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.





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.

Bill 108: New Ontario government rules are bad for parks and bad for cities

Last week, the Provincial government introduced Bill 108, which proposed changes to key tools that fund infrastructure and services in Ontario cities, including parks. It will dramatically curtail the ability of cities to provide parks for future generations.

Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro wrote an article detailing these changes and how they impact the ability of cities to pay for new and redeveloped parks.

With so many cities in Ontario rapidly growing and densifying, putting aside land for parks doesn’t just happen–it requires strong regulatory & financial tools. Bill 108 removes or alters many of them.

Park People is alarmed at these changes, the lack of details, the rushed process, and limited ability for municipal and public feedback. We urge the government to slow down and consult with municipalities and the public.

Toronto’s Chief Planner Gregg Lintern provided a good overview of the changes and their impacts to city council. We’ve included some of the images from that presentation in this blog, but you can see the whole thing here.

What happens currently?

Under the current rules in the Planning Act’s Section 42, Ontario cities are allowed to require developers to provide onsite parkland or, if that isn’t feasible or desirable, to provide cities with the cash value of that land. The idea is that cities could then go out and purchase a piece of land somewhere else (nearby, hopefully) to create a park.

The basic premise is that growth pays for growth. New buildings mean new residents mean more demand for parks. Therefore, new buildings should also help provide for that new demand through either land or cash for parks.

This growth pays for growth premise is a critical part of our planning process. It’s also expressed in tools like Section 37 and Development Charges, which can be used for parks. Both tools compel developers to pay for a portion of things like water and sewer infrastructure, transit, daycares, public art, etc. All things that are important for quality places to live.

What’s been proposed?

The bill combines parkland dedication (Section 42) and density bonusing (Section 37) into one tool called a Community Benefit Charge. It severely curtails the ability of cities to require developers to provide parkland onsite. It also removes the ability of cities to use Development Charges, another growth-funding tool, to collect money for parks.

The new rules compel cities to spend the majority of the money they collect each year. This will make it harder for cities to save up for larger park projects and land purchases.

Cities can choose to keep a limited version of the parkland dedication by-law, but one that strips them of the ability to collect land or cash based on number of units built. It would only allow cities to require 5% of the land area of new developments be dedicated to parks. This may seem technical, but it matters. Hugely.

In the high-density developments that we’re seeing in the GTA, basing parkland dedication on land area alone limits the amount of parkland a city can get. Requiring 5% of land area works in lower density subdivisions. But when you have a small site for a high-rise tower, setting aside 5% of the land doesn’t give you much usable park space.

This is why, for decades, the Province has allowed cities to require parkland based on number of units being built–a direct relationship to how many people will be living in a new development.

Under the new provincial rules, even if cities wanted to keep this dramatically limited parkland dedication by-law, it would mean forgoing the ability to institute a Community Benefit Charge. Cities will have to choose.

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 1.01.13 PM

How will this affect parks?

The bill will hinder the ability of cities across Ontario to provide parkland for the future, full stop. This is something we’re already struggling with as land becomes more scarce and expensive. It also throws years of recent planning into disarray.

Many GTA cities, including Toronto, have done a lot of parks planning in the last five years to get a handle on growth. These plans were developed with the ability to fund them through Section 42 in mind.

For example, the billions of dollars needed to fund Toronto’s new recreation facilities master plan, or to build out Richmond Hill’s 2013 Parks Plan. At the very least, scrapping this tool will require revisiting these plans and their financial underpinnings.

In fact, Richmond Hill just went through a prolonged court battle against developers to uphold their Section 42-provided parkland dedication rights to pay for the new parks the city needs for the future. Now that too is thrown into disarray.

Toronto city staff came up with some stark examples of how allowing cities only to require 5% of the site area be dedicated to parks (as opposed to basing it on number of units) would affect recent developments. Spoiler: there would be less park space.


Why should you care?

If you’re reading this, you probably already do care. We don’t have to tell you about the power of parks to promote positive mental health, contribute to biodiversity, create more connected communities, and reduce social isolation. We could keep going, too.

Ultimately this comes down to a sense of responsibility, of a duty to create a livable city for future generations. This is especially urgent because parks are a key piece of infrastructure to help cities adapt to more extreme weather caused by climate change. Canada is warming at twice the rate of other places in the world. Parks aren’t optional. They’re fundamental.

