Green Line Implementation Plan already being put into action

With land in cities becoming scarce and expensive, we need to get creative about how we provide new parks for growing communities. By using existing land within an urban hydro corridor to create a linear park and trail, the Green Line in Toronto is an innovative way of creating new green space and pedestrian connections in neighbourhoods that need them. 

The Green Line started as a community initiative with an ideas competition in 2012 spearheaded by local resident Helena Grdadolnik of Workshop Architecture. Park People got involved in late 2013 to help build support for the idea at the City and lead events like community walks, photo exhibits, mural parties, pollinator gardens, and more.  Huge, heartfelt thanks to the many, many community members that contributed time, energy, and expertise over the last several years. 

All of this work helped push the project forward, harnessing community energy and political support to keep the dream of a connected linear park alive. We always believed that this project is important to the local communities through which it runs, but also in promoting a vision of what creative park thinking can accomplish. 

That work resulted in the City of Toronto hiring a team of consultants led by DTAH and Workshop Architecture in 2017 to produce a Green Line Implementation Plan–the final version of which was recently released and featured in CBC. Park People was a partner with the City on the plan, providing comments throughout the process.

An implementation plan was critical since the parks along the Green Line have only ever been planned and designed as single parks, not as a longer, cohesive public space. Creating a plan that laid out how to connect and improve the entire 5km together is key in building the Green Line over time. 

In fact, as we’ll outline below, two new parks are already scheduled to be designed and built as part of the plan, which is very exciting news!

The plan proposes…

What the Green Line could look like

The plan proposes the Green Line as a connected trail from Earlscourt Park in the west to just west of Spadina Road in the east. The trail would run through existing and new parks, across roadways using new signalized crossings, and through and around the existing parking lots east of Christie. In time, those parking lots could become new green spaces as parking needs change in the neighbourhood.

As an overall master plan, the plan’s goal was finding a way to stitch the entire 5km route together into something cohesive, safe, and beautiful. To do so, the plan includes design principles related to pathway design, materials, plantings, lighting, and furniture. 

While it does lay out some ideas for where specific amenities like dog parks, public art, and community gardens could be placed, the detailed park design and the placement of these features will happen through a separate public consultation process as those parks are being designed—just like other parks in Toronto. 

Green Line = parks + streets

When you have a 5km linear park that threads through neighbourhoods, including parking lots, and across roadways, you need to think about streets as much as about green space. The Green Line is about creating new and better green space to be sure, but it’s also, critically, about creating connections.

To do so, the plan proposes new pathways as well as six new signalized intersections so people won’t have to dart out through a gap in traffic to get from one park to another anymore–something that frequently happens today and creates unsafe conditions. The first of these traffic lights at Dovercourt and Geary is being installed this summer.

The plan also proposes a number of improvements to streets that run alongside the Green Line, including most significantly Geary and Bridgeman Avenues.

On Geary, for example, the plan proposes new traffic calming measures like narrowing the roadway, which also increases room for sidewalks, green space, and tree planting. This will help create a more inviting, walkable public realm for an area that is already a community hub with restaurants and services for this growing neighbourhood.

 

The Green Line is not your average park

The Green Line is often compared to New York’s High Line in the media, but in fact it’s nothing like it. While the High Line was built on a decommissioned elevated rail line, set apart from city streets, the Green Line must be built at ground level through an active electricity transmission corridor that crosses several roads. This presents opportunities to create a unique space, but also some very difficult challenges.

The land in the hydro corridor, including the current parks and parking lots, is actually owned by the Province of Ontario and operated by Hydro One. In order for the City to create new parks, it must license land from the Province and abide by Hydro One’s regulations related to safety and access in the hydro corridor–regulations that have become more stringent since the original parks were created in the corridor in the 1970s. 

For example, Hydro One’s technical requirements meant trees are only allowed to certain heights because of the high-tension wires overhead and amenities, like benches, need to be spaced out from the base of towers to provide access for maintenance vehicles. 

It also meant, unfortunately, that the pedestrian bridges over the roadways, dreamed up in the initial community-led ideas competition in 2012, were not allowed by Hydro One, despite the design team and City trying many different iterations of how they could work.

All of this is to outline both the challenge of constructing parks within active hydro corridors and the opportunity that the Green Line Implementation Plan provides in laying out a method for doing so, which could act as a lesson for other hydro corridor parks. 

