Something New from Something Old: A Short Film about Finding Public Spaces in Cities

Ian Garrick Mason’s short film, Something New from Something Old, shines a light on how making use of existing public spaces allows cities to “gracefully evolve in place” rather than “spreading outwards toward infinity.” The film curates a conversation between New York and Toronto and captures the ideas inherent in our Making Connections report as well as the new Public Space Incubator we have just launched with Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation.

The projects featured in the short film are on a much larger scale than those that will emerge from the Public Space Incubator, but regardless of scale, the spirit behind these projects is aligned with the projects that will emerge from this exciting initiative. As Jennifer Keesmaat says in the film:

“We need to start finding spaces that were at one time something else and transform them by providing an amenity a neighbourhood needs”

Ian Garrick Mason’s reflections on the short film follow below.

Something New from Something Old, a film by Ian Garrick Mason from Ian Garrick Mason on Vimeo.
The idea for Something New from Something Old came to me early last year when walking the length of the High Line in New York City for the second time. The park — a phenomenally successful conversion of an abandoned elevated railway line running through the heart of Manhattan’s west side — seemed both beautifully designed and, with its linear narrowness and its crowds of visitors flowing north to south and south to north at the same time, not quite a ‘park’ at all. It raised interesting questions about what cities are building, exactly, when they cannily turn former industrial land or derelict spaces under highways into thriving, thoughtfully-designed… and here again the word feels odd… parks. (“Public spaces” is the urban designer’s term of art, but this feels too neutral. The things are meant to be fun.)

So I decided to ask experts, designers, and planners involved in some of the highest profile conversion projects in Toronto and New York City about the rationale behind these conversions, the challenges involved in designing under such novel constraints, and the difficult issues — like funding, accessibility, benefit sharing — that come with them. Their answers were both fascinating and encouraging, pointing to a world in which the development of cities will have more to do with gracefully evolving in place than with spreading outwards to infinity. I’m thrilled to be launching Something New from Something Old with Park People, not only because Executive Director Dave Harvey offers such insightful testimony in the film, but also because the organization plays such an important role in helping the public and policymakers understand the importance of parks to a healthy urban society, and in helping define how our parks should look and function in the future.

 

Creating a greener 21st century city

We often wax poetic about urban parks as areas of nature in our cities, but it’s interesting to note that some urban parks are not actually the best representation of the natural landscapes of their city, sometimes burying—literally in the case of urban streams—the features and particularities of the landscape upon which they’re built.

I don’t mean these parks are made of plastic trees and AstroTurf, but the central feature of many parks is lawns of mowed grass, hardly a naturally occurring landscape in many of our environments, and gardens planted with non-native (but pretty flowers) that require a lot of water and care.

Is there a better way for our parks to contribute to more sustainable, resilient cities, especially as stresses on our natural environment increase through growing density, population, and the unpredictable threats of climate change?

Green City, a paper written by University of Calgary landscape architecture professor Bev Sandalack for Park People’s Heart of the City Conference, is a great launching pad for this discussion. Part history of park development, part manifesto, Sandalack proposes a new way of planning and designing our park systems as deep ecological infrastructure.

Park Systems as Ecological Infrastructure

Creating this higher focus means we need to re-prioritize investments, placing parks and public spaces, as the landscape of our cities, at the very base upon which everything else must be built and organized. We need to reintegrate parks into our natural systems, Bev writes, planning and designing them not as lawns plunked down in the urban fabric, but as part of an interconnected natural system.

Doing so can connect us in a more visible way to our own city’s particular natural landscape, vegetation, climate, and topography. But it also better positions our cities for a future that will be determined by our ability to adapt to climate change by reinforcing and enhancing natural systems that perform functions such as stormwater management, habitat creation, heat reduction, air purification, and more.

This doesn’t mean of course that we should seed every lawn in our parks with wildflowers and native grasses—we need lawns for lounging, social events, and sports after all—but it does mean prioritizing a more intentional, integrated approach to park (and city) planning that takes an ecological systems view and works across our cities departmental silos.

