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.
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
Vancouver’s Stanley Park, 405 hectares
Toronto’s High Park, 161 hectares
Montreal’s Mount Royal, 280 hectares
Calgary’s Nose Hill Park, 1,129 hectares
Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park, 450 hectares
Park Summit 2018: A Serious Look at Play
Ralph Waldo Emerson got it right when he said: “It’s a happy talent to know how to play.” This year’s Park Summit presenters have this talent nailed down. Each has a unique ability to cultivate playfulness among targeted audiences to reach particular goals.
Yes, it can feel odd to speak so seriously about play, but creating intentional outcomes using play requires serious planning and consideration. As speakers from both Montreal and Toronto demonstrated, it’s critical to determine what you want to achieve through play to deploy it most effectively. The presentations our Park Summit speakers shared offer many lessons for those of us trying to figure out how to use play to create impact-both among park and public space users and the key stakeholders who make decisions about how space does, and does not, get used.
The act of seduction
Marie-Hélène Roch, Founding Member of Ruelle No 13 project, a white laneway in Montreal’s Villeray neighbourhood, spoke about creating a space that entices people to play during cold winter months. She said:
“Together we’re trying to create a cocoon that’s conducive to gathering.”
Sometimes the snowy laneway is a cocoon formed of active play like hockey or fort-building, and other times it’s a cocoon of warm, delicious food that seduces people to leave their living rooms and come outside to break bread.
Marie-Hélène highlighted the seductive powers of food in particular when discussing Ruelle No 13 project’s participation in Restaurant Day, a worldwide festival of people organizing their own pop up food events in shared spaces. Bringing Restaurant Day to the snowy laneway helped Ruelle No 13 lure people into the space to enjoy the benefits of gathering together and experiencing new possibilities for their shared, underused space.
Be present for play
Janelle, from Green Change at Toronto’s Jane-Finch Community Centre, has her own take on what it takes to entice people to play together. In short, Janelle’s strategy is: just keep showing up. When Janelle was trying to activate Oakdale Park, a large, but underused park in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, she made a point of being consistently present in the park. Being in the park, day in and day out, allowed people in the neighbourhood to get to know Janelle, and eventually engage in conversations and build trust.
Gradually, Janelle was able to connect with neighbourhood kids who had a vested interest in the park’s success. The kids collectively worked on securing a shade structure for their park. With Janelle’s guidance, the kids collected data, built prototypes and spoke to the local City Councillor to advocate for the shade structure. Spoiler alert: they got it!!
Janelle treats children like “park royalty” because they know their park and understand its inner workings more than we ever give them credit for. This approach to kids allows Janelle to tap-into their wisdom, energy and unique perspective, and harness it to make the park better for the entire community.
Building home through p
Lisa Dietrich, a volunteer with CultureLink’s NEATWalks (Newcomers Explore and Appreciate Toronto) program, focused on the importance of active engagement in public spaces to build a sense of belonging among newcomers. As Lisa said:
As soon as we physically engage with –maybe even shape– our environment, it changes our relationship with this space. Active engagement creates a sense of control over our environment. And with this control comes a sense of security, of ownership, of belonging.
As Lisa emphasized, “active engagement” can be as simple as throwing rocks or as complex as an organized scavenger hunt. These experiences help build newcomers’ relationship to a new geography and establish a new sense of home.
Making the pitch for play
Caroline Magar, Development Coordinator at Montreal’s Les Amis du Champs des Possibles, had advice on how park groups can “play well with others.” In particular, Caroline’s presentation underscored the importance of understanding how to influence stakeholders and build a shared vision of a public space.
Les Amis du Champ des Possibles has transformed a Montreal rail line into a semi-wild place where people can experience nature in a high-density neighbourhood. However, historical contamination has limited the groups ability to host formal events in the space.
Caroline has taken it upon herself to become an expert on contamination issues and how to remediate the land in order to have credibility among key stakeholders and make informed decisions about the land’s future. Embracing the more scientific and technical dimensions of the project has been a tremendous help in turning an unusual and inspiring space into a public place where people can safely experience the wild.
Help people see themselves in play
Finally, in her keynote presentation, Mouna Andraos, co-founder of design studio daily tous les jours, shared how her projects deliberately diverge from conventional ideas of play in order to appeal to audiences who may otherwise be reluctant to join in the fun.
