Little house in the park: Vancouver’s fieldhouses bring all kinds of activities to their community

This contribution from Christopher Cheung 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.

 


 

If you strolled past Elm Park during “League,” you might have scratched your head. Are those people really fencing with pool noodles? Playing bocce with a can of Campbell’s soup? Attacking a couch with bean bags?

Everyone who lives in Kerrisdale on Vancouver’s west side knows Elm Park as a home for baseball, soccer and tennis. But where did these strange new sports come from?

Artist Germaine Koh is the games master who moved into the park to generate these new ways to play. The park’s humble fieldhouse, once home to a caretaker, became her studio.

In 2011, the city’s park board came up with a new way to use these old buildings to benefit the communities they’re in, inviting artists to pitch residencies in exchange for use of the space rent-free. Koh’s proposal: work with the public to create brand-new sports and games.

Koh, who had played competitive badminton, volleyball and roller derby, wanted to explore the similarities between art and sport. Her artsy friends would always say they’re not jocks, and her sporty friends would always say that they’re not creative. She disagreed about this divide.

“In sports, you practice certain techniques over and over again. In that way, you gain mastery, but you also gain an ability to improvise, strategize and negotiate,” says Koh. “All of those are totally abilities and skills central to the creative process.”

The park board approved her residency for 2012 to 2014. Elm Park was a “tough nut to crack,” says Koh, “because people were used to organized recreation.” But the wacky ways that balls, discs, ropes, planks and trees were used caught the curiosity of passersby, with turnouts of a few dozen on the most crowded days.

 

Credit photo: Fieldhouse Sonic Pick-Up Sticks, courtesy of Germaine Koh

 

The fieldhouses themselves are humble places. They’re single-storey, beige or grey and often attached to the park’s public washrooms. But for artists like Koh, they’re precious spaces in an expensive city.

“The interior décor was taupe coloured, not my choice,” says Koh with a laugh. “But I felt so privileged to be able to sit in a park and work.”

 

“Eyes and ears”

 

Vancouver’s fieldhouses have a long history, but Koh and others are moving in during a new life stage for the buildings.

The city started building fieldhouses in the 1920s. About 70 of the city’s 230 parks have one. They were the living quarters for the park caretakers, Hagrids and Groundskeeper Willies who tidied up and kept a round-the-clock watch. Living rent-free in the park was a special perk of the job, something no other major Canadian city offered. Caretakers settled in for long tenures, typically two to four decades.

David and Normande Waine were caretakers in the most prized fieldhouse residence of all – the one in the city’s massive Stanley Park, steps from the ocean. To get it took 14 years on a waiting list “as thick as the Bible.”

“We never looked back,” David Waine once told the National Post. “It’s a privilege to be here.”

But 2005 would bring the beginning of the end of what the Waines called “eyes and ears” in public parks. The city decided that it would no longer install new caretakers to live in fieldhouses when the previous ones retired. Services were being consolidated, and the city was considering new uses for these buildings — though it took some time to determine what that would be.

When caretakers moved out, many of the fieldhouses were left empty or used for an unimaginative purpose: storage for sports equipment. One experiment turned the Grandview Park fieldhouse on the city’s east side into a community policing centre, but locals were displeased with the increased surveillance, and the police eventually left.

In Vancouver, a park board of seven elected commissioners oversees and determines the policy direction of the city’s parks. In 2011, the commissioners directed staff to come up with an idea for the future of park fieldhouses.

 

 

Credit photo: Fieldhouse Bean Race, courtesy of Germaine Koh

 

Staff returned with a solution that also addressed a growing Vancouver problem. Fieldhouses were valuable real estate in public hands; meanwhile, creative people were struggling with the cost of studio space in the expensive city. Why not invite them in?

 

Creative caretakers

 

Artists like Koh were invited to pitch residencies to the park board. Those who were approved got to use the fieldhouses as studio spaces rent-free for three years, with an option to reapply (though, unlike the park caretakers, the artists did not actually live in the fieldhouses). The park board welcomed an initial cohort of eight residencies.

