspiration, best practices, and key strategies for moving forward. You can download a PDF of this report and read past Park People reports. Disponible en français ici.
Climate change is causing extreme weather and impacting Canadian cities
Flood impacts in Calgary. Photo by James Tworow (Flickr CC)
It’s become a familiar urban experience. Heavy rain, flash floods, rising water levels, and, ultimately, flooded parks, streets, and homes. With climate change leading to extreme weather—both hot, dry periods and heavy rain—it’s imperative that we design our urban environments to mitigate these impacts. As one expert noted, Toronto is going to get “hotter, wetter, and wilder” with the effects of climate change. Vancouver is expected to see dryer summers and wetter winters.
We only have to look at the last five years to see this playing out. In July 2013, the Greater Toronto Area experienced its most severe storm in 60 years. The 126mm of rain that fell in a two-hour period overwhelmed stormwater systems—the drains, pipes, and channels built to whisk water to treatment facilities—causing roads, railways, and basements to flood. It ultimately ended up costing $1 billion in damage. There are also negative impacts on the health of people and ecosystems.
Also in July 2013, Calgary saw heavy rain that caused the city’s rivers, like the Bow River, to breach their banks, flooding neighbourhoods and causing evacuation orders and several deaths. This was explored in greater detail in a previous Park People report, Green City, written by University of Calgary Professor Bev Sandalack, which advocates for a landscape approach to parks planning that recognizes and enhances the important ecological services provided by parks.
This year, Toronto is again feeling the effects of climate change. Heavy and frequent spring rainfalls and high water levels in Lake Ontario, meant much of the highly popular Toronto Island was closed due to flooding—a loss that many in the city acutely feel. The rain also resulted in large pools of standing water in many parks and reduced beachfront in waterfront areas. Parts of Quebec were also inundated with water from heavy rains this year that flooded streets and damaged property in and around Montreal and Gatineau.
Heavy rain causes visible damage from flooding, but it also has a more invisible effect. Many cities were built with systems that combine sewage and stormwater into the same pipes. When heavy rain overwhelms the system, its designed to release partially treated sewage and stormwater into our waterways as a safety valve to protect the system from flooding. This is called a combined sewer overflow. Many cities are actively working to reduce these through investing in new stormwater infrastructure that reduces the amount of water entering the system as these overflows have damaging environmental effects and impact water quality.
But what does this have to do with our parks?
We can intentionally design our parks as climate-resilient infrastructure
Parks are essential for increasing natural habitat in cities, providing space for recreation and social connection, and improving our mental and physical well-being—benefits laid out in more detail in recent reports by Toronto Public Health and Park People. But as the primary “soft” landscapes in our urban environments, parks are also critical pieces of stormwater infrastructure.
Green spaces help soak up and filter rain where it falls rather than allowing it to run off hard surfaces like paved roads into storm sewers and, ultimately, into our waterways—along with the garbage, bacteria, and other pollutants it has picked up along the way. Absorbent landscapes, like parks, can reduce runoff by 8 to 10 times compared to impermeable surfaces like roads or parking lots.
However, not every park soaks up rain just because it’s green. The soil in parks can become heavily compacted from use—like people running back and forth playing soccer—reducing the amount of water that can filter through the soil
There is a solution. We can design our parks and public spaces as sponges, or with sponge-like elements, by using “green infrastructure” to help parks be more effective at capturing, retaining, and treating stormwater. This helps cool cities through natural shade and water evaporation from trees and plants, reduce flooding, and ultimately creates more climate resilient cities.
Essentially the idea behind green infrastructure is to engineer spaces to mimic or enhance nature’s ability to slow down, soak up, and clean water where it falls, instead of whisking it away as fast as possible through drains to underground pipes—often called “grey” infrastructure. Green infrastructure in parks can include daylighted streams, rain gardens, and wetlands that filter pollutants and hold water or channel it to underground tanks.
Even small projects help. A green infrastructure demonstration project in Mississauga along Elm Drive reduced water entering the stormwater system by 30% during the heavy July 2013 storm. By lessening the amount of water flowing into the system, the project reduced the possibility that the system would be overwhelmed.
Many cities are directly incorporating green infrastructure into their climate change resiliency planning to ensure cities can weather the weather. Vancouver’s new rainfall management plan argues that “as we experience changing climate and rainfall patterns, green infrastructure working in conjunction with the piped storm network will provide better service levels across the rainfall spectrum now and into the future.”