In fact, Mouna specifically took aim at the word ‘play’ because it’s a term that is generally associated with children. In her experience, the term can undermine the seriousness of creative endeavours, like those of her firm. The large, public installations that Mouna and her team create using cutting edge technology in public spaces utilize unexpected adult colours and are situated in public places not generally associated with play. These interactive installations are able to seduce adult audiences because they are unlike other objects we conventionally associate with play.
For example, one of the firm’s installations, entitled Hello Trees!, invites people walking along a busy promenade to stop and send a message to nature that is then translated into beautiful sound and light patterns travelling along arches that connect the trees above, providing a canopy for participants below. As explained on their website:
The result is an immersive, light animated, crowd-sourced concerto. It is a poetic exercise that encourages slowing down and engaging all the senses with the nature that surrounds us.
Mouna’s presentation highlighted that creating new ways to play requires having systems in place that support creative exploration and collaboration. She specifically pointed to the Quartier des Spectacles district in Montreal, which created a centralized permitting department to provide a one-stop-shop for artists, park groups and community groups to secure the permits and permissions necessary to activate the space. The simplicity of this model allows groups who may not otherwise be willing or able to go through multiple bureaucratic processes to bring their vision to life.
All in all it was an awesome Park Summit. Thank you to the 400+ people who attended and who work diligently to activate the power of parks in Toronto, Montreal, and across Canada. Also, thanks to the many presenters and our moderator Christina Hug, who made us look so good.
A very special thank you is owed to our Presenting Sponsor, TD Bank Group, who has supported the Park Summit from the start and makes it possible for us to host this incredible event.
You can access available presentations and relevant media below:
Thank you to our Sparking Change supporters for helping underserved park groups attend the Park Summit
Ideas to spark your imagination for Public Space Incubator
Since we announced our Public Space Incubator Program last week, we know that ideas for how to re-imagine public space in Toronto have been bubbling up in the minds of people across the city.
But just in case you need some inspiration for how to bring people together in public space in innovative, creative, and even radically new ways, we wanted to assemble a few examples of existing projects in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver that have sparked our own imaginations.
These projects—done in laneways, parks, and community housing land—include a wide variety of focuses: winter programming, food, arts and performance, local economic development, cultural exchanges, and more. But what they all share in common are new ways of inhabiting and enlivening public space to promote social connections, share experiences, and foster a sense of belonging.
We hope these projects get your own brain juices flowing and we’d love if you were to share some of your own examples, from Toronto or other cities, in the comments or with us on Twitter at @Park_People.
Bright, back alley basketball brings a laneway to life
This fun project, spearheaded by a downtown Vancouver BIA and supported by the City of Vancouver, spiced up an otherwise drab downtown laneway with bright paint, decorative lighting, basketball hoops, and programming to create a new type of gathering space for people. Laneway projects can seem complex with all the access and loading issues that come with them, so it’s nice to see how something simple like bright colours can make a big difference.
But it’s not just about the physical transformation—the space has become home to fun pop-up events like a dance party done by an event collective, Public Disco, which invited people to dress up and dance together in public space. (photos by Modacity)
Thriving public market and tandoor oven sparks change in a park
Step into R. V. Burgess Park in the middle of the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood on a Friday afternoon in the summer and you’ll be treated to a park transformed into a thriving bazaar with North America’s first tandoor oven in a park serving up fresh naan.
Organized by Sabina Ali of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, the bazaar and the oven support other activities in the space, like kid’s entertainment, that have helped bring this important central green space to life through community animation. The bazaar is particularly innovative—creating a space for people, many of them newcomer women in the neighbourhood, to sell food, jewelry, and clothing.
Community-run container café creates a new, tasty focal point
Food and parks go well together, but if you forgot to pack your own picnic lunch it can often be difficult to find a place to quiet your rumbling stomach. One local community group, the Friends of McCormick Park, worked with their city councillor to solve that problem by outfitting a shipping container café as a community café in their local green space.
The café is run by a non-profit organization and serves fresh, affordable food and drink to hungry and parched park goers. The café helps support programming and activity in the park, providing a focal point for local residents and offering up shared experiences like $5 Friday night dinners.