The plan will take time to build, but new parks are coming soon

The Green Line was always going to be a long-term project, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t see big improvements to the Green Line within just a few short years. 

A few of the priority projects the plan targets to begin within three years include:

The City also just announced that the as the first step toward implementing the Green Line plan, the City’s Parks Forestry and Recreation division is moving forward with two of the park projects identified in the plan. 

PFR will engage in further public consultation, detailed design and tendering of two new parks: one on Geary Avenue which will expand the existing Geary Avenue Parkette and the other a new park in two sections flanking the hydro station on Macpherson Avenue near Davenport. Construction is anticipated to begin in late 2020 with completion in 2021-2022, pending approval of the capital budget.

Plans are great, but they are only as good as the budgets that support their implementation, so it’s great to see the City putting money into the plan to get new parks completed quickly.

2018 Toronto parks budget proposes little change

Another year, another dollar. It’s budget time in the City of Toronto again and this year—an election year, mind you—we’re seeing another budget that keeps our heads above water, but doesn’t invest in new or enhanced services for our parks.

The budget must still go through the political process including a final vote by City Council, so expect some changes, but here’s our key take-aways from what is proposed right now:

Our city and park systems keeps growing, but our operating budget? Not so much.

This year’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation operating budget shows a zero percent increase over last year’s budget. Last year’s budget was essentially flat as well. This despite the fact that during that time we’ve added new residents and new parks to Toronto.

While we have money to build and improve parks in Toronto (thanks to a levy on development that goes towards parks), where we fall flat year after year is mustering the willpower to invest in our parks operations.

The operating budget is what keeps the lights on, the flowers pretty, and the grass cut. It’s what ensures we have staff to actually manage and build the things we want, operate them after they’re built, and engage with community members in making sure they are active and vibrant places.

We can’t continue to propose new parks, including big and expensive ones (Rail Deck Park), and approve new master plans (Ravine Strategy) without making a commitment to meaningfully increase operating funding to pay for these things. Something’s gotta give.

New plans and projects require political willpower to fund their implementation

Make no mistake, last year was an exciting one for parks. Not only did we see new and redesigned parks—like Trillium Park, Grange Park, and Berczy Park—we saw the undertaking of new, much-needed citywide parks plans.

This includes approval of the Ravine Strategy, which will guide investment in what is arguably Toronto’s greatest natural asset—our ravine system—and plans like the Recreation and Facilities Master Plan (approved in 2017) and the Parkland Strategy (ongoing) that lay out citywide strategies for ensuring our parks keep pace with population growth and demographic change.

We also saw big, exciting projects like Rail Deck Park continue to move forward, with City Council approving re-designating the space above the rail corridor for park use. This was an essential step to preserve this space for a future park.

But we’ll say it again: these plans and projects require a real conversation and commitment to funding their implementation. Our last citywide Parks Plan offers a cautionary tale.

Five years after our five-year Parks Plan we still have a bunch left to do

City Council approved the five-year Parks Plan in 2013 with a host of recommendations for new services and investment. Five years later as that plan reaches its end, while the City has acted on a number of its recommendations, we still have several unfunded initiatives.

Previous operating budgets kept saying funding would be considered in the next year’s budget. And then the next year. And the year after that. It’s worth noting this is the same language found in this year’s budget for the Ravine Strategy, which says that funding will be considered in the 2019 budget.

Staff outline that it would take an investment of a total $8.6 million through 2018 – 2020 to fund the remaining elements of the Parks Plan, including money for community engagement, horticultural displays, community gardens, and enhanced maintenance.

This is not frivolous spending. It’s an investment in the quality of our parks and public spaces, which can positively impact park use and neighbourhood pride—not to mention help make our city look good to tourists and visitors.

Climate change and extreme weather are causing real financial impacts 

Last year was a particularly bad one for damage to our parks from extreme weather with heavy rainfalls causing floods. This was especially evident in our beloved Toronto Islands, which were closed for much of the summer and experienced a 50% drop in ferry traffic as a result. The cost resulting from storm damage is estimated to be about $8.5 million.

CBC reported that this repair work is not yet fully funded in this year’s budget. We need to repair and restore our park system no doubt, but we also need to think ahead about how we can better design our parks to mitigate the effects of climate change.

As we wrote in our Parks Solutions Brief on climate change and parks this summer, it’s time we invested in green infrastructure in our parks. These are elements like bioswales, rain gardens, and retention ponds that soak up, filter, and store rain water where it falls, rather than overwhelming underground pipe systems and causing floods.

