Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, Toronto's parks could be better than ever.
The public consensus on city parks is mixed. On one side are those who love the green space, conceptualizing parks as common area to congregate and frolic. On the other are those who see them as wasted space, or places for those up to no good to meet.
But at the heart of the debate is a similar sentiment: how can we make our parks system better?
That was among questions that led this year’s sixth annual Park Summit at Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park this past weekend. The summit provides the opportunity for park leaders, city officials, and design professionals to annually share ideas on how to improve our parks.
This year’s theme focused on how to make parks the core of our communities, and featured discussions between four community group leaders representing Winter Stations, The Green Line, For Youth Initiative and the Flemingdon Urban Fair Committee. The conference featured not just local but international experts, including a presentation from keynote speaker David Escobar-Arango, who planned a series of public libraries set in city parks in Medellin, Colombia.
Based on this weekend’s discussions, here are six ways to improve our city’s parks system.
1. Re-conceptualizing our streets
Parks cover 13 per cent of the city’s land area, while 22 per cent is made up of streets, according to a recent report by Park People. Jake Tobin Garrett, research manager for Park People, says our streets can be adapted into parks to accommodate different seasons of the year. Drawing from projects, such as the redesign of Berczy Park and Market Street, Garrett says we can use these as models for transforming small parks and downtown public spaces. “Market Street is a really interesting example of a street reconstruction that created a more flexible street so that in the winter, you have space for car parking,” he says. “When the warmer weather comes and people actually want to spend time on the street, [the city] shrinks the amount of car space available and increases the amount of pedestrian spaces.”
2. Providing more public amenities for condo dwellers
The number of people able to afford their own homes and backyards is shrinking in Toronto. As more people move into condominiums and smaller living units, fewer have their own public spaces. Helena Grdadolnik, urban designer and associate director at Workshop Architecture, says we should be looking at parks as “an extension of our living space and all the needs that people would have for that.” She suggests adding certain amenities to local parks to accommodate activities, such as barbecues and picnics.
3. Allowing for a little more fun and creativity
In 2012, Grdadolnik held a design competition for transforming the hydro corridor, a five-kilometre leftover site located on the edge of downtown Toronto. Among the 77 proposals submitted by designers around the world, a number of innovative ideas were suggested, such as using the corridor for natural stormwater management and creating wildlife habitat. “We often have a formula for parks: there’s play space, there’s some grass and trees, and there might be an area where you can run your dog,” Grdadolnik says. She adds that a design competition for a specific park in the city could allow for some new thinking on how to customize local parks to fit community needs.
4. Investing in existing parks
According to a recent report from Park People, one of the biggest challenges for our city’s urban neighbourhoods is finding suitable spaces for new parks. Land is also incredibly expensive downtown and can sell for up to $60 million per acre in some areas. “With developers, they’re always trying to get new park space from the city,” says Grdadolnik. “We have a lot of parks that are not in the best repair, and they might be well used but not well loved in terms of how much investment we give to them.” Grdadolnik suggests investing in what we have and if we can, put that funding to existing parks to make them better and more usable.
5. Incorporating pop-up architecture to underused parks
At this year’s Park Summit, attendees discussed how to attract diverse crowds to local parks without taking away from the surrounding neighbourhood. Architecture writer Lisa Rochon told the audience that young and old crowds came out in huge numbers to engage with this year’s Winter Stations art installations, which are temporarily showcased at beaches across the city. “What [people] love is the idea of pop up architecture—they don’t always feel comfortable going into a museum and art gallery in a kind of situational institution that imposes certain rules or regulations,” she said. “There’s a certain freedom and liberty around walking in a landscape and just choosing how you want to experience art.” Rochon added these temporary installations, which will be dismantled on Mar. 20, allow “public space to flourish and be celebrated without being coopted by commercial interests [and] corporate interests.”
6. Creating more opportunities to produce and sell food in parks
According to a 2010 report for the Melcalf Foundation, farmers’ markets have, in recent years, expanded into affluent neighbourhoods across the city. One of the report’s recommendations was to prioritize the expansion of food markets into less affluent neighbourhoods and “food deserts,” or “communities in the city without easy access to grocery and food stores.” Nawal Ateeq, director of the Flemingdon Urban Fair Committee, says creating food stands and urban farms in parks can provide equitable food and farming opportunities for those in low-income communities. Ateeq says her committee is currently looking at starting an urban farm in the hydro corridor that runs through Flemingdon Park, a “neighbourhood comprised mostly of people living below the poverty line.”
A previous version of this story misspelled Helena Grdadolnik’s name in two instances. They have been corrected. Torontoist regrets the error.