Just think: when you visit a park now, you are the beneficiary of planning that often happened many decades ago.

When we require land from developers to create a new park, we’re not only doing so for current residents, or even the new residents moving in—we’re creating a legacy that will be enjoyed for years to come. This proactive city building is our responsibility.

Has this got you worked up? Go outside to your local park and take a deep breath. Feel more relaxed? Good. That’s one of the many benefits of parks. Now go back inside and write your MPP a strongly worded email.

In fact, here’s a template for you:

I am writing to express concern over Bill 108 and specifically the changes to how cities provide and fund parks through development. This bill removes and alters important tools available to cities that fund critical infrastructure, like parks.

Currently, Bill 108 requires cities to choose between parkland dedication and instituting a community benefit charge. Both are necessary to create livable communities. 

Allowing cities to require onsite parkland dedication is a key tool for growing cities, especially as land prices rise. This makes acquiring land through purchase much more difficult.

Parks are not simply places to relax and play, but critical pieces of infrastructure that help clean air, water, regular temperature, and mitigate the effects of extreme weather.

Please put the brakes on this bill and provide more time to consult with cities and their residents on a responsible way to provide the parks our growing cities need.

Could Toronto be a National Park City? Learnings from London UK

Toronto calls itself “A City Within a Park,” but Daniel Raven-Ellison has taken the concept much, much further. For the past five years he’s actively campaigned to have London, UK declared a National Park City .

“The idea of a national park city is inspiring. It’s a vision that so many people can share and contribute to in their own way,” says Ellison.

On Tuesday, March 19 Park People and Parks Canada will host Daniel Raven-Ellison for a public talk at the YMCA Auditorium on Grosvenor. The talk will focus on his National Park City project and what he’s achieved through his campaign and what’s possible when people living in cities embrace their connection to the natural world.

In 2012 Raven-Ellison, a former geography teacher, walked 1,686 km across all of the UK’s national parks and cities. That’s when the idea for a national park city was born. The goal of the designation is to ultimately change how people think about parks that exist within urban environments, and to help London become 50% green space.

Forging a stronger relationship between people and nature, Daniel Raven-Ellison argues, will improve not only the health of 14,000 species that call London home, but also help build human resilience in the face of climate change.

Raven-Ellison believes that any city could be a National Park City, as long as it has a strong civic society and regional government that is actively doing everything it can to make the city greener, healthier, and wilder.

Could Toronto be a National Park City? We hope you’ll attend this inspiring event cohosted by Park People and Rouge National Urban Park (Parks Canada) and come away with a new view of what’s possible for a city like Toronto.

Learn More:

Learn more about Daniel

Learn more about London National Park City

Learn more about bringing the National Park City movement to more cities

Pumpkin Parade Founder gets to the core of her love of pumpkins

Yes, Pumpkin Parades are a Toronto-born cultural phenomenon. But, do you know the woman behind this great tradition? We sat down with the mastermind behind the 12 years and continuing Pumpkin Parade at Sorauren Park, Colleen Kennedy. And, it turns out that for her, as fabulous though the parades are, they are a happy by-product of what she considers their ultimate benefit- getting people to express their own, inner creativity.

Colleen is a special education assistant with a passion for textile art, photography and all things creative. When her children were small, Colleen would organize a special pumpkin carving night the evening before Halloween. That night, their family would stay in, order pizza and carve their own jack-o-lantern. Even though her kids have now grown, the sculpting of the pumpkins continues to be a treasured tradition for the family.

The idea for Pumpkin Parades came to Kennedy when her husband, Mark, came back from a trip to Nanaimo B.C. “He described to me their pumpkin event held the day after Hallowe’en where people put their lit jack-o-lanterns on fence posts all along a country road,” she says. Inspired by the notion of a darkened space filled with the golden glow of beaming jack-o-lanterns moved them to initiate the first parade solely with the neighbours on her street.


Colleen feels that each jack-o-lantern is a personal piece of art and an expression of individual creativity. However, in the bustle of Halloween night, the jack-o-lantern on the porch sometimes gets overlooked.  Now with the pumpkin parade on the night after Hallowe’en, each pumpkin gets its own chance to shine.