But there was a key condition. Artists were required to do 350 hours of public programming as part of their residency.

“We would not do a closed art studio, where you’re a jeweller just working on your jewelry practice,” says Marie Lopes, who coordinates arts, culture and engagement at the city. “You have to have some interest in working with the community.”

Composer Mark Haney seized the opportunity to do neighbourhood storytelling through music. He held a residency at Falaise Park, in the middle of the Renfrew Heights Veterans Housing Project, built to house soldiers who had returned from the Second World War. Haney and a partner researched the lives of 11 veterans who had a connection to the area, interviewing relatives and digging through archives. On Remembrance Day 2014, he debuted a piece inspired by the veterans called “11”, with musical cues that nodded to their lives. It was performed by eleven musicians on the hillside park, each playing a brass instrument chosen to fit a veteran’s personality.

The park board has since expanded the program to welcome a variety of disciplines: athletes, ecologists, chefs, cultural groups and more. It is currently in place in 23 parks, and now provides office space for non-profit groups, as well as studios.

One residency at Adanac Park teaches locals how to fight the “alien invasion” taking over public parks and private gardens: the fieldhouse is home to the Invasive Species Council of Metro Vancouver, battling everything from knotweed to the European fire ant.

Mr. Fire-Man at Maclean Park teaches locals how to harvest wood and make their own musical instruments. Night Hoops, which helps out at-risk youth, runs a free basketball program and connects young people with mentors on and off the court. The Iris Film Collective at Burrard View Park shares the love of celluloid; if you prefer a different visual medium, there’s the Cloudscape Comics Collective at Memorial Park.

With each round of residencies, the park board publishes which fieldhouses are available and a recommended focus for each. A fieldhouse in a park near a diverse ecosystem, for example, could be targeted for environmental stewardship. Applicants can indicate which park fieldhouse they prefer, but, ultimately, the park board makes the decision. For example, the Strathcona Park fieldhouse hosts a residency by the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty. It’s a significant match, as the park is near where many Indigenous residents live and is a rare green space in that part of the inner city.

The park board provides each residency with a staff liaison to connect them with people and programs at the nearby community centre. That way, residencies get a sense of who locals are and what they might be interested in.

Some fieldhouses were ready to go, some needed renovations, but for the most part, “they just needed a coat of paint,” says Lopes. “With a little spit and polish, we were able to turn them into active spaces again.”

 

A league of its own

 

Not every artist is interested in spending 350 hours with the public, even if rent is covered. But it was perfect for Koh because League, as she named her residency, was not an art project she could have done on her own. She needed players to try out, refine, even invent the games with her and was able to emerge from the residency with a batch of tested and crowdsourced games.

Koh was pleased to see people of different athletic abilities get in on the action, whether as players or as “Bossypants” who direct play.

“It’s an interesting thing: some games are more cerebral, others are more physical,” she says.

In “Scrumble,” players wear t-shirts with a letter on the front and back and attempt to spell words by rearranging themselves. In “Petri,” players score by throwing balls into different-sized “Petri dishes” – circles drawn on the field. The balls each have different bacterial qualities and can multiply points, so the exponential growth might suddenly rocket someone into first place. (Perhaps a good post-COVID game? Koh now wonders.)

 

Credit photo: Fieldhouse Petri, courtesy of Germaine Koh

 

Players also improvised with the park itself, not just the field. The fieldhouse had a yard, and teams competed to build the best structure for growing beans. It was a summer-long race to see whose beans would grow the tallest, a game of patience and engineering. Koh describes it as a “slow race to new heights.”

An old couch lent to the fieldhouse wouldn’t fit through the door, and so it was placed outside for games of “Couchie,” which was introduced to the League crowd by two friends who had invented it during their university days as roommates. Players throw beanbags to try and lodge them into the couch’s cracks for points.