Common Green Infrastructure Elements in Parks and the Public Realm
Bioswale. Photo by Aaron Volkening (Flickr CC)
Rain garden. A depression filled with vegetation, trees, and rocks that collects and stores stormwater, using it as a water source for plants and allowing it to filter into the ground. These can be found in strategic locations within a park or along the edges of roadways where a drain allows stormwater from the curb to drain into the rain garden. New York City has invested heavily in creating rain gardens as part of their overall green infrastructure plan, resulting in the spin-off benefit of street beautification and increasing urban nature.
Stormwater management pond. An area designed to hold stormwater during heavy rainfalls. These can be designed as both wet and dry. A wet retention pond, like a wetland, is designed to always contain water, while a dry detention pond, like a basketball court or playing field, is designed to fill and hold water only during storms.
Daylighted streams. The practice of bringing streams that have been buried in pipes, back to the surface and renaturalizing them. For example, Vancouver is currently working on a plan to “create an ecologically diverse stream” through Tatlow and Volunteer Parks that will feed into English Bay.
Bioswale. A depression or groove like a miniature stream, sometimes filled with vegetation and rocks, that channels stormwater to a drain, water body, or retention area, like an underground tank or aboveground pond.
Bioretention storage areas. Underground stormwater treatment and storage areas using soil mixes designed to hold and infiltrate water. These can be used to create healthy conditions for trees, with engineered systems called soil cells to support paving above.
Image by Schollen & Company
Permeable paving. Pavement that allows water to infiltrate to the ground below, rather than runoff of it, including materials like porous concrete and permeable interlocking concrete pavers. One study noted that permeable pavement is helpful in winter as it allows snowmelt to filter through, reducing the amount of freezing ice on the actual surface. Ideally these paving solutions are also designed to provide water for trees and planting areas through underground bioretention areas, expanding their benefit.
Green infrastructure provides multiple benefits
A key feature of green infrastructure is its multiple and layered benefits, unlike traditional grey infrastructure that performs a single function, such as conveying water in a pipe. Green infrastructure can:
Perform important environmental functions. This includes decreasing water runoff, improving water quality, mitigating and prevention erosion, and cleaning the air. It can also reduce the urban heat island effect by increasing green areas that don’t absorb heat like hard surfaces—an important cooling benefit to cities as climate change results in hotter weather.
Improve and expand urban nature and habitat. Green infrastructure can include native plants that provide critical habitat and food for pollinators, such as native bees and butterflies, and other wildlife that are under threat, helping to promote urban biodiversity and healthier ecosystems.
Create new community gathering and recreational spaces. Green infrastructure can increase public space and recreational areas in cities. These projects can enhance existing parks, but they can also be opportunities for creating new green spaces and plazas from underused areas like roadways and traffic islands.
Save money. By reducing the amount of money a city spends on expensive infrastructure like pipes, green infrastructure can help save money. For example, Copenhagen estimated that its green infrastructure approach to stormwater management was estimated to cost half the price over time of a more traditional “grey” infrastructure-only approach.
Create safer roads. If included within traffic calming measures such as traffic islands and bump-outs that increase pedestrian space or separate bike lanes with planting areas, green infrastructure can help slow down cars and improve traffic safety. Toronto’s new Complete Streets guidelines, for example, contain a section on green infrastructure.
Cycling and green infrastructure. Rendering from NACTO
A great example of the multiple benefits of green infrastructure projects can be found in Toronto’s Raindrop Plaza. Designed as Green Streets pilot project in conjunction with the city’s new green street technical guidelines, this 2018 project will transform a wide turning lane and traffic island into a new permeable plaza with rain gardens. The plaza will feed stormwater runoff from the street through a shallow swale meant to highlight the many rivers in Toronto that were buried in the city’s development. The plaza will use the captured rainwater to help water trees onsite, with bioretention areas in soil cells below the permeable paving. Through this project, the city will create a new green community gathering space, increase natural habitat, provide opportunities for learning about ecological systems, and, of course, reduce stormwater run-off. In fact, Sheila Boudreau, former co-lead of Green Streets at the City of Toronto, said that a cost-benefit analysis of the project done by the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation at Carleton University for the City of Toronto found over $200,000 in benefits—almost a third of the overall construction cost.