Putting A New Approach into Practice

Bev points to Toronto’s new Ravine Strategy—the first ever for the city—which lays out a framework for how the city’s vast network of ravines can be better protected, enhanced, and enjoyed in the face of all the challenges that come with being sensitive natural environments squeezed from the big city around it. The Ravine Strategy takes a holistic rather than siloed approach to revitalizing ravines involving input from staff from city planning, parks, recreation, economic development, and water.

Similarly, but on a smaller scale, Toronto’s Green Streets pilot program, has transformed several under-used portions of roadway into small green spaces. These spaces offer places for community members to gather, but also contain stormwater management infrastructure. This layering of benefits—safer roads, community green space, stormwater infrastructure—is the key to a smarter, climate resilient city. Plus, it unlocks potential new funding for green spaces through funding from municipal water departments which collect water and sometimes stormwater fees. Zooming out, you could see how this program could be a way to celebrate and make visible the city’s buried streams or targeted for areas that are at risk for flooding.

Understanding and prioritizing investments in parks and park systems as infrastructure is critical, especially in an era of increasing extreme climate events including droughts, flash floods, ice storms, and more. If past eras of park development were based on creating islands of nature in the city or places for people to recreate, this new era must be predicated on integrating natural systems at the foundation of our city building.

Read the Green City report to learn more about how park systems thinking can buffer the impact of climate change on cities.

5 Ways to Create a more Skateable City

Skateboarding is often something we design out of our cities. We install metal bumps on concrete ledges and extra railings and barriers where they otherwise wouldn’t be needed. We put up signs with big red slashes through them. The message is clear: this space isn’t for you.

But what if we designed our city to be more skateable, not less?

With the City of Toronto’s new Skateboard Strategy, the City is hoping to do just that. The plan was created in close collaboration with skateboarders around the city, including the Toronto Skateboarding Committee—a great group of people advocating for more and better skateboarding infrastructure in the city.

The goal of the strategy is to create more and better skateparks in the city and also better programs to reach those that want to learn. There are currently 14 skateboard parks in Toronto (12 permanent, 2 seasonal), which you can find in every corner of the city. The findings in the strategy will be incorporated into the City’s facilities master plan—a long-term plan for the city’s parks and recreation facilities that’s being worked on right now.

Here’s a few of the highlights from the Skateboard Strategy:

Mobile skateparks

 This idea stems from a pilot the City ran this past summer where a van stuffed with skatepark supplies like obstacles, ramps, and skateboards drove to areas of the city that were underserved by skateparks in order to build a quick, temporary space. It would be great to see this program expanded. But I also love the idea of just a “mobile games van” in general, which delivers a recreation staff member and soccer balls, toys, etc., to parks that don’t easy access to these otherwise. So many parks, particularly outside the downtown, are simply grass and maybe a bench. This would really help liven them up and provide play opportunities.

Skate dots

 This idea recognizes that sometimes you don’t need to build a big, expensive skatepark, but instead can create small skateable locations in existing parks—what the city is called skate dots. These could be a single railing or ramp built into a park or pathway that allows people to practice. “They provide an introductory skateboarding experience for local users,” the Strategy says. “And can function as social gathering spaces.”

Skateable art

 This is an idea I really love and kind of follows from the “skate dots” idea—creating public art pieces that are actually designed for people to skateboard on. It reminds me a little bit of the opposite of what the wave decks down along Queen’s Quay have become. The wave decks would be great for skateboarding if the City hadn’t put up weird, awkward railings so they couldn’t be used.

 Permits

 Permits, the perennial headache. Turns out you actually can’t permit skateparks currently and so this limits the ability to host events and competitions since only the City can put an event on at a skatepark. Any permitting process would, of course, have to balance the needs of all users and ensure that skateparks weren’t being taken over for events too often. But how great would it be for groups to be able to host local competitions and events in their skatepark?

 A skatepark at Nathan Phillips Square?