“I think it’s important for us as human beings to create,” Colleen tells us. “Increasingly in our modern culture, people are spending their days with their eyes glued to a screen.  Crafts and Arts in general, bring us back to active hands-on processes.  There’s nothing like the feeling of satisfaction you get when you’ve finished designing and creating your pumpkin.”


It’s true.  In our daily lives, we have fewer and fewer opportunities to partake in creative activities that nourish us. We know that complex creative activities, like pumpkin carving, are good for you.  Recent studies have shown that these kinds of activities can help to alleviate symptoms of stress and depression and give us a general feel good buzz.

Kennedy says that sharing the creativity of carving pumpkins and displaying them collectively with others, “really builds an atmosphere of community and togetherness.”

In the spirit of giving people a safe and inviting environment to showcase their work, Kennedy has tried to keep her parade at Sorauren Park as grassroots, uncommercial and uncompetitive as possible. She doesn’t want anyone to feel their creativity is being judged. People come out to the parade to show off their creations and to marvel at what other people have created. It’s not about being the best of the most extravagant.


At their gooey, pulpy core, Pumpkin Parades are a celebration of creativity, self-expression and community. Here are Colleen’s tips for making the most out of the pumpkin carving experience:

Set aside family time.

Make carving a special occasion for the whole family to sit together and work on their individual crafts. When people are creating together and relaxed and at ease, the conversation tends to flow more easily. Try not to resort to the internet to get ideas for images and designs. Just draw a few ideas of your own on paper and then pick the one you like.

Make it accessible to everyone.

Very young kids may not be able to carve intricate designs, but they can be creative. Whether they decide to draw on their pumpkin, stick on glittery stickers, everyone should get in the act. Remember, some seniors may have mobility issues that may make traditional carving a bit tricky.

No judging.

There’s no such thing as a good or bad pumpkin design, just overly judgey people. Put aside judgement (even of yourself!) and let creativity rule.

Get messy.

In our daily lives we tend to be so tidy! Carving pumpkins is a chance to get your hands dirty and make a mess. Lay out the old newspapers and get in there and have some fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To download a PDF of the platform, click here.

Paying for parks


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reform park levies to better fund park development across the city

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

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

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

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

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

People in parks

Sean regent park bake oven

Wrap funding for engagement and programming within park development budgets

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

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

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

Series of images of a volunteer tree planting event

photo by Matt Forsythe

Better enable community programming

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

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

Planning for parks


Prioritize park system connectivity

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

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

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

Invest in parks that create a more climate resilient city

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


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

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

Build more seating and more variety of seating in parks

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


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

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

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


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 at Happy 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.


Photo Credit: Nathaniel F, Robson Square

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.


Photo Credit: Prince’s Island, Wendy Cutler

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.




Park Summit 2018: A Serious Look at Play

Ralph Waldo Emerson got it right when he said: “It’s a happy talent to know how to play.” This year’s Park Summit presenters have this talent nailed down. Each has a unique ability to cultivate playfulness among targeted audiences to reach particular goals.

Yes, it can feel odd to speak so seriously about play, but creating intentional outcomes using play requires serious planning and consideration.  As speakers from both Montreal and Toronto demonstrated, it’s critical to determine what you want to achieve through play to deploy it most effectively. The presentations our Park Summit speakers shared offer many lessons for those of us trying to figure out how to use play to create impact-both among park and public space users and the key stakeholders who make decisions about how space does, and does not, get used.


The act of seduction

Marie-Hélène Roch, Founding Member of Ruelle No 13 project, a white laneway in Montreal’s Villeray neighbourhood, spoke about creating a space that entices people to play during cold winter months. She said:

“Together we’re trying to create a cocoon that’s conducive to gathering.”

Sometimes the snowy laneway is a cocoon formed of active play like hockey or fort-building, and other times it’s a cocoon of warm, delicious food that seduces people to leave their living rooms and come outside to break bread.


Marie-Hélène highlighted the seductive powers of food in particular when discussing Ruelle No 13 project’s participation in Restaurant Day, a worldwide festival of people organizing their own pop up food events in shared spaces. Bringing Restaurant Day to the snowy laneway helped Ruelle No 13 lure people into the space to enjoy the benefits of gathering together and experiencing new possibilities for their shared, underused space.


