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:
- By 2041, the city’s population is set to expand by half a million to 3.4 million residents.
- Residential buildings greater than five storeys make up 95% of Toronto’s new housing today, meaning most people will have little access to private green space.
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.
- Partner with schools to improve upon and find new opportunities to create shared park space opportunities for surrounding communities and students.
- Focus acquisition of parks within areas in need, including high growth and low income communities.
- Prioritize new master plans for large parks that are in areas of high growth and have intense use.
- Ensure communities have access to parks within their neighbourhood that provide a range of experiences, such as sport/play, passive/ecological, and community/civic.
- Improve connectivity within the city’s cycling network to connect parks.
- Integrate the design of streets adjacent to parks to enhance connectivity and safety (more on this below).
- Contribute to the role of parks as wildlife corridors.
- Integrate Indigenous place-making into design, art, and programming to celebrate Indigenous histories and cultures.
- Ensure diverse social and cultural needs are included in park design by involving local communities and equity seeking groups.
- Partner with local organizations and residents to support park programming.
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.