This wasn’t in the strategy, but at committee where the strategy was being discussed, Councillors voted to have staff look at creating a skatepark on the currently empty space on the west corner of Nathan Phillips Square. I love the idea of a visible skatepark right in the heart of downtown.

 

Jake Tobin Garrett, is Manager of Policy and Research at Park People.

 

What’s Happening in City Parks Across Canada?

A strategy to make ravines more accessible while preserving crucial biodiversity.

A new road mural, painted by kids, to add even more vibrancy to a great neighbourhood.

A visionary new park built on top of rail infrastructure.

Exciting things are happening in Toronto. But these sentences actually describe projects in other cities across Canada. From Edmonton to Halifax to St. Thomas, people in Canadian cities are bringing their parks and public spaces to life.

And until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about it.

I was born and raised in Vancouver, but over the past eight years I have morphed into a dyed-in-the-wool Torontonian. In my career so far, I have tried to find ways to make our city better, more inclusive, and more livable in an era of fiscal restraint and sometimes-limited vision.  It’s the best job there is – I love this city and am at my happiest when I am experiencing Toronto changing and growing before my eyes.

to-skyline

Toronto is an amazing city, but we are always looking for ways to make it better. From Swedish Vision Zero-inspired plans for pedestrian safety to a street fighter’s revolution in New York City, the United States and Europe are generally our go-to places for new ideas. When I scroll through my Facebook feed, the latest post from the Young Urbanists League often sparks a deep sigh along with the question – how could we ever bring that great idea from the US/Europe/Asia to Toronto?

Those magic words

Former Vancouver Chief Planner Brent Toderian says that the seven words you should never say when you hear one of those great ideas are “that would never work in my city.”

I couldn’t agree more. We always surprise ourselves when we think big. Toronto’s system of over 1600 parks, from Guild Park to Earl Bales, is a testament to this fundamental truth.

But to flip that sentiment, I would add six words that you should always say before embarking on a new city building project – Let’s see what’s happening across Canada. 

Building a Canadian urban parks movement

outdoor stairway and funicular

The new Mechanized River Valley Access project in Edmonton, Alberta. Rendering: Dialog Design.

At Park People, we have started saying those six words about urban parks, and the results so far are pretty exciting.

Since joining Park People as National Network Manager in July, I have been talking to people working in city parks across the country, including community groups, municipal parks staff, and park advocates. I have been consistently blown away by the passion of Canadian park people and the visions they have for their local parks. I’ve also had to stop myself from jumping on a plane a few times – I really want to ride this new funicular, explore Wascana Marsh and canoe down the Shubie Canal!

 

What’s next

Even though I could happily keep exploring the Canadian city parks landscape forever, finding great projects and meeting the Canadians who are making them happen is only our first step. Park People wants to go further. We want to find ways to support those projects and groups and connect them to each other in a network of Canadian park people that spans the country.

marsh with skyline

Wascana Marsh, Regina, Saskatchewan

We’re not quite sure what this network will look like yet. We know that our main goal will continue to be supporting the people who bring their parks to life, whether they are in Toronto or Kelowna or Laval. We also know that next March, we will be bringing park people from across Canada together in Calgary to talk about the future of our urban parks and what roles we can all play in making them bigger and better.

We will be writing stories and hosting events that showcase Canadian urban park projects and people, and, because most of us don’t have the time and money to travel all over this enormous country, exploring ways for us to connect and share ideas online.

As our Founder and Executive Director Dave Harvey has said, the opportunities are limitless. We can’t do everything, so that’s why I would love to hear from you:

What are the issues you care about most when it comes to urban parks? Who should we talk to or partner with? And how can we help you get engaged in your local park? Send me an emailtweet, or reply in the comments below.

One of our friends at the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation described Park People as ‘the facilitators of a crucial Toronto conversation about city parks.’ Let’s start the Canadian conversation.

 

 

Stay in the loop about Park People opportunities, programs & events

Subscribe to our newsletter!