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.

Expand

Improve

Connect

Include

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.

Parks Platform 2018: Investing in a strong park system for all of Toronto

It’s no secret that Toronto loves its parks. In the past four years, we’ve seen new investments in planning, design, and use of parks by communities. All of this is commendable, but it comes with a cost—one that we are not adequately keeping up with.

Despite continuing pressure on our parks operation budget from population growth, rising maintenance costs, and new park development, we’ve seen only slight inflationary increases in the past four years, with direction from Mayor Tory to keep budgets flat or reduced. For a bit more on that, here’s our take on the 2018 budget from earlier this year.

We must reverse this trend. Parks are not a frill, but core pieces of city infrastructure that bring critically needed benefits to strengthen our communities, our environment, economy, and our physical and mental health. As we find ourselves living closer and closer together, but also paradoxically with higher reported feelings of social isolation in Canada, our common spaces become more important as places to connect, share, learn, and create together.

Underinvestment in operations and maintenance threatens the many laudable plans and strategies approved during the last term of City Council. These include the in-progress Citywide Parkland Strategy, TOCore Parks and Public Realm Plan, Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan, and the Ravine Strategy. Without funding for construction and maintenance, these plans are nothing more than municipal thought experiments. This is a fate that has befallen many elements of past plans. For example, just to fund the remaining initiatives in the Parks Plan, a five-year plan approved back in 2013—the operations budget would need an extra $8.6 million.

The operating budget squeeze also impacts our ability to program parks, engage residents, and support community members in the kinds of activities that bring our parks to life. While we’ve seen great positive moves in making permits easier and supporting community events like Pumpkin Parades, more is needed.

In this Parks Platform, you’ll find our proposals for park funding, planning, and engagement that can take Toronto to the next level—supporting a park system that is more equitable, inclusive, connected, resilient, and animated. They were devised based on our own experience and input from over 450 people across Toronto that filled out our Parks Platform survey.

We hope candidates for mayor and council steal these ideas. Some are simple to implement and some will take political courage, but they are all practical, impactful, and necessary if we are to continue creating a great park system together.

To download a PDF of the platform, click here.

Paying for parks

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Increase the parks operating and maintenance budget and commit to clear multi-year funding for park plans

We’re asking our parks to deliver a lot more than in the past. Parks are being used by more people for more activities, extreme weather damage is more prevalent, and park designs are becoming more complex to meet these changing demands. Because of this, the cost of maintaining parkland in Toronto continues to rise, with the City projecting it will cost almost $700 more to maintain a hectare of parkland in 2020 than in 2015—no small increase with over 8,000 hectares of parkland in Toronto.

Additionally, City staff pointed out in the recently approved 20-year Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan that “frozen or reduced” operating budgets have negatively impacted staff’s ability to respond to routine maintenance issues that then grow into larger, more costly repairs.

This must be addressed, and it must be addressed through public funding. While the trend towards park philanthropy in the past four years is a welcome one—with great initiatives like The Meadoway, Grange Park, and The Bentway—philanthropy is in no way a substitute for a well-funded, robust public park budget.

1. Increase operating budgets to create dedicated park supervisors in large and heavily-used parks and decrease workload on park staff. Currently, park supervisors can be responsible for dozens of parks, stretching their abilities thin to respond to community requests and stay on top of maintenance. On the resident side, many people don’t know who to contact about their park and become frustrated.

Extra funding should increase the amount of park staff like gardeners so they can take care of a smaller area of parks. Dedicated park supervisors should be established for coordinating maintenance and programming in particularly heavily-used or large parks (such as Trinity Bellwoods or Earl Bales Park) rather than dozens of parks. Park supervisor information should be clearly posted in the park. This will go a long way in opening lines of communication between City staff and the community and ensure our most used parks are in tip-top shape.

2. Commit to multi-year funding for implementing park plans and strategies and publicly report annually on their progress. Many of the new plans are citywide and are critical for ensuring our park system provides equitable facilities and access across the entire city. Tracking our progress in implementing these plans and the funding required to do so should be clearly communicated each year.

Reform park levies to better fund park development across the city

The last time the City established policies for its park levy, officially referred to as Section 42, was more than 10 years ago when development in Toronto was very different. This tool allows the City to extract land or cash from new developments that can only be used to pay for acquiring land or developing parks. We need to increase the rate at which we collect these levies to keep up with growth.

3. Explore a tiered system rather than a firm cap on the amount of land or cash a developer must provide.The current policy caps the amount the City gets for parks based on the size of the land being developed, meaning super tall towers end up providing the same amount as smaller towers built on the same land size (see below image from the City of Toronto). This despite many more people living in the taller tower that need parks. A tiered system based on building density would allow the City to continue to collect park levies in high-density buildings, but not overburden developers with fees.

How the current cap impacts park levies (City of Toronto)

4. Explore borrowing against future expected park levy revenue based on developments in the pipeline. In a real estate market as aggressive as Toronto’s, we need to act fast on opportunities to purchase land. Waiting until enough money is collected means the City misses out on opportunities. Additionally, the longer money sits in reserve accounts, the more it depreciates in spending power as real estate prices rapidly rise.

