When parks pop-up, butterflies pop in 

The coolest thing happened in the middle of a Toronto strip mall parking lot along Lawrence West in Scarborough last month: a monarch butterfly came to visit. 

No, it wasn’t looking for lunch at The Wexford Restaurant (though I hear it’s good)–the butterfly was attracted by over 360 native pollinator plants that were part of a pop-up park installation called WexPOPS. 

WexPOPS, led by artist and Master of Landscape Architecture graduate Daniel Rotsztain and University of Guelph professor Brendan Stewart, was intended as a project to support community-use and social gathering. It was one of five projects funded through Park People’s Public Space Incubator program in 2018.

But the design also included lots of native plants, supplied by Native Plants in Claremont, thanks to the collaborative design process between local community members and University of Guelph landscape architecture students. 

“We selected a wide variety of native perennial wildflowers and meadow grasses — 29 species in all — and we certainly hoped to attract bees and butterflies and other insects, but we’ve been completely amazed at the results,” Brendan Stewart said. 

“It’s been quite dramatic to watch the monarch’s progress from larva to adult butterflies, and to see how much milkweed they eat in the process. The garden is constantly buzzing and visitors tend to be surprised and delighted to experience this much life in the middle of a huge parking lot.”

It’s a striking example of how small pin-pricks of nature in an otherwise sea of pavement — even in temporary spaces — can help support biodiversity and threatened species, like pollinators. 

Emerging research backs this up, too. A recent study explored the potential of temporary pop-up parks (cutely acronymed PUPS) to support greater species diversity. 

Large scale green spaces are critical, but the study author points to research showing that the quality and density of ground-level plants — like the native plants populating WexPOPS — can have a greater degree of influence on species diversity than factors in larger green spaces, like tree density.

The conclusion: don’t discount the importance of small spaces. 

This should come as welcome news to Canadian cities who are hard at work trying to restore natural habitat lost to urbanization and increase biodiversity. Supporting biodiversity was a key trend we found in our 2019 Canadian City Parks Report–which surveyed 23 cities–released in June.

In particular, Toronto is doing some creative work with a newly approved Pollinator Strategy. The City just launched its first PollinateTO community grants, which fund small-scale pollinator gardens cultivated by local residents. As WexPOPS shows, these initiatives can have quite positive impacts, when using the right native plant mixtures for local species. 

Vancouver is also working to create small pollinator gardens in the city. A pop-up pollinator park planted at 5th and Vine in 2016 on a small 0.3 acre site packed in 1,500 community-planted pollinator plants. A citizen science survey observed the second highest number of pollinator species within the garden compared to other observed park sites. 

Red Deer has designated four official pollinator parks where city staff handpick weeds and pesticide use is banned. And Hamilton’s Pipeline Trail features small pollinator gardens along its route tended by local community members. 

You can read more about how cities across Canada are supporting pollinators and urban biodiversity by reading about it in our Canadian City Parks Report.

Back in Scarborough, the team behind WexPOPS will be taking down the pop-up near the end of August, meaning the parking spaces it occupies will go back to housing cars rather than plants and people. 

A critical question in thinking about the viability and importance of pop-up parks in contributing to urban biodiversity is what happens after the pop-up pops down?

For the team behind WexPOPS that question was something they thought of from the very beginning. The plants will be transported to a local hydro corridor, which is undergoing its own transformation as a 16km linear park and trail called The Meadoway, where they will be re-planted. 

This is a great solution, but there’s also an opportunity here to think about how these pop-up park projects can literally seed change in their own location. 

For example, the plants repurposed within the stripmall parking lot itself. It’s these hardscape urban landscapes that require the most attention and care if we are to truly re-green our city, restoring some of the natural habitat we stole when we paved it over. 

Some may look at micro-gardens like WexPOPS sitting in the middle of a parking lot and wonder: what good is this actually doing?

But as WexPOPS shows, if you build it butterflies will come.

photos of WexPOPS pollinators by Brendan Stewart and photo of installation by Park People.

Working to make studying public life easier: a pilot project in R.V. Burgess Park

We measure a lot of things in our city, from building applications to travel patterns to recycling rates. Tracking these helps us plan better neighbourhoods, transit, and waste systems. But what we don’t often measure is what people are doing in public spaces—the public life of a public space. Without this information, it’s hard to understand how to improve public space and whether designs and programming are successful.