Inter-cultural exchange brings people together
Arts organization MABELLEarts, working with local community members, has helped transform a Toronto Community Housing green space into a collective gathering space and a site for cultural exchange. Throughout 2017, the group hosted Iftar nights—the breaking of the Ramadan fast—on several Thursday evenings in the green space. They also worked with organizations such as the Arab Community Centre of Toronto and COSTI to bus in newcomers and refugees to Canada to take part in the celebrations. (photo by Liam Coo for MABELLEarts)
Winter laneway wonderlands celebrate the cold
Spring and summer-time activities are lovely, but we can’t forget about winter! We can take some inspiration from Montreal’s green laneways, which invite community members to reimagine laneways as social gathering spaces in the city.
One young women, Marie-Hélène Roch (who spoke at our recent Park Summit) has worked to transform her laneway into a “white” laneway that invites people to connect during the colder months through food events and decorations. Other winter laneway activations in Montreal include dog-sledding activities, ice rinks, snow castle building, and warming stations.
The deadline for Letters of Intent for applying to Public Space Incubator is Thursday, March 29th at 5pm. Check the program website for more information.
Thank you to Eti and Ken Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation for generously funding the Public Space Incubator.
Resilient Parks, Resilient City: The role of green infrastructure and parks in creating more climate-adaptive cities
Park People’s Park Solutions Briefs explore the challenges and opportunities facing city parks in Canada by offering inspiration, best practices, and key strategies for moving forward. You can download a PDF of this report and read past Park People reports. Disponible en français ici.
Climate change is causing extreme weather and impacting Canadian cities
Flood impacts in Calgary. Photo by James Tworow (Flickr CC)
It’s become a familiar urban experience. Heavy rain, flash floods, rising water levels, and, ultimately, flooded parks, streets, and homes. With climate change leading to extreme weather—both hot, dry periods and heavy rain—it’s imperative that we design our urban environments to mitigate these impacts. As one expert noted, Toronto is going to get “hotter, wetter, and wilder” with the effects of climate change. Vancouver is expected to see dryer summers and wetter winters.
We only have to look at the last five years to see this playing out. In July 2013, the Greater Toronto Area experienced its most severe storm in 60 years. The 126mm of rain that fell in a two-hour period overwhelmed stormwater systems—the drains, pipes, and channels built to whisk water to treatment facilities—causing roads, railways, and basements to flood. It ultimately ended up costing $1 billion in damage. There are also negative impacts on the health of people and ecosystems.
Also in July 2013, Calgary saw heavy rain that caused the city’s rivers, like the Bow River, to breach their banks, flooding neighbourhoods and causing evacuation orders and several deaths. This was explored in greater detail in a previous Park People report, Green City, written by University of Calgary Professor Bev Sandalack, which advocates for a landscape approach to parks planning that recognizes and enhances the important ecological services provided by parks.
This year, Toronto is again feeling the effects of climate change. Heavy and frequent spring rainfalls and high water levels in Lake Ontario, meant much of the highly popular Toronto Island was closed due to flooding—a loss that many in the city acutely feel. The rain also resulted in large pools of standing water in many parks and reduced beachfront in waterfront areas. Parts of Quebec were also inundated with water from heavy rains this year that flooded streets and damaged property in and around Montreal and Gatineau.
Heavy rain causes visible damage from flooding, but it also has a more invisible effect. Many cities were built with systems that combine sewage and stormwater into the same pipes. When heavy rain overwhelms the system, its designed to release partially treated sewage and stormwater into our waterways as a safety valve to protect the system from flooding. This is called a combined sewer overflow. Many cities are actively working to reduce these through investing in new stormwater infrastructure that reduces the amount of water entering the system as these overflows have damaging environmental effects and impact water quality.
But what does this have to do with our parks?
We can intentionally design our parks as climate-resilient infrastructure
Parks are essential for increasing natural habitat in cities, providing space for recreation and social connection, and improving our mental and physical well-being—benefits laid out in more detail in recent reports by Toronto Public Health and Park People. But as the primary “soft” landscapes in our urban environments, parks are also critical pieces of stormwater infrastructure.
