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, along with my wife Eti, who remains a member. 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.


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 Garett. 

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.

 


 

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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