Toronto Green-Space Boosters Gather for a Park Summit
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Toronto Green-Space Boosters Gather for a Park Summit

Robert Hammond, the guy behind New York City's High Line, gave a keynote address for some of Toronto's most committed park advocates.

The High Line in New York City. Photo by {a href="[email protected]/5859380380/"}Ed Kwon{/a}.

Robert Hammond didn’t know he was a park person when he looked up at the abandoned steel structure—once home to a freight railway line—cutting through his New York City neighbourhood. He only knew he didn’t want the thing torn down.

Now, almost 13 years after Hammond and fellow abandoned-railway-line lover Joshua David met at a community meeting, the two are responsible for turning that 1.45-mile industrial relic into the High Line, one of New York City’s most celebrated public spaces.

Though Hammond is officially the co-founder and executive director of High Line, he hesitates to take much credit for the project. “We just raised the flag, and people came to us with ideas,” he said in his keynote address at Park People’s second annual Toronto Park Summit at the Evergreen Brick Works on Saturday.

When Hammond and David teamed up, they were a pair of busy New Yorkers. David was a travel writer and Hammond was a “part-time artist and internet businessman.” They had, according to a Hammond, “no money, no plan, and no relevant experience” when it came to their new pet project, but it’s that killer combo of cluelessness and pennilessness that he credits in part for the High Line’s success. That, and the fact that they didn’t let those things stop them from starting something, even if they didn’t know what the something was. Hammond says a collaborative, bottom-up approach helped shape the High Line into what it is now.

Listening to Hammond praise collaboration, it’s easy to understand why Park People, the local organization that produced the Toronto Park Summit, chose him as the keynote speaker. As Park People Executive Director David Harvey said in his opening address, the organization, which serves as an umbrella organization for local park volunteer groups and advocates for parks across the city, is quickly becoming the “citywide voice for parks.” And that’s kept the group pretty busy in its first year of existence.

Robert Hammond delivers his keynote. Photo courtesy of Park People.

Staying true to the organization’s themes of collaboration and community building, the walls of the meeting room at the Evergreen Brick Works were adorned with interactive posters and maps, encouraging people to identify their local park and share ideas for park improvement. (Under “Ideas to get more people into parks,” a sticky note written in the unset scrawl of a child said, simply, “A slide!”) And after Hammond had finished speaking, Jane Farrow moderated what she called “speed dating with people who make differences in parks,” which can also be described as brief presentations and discussions from local park groups, including the people behind the East Lynn farmers’ market, Mabelle Arts, Jeff Healey Park, the Wabash Buildling Society, and Trinity-Bellwoods’ Adopt-A-Tree program.

Emily Atherton was technically at the summit for work, but she came away from it seeing park work as people work, too. Atherton works for the St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA, which is in the midst of redesigning St. James and Berczy Parks, so she was happy to hear from the presenters and audience alike. “It was nice to hear what local parks are doing,” she said. “To hear what works for them, and what could work for us.

“I think it’s great that there’s a whole bunch of people who are so dedicated to parks,” she added. “And it’s not even neccessarily people who work in parks, like for the City; it’s just people in the community who want to make their parks a better place.”

The park people that came out for Saturday’s summit ranged from volunteers representing “Friends of…” park groups, to city councillors, to landscape architects, to artists, to kids, to Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy.

Park supporters, much like parks themselves, come in all shapes and sizes.