Pot in the Parks: What city builders across Canada say about what the legalization of marijuana will mean for public spaces
With pot smoking set to become legal in Canada on October 17, we’ve been wondering what legalization might mean for parks and public places which are the living rooms and backyards of city dwellers coast to coast.
Chances are you’ve sniffed pot wafting through the park more and more lately. Of course city bylaws make it illegal to puff in our parks, but apparently, not everyone’s received the memo. We spoke to three city builders in three of Canada’s key cities, Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, to get their opinion about what the legalization of pot smoking will mean for the use of parks and public spaces and the people who love them.
A Vancouver Perspective: Mitchell Reardon
“Public pot smoking has been widespread in Vancouver for several decades. The city has changed a lot since the Gastown Riots in 1971,” says Mitchell Reardon, who is Experiments Lead & Urban Planning and Design Lead atHappy City, a Vancouver firm that “uses lessons from psychology and public health to design happiness into neighbourhoods and cities around the world.”
Reardon emphasizes that, like most west coast cities, Vancouver tends to have a “live and let live” vibe which extends to the general feeling about pot smoking in parks and public spaces. However, just because the wafting smell of pot isn’t shocking to Vancouver’s residents, don’t assume that public pot smoking isn’t a budding issue in the city.
Reardon thinks that visible pot smoking could be used as a political wedge issue, used to roll back progress on issues like the pedestrianization of urban streets. Vancouver’s Robson Square is a car-free space that has been opposed on the basis that cannabis vendors have popped up in the square. A 2016 article features the headline “Local businesses rethink Robson Square plans after police raid marijuana market.” Reardon thinks that if pot sales become visible in public spaces, it might be used as a tactic to undermine innovative projects like the pedestrianization of Robson Square.
“My biggest concern is that legalization is used as a wedge issue to block public space” says Reardon.
Ultimately Reardon believes that existing smoking by-laws, as well as those regarding public safety and anti-social behaviour can be applied to the challenges that might arise from pot smoking in Vancouver parks. Otherwise, it’s not an issue he thinks is deeply concerning. He adds, “In a city where nearly 500 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, and where needles are a common site in many Vancouver neighbourhoods, the public space concerns associated with pot use are dwarfed by our crippling opioid crisis.”
A Toronto Perspective: Carolyn Wong
About five years ago Trinity Bellwoods became the park to be seen hanging out in during the warm summer months. Even the New York Times highlighted the park in their 36 Hours in Toronto feature. Drinking and pot smoking had become so commonplace in the park that a heated community meeting was called to address the growing frustration of local residents. There are about five dispensaries within a short walk of Trinity Bellwoods and, in some ways, it has become ground zero for recreational weed consumption in public spaces in Toronto.
Recently, a Facebook event popped up for a party in Trinity Bellwoods called “First Legal Smoke in Trinity Bellwoods” and dated October 17th, the day pot is set to become legalized. Quickly, the event filled up with comments from local residents including one that read:
“I’m happy that weed is going to be legal but please stay away from the playground and dog bowl. Keep in mind that TB [Trinity Bellwoods] is a place many go to escape the city in the city. Getting smoked out is not going to be nice for anyone other than you. Please consider your neighbours just trying to enjoy the park.”
Carolyn Wong, a member of Friends of Trinity Bellwoods Park and manager of the weekly Farmer’s Market, is pretty chill about the whole pot in parks issue. But, she makes an important point: “Pot smell is thick and it hangs in the air. Not everyone wants to smell it.” When she smells pot at the Tuesday Farmers Market, she generally requests that the smoker take a moment to step away from shoppers so as not to invade other’s space.
Similarly, Wong notes, recently pot smokers who lit up during a movie night in the dog bowl were politely asked by other movie watchers to move away from the crowd gathered to see the show. As far as Carolyn is concerned, if people just applied the basic rules of common sense and courtesy, legalization wouldn’t be a big challenge to park groups.