Some games took players outside of the park’s boundaries. The Arbutus Corridor was nearby, a disused Canadian Pacific rail track that ran north from the Fraser River, through the park’s neighbourhood of Kerrisdale, and up to False Creek. It would eventually be purchased by the city in 2016 and converted into the 8.5-kilometre Arbutus Greenway for recreational use.

Even back when it was a disused track, Koh saw its potential. Similar to fieldhouses, the track was an underused urban space waiting for reinvention. She encouraged players to walk the length of the track and turn the experience into some kind of game. One player found a bunch of lost pages from a book and read them during the walk. Koh herself scooped a glass of water from the river and carried it all the way to the creek, where she deposited it.

Koh muses a lot about the theoretical question of what play is, but her simple hope for League’s participants was that they would learn to adopt a playful attitude in their lives.

“One of the intentions was to expand the notion of where play begins and where the play ends, and stop thinking that play is just a thing for kids or something that just happens on a sports field,” she says. “Play is a way of developing useful problem-solving skills, an attitude of everyday creativity.”

 

A new lease on the land

 

Before Fresh Roots moved into its fieldhouse, the urban farming non-profit was already getting creative with underused urban land. The organization was founded in 2009, and partners with schools to turn their yards into edible gardens and to educate young people on how to grow fresh food.

When the opportunity came up for a fieldhouse, Fresh Roots applied and settled into the one at Norquay Park. It has just been approved for a second term.

Norquay Park is right on the city’s busy thoroughfare of Kingsway, and the fieldhouse is beside the playground and spray park. It’s a high-traffic spot in a high-traffic park, and Fresh Roots has grown a sharing garden that passersby can’t miss, tended by staff and volunteers.

 

Photo credit: Fieldhouse Sharing Garden, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

“It takes a lot of labour, and the weeds are taking over!” sighs Caroline Manuel, the communications and engagement manager, who works out of the fieldhouse office. The pandemic’s dip in volunteers has made maintaining the sharing garden a challenge. Still, the crop is plentiful this year. There are green beans, beet greens, rhubarb, raspberry canes, red-flowering currant, sage, thyme and more — and the public is welcome to take from any of them.

Planted in this part of the east side, Fresh Roots partners with other groups nearby, such as summer camps and seniors groups

“We tested the waters and there’s lots and lots of interest to have hands in the dirt, direct access to a space to tend to,” says Manuel.

Fresh Roots also runs “Art in the Park” events. The art that they did with summer camps — crafts like seed bombs — proved to be so popular that they offered them to the public.

The fieldhouse has helped give the non-profit a physical presence in the community with which to make wider connections. That contact is especially helpful because 40 percent of the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood exclusively speaks a language other than English at home.

“Not everyone’s on social media,” says Manuel. “We’re putting signs in as many languages as we can, chatting with people chatting with people as they come by, basically just trying to be here so people do start to feel comfortable to ask questions.”

 

Credit photo: Fieldhouse Norquay Park, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

Lopes is pleased the park board can help by situating artists and cultural groups in the middle of the communities they serve.

“In a city where rents are what they are, [the program] relieves that pressure for an artist studio or a non-profit office,” she says.

 

Your friendly neighbourhood fieldhouse

 

Marie Lopes can’t stress enough that it’s the “open door” that’s key to the program’s success.

By bringing art and engagement into everyday parks, the fieldhouse program removes some of the barriers that stand in the way of accessing art and other activities through museums or formal programs. And that engagement can be as casual or as collaborative as locals like. They might stop by a nearby park to enjoy music put on by the residency for half an hour. Or they might work closely with the fieldhouse residency for the full three years as a collaborator.

She says the park board occasionally gets calls from other cities curious about the fieldhouses, as they’ve become a “flagship” program.

Nearby, North Vancouver runs residencies out of the Blue Cabin, a remodelled 1927 float home. Richmond runs residencies out of the heritage Branscombe House, one of the first settler homes in what was the village of Steveston.

Lopes has this advice for cities looking to start similar programs, whether it’s out of fieldhouses or other unused buildings.