Green spaces help soak up and filter rain where it falls rather than allowing it to run off hard surfaces like paved roads into storm sewers and, ultimately, into our waterways—along with the garbage, bacteria, and other pollutants it has picked up along the way. Absorbent landscapes, like parks, can reduce runoff by 8 to 10 times compared to impermeable surfaces like roads or parking lots.
However, not every park soaks up rain just because it’s green. The soil in parks can become heavily compacted from use—like people running back and forth playing soccer—reducing the amount of water that can filter through the soil
There is a solution. We can design our parks and public spaces as sponges, or with sponge-like elements, by using “green infrastructure” to help parks be more effective at capturing, retaining, and treating stormwater. This helps cool cities through natural shade and water evaporation from trees and plants, reduce flooding, and ultimately creates more climate resilient cities.
Essentially the idea behind green infrastructure is to engineer spaces to mimic or enhance nature’s ability to slow down, soak up, and clean water where it falls, instead of whisking it away as fast as possible through drains to underground pipes—often called “grey” infrastructure. Green infrastructure in parks can include daylighted streams, rain gardens, and wetlands that filter pollutants and hold water or channel it to underground tanks.
Even small projects help. A green infrastructure demonstration project in Mississauga along Elm Drive reduced water entering the stormwater system by 30% during the heavy July 2013 storm. By lessening the amount of water flowing into the system, the project reduced the possibility that the system would be overwhelmed.
Many cities are directly incorporating green infrastructure into their climate change resiliency planning to ensure cities can weather the weather. Vancouver’s new rainfall management plan argues that “as we experience changing climate and rainfall patterns, green infrastructure working in conjunction with the piped storm network will provide better service levels across the rainfall spectrum now and into the future.”
Common Green Infrastructure Elements in Parks and the Public Realm
Bioswale. Photo by Aaron Volkening (Flickr CC)
Rain garden. A depression filled with vegetation, trees, and rocks that collects and stores stormwater, using it as a water source for plants and allowing it to filter into the ground. These can be found in strategic locations within a park or along the edges of roadways where a drain allows stormwater from the curb to drain into the rain garden. New York City has invested heavily in creating rain gardens as part of their overall green infrastructure plan, resulting in the spin-off benefit of street beautification and increasing urban nature.
Stormwater management pond. An area designed to hold stormwater during heavy rainfalls. These can be designed as both wet and dry. A wet retention pond, like a wetland, is designed to always contain water, while a dry detention pond, like a basketball court or playing field, is designed to fill and hold water only during storms.
Daylighted streams. The practice of bringing streams that have been buried in pipes, back to the surface and renaturalizing them. For example, Vancouver is currently working on a plan to “create an ecologically diverse stream” through Tatlow and Volunteer Parks that will feed into English Bay.
Bioswale. A depression or groove like a miniature stream, sometimes filled with vegetation and rocks, that channels stormwater to a drain, water body, or retention area, like an underground tank or aboveground pond.
Bioretention storage areas. Underground stormwater treatment and storage areas using soil mixes designed to hold and infiltrate water. These can be used to create healthy conditions for trees, with engineered systems called soil cells to support paving above.
Image by Schollen & Company
Permeable paving. Pavement that allows water to infiltrate to the ground below, rather than runoff of it, including materials like porous concrete and permeable interlocking concrete pavers. One study noted that permeable pavement is helpful in winter as it allows snowmelt to filter through, reducing the amount of freezing ice on the actual surface. Ideally these paving solutions are also designed to provide water for trees and planting areas through underground bioretention areas, expanding their benefit.
Green infrastructure provides multiple benefits
A key feature of green infrastructure is its multiple and layered benefits, unlike traditional grey infrastructure that performs a single function, such as conveying water in a pipe. Green infrastructure can:
Perform important environmental functions. This includes decreasing water runoff, improving water quality, mitigating and prevention erosion, and cleaning the air. It can also reduce the urban heat island effect by increasing green areas that don’t absorb heat like hard surfaces—an important cooling benefit to cities as climate change results in hotter weather.
Improve and expand urban nature and habitat. Green infrastructure can include native plants that provide critical habitat and food for pollinators, such as native bees and butterflies, and other wildlife that are under threat, helping to promote urban biodiversity and healthier ecosystems.
Create new community gathering and recreational spaces. Green infrastructure can increase public space and recreational areas in cities. These projects can enhance existing parks, but they can also be opportunities for creating new green spaces and plazas from underused areas like roadways and traffic islands.