Wong would love to see a public campaign that reminds people to keep the smoke away from others in the park. She points to the old Ben Wicks “Be Nice, and Clear Your Ice” television campaign which reminded Torontonians to clean up the ice around their home and businesses for the safety of others: “A campaign reminding people to be courteous about smoking in general would be great,” she says.
A Calgary Perspective: Druh Farrell
Druh Farrell, a city councillor in Calgary’s Ward 7 is taking a “wait and see” approach to the issue of pot smoking in parks. She’s encountered the increased use of recreational drugs in Calgary’s large urban parks like Prince’s Island and Riley Park. But is it a concern? “Only time will tell,” she says.
Farrell believes that there will be a lot to learn once cannabis is legalized, but she’s confident because “Calgary has done a good job of researching other cities and has come up with a balanced approach.”
On the question of Cannabis Tourism, which could see people visiting Canadian cities in order to enjoy the benefits of pot legalization, Farrell admits that visitors may be inclined to visit Calgary and partake in public spaces without much thought to existing bylaws. However, Farrell believes that the city will need to be nimble and react to the realities of pot use in public rather than create policies based on issues that may never come to pass.
Like Carolyn Wong, however, Farrell believes that it wouldn’t hurt to remind Canadians of their responsibility to other park and public space users.
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.
Something New from Something Old: A Short Film about Finding Public Spaces in Cities
Ian Garrick Mason’s short film, Something New from Something Old, shines a light on how making use of existing public spaces allows cities to “gracefully evolve in place” rather than “spreading outwards toward infinity.” The film curates a conversation between New York and Toronto and captures the ideas inherent in our Making Connections report as well as the new Public Space Incubator we have just launched with Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation.
The projects featured in the short film are on a much larger scale than those that will emerge from the Public Space Incubator, but regardless of scale, the spirit behind these projects is aligned with the projects that will emerge from this exciting initiative. As Jennifer Keesmaat says in the film:
“We need to start finding spaces that were at one time something else and transform them by providing an amenity a neighbourhood needs”
Ian Garrick Mason’s reflections on the short film follow below.
Something New from Something Old, a film by Ian Garrick Mason from Ian Garrick Mason on Vimeo.
The idea for Something New from Something Old came to me early last year when walking the length of the High Line in New York City for the second time. The park — a phenomenally successful conversion of an abandoned elevated railway line running through the heart of Manhattan’s west side — seemed both beautifully designed and, with its linear narrowness and its crowds of visitors flowing north to south and south to north at the same time, not quite a ‘park’ at all. It raised interesting questions about what cities are building, exactly, when they cannily turn former industrial land or derelict spaces under highways into thriving, thoughtfully-designed… and here again the word feels odd… parks. (“Public spaces” is the urban designer’s term of art, but this feels too neutral. The things are meant to be fun.)
So I decided to ask experts, designers, and planners involved in some of the highest profile conversion projects in Toronto and New York City about the rationale behind these conversions, the challenges involved in designing under such novel constraints, and the difficult issues — like funding, accessibility, benefit sharing — that come with them. Their answers were both fascinating and encouraging, pointing to a world in which the development of cities will have more to do with gracefully evolving in place than with spreading outwards to infinity. I’m thrilled to be launching Something New from Something Old with Park People, not only because Executive Director Dave Harvey offers such insightful testimony in the film, but also because the organization plays such an important role in helping the public and policymakers understand the importance of parks to a healthy urban society, and in helping define how our parks should look and function in the future.
It’s the last weekend of summer, so here’s what to do in parks
It’s going to be beautiful, hot, and sunny–basically the summer we didn’t really have all crammed into the last two weekend days before Autumn starts. We were on Metro Morning today to talk about how to make the most of this gorgeous weekend by exploring Toronto’s parks. Missed the interview? No problem, we’ve also compiled a list that includes what we talked about–and a bit more we didn’t get to mention.