We should be taking the opportunity to incorporate this type of green infrastructure into new parks and redesigned ones so that we can get ahead of future storms.

The State of Good Repair Backlog continues to grow

Speaking of repair work, the State of Good Repair backlog for Parks, Forestry, and Recreation is not getting any smaller. This is what the City calls the build-up of repair work that needs to be done to keep parks and recreation infrastructure like field houses and community centres in tip top shape. Staff note it will grow to $600 million by 2027 from the current $457 million.

It may not be the flashy spending that allows politicians to cut ribbons on new facilities or parks, but we need to up our game to ensure our existing facilities are kept in good repair. Keeping on top of minor repair work ensures we don’t have to spend much more later on when things really break down, a point city staff made in the recent Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan.

Make no mistake, there is much to celebrate in our park system in Toronto. The work that has happened in the last several years by the City, community partners, and non-profits has put a renewed focus on our parks and public spaces. We’ve created some great new public spaces, experimented with innovative partnerships like community-run cafes, created new permit categories to encourage arts programming in parks, and continue to think big and outside of the box with projects like The Bentway and Rail Deck Park.

But the challenges we outlined above deserve attention if we are to continue to build a strong, dynamic park system together.

You can check out the proposed operating and capital budgets for yourself here and here. We encourage you to contact your city councillor and let them know how important investing in our parks operations is to you. You can find a listing of City Councillors and their contact information here. City Council will vote on the budget the week of February 12.

 

 

Our city is growing—our parks budget must grow, too

This year was an exciting one for public spaces in Toronto. There was the announcement of the Under Gardiner (now The Bentway), Rail Deck Park, a renewed Grange Park, a “super park” in the Lower Don Valley, and strong support for The Green Line.

Toronto is booming in population and we are finally beginning to match that boom by seeding some much-needed investment in new and renewed parks in neighborhoods across the city. But we risk falling behind if we don’t ensure that our budget to maintain those parks keeps pace. Despite all of this growth, the proposed budget would actually cut maintenance funding in our parks this year—and during their busiest use times.

As an independent charity that builds strong communities by animating and improving parks in all corners of Toronto, Park People believes strong public funding is crucial for a great park system.

This year the proposed operating budget for Parks, Forestry, and Recreation includes a cut of 0.3% from last year. This may seem like a small number, but included within that reduction is maintenance, horticulture, and urban agriculture funds—totalling $636,000—that were approved in the 2016 budget. The maintenance funds specifically went towards enhanced weekend and evening maintenance in high-use times like summer.

Cutting these from the budget also means we are reversing the first investments the City made towards operating initiatives in the City’s Parks Plan, which was a five-year plan that was meant to take us to 2017. While improvements like new social gathering spaces have been funded from the Plan, City staff note: “funding for operating has been a challenge.” It’s more than a shame to reach the end of the Parks Plan’s lifespan by reversing some of its vital initiatives.

The price of maintaining parkland is rising, too. More people using parks, more activities, and more complex designs means steadily higher costs. In the last three years the cost of maintaining parks has risen about $600 per hectare. By 2019, it will have increased $1,000 per hectare since 2014. All of this makes a 2017 budget that proposes to reduce, or even flat line our investment in parks maintenance, concerning.

This year also saw positive interest from philanthropy in our parks. There was the $25 million gift to the City from Judy and Wil Matthews for The Bentway and a number of other gifts to projects like the Lower Don Valley “super park.” Since it was launched in early 2013, the Weston Family Parks Challenge, which Park People administers, has invested nearly $4.5 million in projects around Toronto—almost all outside the downtown.

But let’s be clear: while private donations towards public space can be an important and welcome component of creating a great park system—just like donations to hospitals or public libraries—it is no substitute for a strong base of public funding. Philanthropy should add, not replace. Philanthropy is also not likely to step up and fund such critical core services such as grass-cutting and gardening. Nor should it. If parks are our common grounds, then we must invest in them as such—together.

Since there are no service levels mandated by the Province, the parks operating budget often feels the squeeze come budget time. Cutting funding for maintenance and garden renewal is also not an immediately visible cut—no walking to your favourite park only to find it closed because of budget cuts—but the effect it has on our city is just as real.