Save money. By reducing the amount of money a city spends on expensive infrastructure like pipes, green infrastructure can help save money. For example, Copenhagen estimated that its green infrastructure approach to stormwater management was estimated to cost half the price over time of a more traditional “grey” infrastructure-only approach.
Create safer roads. If included within traffic calming measures such as traffic islands and bump-outs that increase pedestrian space or separate bike lanes with planting areas, green infrastructure can help slow down cars and improve traffic safety. Toronto’s new Complete Streets guidelines, for example, contain a section on green infrastructure.
Cycling and green infrastructure. Rendering from NACTO
A great example of the multiple benefits of green infrastructure projects can be found in Toronto’s Raindrop Plaza. Designed as Green Streets pilot project in conjunction with the city’s new green street technical guidelines, this 2018 project will transform a wide turning lane and traffic island into a new permeable plaza with rain gardens. The plaza will feed stormwater runoff from the street through a shallow swale meant to highlight the many rivers in Toronto that were buried in the city’s development. The plaza will use the captured rainwater to help water trees onsite, with bioretention areas in soil cells below the permeable paving. Through this project, the city will create a new green community gathering space, increase natural habitat, provide opportunities for learning about ecological systems, and, of course, reduce stormwater run-off. In fact, Sheila Boudreau, former co-lead of Green Streets at the City of Toronto, said that a cost-benefit analysis of the project done by the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation at Carleton University for the City of Toronto found over $200,000 in benefits—almost a third of the overall construction cost.
Raindrop Plaza rendering by Schollen & Company
Of course, there are challenges to green infrastructure as well. Some of the key areas that need to be carefully considered are:
A strong emphasis on maintenance. Often there are concerns that the maintenance costs for green infrastructure will be higher than traditional parkland because it can require special training. But a study by Credit Valley Conservation found that when park staff were included within the process of choosing plants for green infrastructure projects, the maintenance requirements were similar to traditional parkland development.
Balancing the needs of park users. Green infrastructure elements, such as rain gardens and wetlands, require space within parks—space that is often at a premium in urban environments. It’s important to balance designs and consider how features can double as recreational park amenities, like soccer fields and skateboard bowls that can also store water during storms.
The need for new monitoring and evaluation programs. Some parks are designed with green infrastructure elements to capture only the rain that falls within the park, while others are designed with special systems to actual divert water from surroundings streets. It’s important to determine the performance of these spaces, such as how much water the park can handle and how often maintenance needs to be done.
Five things Canadian cities can do to improve green infrastructure in parks
1. Include green infrastructure where possible when undertaking park redesigns and building new parks and public spaces
Corktown Common. Photo by Jake Tobin Garrett
Green infrastructure should be more formally integrated as part of park planning and design so that opportunities are considered upfront in both park redesigns and new parks, with agreements or funds secured for ongoing maintenance, rather than as an after thought. This also ensures green infrastructure elements are integrated seamlessly into the design and can actually become amenities and recreational features of the park.
As Andy Frank, environmental engineer for Montgomery County in Maryland, said in an interview with the National Parks and Recreation Association: “Every agency has parks and facilities that they must renovate or retrofit, and every new park project offers opportunities to integrate green stormwater management early on. In fact, the earlier you integrate it into the project the easier and less expensive it is.”
Take Toronto’s Corktown Common. Children playing in the park’s splash pad or people picnicking on the grass may not know that they are actually on a flood protection berm that is designed to protect the lower-lying areas of the city to its west from the Don River flooding to its east. The park is a gem of a space, complex and rich with biodiversity and landscape, including winding pathways, water features, and a wetland. But these features are also functional, helping to capture and filter rainwater, which is then treated with ultraviolet light and stored in tanks underneath the park to be used for irrigation.
The redevelopment plan for Calgary’sBowmont Natural Environment Park focuses on incorporating green infrastructure into the park to protect the Bow River, which was the source of major flooding during the 2013 storm. “The park’s location in the floodplain offers a rare opportunity to protect the Bow River by incorporating green stormwater treatment as a functional element of the park,” the City notes. “The stormwater elements will also provide a major park amenity that contributes to visitors’ experience in the park.” Green infrastructure elements like a wetland are being incorporated into wildlife habitat and also walking and cycling trails.