“Look at your assets really carefully,” she says. “Stop thinking about your unused spaces as problematic. They’re opportunities. Look for collaborators where everybody wins. The community benefit is just boundless.”

 

 

 

 

About Christopher Cheung

Christopher Cheung is a Vancouver journalist. He is interested in the power and politics behind urban change, and how Vancouver’s many diasporas strive to make a home in a city with colonial legacies. He is a staff reporter at The Tyee.

 


 

Thank you to our generous supporters:

 


 

This contribution from Christopher Cheung 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.

 

Transforming a neglected park to bring a community together

This contribution from Kelly Boutsalis 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.

 


 

Tasmeen Syed was five years old, walking down Mabelle Avenue with her cousins when she came across people painting in the park that sits between seven large residential towers in central Etobicoke.

Previously just a neglected space with broken fences, an out-of-order water fountain and eroded slopes that people cut across to get to the Islington subway station, Mabelle Park is now a vibrant park whose lush art gardens, log seating, ice hut, wooden shed and colourful camper trailer bring together the residents within the surrounding Toronto Community Housing buildings, many of them newcomers to Canada, low-income families, and seniors.

“I wanted to paint on rocks and spray paint canvases and wear a funny giant shirt that makes me look like a tiny mad scientist covered in paint, and I’m doing all these fun things and they said, ‘come back tomorrow, we’re gonna do something even crazier’,” recalls Syed of that first encounter with MABELLEArts, an initiative that aims to bring together the Mabelle Avenue community through the creative arts.

She spent that entire summer with the MABELLEarts team and has spent every year since with them. She’s currently wrapping up a role with them as a community mobilizer before she heads off to university.

Her experience seems indicative of the way many of the residents of Mabelle Avenue, the 4,000 people who live in the towers belonging to Toronto Community Housing, have come to encounter MABELLEArts: an initial sense of curiosity that leads to committing many days and nights enjoying activities with the dedicated MABELLEarts team.

Credit: MABELLEarts, Iftar Nights. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.

Creating a sense of place

 

Nicolette Felix, the director of community mobilization at MABELLEarts, says that the area is an underserved pocket that nobody really knew existed. It’s a drop of density in the largely low-rise suburban west end of Toronto, and although tucked between fairly busy streets it only has walkable access to a small number of amenities, including a dollar store, a middle school, and a smattering of restaurants.

“It’s surprisingly small considering how much happens,” says MABELLEarts Artistic Director Leah Houston.

“It’s quite hard to find, if you’re driving by you may not even see it,” adds Felix. But, she adds, MABELLEarts “really put Mabelle on the map.”

That attention, in turn, generated funding opportunities, which help to sustain the programming. The additional funding “allows us to serve more people in our community, and we’ve been able to create employment, because, as our programs expand, we need more hands-on-deck,” says Felix. “There are no better people to hire than folks who live on the block, who understand the needs.”

The park itself is owned by Toronto Community Housing, and its support enabled the opportunity to work directly with the residents of Mabelle Avenue. “We’ve been able to co-imagine and make real the kind of park we want to have in a way that could be more challenging if it was a City of Toronto park,” says Houston.

Houston founded the organization in 2007, born out of working with Jumblies Theatre, which brings theatre into urban neighbourhoods. Houston brought the spirit of Jumblies to Mabelle Avenue, with a focus on bringing art into places where it normally doesn’t exist and bringing people together in public spaces.

 

Credit: MABELLEarts, Iftar Nigths. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.

 

Children and their families who are involved with the Arab Community Center of Toronto (ACCT), a non-profit that helps in the settlement of newcomers to Canada, are among those who have benefited greatly from participating in MABELLEarts events.

“When it comes to newcomer families that we serve – and ours is not an area that is paid attention to for many reasons – where they come from, art is a luxury type of thing,” says Dima Amad, the executive director of ACCT. “Children, youth and families don’t get to really participate in art-based activities that will contribute to their mental health and well-being, that will bring them together in a space where they are learning new things, but also to know other people.”