Understanding the success of an intervention in public space is critical for a program we launched earlier this year at Park People: the Public Space Incubator.

We launched the PSI with the aim of testing new ways of inhabiting and enlivening public spaces in Toronto. Through this incubator, we are funding five different projects in the city that each propose a new and unique way of bringing people together in public space. Since the projects are testing new ideas, a big part of the incubator is understanding how something worked—or didn’t—and being able to refine and make changes. Essentially, these are public space experiments that we want to learn from.

That’s why we’re excited to be working with Sidewalk Labs and Gehl Institute as part of the Public Space Incubator on the creation and testing of an app that can make studying public life easier. To test a first iteration of the app, we’ve partnered with the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee—one of the recipients of a Public Space Incubator grant this year for their community-run park cafe in R.V. Burgess Park—to help them and us understand the impact of their work.

This public life study app project follows on the footsteps of a recent and growing use of public life studies in Toronto to measure what people are doing in the city’s parks, including being formally a part of the City’s park revitalization design process. The City of Toronto did its first public life study of 15 downtown public spaces in 2016 as part of its TOcore project—a study that Park People helped the City of Toronto organize and manage along with Gehl Studio and Public Work, and one that the City hopes to use as a baseline from which to measure public life in downtown in the future. We’re also currently working with the City on a public life study of the King Street Transit Pilot to determine how the new public spaces are being used as part of the pilot.

As you can imagine, public life studies require a lot of preparation and work. You have to frame the goals of your study (What are we trying to find out?), organize and manage the study (Who is going to carry out the study, how, and when?), and analyze and communicate the results (What does this tell us and how can we use that information?). The complexity of carrying out a study represents a barrier for many, even though many community groups and municipal governments want to understand their public spaces better.

The Public Life Data Protocol created by the Gehl Institute helps this by standardizing the way public life data is collected and organized to lower the barrier for communities to carry out public life studies and ensure we’re all speaking the same language. The design of the app, which is based on the protocol, hopes to take this even further by making it easier to set up and carry out a public life study through a digital tool. It still requires people power to go out to the park and do the study, but it will make it much easier to organize: instead of printing hundreds of study sheets that then need to be transcribed, participants record data directly on the app.

The focus of this first early test of the app in R.V. Burgess Park will help us learn about how to improve the app in the future. It will also help generate important data to understand how the interventions of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, including those funded by the Public Space Incubator, are working. This includes the cafe itself, new cafe seating, and food-based programming.

We have developed project goals and methods with Sabina Ali from the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee and will be training local youth and other residents recruited by Sabina to carry out a public life study to understand the impact of the cafe, its seating, and programming in the park.

Specifically, participants will be marking the who, what, and where of people in the park. Are they sitting? Playing? Eating? What’s the percentage of people that are over 65? Or younger than 12? The data will help us and the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee understand the impact of the project and how their programming could be improved in the future to serve the community, and the intent is to make the data open and accessible in the future. Sidewalk Labs will make the source code for the data collection app open-source so that anyone can use and build upon our efforts.

This is just the start. Ultimately, our hope is that the app helps demystify the public life study process and allow organizations like local community groups and municipalities to more easily carry out these studies, learn from them, and share the results so that everyone can benefit from quality data about public life.

photo by Sabina Ali

Lessons from our Making Connections report for the Public Space Incubator

The overarching goal of our Public Space Incubator is to spark new ways of inhabiting and enlivening public space in Toronto—meaning all of our public spaces, from park, streets, laneways, schoolyards, hydro corridors, to any other publicly-accessible open space. This was also the subject of a major report that Park People released almost three years ago called Making Connections: Planning Parks and Open Space Networks in Urban Neighbourhoods.

If you’re still mulling over your idea for the Public Space Incubator (letters of intent are due Thursday March 29!) then you may want to read Making Connections to help expand your thinking about what’s possible in public spaces.

In a city like Toronto where neighbourhoods are getting denser all the time and new people are moving in, we need to think more creatively about public space than we have in the past.