In Vaughan, plans for Edgeley Pond and Park are a critical part of the city’s overall plans to develop a new downtown community in the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The project will create a new 7.5-hectare passive and active open space for community use that also doubles as essential green infrastructure and flood protection—critical for unlocking new land for development in the area.
2. Create a comprehensive plan for rolling out green infrastructure
Many cities continue to experiment with pilot projects, one-off projects, and small-scale green infrastructure initiatives, but it’s important to provide resources and staff to invest in a strategic implementation plan that can provide guidance on how to roll-out green infrastructure in a more comprehensive manner. These plans may require green infrastructure in new developments and also assess the current park system to understand where the best opportunities are found.
As Vancouver’s recent Rainfall Management and Green Infrastructure Plan notes, green infrastructure projects in the city have mainly been “staff-led pilot initiatives” that were “developed only when opportunities arose and resources were available, rather than an integral part of City capital programs or development requirements.” The new plan changes that, building on what the City has learned through many pilot projects and laying out broad targets—such as capturing, filtering, and treating 90% of rainfall before it reaches the ocean—and specific strategies about how to accomplish this.
Montreal’s Towards Sustainable Municipal Water Management plan includes an emphasis on green infrastructure, including the city’s green alleys program where partnerships with residents transform alleys from paved surfaces to green landscapes. The plan also includes building rain gardens and stormwater ponds at the edges of parking lots and parks, such as the city’s central park, Mont Royal.
But it’s Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters plan that is a leading example of comprehensive green infrastructure planning in North America. The city just celebrated the fifth anniversary of this 20-year plan by announcing that the projects completed in its first five years are now diverting 1.5 billion gallons of polluted water annually from rivers. The plan includes a partnership with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to include green infrastructure within city parks, such as the recently renovated Ralph Brooks Park, which includes rain gardens and a storage tank beneath a basketball court that can hold 16,000 gallons of water.
3. Make green infrastructure playful and visible to encourage ecological literacy
So many of the critical systems in our city operate underground or out of sight—only becoming a topic of conversation when there is a problem, like flooding from a storm or a power outage. By making stormwater infrastructure visible through wetlands, bioswales, and other green infrastructure elements, we are also creating educational opportunities for learning about our natural environment and city systems. Interpretive signage, playful elements, tours, and educational programming can raise awareness and support.
Copenhagen has really taken this to heart with a new urban park it has developed called Tåsinge Plads. Billed as the city’s first “climate-adapted urban space,” the park transformed what was once mostly pavement into a multi-levelled public space that captures and holds rainwater from 4,300 square metres of the surrounding neighbourhood. Sculptural elements like upturned umbrellas capture rain and provide water for plants. The park is part of a wider climate adaptation plan that aims to create a more climate resilient Copenhagen through the type of green infrastructure and park investments seen in Tåsinge Plads.
But it doesn’t have to be complicated. In Vancouver’s, John Hendry Park—locally known as Trout Lake—a swale of plants and rocks directs stormwater from the roof of the adjacent community centre through the park and into the lake, creating a unique feature within the park and a visible indication of hydrological systems. A forthcoming redesign of the park will include even more green infrastructure elements, including meandering streams that feed water into the lake.
4. Involve community members and create job training and skill development opportunities
Streetside garden in Vancouver. Photo by Jake Tobin Garrett
Green infrastructure park projects can offer opportunities for communities to be involved in creating a vision for the park, but also in the stewardship of those spaces. As with any park project, it’s critical to involve community members early on and throughout the process, but also ensure there are opportunities for people to stay engaged after the project is completed. Philadelphia’sGreen Parks program, for example, allows community members to nominate a park in their neighbourhood for consideration of green infrastructure improvements.
Local organizations or volunteer groups, such as a park friends group, could also become involved in assisting with the maintenance of green infrastructure elements or running educational programming. An adopt-a-rain garden program could be modelled after other programs where garden spaces are adopted like Vancouver’s Green Streets or Montreal’s Ruelles Vertes.
Green infrastructure projects can also be used to foster local economic development by incorporating job training and skill building for local communities. The organization Park Pride in Atlanta, for example, has worked with community service organizations to hire local youths to work on green infrastructure projects in parks.