Part outdoor sculpture museum, part nature trail, part historic building and restaurant, Guild Park is one of Toronto’s most unique parks. Formerly an artist colony, it features remnants of 19th and 20th century buildings demolished in Toronto before we decided to protect little things like heritage. You can see the columns from the Bank of Toronto building, demolished to make way for the modernist TD Centre, reconfigured as a greek theatre. Well worth a visit.
Toronto is a waterfront city. Don’t believe us? Check out one of the amazing parks and beaches along our huge stretch of lakefront. Rouge Beach, right at the border with Pickering and at the mouth of the Rouge River, is a great one to explore. Just a short walk from the Rouge Hill GO Station, you’ll find trails, rocky breakwaters, bricks rolled smooth by the lake, and a nice sandy beach. Bring your sunscreen.
If you want to stay cool, there’s no better way that dipping down into one of Toronto’s many ravines and going for a walk in a shady green tunnel. The trail along the Humber River is one of our favourites because it takes you top to bottom in Toronto, with only a few interruptions in the trail along the way. Lace up your walking shoes or bump up your bike tires and head out.
One of the city’s stunning garden parks (the others are Allan Gardens and Rosetta McClain Gardens), Edwards Gardens is the perfect place for a leisurely stroll through a manicured landscape. It also houses the Toronto Botanical Gardens and has a cafe on site in case you get peckish.
This 80-acre butterfly meadow was created by the TRCA through a grant from the Weston Family Parks Challenge, a program Park People administered. It’s a beautiful naturalization of a hydro corridor trail and it’s the perfect time to go to see a bunch of Monarch butterflies flitting around. If you want a bit of a tour, you’re in luck. You can join a walk with MP Salma Zahid on Saturday, September 16 from 11am – 1pm. Register here.
Toronto’s newest waterfront park is also one of its most stunning, with beautiful views of downtown Toronto and grassy hillsides to lounge on. It’s also one of, if not the only, waterfront park near the downtown where you can actually get down close to the water. It’s connected to the Martin Goodman Trail, so it’s a perfect pitstop on a larger waterfront bike ride.
A well-worth-the-wait revitalization of this park was just unveiled this summer and it’s everything we could have hoped for and more. With the AGO as a dramatic blue sky backdrop, this is the perfect spot for a green reprieve from a day of downtown shopping. The park also features one of the coolest playgrounds in Toronto, which looks like its own art piece to accompany the Henry Moore sculpture that now lives in the park.
If more structured fun is what you’re after, then there’s a host of amazing events and activities that are happening around the city. Here’s a few of our favourites.
A fundraiser for the lovely non-profit Not Far From the Tree, which salvages our city’s fruits, this event features live music, food, games for kids, and of course fresh-pressed cider — both alcoholic and non. Also included are tours of Spadina House, one of the city’s heritage sites.
A mutli-cultural fest at the Fort York Historic Site and the forthcoming Bentway — one of Toronto’s most creative public space projects that will create repurpose space under the Gardiner Expressway as a linear public space. The festival features, dance, music, food, and of course tours of The Bentway.
Bike, run, walk, roll, jump, skip, and play in the middle of Bloor and Yonge Street as the streets are closed to cars and opened up to people from 10am until 2pm on Sunday, August 17. Experience the city in a way that you never have before.
Celebrate our pollinator friends at this parade and party along the Beach boardwalk from Woodbine to Kew Gardens. This event is put on by the David Suzuki Foundation as part of their Butterflyway Project, which seeks to create more natural habitat for pollinators in cities. There will be music, crafts, food, a short film, and, of course, a parade.
More Canadians are living alone, making parks more critical than ever
The latest release of Canadian census data shows that for the first time in our country’s history, one-person households have become the most common type of living situation. In fact, 28.2 per cent of all households last year were people who are living solo.
What does this mean for our parks, in particular, how can our parks better serve the people who are most likely to live alone?