Raindrop Plaza rendering by Schollen & Company
Of course, there are challenges to green infrastructure as well. Some of the key areas that need to be carefully considered are:
A strong emphasis on maintenance. Often there are concerns that the maintenance costs for green infrastructure will be higher than traditional parkland because it can require special training. But a study by Credit Valley Conservation found that when park staff were included within the process of choosing plants for green infrastructure projects, the maintenance requirements were similar to traditional parkland development.
Balancing the needs of park users. Green infrastructure elements, such as rain gardens and wetlands, require space within parks—space that is often at a premium in urban environments. It’s important to balance designs and consider how features can double as recreational park amenities, like soccer fields and skateboard bowls that can also store water during storms.
The need for new monitoring and evaluation programs. Some parks are designed with green infrastructure elements to capture only the rain that falls within the park, while others are designed with special systems to actual divert water from surroundings streets. It’s important to determine the performance of these spaces, such as how much water the park can handle and how often maintenance needs to be done.
Five things Canadian cities can do to improve green infrastructure in parks
1. Include green infrastructure where possible when undertaking park redesigns and building new parks and public spaces
Corktown Common. Photo by Jake Tobin Garrett
Green infrastructure should be more formally integrated as part of park planning and design so that opportunities are considered upfront in both park redesigns and new parks, with agreements or funds secured for ongoing maintenance, rather than as an after thought. This also ensures green infrastructure elements are integrated seamlessly into the design and can actually become amenities and recreational features of the park.
As Andy Frank, environmental engineer for Montgomery County in Maryland, said in an interview with the National Parks and Recreation Association: “Every agency has parks and facilities that they must renovate or retrofit, and every new park project offers opportunities to integrate green stormwater management early on. In fact, the earlier you integrate it into the project the easier and less expensive it is.”
Take Toronto’s Corktown Common. Children playing in the park’s splash pad or people picnicking on the grass may not know that they are actually on a flood protection berm that is designed to protect the lower-lying areas of the city to its west from the Don River flooding to its east. The park is a gem of a space, complex and rich with biodiversity and landscape, including winding pathways, water features, and a wetland. But these features are also functional, helping to capture and filter rainwater, which is then treated with ultraviolet light and stored in tanks underneath the park to be used for irrigation.
The redevelopment plan for Calgary’sBowmont Natural Environment Park focuses on incorporating green infrastructure into the park to protect the Bow River, which was the source of major flooding during the 2013 storm. “The park’s location in the floodplain offers a rare opportunity to protect the Bow River by incorporating green stormwater treatment as a functional element of the park,” the City notes. “The stormwater elements will also provide a major park amenity that contributes to visitors’ experience in the park.” Green infrastructure elements like a wetland are being incorporated into wildlife habitat and also walking and cycling trails.
In Vaughan, plans for Edgeley Pond and Park are a critical part of the city’s overall plans to develop a new downtown community in the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The project will create a new 7.5-hectare passive and active open space for community use that also doubles as essential green infrastructure and flood protection—critical for unlocking new land for development in the area.
2. Create a comprehensive plan for rolling out green infrastructure
Many cities continue to experiment with pilot projects, one-off projects, and small-scale green infrastructure initiatives, but it’s important to provide resources and staff to invest in a strategic implementation plan that can provide guidance on how to roll-out green infrastructure in a more comprehensive manner. These plans may require green infrastructure in new developments and also assess the current park system to understand where the best opportunities are found.
As Vancouver’s recent Rainfall Management and Green Infrastructure Plan notes, green infrastructure projects in the city have mainly been “staff-led pilot initiatives” that were “developed only when opportunities arose and resources were available, rather than an integral part of City capital programs or development requirements.” The new plan changes that, building on what the City has learned through many pilot projects and laying out broad targets—such as capturing, filtering, and treating 90% of rainfall before it reaches the ocean—and specific strategies about how to accomplish this.
Montreal’s Towards Sustainable Municipal Water Management plan includes an emphasis on green infrastructure, including the city’s green alleys program where partnerships with residents transform alleys from paved surfaces to green landscapes. The plan also includes building rain gardens and stormwater ponds at the edges of parking lots and parks, such as the city’s central park, Mont Royal.
But it’s Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters plan that is a leading example of comprehensive green infrastructure planning in North America. The city just celebrated the fifth anniversary of this 20-year plan by announcing that the projects completed in its first five years are now diverting 1.5 billion gallons of polluted water annually from rivers. The plan includes a partnership with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to include green infrastructure within city parks, such as the recently renovated Ralph Brooks Park, which includes rain gardens and a storage tank beneath a basketball court that can hold 16,000 gallons of water.