5. Create financial tools to help fund green infrastructure projects in parks and the public realm
Some cities are turning to dedicated stormwater fees to fund green infrastructure projects. Rather than a tax, these are structured as “user fees” that are charged to properties based on their amount of impermeable surface and thus how much they contribute to stormwater runoff. These can be an important new source of funding for park projects that include green infrastructure elements, both in their construction and maintenance.
As noted within a recent Credit Valley Conservation report: “In cases where municipalities have implemented stormwater management rate systems, putting [green infrastructure] features into parks can be an incentive for parks and recreation staff. Operational costs for maintaining [green infrastructure] landscape features and permeable parking lots are generally paid through the stormwater rate instead of from the park’s budget.”
Philadelphia, for example, has a stormwater fee based on the amount of impermeable surface on a property that helps fund stormwater management infrastructure, like the city’s many green infrastructure developments in parks and public spaces. Mississauga recently approved a similar stormwater charge that took effect in 2016. Unfortunately, Torontoshelved a plan in 2017 to create a dedicated fee that could fund stormwater projects.
Green infrastructure in parks is about creating more connected, resilient cities
Green infrastructure at its core is about creating spaces that help manage stormwater, but these projects also bring a host of other benefits—from habitat creation to providing new spaces for people to gather. Much like parks, the benefits of green infrastructure are deep and layered, touching on the environment, economic, and social.
Green infrastructure can be used as a method of park and public space creation, turning leftover bits of roadway and other spaces into beautiful multi-functional community spaces, like Raindrop Plaza. It can also be used to unlock land for development by providing flood protection, like Toronto’s plan to renaturalize the mouth of the Don River to open up the Portlands for development.
It can be used to create playful, whimsical urban spaces that also provide opportunities for learning about our ecological systems. It can provide ways to save money, especially when coupled with a stormwater fee that incentivizes green infrastructure development. And, critically, it does all this while providing a way to create more climate-resilient cities that are better able to weather the impacts of climate change. Investing in green infrastructure in our parks and public spaces just makes sense.
Title image: rain garden at Coxwell and Fairford in Toronto. Photo by Marc Yamaguchi.
Huge thanks to Sheila Boudreau for her time and edits. Sheila is senior landscape architect at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and formerly an urban designer at the City of Toronto where she co-lead Greet Streets with Toronto Water. Also thank you to the following people for providing information and case study examples: Clara Blakelock from Rain Community Solutions; Gerardo Paez Alonso, Project Manager for the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre; and Michelle Sawka, Project Manager at Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition.
3 Creative Stewardship Ideas for Your Park
Every autumn, the people of the Renfrew Ravine neighbourhood in Vancouver are busy crafting lanterns for the annual Moon Festival. Under the stewardship of the Still Moon Arts Society, the park is lit up with lanterns and filled with community-led art projects. The Still Moon Arts Society celebrates and stewards the Still Creek watershed in Vancouver, using art to convene community members in this beautiful green space.
‘Commitment to take active responsibility for human and ecosystem health.’
This can include a wide range of actions by individuals, communities and organizations working alone or together to promote, monitor, conserve and restore ecosystems. The Moon Festival provides a memorable, engaging experience in the Renfrew Ravine to inspire and nurture the community’s passion for nature and to see their role in creating and maintaining the splendor of the space.
Cities and communities are taking astoundingly creative approaches to cultivating relationships between communities and their natural environments. Here are some of our favourites from across the country.
Like the Still Moon Arts Society, the Vancouver Park Board uses art to engage people in stewardship.The Urban Weaver Project, a partnership between The Park Board, Stanley Park Ecology Society, artists and community volunteers, transforms invasive ivy pulled from steep forested slopes into crocheted mats. The woven ivy mats, when dried, are laid on the forest floor to suppress the growth of invasive species. This project lives at the intersection of art,community-building and nature, which is fertile ground upon which stewardship traditions can start and grow.
What It Demonstrates:Participating in stewardship activities helps build and strengthen social ties within communities, and meaningful stewardship programs can give community members a strong sense of personal investment in their parks and green spaces.