More older adults face social isolation:
The data in the census points to the fact that seniors now outnumber children for the first time in the survey’s history. This fact needs to be seen in the context of Canadians living alone. As the Globe and Mail states: “older, empty nester, single-person households.” are increasingly the new norm.
This demographic shift has very important implications for our parks.
In a recent survey of its members, CARP (Canadian Association for Retired Persons) found that
“In statistical terms, the relationship between avoiding loneliness and living near a park was four times greater than the relationship between avoiding loneliness and having children.”
In other words, you’re better off having a park nearby than having visits from your kids. That’s pretty impressive impact.
Park People’s Sparking Change report corroborates this finding by highlighting that animated parks, with meaningful and engaging events and activities, have a hugely positive effect on reducing social isolation. This obviously holds true for seniors, who are more likely than most to feel lonely and isolated.
Often, we focus on the infrastructure elements that are important in attracting seniors to parks. Features like park benches, bathrooms, easy to use paths and walkways are, of course, important to seniors. However, what’s often overlooked is that parks need programming that is developed with older adults in mind. A UCLA report on the subject states that:
“the social aspects of open spaces and parks may be more important to some elders than physical amenities.”
How can seniors be better served by our parks? First, we need to account for seniors in our park programming choices. For example, your local park might choose Ghostbusters for a movie in the park, but in certain neighbourhoods a movie like Singing in the Rain might attract a population that could really benefit from getting out with others. What if parks offered lower impact Tai Chi in addition to soccer? What about a book club? A walking group?
Too often, we don’t consider how the programming choices we make exclude older adults. Consider how you can make a point of including older adults in park consultations or community parks groups so they can have a meaningful influence on what happens in their park.
Another important sector of the population living alone are younger adults who have the financial means to live without roomates or parents. In urban centres, like Toronto, many 20-somethings live in apartments and condominiums where space is at a premium. Erik Klinenberg, writing for the Globe and Mail found that:
For young professionals, who are delaying marriage into their late 20s or 30s and taking even longer to have children, it’s a way to achieve adulthood. They see getting a place of their own as a mark of distinction, separating them from peers who live with roommates or family.
However, he goes on to say that this change has important social implications:
Instead of trying to persuade people to live together, we’d all be better off accepting that going solo is a new norm and doing whatever we can to make it a safer, healthier and more social experience.
Think about it: youth under 20 have skate parks and rock climbing, but if you’re 25 and single, what can you do in the park that reduces isolation and builds community in tower communities?
There’s an opportunity to reduce social isolation in dense buildings by using parks as a way for people to meet one another. For example, food is a great way to bring 20-something folks together in parks. Why not hold a small farmers market in a parkette for the foodie set? Host a picnic and invite everyone from the building to eat on blankets in the outdoors. You can host a dance class or reading series in the park. In short, cafés, restaurants, and gyms aren’t the only “third-spaces” where 20-something adults can meet eachother, parks can also play this very important role, and they are far more cost effective.
It’s important to note that women are increasingly living alone. Women are increasingly economically independent, the divorce rate is higher, and women often outlive men. How could our parks better reflect this reality? The United Nations’ Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence Against Women and Girls explains,
“A ‘gendered perspective’ occurs when planners, designers, decision-makers and community actors look at problems with the needs of both women and men in mind. In the planning process, this means that all policies and design interventions should be reviewed by women and by officials in order to determine whether or not they will make women’s lives safer and more convenient.”
What would a gendered perspective on parks look like? It would mean that women of all ages and cultures were part of the planning process and their voices would be included in community park groups. Of course, issues like lighting to create a sense of safety for should be considered, but that’s just the beginning.
A blog post from Misadventures Magazine suggests that we could take on gender discrimination in parks by naming parks after women and by creating women-only activities that give women a leg up in sports that are typically dominated by men.
In short, as more an more Canadians are living alone, our parks can play a more important role than ever in bringing people together to create happier, healthier lives. We need to be very deliberate about planning our spaces with the specific needs of park users in mind.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that winter sucks” – Groomer Dave.