3. Make green infrastructure playful and visible to encourage ecological literacy
So many of the critical systems in our city operate underground or out of sight—only becoming a topic of conversation when there is a problem, like flooding from a storm or a power outage. By making stormwater infrastructure visible through wetlands, bioswales, and other green infrastructure elements, we are also creating educational opportunities for learning about our natural environment and city systems. Interpretive signage, playful elements, tours, and educational programming can raise awareness and support.
Copenhagen has really taken this to heart with a new urban park it has developed called Tåsinge Plads. Billed as the city’s first “climate-adapted urban space,” the park transformed what was once mostly pavement into a multi-levelled public space that captures and holds rainwater from 4,300 square metres of the surrounding neighbourhood. Sculptural elements like upturned umbrellas capture rain and provide water for plants. The park is part of a wider climate adaptation plan that aims to create a more climate resilient Copenhagen through the type of green infrastructure and park investments seen in Tåsinge Plads.
But it doesn’t have to be complicated. In Vancouver’s, John Hendry Park—locally known as Trout Lake—a swale of plants and rocks directs stormwater from the roof of the adjacent community centre through the park and into the lake, creating a unique feature within the park and a visible indication of hydrological systems. A forthcoming redesign of the park will include even more green infrastructure elements, including meandering streams that feed water into the lake.
4. Involve community members and create job training and skill development opportunities
Streetside garden in Vancouver. Photo by Jake Tobin Garrett
Green infrastructure park projects can offer opportunities for communities to be involved in creating a vision for the park, but also in the stewardship of those spaces. As with any park project, it’s critical to involve community members early on and throughout the process, but also ensure there are opportunities for people to stay engaged after the project is completed. Philadelphia’sGreen Parks program, for example, allows community members to nominate a park in their neighbourhood for consideration of green infrastructure improvements.
Local organizations or volunteer groups, such as a park friends group, could also become involved in assisting with the maintenance of green infrastructure elements or running educational programming. An adopt-a-rain garden program could be modelled after other programs where garden spaces are adopted like Vancouver’s Green Streets or Montreal’s Ruelles Vertes.
Green infrastructure projects can also be used to foster local economic development by incorporating job training and skill building for local communities. The organization Park Pride in Atlanta, for example, has worked with community service organizations to hire local youths to work on green infrastructure projects in parks.
5. Create financial tools to help fund green infrastructure projects in parks and the public realm
Some cities are turning to dedicated stormwater fees to fund green infrastructure projects. Rather than a tax, these are structured as “user fees” that are charged to properties based on their amount of impermeable surface and thus how much they contribute to stormwater runoff. These can be an important new source of funding for park projects that include green infrastructure elements, both in their construction and maintenance.
As noted within a recent Credit Valley Conservation report: “In cases where municipalities have implemented stormwater management rate systems, putting [green infrastructure] features into parks can be an incentive for parks and recreation staff. Operational costs for maintaining [green infrastructure] landscape features and permeable parking lots are generally paid through the stormwater rate instead of from the park’s budget.”
Philadelphia, for example, has a stormwater fee based on the amount of impermeable surface on a property that helps fund stormwater management infrastructure, like the city’s many green infrastructure developments in parks and public spaces. Mississauga recently approved a similar stormwater charge that took effect in 2016. Unfortunately, Torontoshelved a plan in 2017 to create a dedicated fee that could fund stormwater projects.
Green infrastructure in parks is about creating more connected, resilient cities
Green infrastructure at its core is about creating spaces that help manage stormwater, but these projects also bring a host of other benefits—from habitat creation to providing new spaces for people to gather. Much like parks, the benefits of green infrastructure are deep and layered, touching on the environment, economic, and social.
Green infrastructure can be used as a method of park and public space creation, turning leftover bits of roadway and other spaces into beautiful multi-functional community spaces, like Raindrop Plaza. It can also be used to unlock land for development by providing flood protection, like Toronto’s plan to renaturalize the mouth of the Don River to open up the Portlands for development.
It can be used to create playful, whimsical urban spaces that also provide opportunities for learning about our ecological systems. It can provide ways to save money, especially when coupled with a stormwater fee that incentivizes green infrastructure development. And, critically, it does all this while providing a way to create more climate-resilient cities that are better able to weather the impacts of climate change. Investing in green infrastructure in our parks and public spaces just makes sense.
Title image: rain garden at Coxwell and Fairford in Toronto. Photo by Marc Yamaguchi.
