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.





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



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.


What TOcore means for downtown parks and public spaces

Years of work on TOcore, a new downtown Toronto master plan, are coming to fruition, including a new parks and public realm plan that will guide development of parks and public space in the downtown for years to come.

The draft plan was released last week–and there’s a lot to dig into. Here we’ve distilled the plan into a few key areas we think are important to highlight, as well as some areas that we think could be improved.


A focus on knitting together existing parks and open spaces 

Many of the park ideas in TOcore follow from the guiding principles we laid out in our 2015 Making Connections report for planning park systems in dense areas. That report proposed focusing on connections and creating flexible networks that include different forms of open spaces (parks, streets, laneways, schoolyards, hydro corridors) to take advantage of all the available open space in dense areas.

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TOcore delivers on many of these principles through a few different initiatives. Most notably is the proposal of a downtown green space circle that builds on the existing system of parks, ravines, and trails around downtown (including the Green Line, which we were happy to see). The core circle will be strengthened and built over time, with the ultimate goal of creating a continuous, navigable path. This has a similar kind of flavour as the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis—a stunning 50 mile pathway weaving through many of the city’s lakes, green spaces, and neighbourhoods.

Another key network idea is the Stitch, which is actually a series of public space projects that work to overcome barriers like the rail corridor, Gardiner Expressway, and Lakeshore Boulevard to create better connections along and to the waterfront. The under-construction Bentway under the Gardiner Expressway’s west section and the proposed Rail Deck Park are likely the biggest of these projects. You often hear people say that Toronto is a city cut off from its waterfront and this idea aims to stitch that cut back together.

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A push for more neighbourhood-level parks planning

Again following from the guiding principles in our Making Connections report, TOcore proposes a series of park districts, which would be a “cohesive local network of streets, parks and other open spaces centred on one or more community parks that serve surrounding neighbourhoods.”

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Neighbourhood-level park planning is important. Currently, we plan parks at the individual park level, focusing on the amenities, programming, and design of a single park. Planning our parks with a more zoomed-out neighbourhood view will allow us to better plan, design, and program parks as a complementary system.

This is particular important in the downtown where over three-quarters of parks are relatively small. Maybe you can’t have a playground and soccer area and bake oven and outdoor gym all in the same park, but if we plan at the neighbourhood level we could include those amenities within a system of smaller parks within a short walk of each other. Neighbourhood-level park planning allows both designers and community members to make better decisions and avoid duplication.

For example, I went to a park design meeting a few years ago where residents at the meeting nearly chose the exact same play structure that was put into a nearby park a year earlier because there was no overview at the meeting of any of the other parks in the neighbourhood.

At this stage it’s unclear what a “park district” will actually mean on the ground in terms of planning and design changes, but it could be an important step forward for park planning in Toronto if done right.


More protection for sunlight in parks

A welcome proposal, but one that is likely to receive pushback from the development community, is to designate a series of no-new net shadow parks—basically parks where developments can cast no additional shadows. A map of the parks is below, but it includes parks like Ramsden Park, Queen’s Park, Grange Park, Allan Gardens, and Moss Park.

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Sunlight is a finite resource and once it’s gone, it’s likely gone for good. In a city as rapidly developing with tall towers as downtown Toronto, it’s critical that we ensure we are not casting our existing parks and public spaces into shadow. As anyone walking outside in September and April knows, direct sunlight on parks allows us to enjoy them in those months when the air has a chill to it. Direct sunlight is also needed for the trees and lawns everyone loves so much in our parks.


A stronger focus on partnerships and community participation

This one is core to what Park People does–promote the importance of community engagement in public spaces not just during the design phase, but long afterwards to help animate and steward our parks.

To this effect, TOcore includes some positive policies supporting new governance models for parks, Indigenous partnerships, and community stewardship. We’ve seen positive moves with a new conservancy set up to run The Bentway and a community committee for Grange Park. The proof, however, is always in the details and the implementation. We looking forward to working with the City and community members to bring these policies to life.