The SJAM Trail is a groomed, multi-use winter trail connecting the Canadian War Museum with parklands along the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway to Westboro Beach, animating spaces that until now have been little used in the winter.
The trail exists thanks to the tireless volunteer efforts of ‘Groomer Dave’ Adams and his team. They groom the trail in a customized snowmobile to make it available for skiing, biking and walking year-round.
2. Camp in the city:
Although not in Ottawa proper, Gatineau Park is an enormous urban park, half the size of the City of Toronto, accessible by bus or bike from downtown.
Fall in Gatineau Park. Photo credit: Xiaozhuli
The park has been home to people for more than 8,000 years, but today it is primarily a natural green space that you can enjoy for the day or stay in overnight by camping, renting a yurt or a cabin.
As Ottawa’s population increases by 50 per cent over the next few years, large green spaces like Gatineau Park will be even more critical to ensuring a livable future.
3. Learn indigenous history by taking a walk in the park:
If you are anything like me, your understanding of Ottawa’s history is pretty much ends at the edge of Parliament Hill. Jaime Koebel aims to change that, by leading walks through Major’s Hill Park, Confederation Park and Lansdowne Park that present public spaces from an indigenous perspective. Learn about Ottawa’s social, cultural and political history and present day through stories that centre the indigenous experience.
4. Keepers of the River:
The Ottawa River is a defining natural feature of the city, and it is lucky enough to be watched over by a fiercely devoted group of Ottawans. Ottawa River Keeper uses education, apps, advocacy and even a patrol boat to protect the river and its future. The organization is one of ten water keepers in Canada – non-governmental ombudsmen who serve as the full-time public advocate for a water body. Ottawans and visitors can download their swim guide app to find the best place to take a dip, or serve as a volunteer river watcher to spot issues like toxic algae blooms.
Ottawa River at Sunset. Photo credit: Bob Kelly.
5. From Burma to Canada:
Of the many working farms in the Greenbelt, the KLEO Karen Community Farm is probably the only place where you can find Chin Baung (roselle) and Mying Khwar (pennywort). These are key flavours in the cuisine of the Karen people, an ethnic minority from Burma who arrived in Canada after fleeing one of the longest-standing civil wars in history. With the help of KLEO, Just Food and other partners, Karen refugees turned to their traditional farming methods, combining them with Canadian agricultural practices to grow high-quality produce for local sale.
Featured image: Sorting the harvest at KLEO Karen Community Farm. photo credit: Just Food.
Creating a new downtown park on city-owned land
If you stand at the corner of Bathurst and Front Street you can still see the old development proposal sign for a mixed-use development that never came to be. And if Councillor Mike Layton’s proposal is approved—and we at Park People think it should—this currently vacant, somewhat triangular 2.3 acre piece of city-owned land will actually become a new park instead.
A staff report going to City Council next week seeks approval to re-designate the land to Open Space, preserving its future as a park. This would remove the ability of the land to be developed into residential or commercial. Before the site became a park, an existing agreement will see a temporary open-air shipping container market set up on the site for two to three years.
The site has a somewhat complex history. It was originally supposed to be part of the Front Street extension, but when that plan was abandoned in 2008 it was declared surplus by the City. In 2011, Council voted to move the property to Build Toronto, which is the development arm of the City that seeks to create value through real estate development.
A year later Build proposed a mixed-use development with three towers on a podium and a small park—the development sign that is there today—which was not supported by City Planning for a number of reasons. Build has said that because of the environmental remediation required, a development that conforms with the planning policies for the site is not financially feasible. City staff note that this same issue makes other mixed-use developments on the site challenging.
And so: a park.