Huge thanks to Sheila Boudreau for her time and edits. Sheila is senior landscape architect at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and formerly an urban designer at the City of Toronto where she co-lead Greet Streets with Toronto Water. Also thank you to the following people for providing information and case study examples: Clara Blakelock from Rain Community Solutions; Gerardo Paez Alonso, Project Manager for the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre; and Michelle Sawka, Project Manager at Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition.
Lonely? Head to your local park
When I first moved to Toronto, I didn’t know many people. I found myself wandering out of my apartment day after day that first summer and plopping down in various parks around the city. Being in a park relaxed my mind, but placing myself amongst the energy of the people around me also helped me feel more connected to my new home.
Turns out I’m not alone in seeking out parks to make me feel less alone.
A new survey produced by CARP, a national organization that advocates for the health and vibrancy of people as they age, found that living near a park had a huge effect on reducing feelings of loneliness.
As Wanda Morris, VP of CARP, wrote of the survey in the National Post:
“The most intriguing result from the survey was the effectiveness of parks in reducing loneliness and social isolation. Even when we controlled for socioeconomic status, green space mattered. A lot. In statistical terms, the relationship between avoiding loneliness and living near a park was four times greater than the relationship between avoiding loneliness and having children.”
That’s pretty astounding. But it also gels with what we’ve seen at Park People in our own work and research about why people love and get involved in parks.
For example, when we surveyed park friends groups—volunteer-led groups caring and animating local parks—and asked them why they volunteered their time, we found that the second most popular reason (after spending time in nature, of course) was to meet neighbours and build social connections.
And combatting loneliness and social isolation was one of the key impacts we found in our Sparking Change research, which looked specifically at the benefits of park engagement in underserved neighbourhoods. Many of the people we spoke with at the community level told us they first got involved because they wanted to create opportunities for social connection in their community—for the park to become a hub.
Reaping the benefits of a park’s social environment doesn’t just happen though. It takes easy access to a park (a 10-minute walk is good), and the right mix of amenities and structured and unstructured programming to provide a platform for social connections.
Research has shown, for example, the importance of amenities like playgrounds and dog parks for social interaction as it gives parents and dog owners reason to chat with each other. But programming, like music events, community picnics, and farmers’ markets, is also important in encouraging people to not only stay in the park for longer periods of time, but actually talk with people.
All of this has huge equity implications. If people have less access to green space in their neighbourhood, they are automatically shut out of the positive wellbeing benefits of living near a park. And if they live near a park, but that park offers little in terms of the amenities or programming that people actual want, then that too can result in a disadvantage.
This last point was highlighted in some of the interviews we did for Sparking Change from residents and agency workers in some of Toronto’s tower communities—neighbourhoods characterized by large towers surrounded by open space mainly outside of the downtown core.
Whether it was Rexdale, Thorncliffe Park, or Flemingdon Park, community members spoke about the vital importance of improving and animating the green spaces in their community in order to bring people together and create a shared space that could act as that “hub.” This meant connecting with residents to brainstorm programming like small festivals, organize programming specifically for older adults and youth, advocate for new amenities (like a tandoor oven), and bring people together over sharing food and tips at a community garden.
Because having a green space nearby is good, but having one nearby that you love is even better. See you in the park.
Exploring innovative and creative ideas for parks and public spaces–in how we design, manage, and program them–is important, but these discussions often end up with this question: “Sure it sounds great, but how are we actually going to pay for that?”
In Park People’s latest report, Financing City Parks in Canada: What Might Be Done?, author Harry Kitchen, professor emeritus at Trent University and an expert in Canadian municipal finance, delves into the world of park financing in Canada. Kitchen lays it all out on the table, assessing the benefits and drawbacks of different funding tools and how they could work (or not work) in Canada.
The paper is part of three park discussion papers that Park People developed as part of our Heart of the City conference in Calgary–the first national city parks conference in Canada.
As Kitchen points out, unfortunately, parks are often at the top of the pile when municipalities look for ways to wring more savings from their already extremely tight budgets. Unlike fire, police, water, and electricity, parks are not seen as an “essential” service and have no mandated service levels.
While Canada’s park funding scene is not as grim as the United States or Britain (where some municipalities have cut a staggering 90% from park budgets in recent years), we still find ourselves, year after year, often with flat or modest increases in park funding, just to keep up with the needs of growing populations. In short, we are treading water in many cases, keeping our heads afloat.
So the question of how we are going to pay for new, expanded, and improved park systems as we grow, is a critical one to answer.