We can no longer imagine our city as a series of single-purpose spaces—parks do this, streets do that, laneways do this—but understand how all of these spaces can work better together as a flexible network, offering opportunities for people to move, gather, and play at different times of the day and year.

Making Connections proposes eight guiding principles for how these new open space networks can be thought about. Here’s the highlights:


Proactively plan central green spaces as the heart of open space networks

Don’t think of parks as green islands plopped in the middle of the city, but as part of a web of open spaces—both green and not—that create a connected network. Think about how people travel through this network to get to different spaces and what you can do to improve those connections.


Create green connections that become places themselves

When thinking about these connections, it’s important to not to think of them simply as ways to get from A to B, but about how they can become places themselves. How do we create streets and bikeways that encourage people to linger and hang out? Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway, which incorporates gardens and seating along its route, is a great example.



Be flexible in design and use

In a dynamic city that is always changing we need our parks and public spaces to also change and adapt. This means designing streets that can easily be closed off to cars to become public plazas in the warmer months, or park furniture or children’s playgrounds that doubles as public art. How can we make everything do double duty? 


Broaden the park to include the space beyond its edges

Our largest public space resource is not our parks, but our streets, which make up nearly a quarter of the land area of the city. How can we improve the experience of our streets to make them more comfortable and welcoming? Finding space in the public right-of-way for small improvements like these parkettes put in along Dundas Street West can help make streets more park-like.



Find park space in overlooked and unexpected places

Sometimes when space is at a premium, you need to get creative. We can no longer rely on empty lots to convert into new parks, but have to look deeper for spaces we may have passed over before. Maybe it’s a laneway or traffic island in your neighbourhood. Or maybe, in the case of the Bentway, it’s underneath a downtown expressway!


Empower communities by building new partnership models

Cities can’t do it alone. Forging new kinds of partnerships with communities in public spaces is a necessary ingredient to ensuring a well-designed space is well-used, active, and welcoming. Partnerships are about recognizing the strength of various partners so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. What new governance or management models can we bring to public spaces that offer more community input?


Experiment and be nimble

Change is hard, especially when the things we want to try in a space are new to people. This is where pilot projects and experiments come into play. These projects allow you to test something in a space in a temporary way, evaluate its impact, and refine it based on your learnings. It’s a great way to build support for an idea by allowing people to interact with it in a real physical space. The Downtown Yonge BIA’s Celebrate Yonge allowed people to feel what an expanded public realm along Yonge Street would be like. Or in Vancouver, they create a pop-up plaza on a street that is now permanent because people loved it so much.



Create collaborations and pool funding sources 

Lastly, it’s important to build collaborations that go beyond the usual suspects. Reach out to public health agencies, social workers, artists, performers, environmentalists, psychologists…anyone who can bring a new perspective, challenge the status quo, and help create spaces that are functional and unique. How can a public space help achieve the goals of a local health organization? How can it create opportunities for artists to engage with people? For psychologists to study human behaviour?

For a deeper dive into the eight guiding principles, including case studies for each, check out the full Making Connections report.

photos of Comox-Helmcken Greenway from Brent Granby, Dundas Parkettes from PMA Landscape Architecture, and Celebrate Yonge from Downtown Yonge BIA.

Public Space Incubator FAQ

Our Public Space Incubator has been out in the world for about two weeks now and since then we’ve gotten a great response from people who are excited about the program and want to learn more. Here’s a few of the Frequently Asked Questions we’ve received so far. We’ll continue to update this as needed.

Visit the program website for all the details on eligibility and requirements. If you have a question about the program, you can always email us at info@parkpeople.ca.

Do I need a charitable trustee for the letter of intent? What role do they play?

Yes all project applicants, if they are not already a registered charity, must include a charitable trustee as a partner on their application.The trustee is required for the administration of funds, but does not need to play a programming role.

How can I find a charitable trustee?

There is often a variety of charitable organizations that could be potential trustees in different neighbourhoods across the city that you could partner with. Potential charitable trustees could be a local Business Improvement Area, a university, faith organization, and community health centre. For more information on finding a charitable trustee, read our resource page.

What needs to be in the “high level” budget for the LOI?

