This is the first in a series of posts exploring the opportunity and need for “Rail Deck Park,” a proposal for an iconic new park in downtown Toronto, launched by Mayor Tory one year ago today. Future posts will dive into international and local examples of similar projects and explore the funding options, partnerships and innovative ideas that will help turn this vision into a reality.
Toronto’s downtown is in need of a large park. This was the conclusion of a study into park needs across the entire city—not in the last year, or even in the last five, but fully 16 years ago. In 2001, the City’s parkland strategy pointed out that downtown was underserved by parks, but particularly by larger ones. In 2017, after years of explosive growth, the need has only become greater.
But where to find space for a large park in an area where high-rise towers are being squeezed into ever smaller and smaller parcels of land? That’s why the 21 acres of ‘air space’ between Spadina and Blue Jays Way has started to look mighty attractive as a space to create a new park by decking over the rail corridor. It is the last remaining opportunity to build a major new park in downtown Toronto.
It’s not that downtown doesn’t have great parks. It does—121 of them, in fact. But fully three quarters of these parks are smaller than 0.5 hectares or about 1.25 acres. There are only five of what the City calls district parks in the downtown (over 12 acres), the largest of which—the lovely Corktown Common—is 18 acres.
Why does size matter here? Because while small parks are great, they don’t allow for the kinds of use and amenities that larger ones do—namely, recreational activities like sports, but also community and special events. A 21-acre “Rail Deck Park” in the rail corridor is not going to be a silver bullet for downtown park needs, but it will help satisfy rapidly growing demand for more, and larger, green spaces. It’s equivalent to building a new Christie Pits or Withrow Park.
The rail corridor is not just the only spot left to create a large park downtown; it’s also in the area where it’s needed most. It’s close to major attractions like the Rogers Centre and the CN Tower, which draw millions of visitors each year, but also some of the densest and fastest growing neighbourhoods in Toronto.
Looking at the numbers for residential development growth in the areas surrounding the rail corridor is the very meaning of the phrase “off the charts.” These neighbourhoods have quintupled in size in the last 20 years—from just under 17,000 people to over 90,000 today. Much of that super-charged growth has been in those places immediately north and south of the rail corridor in King-Spadina and the Railway Lands. Here population has increased from 945 people in 1996 to a staggering 38,000 currently—with a projected combined population of over 71,000 people by 2041. While you pick your jaw up off the floor, remember that this growth is far, far more than what was originally planned for these areas.
Keep in mind too that many of these parks are also used by the flood of visitors and workers that come into downtown every day—the daily downtown population swells from approximately 275,000 to 860,000 when you account for these groups. Downtown parks are not just for those who live downtown. Over 8 million visits were made to parks in neighbourhoods around the rail corridor last year alone, including attendance at festivals and special events.
Hidden behind these numbers is your experience as a local resident, worker, or visitor to these parks. More and more people using relatively small parks for more and more types of activities is a recipe for conflicting uses—think picnics in the outfield—and ongoing maintenance challenges.
That’s why we need the entire rail corridor area for park space, rather than for yet more development. It’s far easier to find space to build new residential units or office towers in Toronto than it is to find space appropriate for a large park.
But the idea for Rail Deck Park is not just about creating new green space—it’s also about making connections. It won’t come as a surprise that the rail corridor currently acts as a huge barrier to people living, working, and playing in the areas around it. Crossing its expanse is not easy and relegated to a few roads or pedestrian bridges. Decking over the corridor and creating a park will provide more routes for walking and cycling—boosting the ability of people to get around in a safer more attractive environment.
Then there’s an idea to create a truly integrated network of new and exist parks through downtown Toronto developed as part of the City’s parks and public realm plan for the downtown. The aptly named “Stitch” is a vision to create a more connected system that allows greater access to the waterfront, addresses the barriers created by the Gardiner and the rail corridor, and enhances access to those travelling east-west across the downtown.
Rail Deck Park is a critical piece to that growing system, returning the area above the rail corridor back to the city as public green space and creating a new, much-needed neighbourhood amenity. And as a signature park in the city—much like other signature parks like High Park, Centennial, Earl Bales, and Guild—Rail Deck Park must serve more than those who live around it. It can, and must be, an invitation to all of Toronto to enjoy.
Jake Tobin Garrett is manager of policy and planning for Park People, a charity that builds strong communities by animating and improving parks.