5. Commit to maintaining the 50/50 redistributive policy that directs half of park levies funds into a citywide account to fund parkland acquisition and improvement in areas of the city that do not see as much development. This is a critical equity policy.

People in parks

Sean regent park bake oven

Wrap funding for engagement and programming within park development budgets

Toronto needs to up its park engagement game beyond the standard open house meeting and support longer-term engagement and community programming in parks long after the ribbon is cut. This will help decrease the chance that new amenities, like bake ovens or stages, are created in parks with no support to actually program those spaces. It will also help ensure that parks are well-maintained over the long term, as communities that are more involved in their local park can help reduce incidents of vandalism and keep an extra eye on maintenance issues.

6. Include funding for long-term engagement, including community programming, within capital budgets for new park designs. We routinely spend millions on new park development, but very little to none on long-term engagement or programming. Even dedicating a small percentage of capital budgets would go a long way to supporting ongoing involvement by community members in their local park.

This funding would support a more equitable park system because currently residents must finance park activities through their own money or by soliciting donations. Funding could go towards City staff working as community animators and grants directly to community groups or non-profit partners to support activities in parks like nature walks, stewardship events, community festivals, and adopt-a-park-tree programs.

Series of images of a volunteer tree planting event

photo by Matt Forsythe

Better enable community programming

For years, one of the top requests we hear from community members is to reform the park permit system, which can be costly and confusing for people when organizing activities in their local park. In the last four years, the City has made this easier by introducing free park permits for arts, music, and movies in parks. But we know still more work is needed. We know that community programming contributes to greater levels of civic engagement, connections within communities, leadership skill-building, and more.

7. Establish a free and easy “community event permit” open to local community groups that are not necessarily a registered non-profit who are organizing open activities in their local park for less than 75 people. Currently, the lowest level of special event permit for events under 200 people costs more than $130–money that residents must pay out of pocket–and requires an eight week lead time. Approving this lower-entry community event permit would create a more equitable way for residents to organize park activities, recognizing that their capacity is different than non-profit organizations and other groups putting on larger events.

Planning for parks

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Prioritize park system connectivity

One of the pillars of the new Citywide Parkland Strategy is ensuring that we are building a connected park system. This is important for people moving through it, but also for ecosystem health and wildlife movement. We already have a great backbone for this system based on our ravines, but we can do more to connect parks together.

8. Prioritize investment in projects that increase park system connectivity across the city, such as the Green Line, Rail Deck Park, Meadoway (pictured above), and the Core Circle proposed in the TOcore Parks and Public Realm Plan. Linear parks and parks that bridge gaps, like rail corridors, help increase connectivity, provide more green space, and promote safe cycling and walking.

9. Identify a series of priority “greenway” corridors outside the downtown where improvements to parks, streets, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure can create greener and safer connectivity between parks to increase access. Look to Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway, San Francisco’s Green Connections plan, or more locally to the Mobility Greenway, a community initiative proposed to link green spaces along Finch Avenue West.

Invest in parks that create a more climate resilient city

As we’ve seen for several summers in a row—and as we outlined in our Resilient Parks, Resilient City report—extreme weather from climate change is leading to more flood events that damage parks and other city infrastructure. We must move away from simply investing in grey infrastructure, such as underground pipes, to investing in green infrastructure: natural elements like bioswales, retention ponds, and rain gardens that soak up, hold, and filter rainwater where it falls. Green infrastructure increases biodiversity through native plants, increases green space, and reduces neighbourhood flooding and sewer overflow incidents that release raw sewage into the lake.

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10. Approve a stormwater fee based on area of impervious surfaces and direct a portion of revenues towards the construction and maintenance of green infrastructure in parks and along streets. Many other cities have successfully created such a fee, such as Mississauga and Philadelphia. Toronto had a chance to institute such a fee in 2017, but Mayor Tory’s Executive Committee shelved the idea. This was the wrong decision.

11. Direct green infrastructure to be included within new park development and redevelopment projects. With new parks developed or redeveloped each year, this is an easy way to increase the amount of green infrastructure across the city to help mitigate neighbourhood flooding. While we have great examples of parks with green infrastructure embedded in them, like Corktown Common, this is not the norm and should be standard practice to create a more climate resilient city.

Build more seating and more variety of seating in parks

One of a city’s simplest pleasures is finding a good park bench. Unfortunately, in many of Toronto’s parks it’s often difficult to find a place to sit. This is particularly important for people with disabilities and for older adults who may not be able to spread out a blanket on the grass.

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12. Speed up implementation of new benches and get more creative. Our parks should follow the lead of New York and establish long benches along central park pathways and introduce social seating areas with curved, group, or moveable seating to enable social interaction. Seating should include backrests and arm rests to make them accessible and comfortable, but “defensive” elements like middle arm rests should not be standard.

13. Institute a “no net bench removal” policy that dictates that if a bench is removed for any reason from a park, it must be replaced with another in the same park.

For a PDF copy of the platform click here. To get in touch with us write to Park People at info@parkpeople.ca.

 

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.

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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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