Simply the requested amount from the Public Space Incubator and any potential or already secured funds from other sources. If you’re invited to submit to the full application round, we will require a more detailed budget breakdown by category, such as capital, programming, engagement, etc.

If I apply for funding in this round, can I do my project in 2020? What are the timelines for project completion?

As noted on the website, projects funded in the 2019 round of funding can take place up until fall 2020. We understand some projects may be complex and so we are allowing more than a year for implementation from when we announce grant recipients in June 2019.

Can I apply with more than one project?

We are not limiting you to one project idea, but you must prepare a separate letter of intent for each idea. We encourage you to focus on your best ideas.

I have a cool idea. Can I just apply by myself?

We require all applicants to have a charitable trustee, if they are not already a registered charity. Also, note that one of the core principles of the program is “community-driven”, which speaks to building local partnerships. We see collaboration and working with partners as a key part of a successful project.

Do I need to have permission in the spot where I want to do the project before applying? Do I need to get a permit?

No, we do not require you to have already obtained permissions for your project for the letter of intent. However, the more information you can provide, the better. Please note that part of the letter of intent is detailing how your project could be realistically implemented, so it’s important to think through any permissions that would be required. As part of the incubator process, we would be available to connect successful applicants to the right City officials to work through implementation.

Do I need to say exactly where I want to do my project?

Though we do not require you to indicate in which exact location your project would take place for the letter of intent stage, the more specific information you can provide, the better. We also encourage you to think through the type of public space (school, park, street, laneway, etc.) that you are applying to do your project in and why.

Can my project be a study or community consultation about an idea?

Projects can include research and community consultation as a part of the project development, but every project must result in a tangible pilot project in a physical space.

Can my project take place in multiple public spaces?

If you can make a compelling case for how your project will activate more than one public space, then you can apply for a project that includes more than one location or for a project that moves around.

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.

Alley Oop 2_Modacity www.modacity.com

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. 


With our new Public Space Incubator, we invite you to surprise us

Park People is excited to launch our Public Space Incubator—a program made possible through the generosity of Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation.

With this program we hope to spark new, creative, and even radical ideas for inhabiting and enlivening our public spaces—whether those are in parks, plazas, schoolyards, tower green spaces, streets, laneways or any other publicly accessible open space—by offering up to $50,000 in funding for 5 projects in 2018 and again in 2019. For the full eligibility requirements and program details, check out the program website.

We’ve all had those public space experiences—whether in Toronto or travelling—stumbling across something that makes us smile and stay awhile. Maybe it was the musical swings in downtown Montreal. Or the thriving Thorncliffe Market in R. V. Burgess Park here in Toronto. Or maybe it was a laneway serving coffee and scones in San Francisco. These projects bring people together in new and unusual ways.

Park People is all about helping people activate the power of public spaces. We hope the Public Space Incubator provides the tools and resources for people with big ideas to do big things in our public spaces in Toronto.

As the name implies, we’ve designed the program with a supportive network built into it to help successful applicants realize their projects on the ground. These people include designers, city staff, community organizers, environmentalists, policy wonks, and more.

The program is designed to be broad enough to welcome a vast array of types of projects without being too prescriptive. However, we do have a set of core principles that each project must show how they achieve.


Public Space Incubator is not set up to fund “business as usual” projects. We’re interested in projects that push the boundaries of what’s possible, propose things that haven’t yet been tried, and create moments of delight and surprise. Think outside the box. Think collaboratively.


We’re looking for projects that are built from the ground-up in local communities—not something that is parachuted in from afar. Strong community partnerships and an inclusive and accessible approach is key to the success of these projects. What need is your project serving and how are you involving the local community?


Great design is key, but design alone cannot truly bring a space to life. We want to see projects that include a programmable aspect that shows intentional thought in how a space can be used and activated to bring in a diverse range of people. How is your project welcoming people to participate in the space?


Projects need to make sense within their local context, but we’re also looking for projects that test ideas that have the potential to be scaled up across the city in the future. What might this look like? What would need to happen?


While funding and support through the Public Space Incubator is a great start, we’re looking for projects that reach beyond the program to invite investment and partnerships with other organizations, funders, and groups. How does your project build in those partnerships to support growth and sustainability?

Be bold. Be creative. Surprise us.

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