Be present for play

Janelle, from Green Change at Toronto’s Jane-Finch Community Centre, has her own take on what it takes to entice people to play together. In short, Janelle’s strategy is: just keep showing up. When Janelle was trying to activate Oakdale Park, a large, but underused park in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, she made a point of being consistently present in the park. Being in the park, day in and day out, allowed people in the neighbourhood to get to know Janelle, and eventually engage in conversations and build trust.

Gradually, Janelle was able to connect with neighbourhood kids who had a vested interest in the park’s success. The kids collectively worked on securing a shade structure for their park. With Janelle’s guidance, the kids collected data, built prototypes and spoke to the local City Councillor to advocate for the shade structure. Spoiler alert: they got it!!

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Janelle treats children like “park royalty” because they know their park and understand its inner workings more than we ever give them credit for. This approach to kids allows Janelle to tap-into their wisdom, energy and unique perspective, and harness it to make the park better for the entire community.


Building home through p

Lisa Dietrich, a volunteer with CultureLink’s NEATWalks (Newcomers Explore and Appreciate Toronto) program, focused on the importance of active engagement in public spaces to build a sense of belonging among newcomers. As Lisa said:

As soon as we physically engage with –maybe even shape– our environment, it changes our relationship with this space. Active engagement creates a sense of control over our environment. And with this control comes a sense of security, of ownership, of belonging.

As Lisa emphasized, “active engagement” can be as simple as throwing rocks or as complex as an organized scavenger hunt. These experiences help build newcomers’ relationship to a new geography and establish a new sense of home.


Making the pitch for play

Caroline Magar, Development Coordinator at Montreal’s Les Amis du Champs des Possibles, had advice on how park groups can “play well with others.” In particular, Caroline’s presentation underscored the importance of understanding how to influence stakeholders and build a shared vision of a public space.


Les Amis du Champ des Possibles has transformed a Montreal rail line into a semi-wild place where people can experience nature in a high-density neighbourhood. However, historical contamination has limited the groups ability to host formal events in the space.

Caroline has taken it upon herself to become an expert on contamination issues and how to remediate the land in order to have credibility among key stakeholders and make informed decisions about the land’s future. Embracing the more scientific and technical dimensions of the project has been a tremendous help in turning an unusual and inspiring space into a public place where people can safely experience the wild.


Help people see themselves in play


Finally, in her keynote presentation, Mouna Andraos, co-founder of design studio daily tous les jours, shared how her projects deliberately diverge from conventional ideas of play in order to appeal to audiences who may otherwise be reluctant to join in the fun.

In fact, Mouna specifically took aim at the word ‘play’ because it’s a term that is generally associated with children. In her experience, the term can undermine the seriousness of creative endeavours, like those of her firm. The large, public installations that Mouna and her team create using cutting edge technology in public spaces utilize unexpected adult colours and are situated in public places not generally associated with play. These interactive installations are able to seduce adult audiences because they are unlike other objects we conventionally associate with play.

For example, one of the firm’s installations, entitled Hello Trees!, invites people walking along a busy promenade to stop and send a message to nature that is then translated into beautiful sound and light patterns travelling along arches that connect the trees above, providing a canopy for participants below.  As explained on their website:

The result is an immersive, light animated, crowd-sourced concerto. It is a poetic exercise that encourages slowing down and engaging all the senses with the nature that surrounds us.


Hello trees! from Daily tous les jours on Vimeo.

Mouna’s presentation highlighted that creating new ways to play requires having systems in place that support creative exploration and collaboration. She specifically pointed to the Quartier des Spectacles district in Montreal, which created a centralized permitting department to provide a one-stop-shop for artists, park groups and community groups to secure the permits and permissions necessary to activate the space. The simplicity of this model allows groups who may not otherwise be willing or able to go through multiple bureaucratic processes to bring their vision to life.


All in all it was an awesome Park Summit. Thank you to the 400+ people who attended and who work diligently to activate the power of parks in Toronto, Montreal, and across Canada. Also, thanks to the many presenters and our moderator Christina Hug, who made us look so good.

A very special thank you is owed to our Presenting Sponsor, TD Bank Group, who has supported the Park Summit from the start and makes it possible for us to host this incredible event.


You can access available presentations and relevant media below:

Thank you to the Park Summit Presenting Sponsor


Thank you to our Sparking Change supporters for helping underserved park groups attend the Park Summit



Indigenous History of Toronto Parks

Recently, Park People staff and many community park groups embarked on an Indigenous tour of Toronto’s eastern neighbourhoods. For many of us, it was the first time we came to understand how Indigenous people fit into the narrative of the land that the city of Toronto now occupies.

