What TOcore means for downtown parks and public spaces

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

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


A focus on knitting together existing parks and open spaces 

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

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

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

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A push for more neighbourhood-level parks planning

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

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

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

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

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


More protection for sunlight in parks

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

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


A stronger focus on partnerships and community participation

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

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

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A land-first policy for downtown park acquisition

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

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

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

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


Integrate green infrastructure within parks planning

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

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

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

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


Reimagine streets as part of our public space system

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


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

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

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


Bring this thinking outside the downtown

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

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

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

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

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