As you can imagine, the answer is not easy (if it was we wouldn’t be having this conversation). But Kitchen does outline a number of tools that Canadian cities can take advantage of for both funding the capital construction of parks and their ongoing maintenance and programming.
A few points emphasized by Kitchen:
Growth pays for growth. Many Canadian municipalities use growth-related development levies to fund the acquiring and development of new parks. These include charges paid per unit by developers into a fund that builds and improves parks. In Toronto, for example, park acquisition and development is paid for through a park levy that has in the last ten years raised over $500 million for parks.
Park operations are squeezed. Park operations, however, are largely funded by property taxes. This workhorse of municipal finances is the most appropriate revenue source to fund park operations, Kitchen writes, because parks are shared spaces that are common and open to all and so commonly funding them through taxes makes sense (as opposed to a user fee, like garbage pick-up). However, the property tax is also a highly visible tax (people get a bill for it), making it politically difficult to raise–leading to budget squeezes each year as municipalities attempt to do more for less.
Creating a separate park fund could be a good practice. Creating a separate, dedicated property tax levy that goes specifically into a fund for park operations could be a way to raise support for better, stable funding for parks. Drawing a direct connection between the money paid through taxes and a special park fund can be a way to gain public support. In fact, Seattle recently created a park tax district that levies an additional percentage on the property tax for park purposes and was a voted in by residents.
Other funding tools are heavily context dependent. Tools like philanthropy, donations, and corporate sponsorships–which are sometimes managed through partnership-based governance models like park conservancies in the United States–are not widely used in Canada, but are a growing area. These are important tools for funding parks, but only work in specific larger, signature park spaces (like the conservancy that was created to operate, program, and raise funds for Toronto’s Bentway linear public space) and are not an overall strategy for funding a park system.
As Kitchen’s paper makes clear, there is no silver bullet for park funding. As our common grounds, public tax dollar funding is, and should remain, the key tool for paying for our parks, but there is room to experiment with different, creative funding tools where they make sense. Kitchen’s paper provides a crucial base from which to have deeper conversations about how we can sustainably fund park development and operations in Canada.
If you stand at the corner of Bathurst and Front Street you can still see the old development proposal sign for a mixed-use development that never came to be. And if Councillor Mike Layton’s proposal is approved—and we at Park People think it should—this currently vacant, somewhat triangular 2.3 acre piece of city-owned land will actually become a new park instead.
A staff report going to City Council next week seeks approval to re-designate the land to Open Space, preserving its future as a park. This would remove the ability of the land to be developed into residential or commercial. Before the site became a park, an existing agreement will see a temporary open-air shipping container market set up on the site for two to three years.
The site has a somewhat complex history. It was originally supposed to be part of the Front Street extension, but when that plan was abandoned in 2008 it was declared surplus by the City. In 2011, Council voted to move the property to Build Toronto, which is the development arm of the City that seeks to create value through real estate development.
A year later Build proposed a mixed-use development with three towers on a podium and a small park—the development sign that is there today—which was not supported by City Planning for a number of reasons. Build has said that because of the environmental remediation required, a development that conforms with the planning policies for the site is not financially feasible. City staff note that this same issue makes other mixed-use developments on the site challenging.
And so: a park.
This site is located within the extremely high-growth South Niagara neighbourhood—which is underserved by parkland. In fact, if you stand there today you can watch a new development going up right across the street. The park would also plug into the existing and future public space network in the area, connecting with the extension of the West Toronto Railpath and acting as a green link into the future Rail Deck Park, which would be to the immediate southeast. Its street frontage on Bathurst makes it a highly visible public space and the rail corridor along its southern edge means the park will have a unique view of the Fort York neighbourhood.
While the site is contaminated, as it’s a former location of a lead smelter, cleaning it up (which is estimated to cost at least $4 million) is still much cheaper than purchasing an equivalent-sized piece of land in the area—if you could even find a 2-acre site. Land prices in downtown can range from $30 to $60 million an acre, meaning a 2-acre park could cost as much as $120 million—and that’s just to buy the land, never mind actually design and build the park.
In this super-charged real estate market, it doesn’t just make sense, but becomes a necessity to seize opportunities like already City-owned land to create new public space. It is financially prudent.
For these reasons, we support the staff recommendation and Mike Layton’s proposal to create a new park in this area from this piece of city-owned land. If you do too, please make sure to let your local councillor and the mayor know before April 26.