Credit: Tamara Romanchuk. The photo was taken prior to March 2020. 

Despite the pandemic pause on many of the activities in the MABELLEarts calendar, you’ll still find their stamp everywhere on the grounds, with colourful flags, engraved art, and gardens and planters filled with brightly coloured flowers and native species. Comfortable spots with benches and hand-carved wooden stools invite passers-by to sit. A signature fire pit with a MABELLEarts cover on it is dormant, waiting for the time when it can be fired up for cooking once again.

Setting up a presence in that space was integral to building trust among MABELLEarts’ community.

“[Trust] comes from being in the same place for so long and publicly visible because we’re out in a park,” says Houston. “Even people who don’t participate know us, and they see a kind of tangible outcome of our presence.”

A number of temporary outbuildings include a trailer that serves as a mobile café, a woodshed, and a former ice fishing hut, all of which have been “Mabelle-ized,” meaning artfully decorated with brightly coloured paints. The organization plans to open a permanent space in Mabelle Park through the Mabelle Arts Project (MAP), a community centre that will be a clubhouse for MABELLEarts programming and serve food via its community kitchen.

“My interest as an artist was really in land-based work, public space, working outdoors, fusing food and gardening and outdoor activity with art,” says Houston. “More of ceremony, ritual, and events rather than a classic theatre piece with a script and actors.”

That philosophy has resulted in years of activating a space that would have otherwise been unused and encouraging the community of Mabelle Avenue residents to come together through performances, workshops, events, and activities like smashing watermelons to mark the end of the school year. For that event, the youngest or newest child in the community smashes the first watermelon on the ground, while a marauding chorus of trolls yells and shakes their fists in the direction of the local school.

 

Credit: Mobile MABELLE. The photo was taken prior to March 2020. 

 

The focus on every age being engaged is a core part of what MABELLEarts does, including a range of youth and elder events. “Working intergenerationally was really important because it was an opportunity for whole families to do something together, which is often missing in our society,” says Houston. “You sign up for a program for your son or your grandma,” she adds, pointing out that not many full-family activities exist in the city.

 

Adjusting to the pandemic

 

Just as many other organizations had to rethink how they could operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, MABELLEarts had to pivot as well, temporarily putting aside much of its in-person arts programming, which required gathering in large groups.

“Being there every day was something powerful about us as an organization,” says Houston. “We’re not there every day anymore, but in some ways, we’re even more connected to people with wellness calls, and that initiative continues to this day.”

The pandemic also brought out the launch of the MABELLEpantry, after the discovery that Mabelle Avenue was in a food desert. The program is dedicated to getting food to those who need it. It takes place every Wednesday in the park, which is set up to look and feel like a farmer’s market, with bales of hay stacked near tables full of fresh produce.

 

Credit: MABELLEarts, the MABELLEpantry

 

Houston began driving to the grocery store and buying food for 10 households, “hoping that people didn’t think I was a hoarder.” Now the pantry assists 550 households, with volunteers bringing food to building lobbies for those who can’t travel to the park.

There are no plans to close up the pantry once the pandemic is over. “No matter what phase we were in, or what reopening, we realized that this was something that needed to continue,” says Felix.

A core mission of MABELLEarts is infusing all activities with art, theatre and design, and Houston admits that finding a way to incorporate that into food security was hard. They decided to have two therapeutic clowns play with people in line at the pantry, while at the same time ensuring everyone stayed safe and six feet apart.

“On the one hand, it encourages and actually enforces people to social distance, but it’s also like bringing a kind of black humour into what is a very serious situation,” says Houston. “I’ve loved watching them play with people in the pantry, and defuse anger and conflict with their silliness.”

 

Credit: the MABELLEpantry by Jake Tobin Garrett.

 

Houston participates as well, as the emcee, in an eye-catching outfit. “I try to be really funny, silly, and warm with people,” she says. “The premise is that we’re playing with the pantry as if it’s a party or rock and roll. But what it is, is a food bank.”