In Montreal, the Ruelles Vertes or ‘green alleys’ program is an incredible collaboration between government and communities. Local governments provide funding to communities to green their alleyways by planting trees and gardens. One of the main criteria for receiving funding, however, is the formation of a strong citizen’s committee. Communities have to demonstrate strong commitment because they are responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the green alleys. In other words, by helping grow citizen committees alongside green alleys, the projects continue to flourish. A stroll through Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood makes it clear how much pride community members take in maintaining these green oases.
What it Demonstrates: Stewardship needs committed support to be sustainable. Consistent City support for and investment in these programs are critical to their success. Cities must be ready to commit to cultivate and sustain long-term partnerships with communities. When municipalities across Canada strive to create strong support systems for community stewardship, parks and communities thrive.
In Mississauga, the Riverwood Conservancy has an operational agreement with the City of Mississauga to offer programming and coordinate volunteer stewardship in a beautiful section of the Credit River Valley, and the Brueckner Rhododendron Gardens Stewardship Committee stewards one of Canada’s largest collections of rhododendrons. This year, the City of Mississauga will begin developing a Stewardship Plan for volunteerism and community engagement, working with existing partners and exploring relationships with potential new partners through the process.
What It Demonstrates:Collaborative projects between cities and local residents help the city to get out of its four walls and into the community. The can also be an effective way for the city to deliver some services and programs in ways that are more tailored and relevant to the community. On the flip side, the specialised knowledge and passion of volunteers can lend tremendous value to the public’s experience of a park.
Jiya Benni is an urban designer and aspiring writer based in Toronto
The importance of whimsy in public spaces
Walking through downtown Montreal on a recent trip with a few friends, we came across something a bit strange. A bunch of logs dumped along a stretch of busy Saint Catherine Street. Did some logging truck tip over and leave its cargo behind?
People took selfies with the logs. They sat on the logs. They pondered the logs. The logs were, as far as I could tell, a hit.
But this is Montreal, the city that has perfected the art of creating dynamite public spaces that practically have a magnetic pull: you can’t help but stop and stay awhile. Whether it’s a bunch of logs or giant projections on the sides of buildings at night or light strung up overhead in a park or fog that emerges from grates beside a pathway or maybe just the delight you get stumbling across a tiny cafe in a park.
Montreal understands the importance of whimsy—of things that are fanciful and maybe sometimes even silly. Things that are done for the sake of being just plain fun. Montreal’s public spaces, especially the ones in the downtown Quartier des Spectacles, are a playground for both adults and children.
I mean, they actually have swings that play music as you swing, which, I’m sure, you’ll find directly referenced in the Oxford Dictionary definition of whimsical.
And Toronto? Toronto is a lot of things. It’s boisterous, fast-paced, often boastful. But whimsical? Ummmmmm. I could only imagine the liability conversations and headaches in Toronto over dumping a bunch of logs in the middle of a downtown street.
We do have our moments, though. There’s the now under construction fountain coming to Berczy Park that features little statues of dogs and even a kitty.
And then there’s Sugar Beach, which is probably one of the most whimsical public spaces in the entire city with its faux-beach filled with white sand, oversized bubblegum pink umbrellas, and candy-striped granite boulders. It’s a beach where you could imagine finding Willy Wonka suntanning.
And guess what? Both the Berczy Park fountain and Sugar Beach are the brainchild of Claude Cormier, a landscape architect out of, you guessed it, Montreal.
Sugar Beach has become an incredibly popular space. I spent a staycation day there last week turning my own shade of pink while lying in the sun reading. It was 2pm on a Tuesday. The joint was packed.
But Sugar Beach has also been a source of controversy where its very whimsicalness has been used as a slur against it. The message? Don’t design and spend money on things that are viewed as fun or, god forbid, silly. Utilitarian or bust.
But whimsy is important, as I learned walking the streets of Montreal, because our public spaces should provide us with a counterbalance to the hectic keep-your-head-down-until-the-weekend drive of the city.
Whimsy is about making a public space an invitation to play, to become a five-year old again–that magical time when everything around us inspired wonder. It’s walking the streets of a city and feeling delighted. It’s creating a sense that the city can be a festival.
Or, on a very specific level, it’s a man in a business suit swinging next to an eight-year old on the street, both laughing at the music they’re making.
This post is written by Jake Tobin Garrett. Jake is a writer and wanderer living in Toronto who works as manager of policy and research for Park People
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