First Story Toronto, the organization that led the bus tour, has been researching and preserving the Indigenous history of Toronto to bring awareness to Indigenous contributions to the city since 1995. We started out by learning the names of the many Indigenous nations: the Wendat, Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Six Nations), and Mississaugas of New Credit First nation, that lived on this territory in succession long before the arrival of Europeans. 

We learned much more on the Indigenous tour which is highlighted here:

Many sites on the Don

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Photo Credit: Viv Lynch

Torontonians today are not the first to appreciate the incredible vistas overlooking the Don Valley. Some village sites along the Don River have been occupied for the last 4000 years. These villages and camps offered an excellent vantage point to see the comings and goings of animals and people along the trail that once extended all the way to Lake Simcoe along the bank of the Don River.

Savannah Landscapes


Photo Credit: Jon Hayes

Indigenous landscapes still punctuate Toronto’s ecosystems. The oak savannahs of High Park, the Beaches and Rosedale were managed continuously for thousands of years by the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Wendat peoples and their ancestors. Oak savannahs were created and managed using fire to prevent new understory plants from establishing, leaving an open landscape punctuated with large oak or beech trees. This made it easier to hunt and grow different plant species. The first peoples in the region called the now Don River by the name of Wonscotonach (one of the names of the Don River), which means “bright burning area,” referring to the management technique practiced there.

Indigenous routes

Before the cement paths were laid and before the European newcomers stepped foot on what is now called Toronto, Indigenous peoples walked these lands and created multiple trails around the Toronto area. One example is Davenport road which follows the base of the bluffs where the former shoreline of Lake Ontario was situated 13,000 years ago. This trail connected all the way to Hamilton on the west side and to Kingston, Ontario on the east. Next time you’re walking on an old winding road in Toronto, ask yourself if this could have been a First Nations trail.


Plan of Dundas Street, created in 1795 by Surveyor General D.W. Smith, (Ontario Archives)


The Indigenous word Gete-Onigaming, which means old portage trail, is included in the Davenport Road street sign at Spadina Road. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Sacred Mounds


Tabor Hill Park holds a sacred and ancient history. In 1950’s when Scarborough was being developed, a Wendat burial site was uncovered. When moving their villages, the Wendat peoples (who the Europeans called the Huron) practiced a special burial ceremony. They dug out individual graves, cleaned each of the bones thoroughly, had a celebration where they dug and filled a trench with the mixed bones. The mound was created when earth was laid on top to cover the bones. These mounds can be found in different areas across Toronto, when you encounter one it is important to remember you are in the presence of a sacred space.

John Johnson from First Story shared one interpretation of the mound: where the mound represents Mother Earth’s womb where death can become re-birth in the cycle of life.

Dr. Oronhytekha


During our stop at Guild Park in Scarborough, we encountered a piece of the Temple Building from the independent order of foresters, once located in downtown Toronto. Here began the story of Dr. Oronhytekha. Dr. Oronhytekha was a Mohawk who attended a residential school. He started his university education at England’s Oxford University but was unable to finish because he had not received permission from the Church of England’s agent to leave his reserve.  He persevered with his medical studies and became Canada’s second Indigenous doctor and the first non-white member and a Supreme Chief Ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters.

While he had spent much time in a Victorian society, Dr. Oronhytekha maintained a strong connection to his Indigenous roots and advocated for Indigenous peoples’ right to vote and for women to be treated more fairly. When he passed away in 1907 his body laid in state for 3-4 days and over 10,000 people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people paid their respects. To learn more about his story, check First Story’s blog.

We want to thank First Story, a program at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto devoted to researching and sharing Toronto’s Indigenous heritage through a variety of popular educational initiatives and our guides Jon Johnson and Amber Sandy for sharing such important histories of the past and present indigenous history in Toronto.

For more information visit First Story’s website for information on free tours, download their app, or have them lead a tour for your organization!


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.

Guild Park & Gardens, Scarborough

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.


Rouge Beach, Scarborough

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.

Humber River Trail, Etobicoke

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.

Edwards Gardens, North York

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.

Scarborough Butterfly Trail, Scarborough 

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.

Trillium Park, downtown 

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.


Grange Park, downtown

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.

