Finding and Funding Parks through Toronto’s new Parkland Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A strategy in four themes

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

Expand

Improve

Connect

Include

A new park provision measurement tool

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

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

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

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

Creative new methods for park building

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the Plan into Action

All of this, of course, will take money.

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

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

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

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

Big plans for a big park in Montreal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Large Canadian city parks

 

 

Supporting fitness in parks at any age

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

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

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

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

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

Make it social

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

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

One solution? Make fitness social.

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

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

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

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

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

Get ready for pickleball

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

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

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

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

Reduce barriers to learning

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

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

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

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

Keep it simple

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

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

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

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

 

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