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A land-first policy for downtown park acquisition

This one might make your eyes glaze over a bit, but it’s important. The City is prioritizing acquiring land within new developments for parks as opposed to accepting cash from developers that the City would use to purchase parkland elsewhere. I’ve explained how Toronto develops and pays for new parks in more detail in other blog posts, but the gist is that each development is required to provide either land or cash for parks.

The City often takes cash rather than land because taking land would often result in a very small sliver of a park on high-rise tower sites. But the problem is that the City has a very difficult time finding land to buy for parks in the downtown—both because finding good undeveloped spots is difficult, but also because it’s extraordinarily expensive. Prioritizing land then makes sense.

However, the way park development is funded in Toronto is through a redistributive policy that sees 50% of the cash from a new development’s park levy spread across the city to fund park projects in areas of the city that don’t see as much development. Through this policy, downtown has actually contributed many millions of dollars toward park development in other neighbourhoods. A land-first policy in the downtown should also be accompanied by a review of how this may affect park funding in areas outside the downtown.

So, that’s the highlights. What about what we think could be improved?


Integrate green infrastructure within parks planning

If the past several months has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be aggressive and innovative when it comes to creating a city that is resilient to climate change. Extreme weather will bring more heavy, sudden rainstorms to Toronto that stress our infrastructure, causing flooding and damage to both property and our natural environment.

While green infrastructure is mentioned within TOCore, the plan does not include specific policies to incorporate green infrastructure into downtown parks. We think this is a missed opportunity.

Integrating green infrastructure within park design is one of the recommendations we made in our recent Parks Solutions Paper on green infrastructure called Resilient Parks, Resilient City. Other cities, like Copenhagen, are way ahead of us in incorporating green infrastructure into public spaces by designing parks and streets to flood and celebrate rainwater.

We can learn from Copenhagen, but we can also learn from our own successes. Corktown Common was designed as a flood protection berm and includes important green infrastructure elements to manage rain onsite and use it as a resource to actually water plants and trees in the park. We should be exploring opportunities to incorporate green infrastructure into any new park or park redesign that we undertake.


Reimagine streets as part of our public space system

Our largest public space resource in the city is not our parks, but our streets. The land within the public right-of-way makes up almost 25 percent of the land area of the entire city, whereas parks are 13 percent. This makes them an important resource for open space, especially in the downtown where every inch counts.


TOcore should include policies that promote better incorporating streets into park planning.

Perhaps this is by redesigning streets alongside parks to better incorporate them into the park. The City did that in the recently opened Berczy Park (above photo) where an adjacent street was designed so that it could easily become a plaza extension of this small downtown park when needed. Or perhaps it means looking at opportunities to turn streets into part of a park, like Vancouver did to expand an existing park at West 17th Avenue and Yukon Street.

There’s lots of potential here, but it requires creative thinking and cross-divisional partnerships between transportation and parks. Embedding this within policy in TOcore would be a good first step towards shaking up how we plan parks to include streets as well.


Bring this thinking outside the downtown

While we recognize the importance of a downtown-focused plan, many of the park-related ideas in TOcore can act as blueprints for how we can better plan and design park systems in other areas of the city. There is a great opportunity with the in-progress Parkland Strategy, which is a citywide park acquisition and connection plan. We hope that many of the ideas around flexibility, connections, and neighbourhood-based park planning are also being considered within the Parkland Strategy.

TOcore is a big, ambitious, and much-needed plan, but, as we mentioned already, the proof of a plan is in its implementation. Many of these ideas will cost money–sometimes a lot of money. They will require doing things in new ways and they will require partnering with non-profits, like Park People, and community members.

Launching TOcore is an accomplishment, no doubt, but putting it into action will be the true test.

Staff submitted the draft plan to the Planning and Growth Management Committee last week and it will now go to council for a vote the first week of October. You can view Park People’s letter to the committee here and also read the plan for yourself here. If you’re busy (who isn’t?) then you can peruse the staff presentation slides, which give a good overview of the plan.

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