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.

To build parks and recreation facilities, we also need to invest in people

This week, Toronto City Council approved a new 20-year Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan. The plan is a massive document that will guide how the City spends hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two decades on new community centres, pools, skating rinks, cricket fields, basketball courts, and more. If you want to read the whole thing you can do so here, but the City has also packaged it up in a nicer (and shorter) document.

There’s obviously a lot in the plan, but I want to focus in on one thing: the capital spending rate.

Wait, don’t leave. I know it sounds boring, but it’s actually incredibly important because it determines how fast the city can build what it says it’s going to build. Ever wonder why that park revitalization is taking so long or why that community centre promised years go is still just lines on some architect’s paper?

Toronto’s track record of spending its parks budget on actually building things each year isn’t great. In fact, the City regularly only spends about half of what it budgets each year. As city staff write: “[Parks, Forestry & Recreation’s] spending rates have been declining and are currently around 50% of annual allocations.” It’s projected to be 60% this year.

Why is this happening? Again, in the words of city staff: “To improve the efficiency and speed of delivery and capital spending, it is essential that capital investment be supported by an increase in staff and resources in capital planning and construction management.” Put simply: the City needs more staff, like project managers and purchasers, to deliver projects each year.

Budgets are interdependent. If you reduce staffing levels because you want to decrease your operating budget (as City divisions are often tasked with doing), then you affect your capital budget by limiting what you can realistically build that year. Conversely, if you build new parks and facilities, you are going to increase the pressure on your operating budget – every new park or facility needs money for maintenance, staff and programming. You can’t pull one end without affecting the other.

Why does all of this matter in the context of this new Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan? Because if City Council underinvests in park operations (aka staff) and maintenance, then this 20-year facilities master plan starts to look more like a 40- or 45-year master plan.

City budget time is coming up—the time of year when our politicians have the opportunity to invest in our city’s growth. Watch carefully. A key way City Councillors can support the Parks and Recreation Master Plan this year is to fund the necessary staff required to build and maintain parks and recreation facilities across the city for generations to come.

Image of the forthcoming community centre in CityPlace from ZAS Architects

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.

IMG_2984

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.

Click here to sign Councillor Layton’s petition.

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