Well-maintained, beautiful parks are not a frill, but a crucial component of the social and environmental infrastructure of our city. Research has shown that attractive, clean parks encourage more people to use them and instill a sense of neighbourhood pride, bringing both health and social benefits—benefits that are particularly important in our more underserved neighbourhoods and support the City’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

We are excited and invigorated by the renewed focus on parks and public spaces in Toronto, by the announcements from Mayor John Tory, and the support from City Councillors across the city. If we are to build a liveable, resilient, and socially connected city as we continue to grow in population and density, then we must invest in our parks—and not just by building new parks, but in the money and City staff to keep them as beautiful as the day the ribbon was cut.

 

We encourage you to contact your City Councillor and let them know that you support increased funding for maintenance, gardens, and urban agriculture in our parks.
 
Tell them not to reverse important Parks Plan initiatives in the 2017 budget. You can find your City Councillor’s contact information here
 
 
Please share this article and your support on Facebook and Twitter. You can include us (@park_people) and use the hashtags #TObudget and #parkTO. 
 

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

 

3 Reasons Pumpkin Parades are the Best Part of Halloween

Tuesday night, as I was strolling, with my daughter, through Sorauren Park’s Pumpkin Parade I heard numerous people echo what I was feeling. Over and over again I heard:

“Hands down, Toronto’s pumpkin parades are one of the best things in the city’s community calendar.”

There are many factors that make Toronto’s Pumpkin Parades the best part of Halloween. Here are a few:

It’s Simple Fun:

Pumpkin Parades defy all of the laws of event planning. They are informal, organic and take very little advance preparation. As I saw kids playing in the empty waste bins that were later to be filled with that parade jack-o-lanterns, I was reminded that most people don’t need much to be engaged and entertained. Sometimes we forget that. Pumpkin Parades are a great reminder that often, simple ideas are the best ones.

The City Is A Key Participant:

The City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation Department does so much to help make Pumpkin Parades happen across Toronto.

Having the City on-board makes these events so prolific and successful. It’s amazing what happens when the community and City work hand-in-hand. It’s incredible to see in action.

It’s For Everyone:

There aren’t many events that are for everyone–young, old and everyone in between. The event attracts local photographers, artists (who put an incredible amount of effort into carving pumpkins), families, etc. There’s really not a single demographic that is left out of the pumpkin parade celebrations.

A huge thank you to City staff, Park Friends groups, volunteers and citizens who make Pumpkin Parades the best made-in-Toronto tradition.

 

Green Line would serve neighbourhoods low in parkland

Intro: The Green Line is a vision to create a 5km linear park and trail to connect communities through the Dupont hydro corridor. Read more about the project here and sign up as a supporter.

Green Line would serve neighbourhoods low in parkland

In our last blog post, we took a look at some of the ways that the Green Line would connect in with the parks, trails, and bike lanes that surround it. This week, we wanted to explore how the Green Line would create new green space in several neighbourhoods that are low in parkland.

Currently, the City scores parkland by using Local Parkland Assessment Cells that divide up the city into areas based on barriers, such as rail lines, ravines, and high-speed roads. They then measure the level of parkland within those cells compared with the population of that area to see where it falls. Areas that are low in parkland (shown in red and peach) are prioritized for parkland acquisitions. Areas that are dark green and light green are areas that are already well served by parks.

While this method doesn’t provide a complete picture of parkland needs (it’s based solely on space provided, rather than whether those spaces actually serve community needs, for example), it does give us an indication of where existing park space might not be enough to satisfy the needs of residents.

What’s immediately clear is that neighbourhoods in the city’s core and midtown area are the ones that are in most need of more park space. This isn’t surprising considering how many people live in these neighbourhoods, with some of them containing many high-rise towers packing more people together to share limited park spaces.

The Green Line, shown in light blue on the map above, travels through several neighbourhoods that are low in parkland, falling within the two lowest categories of amount of parkland in the city.

One of the benefits of the Green Line is that it would take existing small parks within the hydro corridor and create one linear park and trail by connecting these together. This would ultimately create a “larger” park by linking all these spaces together, much like knocking down the walls in a house creates a larger room from multiple smaller ones.

The map above, which shows the west portion of the Green Line from Earlscourt Park to Christie Street, illustrates how this could be done by filling in some of the gaps that exist between current parks.

This would not only create those connections between communities and allow people to travel through a green corridor, but it would also add much needed parkland to neighbourhoods that need it by building from the parks we already have.

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