Building on Toronto’s park legacy
This is the second in a series of posts exploring Rail Deck Park. Future posts will dive into international examples of similar projects and the funding mechanisms that could be used to pay for the park.
The beauty of a good park is that once it’s been built it feels like it’s always been there—we can’t imagine our neighbourhood or city without it. But of course, parks don’t just happen. It takes forward-looking planning and political will to set aside a piece of land for public use, rather than a private, for-profit development.
It can be easy to forget that our favourite parks, both large and small, didn’t exist ten, twenty, or forty years ago. We assume that they were created by simply walling off an ancient forest or meadow as the city grew up around it. But in reality most of our parks are intentionally created spaces, often carved out of the urban environment and given back as spaces for both nature and community to flourish.
As we begin to plan our next major new urban park—Rail Deck Park—it’s important to look back at this legacy of park building in Toronto.
Over the past few months, Park People and the City of Toronto have collaborated on a series of public walks through some of our city’s signature park spaces: Guild Park in Scarborough, Centennial Park in Etobicoke, and Earl Bales Park in North York. We explored how these spectacular large parks came to be, their Indigenous histories, their unique features, and their importance to both their local neighbourhoods and the city as a whole.
What’s common to them all is that they were never originally intended to become public parks. Earl Bales Park was a farm and orchard, then sold off as a golf course, and then opened as a public park in 1975. You can still see the imprints of these past uses in the undulating lawn where the golf tees used to be.
Centennial Park, opened for Canada’s 100th birthday, contains a unique urban ski hill that is actually an old landfill. If you sift through photos at the Toronto Archives you can see how much that hill has changed over the decades. Today it’s alive with the sounds of insects and wildlife that live in the naturalized areas along its slopes. You would never know, gazing from its summit, at views of Toronto and Mississauga, that you were standing atop a giant mound of age-old refuse.
And then there’s Guild Park, set atop the Scarborough Bluffs, which for a long-time served as one of Toronto’s most prominent artists’ colonies. Established by Rosa and Spencer Clark in the early 20th century, it was long a place for artists to come and produce art. But what makes the park a true gem is its collection of Toronto’s lost architectural wonders – sculptures, friezes and other artifacts salvaged by the Clarks before heritage protection became a matter of public interest. (For example, the park includes remnants of the now-demolished Temple Building—built in part by Dr. Oronhytekha, a Mohawk physician who worked to broadly expand insurance benefits before his death in 1907.) This wonderful park, brought into public ownership in 1978, offers visitors a vantage not just on this beautiful geography, but on the history of Toronto.
As our city has grown denser, we have also become more creative in finding space for new parks. We have looked to once forgotten spaces like decommissioned rail lines, hydro corridors and areas under our elevated roadways. We have even created land right out of the lake.
Take the Beltline Trail, a wonderful tunnel of green light in the summer created by repurposing an old rail line as linear park and trail, turning an infrastructure corridor into a place for walking and cycling. A bit farther south is another infrastructure corridor, this time a hydro corridor, being turned into a linear park and trail called the Green Line—a project where Park People, working with the local community, is a partner with the City of Toronto. Even farther south is The Bentway—a still under construction project to create a linear public space underneath the Gardiner Expressway, connecting the neighbourhoods that have sprouted up around the highway since it was built in the early 1960s.
Then there’s the Leslie Street Spit, which stretches its fingers 5km out into Lake Ontario and is home to many migratory birds and other wildlife. If you ride your bike along its length and explore its edges, you’ll notice piles of cement, brick, and rebar. The spit was first created from sand dredged from the lake and construction rubble. But from this detritus has emerged a thriving wilderness habitat and space for people to take stunning skyline shots.
Rail Deck Park, ambitious and complex as it is, only builds on the legacies of these unlikely parks and public spaces. It may be an open rail corridor today – a seemingly irreparable chasm between neighbourhoods to the north and south. But it’s hard not to wonder if years from now we’ll instead see people relaxing in a park above the train tracks, feeling like it must always have been there.