This site is located within the extremely high-growth South Niagara neighbourhood—which is underserved by parkland. In fact, if you stand there today you can watch a new development going up right across the street. The park would also plug into the existing and future public space network in the area, connecting with the extension of the West Toronto Railpath and acting as a green link into the future Rail Deck Park, which would be to the immediate southeast. Its street frontage on Bathurst makes it a highly visible public space and the rail corridor along its southern edge means the park will have a unique view of the Fort York neighbourhood.
While the site is contaminated, as it’s a former location of a lead smelter, cleaning it up (which is estimated to cost at least $4 million) is still much cheaper than purchasing an equivalent-sized piece of land in the area—if you could even find a 2-acre site. Land prices in downtown can range from $30 to $60 million an acre, meaning a 2-acre park could cost as much as $120 million—and that’s just to buy the land, never mind actually design and build the park.
In this super-charged real estate market, it doesn’t just make sense, but becomes a necessity to seize opportunities like already City-owned land to create new public space. It is financially prudent.
For these reasons, we support the staff recommendation and Mike Layton’s proposal to create a new park in this area from this piece of city-owned land. If you do too, please make sure to let your local councillor and the mayor know before April 26.
The Changing Nature of Parks — Interview with Adrian Benepe
JTG:Your work at the Trust for Public Land really takes you across the United States. What are some of the inspiring actions you’ve come across that may not get as much media attention as the High Line and other high-profile park projects?
AB: What I’m seeing is a lot of community-based, small-scale, often even pop-up, interventions. Particularly in crowded cities where real estate acquisition costs are high. Maximizing the use of public spaces by creating multiple benefit public spaces.
In many cities, you’re seeing people converting part-time schoolyards into fulltime community playgrounds. And that’s particularly important in cities that are very densely developed, where you don’t have any more open land to develop into parks. In the conventional model, schoolyards were only used by students during the school day and were locked up in the afternoons, weekends, and holidays. In the new model—something the Trust for Public Land has been doing in a number of cities—you upgrade the schoolyard with the proviso that it must be open to the public anytime it’s not used by the school. So that gives you a very quick and inexpensive ability to create more and better public space.
The other thing you’re seeing is the adapted reuse of marginal lands, of brownfields, former factories, abandoned rail lines, abandoned piers. That’s something that’s common across America. And, in fact, as you know, is common in Canada as well.
JTG:One of the things that we’re doing at Park People is building a national city parks network across the country, that connects community members, city staff, non-profits, and other organizations working in the public realm. The Trust for Public Land acts a little bit like a hub of a US city parks network. What do you think is important about creating a network of park enthusiasts across a country?
AB: We are not that [hub] by ourselves. We’re working with the City Parks Alliance, which is a fulltime urban park advocacy group in the United States, and with the National Recreation and Park Association, which is the business affinity group of park professionals. And with the Urban Land Institute, which works with decision-makers, land owners, and developers who care about public space.
We’re engaged in two areas right now. One is developing something called Park Central, which would be a virtual online community of information about parks, park funding, park management structures, financial measures. That’s part of our overall plan to provide information that allows people to help themselves, whether they’re in government or non-profit, citizens, elected officials. We’re working to develop this Park Central portal with the City Parks Alliance and the NRPA.
We have another partnership with ULI and NRPA, running a 10-minute walk campaign. It’s a grass tops campaign that gets mayors and civic leaders to endorse the concept of making sure that every American living in a city has access to parks within a 10-minute walk of their home.
What we’re finding is a really strong response in cities that mayors are making this part of their agenda along with other vital city services and seeing how important parks are. The one thing we’ve been able to do is convey to mayors the multiple benefits that parks engender. Obviously the public health benefits, environmental benefits, the ecosystem services, the increase in property values, community cohesion, and finally, the intangible that people really need in their lives, which is places for beauty and relaxation.
JTG:I know the Trust for Public Land puts out a lot of really interesting research on subjects like you just mentioned, around the state of parks across the country, the economic value of parks, and their social and health impacts. What’s the importance of putting out this research at a national scale?