City Cider, Spadina House (Sept 17, 12pm – 5pm)

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.

On Common Ground, Fort York Historic Site & The Bentway (Sept 15 – 17)

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.

OpenStreetsTO, Yonge & Bloor Streets (Sept 17, 10am – 2pm)

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.

Butterflyway Parade, Kew Beach (Sept 17, 1pm – 6pm)

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.

What we can learn from Copenhagen’s plan to create a more climate-resilient city

As the images of flooding and damage in Houston from Hurricane Harvey continue on the front pages of newspapers and on social media, it’s a good moment to think about how ready Canadian cities are for managing extreme weather.

As we wrote about in our Resilient Parks, Resilient City park solutions brief last month, climate change in Canada is leading to more and more extreme weather, causing stress on our urban environments. This includes droughts and heat waves, but also heavy rainfall that can lead to flash floods and long-lasting damage to our cities.

Toronto just experienced what climate change means in a very real way when heavy spring rain caused flooding that closed Toronto Islands for most of the summer. Parts of Montreal have also experienced flooding from heavy rainfall this year. And only a few years ago, Calgary experienced severe flooding that caused the evacuation of neighbourhoods and killed several people.

All of this was on my mind when I went to the City Parks Alliance’s Greater Greener conference in Minneapolis/St. Paul at beginning of August where I was able to hear Lykke Leonardsen speak. Leondardsen works in sustainability at the City of Copenhagen and spoke about that city’s climate adaptation plan (well worth a read) and cloudburst management strategy which relies heavily on green infrastructure investments.

We covered green infrastructure and its different elements in the Resilient Parks park solutions brief, so I won’t go into detail about that here. But I do want to share a bit about what I heard from Leonardsen at the conference and the amazing, forward-thinking work that Copenhagen is doing to climate-proof their city by rethinking their streets, parks, and other public spaces to transform stormwater from a liability into a celebrated resource. There is much we can learn in Canada from Copenhagen’s approach.

Build parks to flood

By now people are likely familiar with the idea of parks being designed as places that can also capture and hold water during storms or protect a city from flooding. We have some great examples in Toronto, including Corktown Common, which we covered in our Resilient Parks, Resilient Cities report.

But Copenhagen is taking this a step further, engineering public spaces, both hard-surfaces and soft green areas, to hold water and use it as a resource in the park. Their newly built Tasinge Plads (title picture) captures not just the rain water that falls on the park, but water from the surrounding neighbourhood during storms. This helps reduce flooding, but it also creates a unique park where large upturned umbrellas capture additional rainwater and create a playful element.

A park built to flood doesn’t have to be green, however. It can be a hard-surface plaza, basketball court, or other playing surface that is designed to capture water during a storm, transforming it into a kind of reflecting pool while the water drains away–like Copenagen’s Enghave Park.


Create rivers out of streets

Part Copenhagen’s plan calls for Cloudburst Boulevards, which, despite being beautifully poetic, perform a very important function when it rains. These boulevards are designed with depressions, like bioswales, and other graded-areas that essentially become small streams during heavy rainfall events, slowing down, soaking up, and guiding rainwater.

It also has the added benefit of creating what could be a really delightful amenity from the water that we usually see rushing down the gutter, picking up cigarette butts and other garbage along the way, before pooling around clogged drains on city streets. Apologies for the poor image quality below, but this is a picture I took during Leondardsen’s presentation of a Cloudburst Boulevard in action. You can see more images in this presentation.


Find a win-win-win solution

Finally, all of this will actually save Copenhagen money. And not just a little bit, but a huge amount. Forget for a moment the cost of damage from storms (although it can be huge–Toronto’s July 2013 storm caused $1 billion in property damage insurance claims), which this plan will surely help mitigate. Focus instead on the cost of just implementing the infrastructure improvements to cope with extreme weather and increased rainfall. Copenhagen’s plan, which relies on a combination of green infrastructure elements and more traditional “grey” infrastructure (like pipes and treatment plans), will cost less than half of what it would have cost to implement a plan based entirely on grey infrastructure.

That’s an impressive saving. But there’s more. Because green infrastructure also usually results in new and improved public spaces and parks, you get the added benefit of a stormwater infrastructure investment that also provides a visible public recreational and aesthetic benefit.

Save money, build infrastructure, improve public space. That’s a nice set of wins.

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