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Why Toronto needs green space networks

How the city's rapid growth spurt is changing the way we think of parks and open spaces
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
By Rebecca Melnyk

Cranes moving in all directions, scaffold borders wrapped around blocks, towers replacing abandoned lots. These are just a few streetscapes Torontonians see every day. The city is growing, but many, urban planners, park enthusiasts, residents, for instance, worry that green space isn’t expanding at the same rate as new developments.

This conversation was of primary importance at the Fort York Visitors Centre on April 22, 2015, with the launch of a new report, Making Connections. Rather than pegging green space as isolated areas, the 64-page research study supports the case for parks and open spaces as a connected ensemble—a network of green space.

Jake Tobin Garrett, report author and manager of policy and research at Toronto Park People, said these spaces should be places in themselves.

“They shouldn’t just be a place where you move from point A to point B,” he told the audience. “This can be done all over the city, in corridors, but also in more dense areas, using streets and laneways to make these connections.”

Garrett created a list of eight recommendations, which also ask us to find parks in unexpected spots: rooftops, elevated roadways and schoolyards, for example, while focusing on the proactive development of central green space.

The report positions these core parks at the heart of green networks, with community involved in the ongoing decision-making process.

Andrew Farncombe, project manager of strategic initiatives in city planning said, over the next two years the city will prepare the TOCore report, a multi-year planning initiative to create a downtown master plan, which includes a parks and public realm component.

The Making Connections report is expected to inform this new study, inspire policy and help the concept of green space networks to materialize.

Ken Greenberg, former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto and principal of Greenberg Consultants, said it’s really about changing perspective.

“To make this possible, we have to reconceptualize our approach to parks creation,” he said the previous week, at an event hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute. “This has significant implications for how we define a park, for how we use funding sources, how we deal with creation, not only maintenance, and how we bring people together.”

It would change what is collected through impact fees, including Section 37 (density bonusing and community benefits), Section 41 (site plan) and Section 42 (park levy) of Toronto’s Official Plan. “The monies could be used to advance these networks,” he said.

The focus shift must also consist of different elements piggybacking on other initiatives: infrastructure, transportation, stormwater management, flood-proofing and integrating parks with the city’s underlying natural systems, such as ravines or inverted mountain ranges.

Some projects moving forward serve as models to show how open spaces connect and work together through design and community partnerships. The approved 2014 parks and open space master plan for Yonge-Eglington involved local residents and stakeholders, including engagement techniques, such as neighbourhood walking tours. Six small public squares along Yonge Street, a loop of greenways through the neighbourhood to connect green spaces, and the redesign of a central north-south street as a shared street and community event space are a few ideas in the pipeline.

In turn, developers benefit from added value, increasing a building’s curb appeal.

Although they don’t yet appear in one plan, the opportunities are endless—to link downtown to other pockets of the city and build off the report principles.

For instance, University Avenue has the potential to become more of a linear park corridor, along with better connections with the nearby Don ravine system.

Other suggestions include repositioning the existing Shaw Street bikeway as a greenway that links various parks and honours Garrison Creek. While a contraflow bike lane allowing cyclists to travel both ways on the one-way street was finished in 2014, Shaw Street’s potential to connect Christie Pits, Bickford, Fred Hamilton and Trinity-Bellwoods parks was overlooked.

And a hydro corridor just north of downtown, starting at Earlscourt Park and ending just past Spadina Road in the Annex, has the potential to become a five-kilometre linear park.

Greenberg emphasized that if people think about park systems in this way, this focus becomes a powerful, low-cost, high-impact way of addressing multiple needs for open space in the city.

“It vastly expands both the reality and our sense of the public realm and contributes to active transportation, the way we’re able to move around the city,” he noted. “It reconnects us with nature, connects us with each other, provides an enormous increase in democratic space and common ground we share and spurs economic development.”

Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management

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