AB: If you don’t understand the multiple benefits that parks convey, you can sort of put them at the end of the line of city services. But once you start to understand that you can monetize those values, and show the savings in storm water capture, and show the improvement in health, the reduction in use of air conditioners if you can plant lots of trees and cool the air—once you can gather the data and share them, decision-makers and leaders are much more likely to put funding into parks.
The perfect example is that prior to my coming to the Trust for Public Land [when Benepe was the New York City Parks Commissioner], we used a forest service study to show that for every dollar invested in a street tree in New York City there was a five dollar return in terms of environmental and other benefits. And that was the convincing factor that allowed Mayor Bloomberg to fund the Million Trees project.
JTG:There’s a lot of talk right now about the future of cities. I keep reading articles about smart cities and how driverless cars are going to change things. And how we’re going to have embedded sensors measuring everything. What do you see as the emerging future of city parks?
AB: The elusive holy grail for park managers and advocates, is something I’ve been obsessed with for quite a while. When I was running the New York City parks system, I always wanted to know on a given beautiful day in June how many people were out in the parks and on the beaches and swimming pools. We could only get accurate numbers in places where we were forced to count, where you could monitor access like swimming pools. And then every once in a while people would have a very expensive study done like in Central Park where they figured out there’s about 42 million annual visitors a year.
But for the rest, there’s simply no way of counting people. Now there’s a very simple technology that we’re anxious to try out. Pretty much everyone has some kind of smartphone in their pocket sending out a signal. The technology is right there for the taking to figure out how many people are in the parks on a given day. Where are the busy entrances and where are the busy places? That’s enormously important, because if you’re a park advocate and you can say to a mayor: did you know that last Sunday two million of your eight million residents were out enjoying your parks. That’s pretty powerful. Because nothing is more important to elected officials than votes and voters.
JTG:It kind of reminds me of what we have now when we’re looking up directions on Google and we can see which roads are congested, based on information google has from people’s cell phones.
AB: That’s exactly right. So if we can gather it on the roads we can certainly gather it for parks. And you know, some people say what about privacy issues? Those same privacy issues apply to the cars. It can all be done anonymously. It’s tremendously important. I will give a big award to the telephone or technology company that does a pilot project on this.
JTG:Alright well we’ll see if this throwing down the gauntlet leads to any action on that.
AB: Maybe Canada will do it first.
top photo by Seth Sherman
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Realizing the untapped potential of Canada’s city parks
This blog has been reposted from Spacing.Spacing is a media partner of Canada’s first national conference on city parks, hosted by Park People, in 2017 in Calgary.
Parks make our cities more livable and lovable. They are a critical element of our urban infrastructure, delivering benefits that far exceed their costs, but they are also the places where more and more of us celebrate milestones big and small, and make the connections with our neighbours that help us feel rooted in our communities.
In cities across Canada, municipalities and communities are collaborating on projects that help realize the potential of city parks. Linear parks in cities including Vancouverand Calgary (and an epic cross-country trail on track for completion next year) are connecting communities and creating new routes for walkers and cyclists to enjoy nature and to commute.
Repurposed urban infrastructure, from Montreal’s laneways to St Thomas’ rail bridges and Winnipeg’s former tree nurseries, are being transformed into (sorely needed) new park space. And nearly everywhere, from Ottawa to Whitehorse, community gardeners are using park space to grow food and strengthen communities.
But in Toronto at least, our conversations about new ideas for parks are dominated by examples from the United States and Europe. Cities like New York City and Copenhagen are our models, despite the wealth of park knowledge, expertise and experience that exists in Canada.
The enthusiasm and devotion of urban Canadians to their parks is incredible, but it is not matched by a strong network of park people that extends between cities and even between neighbourhoods. Unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom, there are few opportunities for park enthusiasts to connect and learn from each other. This is particularly true when it comes to community groups, who are dedicated to making their parks better, but are often volunteer-driven and lacking the resources they need to fully realize their visions for their city parks.