“Most people in the food bank business care a lot about human dignity and privacy, and they want people to leave feeling good, but not a lot of food banks are concerned with humour and beauty. And we really are,” she adds.

Focusing on food security during the pandemic has also brought in more participants than usual, in particularly isolated seniors.

“People who might not have necessarily been comfortable coming out to sit and listen to some music if they didn’t know people, or just that it was too much work with their walker, those people are all coming down now,” says Claudine Crangle, MABELLEarts fundraising lead. “There’s a broader group of people who, I’m positive, will be even more involved in the arts and culture pieces as they’re starting to really ramp back up.”

 

Making connections

 

“What people tell us over and over again is, you are my family. I’m here from another place, I don’t know a lot of people and I see you as my family,” says Houston, recalling a common refrain she hears at the pantry. “Between us as a staff, I would say we know everyone unless someone is new …. We can greet them almost all by name between us.”

For senior Bernadette Shulman, participating in MABELLEarts has eased her loneliness and introduced her to new things, like drawing, sewing, beadwork, and even some dances.

“It makes life more enjoyable,” she says. “When I walk down Mabelle Avenue, people are calling my name and sometimes I don’t even know them. But I smile because they have to know me from MABELLEarts because it’s only MABELLEarts in this community where everyone actually knows each other.”

 

Looking to the future

 

The future of Mabelle Park is all about doubling down and creating permanent infrastructure that will enable the organization to invest even more time with the residents.

“We’ve been in the neighbourhood for so long, and because our work was so deeply collaborative, we built a profound amount of trust and eagerness to do things,” says Houston. “Imagine 100 households who are just really keen to do stuff with us, and we realized that that was a really unusual opportunity, so we started to think about what we might be able to do with that level of trust and willingness to collaborate.”

 

Credit: MABELLEarts, the MABELLEpantry

 

That brought them to create MAP, the multi-year strategy to really solidify MABELLEarts’ position in the community with a permanent clubhouse, a more official role as an intermediary between TCH and the tenants, and a plan to work together for more community improvements.

MAP is moving forward, and Houston says they’re busy working on the final design for the permanent community centre and securing funding.

Felix says that having a permanent space dedicated to MABELLEarts will allow for the expansion of arts programming, provide a community kitchen, and enable the seeding of micro-businesses that would be run by community members.

The social enterprise projects are in the planning phase, and Felix says there are many untapped potential business ideas waiting for an opportunity.

“There are a lot of folks who live on Mabelle that have prior experience in the food industry and we’re seeing people coming into the pantry and telling us about things that they’ve done in the past, and all their hidden talents, and we’re hoping that we can harness that and develop some programming that trains people how to run their own business and then cycle it through the MABELLEpantry and sell back to the community while keeping many of our other initiatives going,” she says.

For the moment, the team of youth summer staff is working on beautifying the park, with a lot of gardening and planting, for the community that’s slowly emerging from their towers. The MABELLEarts team is putting down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.

 

The people behind this community arts organization are passionate about the work they do, and it’s that commitment that truly unifies the Mabelle Avenue residents in unexpected ways, from smashing watermelons together to intercultural Iftar nights, with food, ceremony and arts that activate the park during the month-long Ramadan observance. It’s a bright, joyful spot in a pocket of Etobicoke that could have remained dark and unused.

“I’ve never even heard of anything else like this,” says Syed. “It surprises me that other people don’t have a weird organization in their park.”

 

 

 

About Kelly Boutsalis

Kelly Boutsalis is a writer and journalist, based in Toronto. She is Mohawk, and from the Six Nations reserve. Her words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Spacing, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus.

 


 

Thank you to our generous supporters:

 


 

This contribution from Kelly Boutsalis 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.

 

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.

 

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 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.

 

Celebrating ten years with the ten park projects transforming communities by design

To mark Park People’s tenth Anniversary, we’re celebrating city park projects that have transformed their communities by design.

Throughout 2021, ten diverse urbanist writers will explore park projects that signify what’s on the horizon for city parks in the decade to come.

The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett. 

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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