That’s why Park People is launching a new national network to connect and support community groups and city park champions across Canada. We believe that park groups, city parks staff, and other city park champions could benefit from a network of peers and partners. Both online and in person, we hope that the network will create connections that help great ideas spread more quickly across the country, and provide park champions with the resources and advice they need to get their projects off the ground.
The network will be shaped by Canadians and will evolve to meet the needs of park people across the country. Ultimately, we hope that the network will help local groups build the case for community involvement and transformative investment in their parks, while also creating a strengthened, collective, national voice in support of city parks.
As a first step, park people from across the country are coming together to connect and learn from each other at the first ever national conference on city parks in Calgary in March 2017. Although there are many great connections that can be made online, we have learned through our annual Toronto Park Summit that the magic of a face-to-face gathering of park enthusiasts is hard to replicate. Applications are open to all, and bursaries are available to ensure cost is not a barrier for community groups and non-profit staff.
Our city parks hold so much untapped potential to make our communities more resilient and inclusive. By creating a network that allows us to support and inspire each other, Canadians from coast to coast to coast will be able to realize that potential.
A Closer Look at Ryerson’s Public Realm Plan
One of my favourite little islands of quiet green space in downtown Toronto is a hidden grassy field a one-minute brisk walk away from Yonge-Dundas Square. It’s one of those unique moments where you can be right in the thick of thousands of people with video screens screaming ads at you and then quickly melt away into a quiet park surrounded by sleepy classroom buildings and a big open patch of green.
Ryerson’s campus plugs right into the heart of downtown in a way that the University of Toronto—my former campus—doesn’t. It’s streets, green spaces, laneways, sidewalks, and plazas form a network that seamlessly connects into the pulsing city around it.
That’s why we should pay attention when Ryerson proposes a new public space master plan that aims to transform its public space network, including streets, into something that is safer, people-focused, and accessible. It’s not just a redesign that will benefit students, but residents and visitors to downtown. And, if it’s done right, it could act as an important example of what’s possible in other neighbourhoods.
At the heart of the master plan, and of the campus itself, is Gould Plaza—one of the City of Toronto’s largest experiments (the largest?) in repurposing road space as public space for people. Closed to traffic as a temporary pilot in 2011, the open space on Gould Street quickly became a magnet for people and activity.
The plan proposes a simple, but important design fix to make the plaza permanent: raising the surface up so it’s flush with the sidewalks around it. Even though the street is closed to all traffic, pedestrians still, out of force of habit perhaps, use the sidewalks that line its edges.
If completed, this would mirror the high-profile pedestrianization of New York’s Times Square, where a similar pilot project to create space for people was made permanent by raising the pavement. It’s amazing what a small change in grade and materials can do for a space to make it more comfortable and inviting–not to mention accessible. Goodbye, curbs!
Also included in the plan, are ideas to make the laneways on campus—Victoria and O’Keefe—more inviting and usable for people by including lighting and art features. The plan doesn’t go too deeply into what’s possible in each of these laneways, which is a disappointment, but they could really be used as a template for other laneways downtown if we do them right. I know the City of Toronto and the Downtown Yonge BIA have been actively working on how to transform these laneways for quite some time, so hopefully we’ll see some of that move forward.
Finally, the plan proposes creating pedestrian-priority streets on other key streets leading into the campus. While these will still allow car travel, they will be raised up and treated with different paving, signalling to cars that they’ve entered a pedestrian-priority space. This treatment of streets to make them safer and more pleasant for people is a useful lesson beyond the campus that could be implemented in other neighbourhoods. In fact, it’s used at some intersections already in the University of Toronto campus along Huron Street.
I hope the University steps up with the necessary funding to make these improvements a reality because, if implemented, they could lead the way in Toronto to re-imagining the potential of our streets not as simply places to move cars, but places for people.
Jake Tobin Garrett, is Manager of Policy and Research at Park People.
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