Toronto parks in crisis?

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The acquisition and improvement of parkland is one of the first things municipal politicians will gravitate toward as a means of demonstrating that they are making a contribution to the enhancement of the lives of their constituents.

The ‘green stuff’ is a total vote getter.  It is also my livelihood.  And so I am extremely pleased that  the on-line magazine ‘Spacing’  has started a very important conversation with its two part series on the provision of parks in Toronto. (see link above to part II)  They have acquired very important information on the provision and distribution of parkland in the City of Toronto.  Information, that the City probably didn’t even know it had, or if it did know, hadn’t yet aggregated into some semblance of usefulness.

Spacing  points to a number of things that I know to be fact.  Namely that:

  • The City Centre generates the vast majority of revenue for new parks. Primarily through the Cash-in-lieu provisions of the Planning Act, as well as through it’s development charges (capital costs, not acquisitions). and the Section 37 provisions of the Planning Act.
  • The vast majority of those funds continue to be held in reserve (to the tune of about 300 million according to ‘Spacing’) and those reserves that are spent, are not proportionately spent in the City Centre.
  • Funds spent in the City Centre, tend to be spent along the waterfront in partnership with Waterfront Toronto.
  • The amount of land being acquired for new parks is not keeping pace with the rate of growth. Particularly in the City Centre, but also generally across the City.
  • The rapid intensification of certain neighbourhoods is putting a strain on the use, functionality and sustainability of existing parks.  (Trinity Bellwoods cited).
  • The acquisition of new parkland is subject to market trends. Few landowners are willing to part with land that has a potentially higher and better use than parkland and expropriation is generally accepted as an unlikely road to success.

The two part series also points to administrative short-comings that may have bearing on how and where parks cash-in-lieu money is spent.

  • The department responsible for parkland acquisition at the City is staffed by 3 people, one of whom is an administrative assistant.
  • The remaining Parks Planning and Design staff at the City are maxed out in their capacity to responsibly manage the development of new parks and/or the improvement of existing parks. Any significant increase in new inventory, could not likely proceed to design anyway as there are insufficient staff left to steer the process.

The Spacing Series brings a number of key issues to light, but it also begs some important questions.

  • What constitutes a park?
  • Should all neighbourhoods be served equally by parks?
  • Should those same neighbourhoods provide access to the same mix of park amenities? If so, should they be provided an a geographic basis, or a density basis?
  • How should the city decide priorities for the acquisition and provision of new parks?

The answers to these questions are only to be found through the physical parks planning process.   A process which is currently not only under-served by the City, but one that does not currently exist at the City in any defined capacity.

In 2012/13, the City published it’s Parks Plan 2013/2017.  As a ‘Master Plan’ it laid out goals and objectives for the parks system in the City of Toronto.  On its own, the plan is an excellent first step in re-aligning the planning, design and management of parks with the realities of a rapidly growing and diversifying population.

The report is derived from an assessment of current challenges and contextual forces, and speaks to the noble goals of ensuring:

  • Stronger communication with stakeholders
  • Improved recreational permitting
  • The preservation and promotion of nature and natural features
  • Park quality and enhancement
  • Integration of prevailing trends and technology with park infrastructure
  • Inspired expansion of horticulture and urban agriculture through education.

It is not until the last chapter, that we see anything really that can help to address the concerns raised by ‘Spacing’.  A Chapter called ‘Improve System Planning’.   In this chapter, the City acknowledges every short-coming raised by Spacing and points to a priority to deal with the problems of parkland planning and acquisition.  MOST importantly, it recommends the development of a 20-year Parks, Forestry and Recreation facilities plan to guide future investments in facility provision and land acquisition.

Implementation of this objective should, in my opinion be the first priority of the City of Toronto.  And when they say ’20 year plan’, what I HOPE they are describing is a 20 year STRATEGIC PLAN.  I hope they are describing:

  • A plan that inventories existing parkland and open space and the amenities already provided and service levels already achieved
  • A plan that grows out of a full understanding of recreational, cultural, ethnic and other social context and demographic trends and realities.
  • A plan that takes into account ‘city building’ and urban design imperatives
  • A plan that is actually a physical plan, and not just another shelf doomed report.
  • A physical plan that identifies strategic parkland acquisition targets and then assesses the full financial and timing implications for the acquisition of those targets.

To go to my earlier questions, my sense is that if we were to undertake this project  we would find that not all neighbourhoods need to be served equally by either park size or park program offered.  That not all neighbourhoods are created equally.  That density does not always mean that more parkland ‘next door’ is the appropriate product of that density.   My sense is that many of the concerns raised by Spacing would no longer be concerns.

At the very least, we would have a vision for our City.  A plan of attack and a set of goals and objectives that diffuse political whimsy and set the City on the path to a stable, responsive and  truly world class park and open space system.

I’m certain that the City also wants this.  But they don’t have the tools.  They don’t have the resources…and they don’t have the commitment from their political masters.   This too has to change and change in a hurry…before the tail is left completely wagging the dog.

 Paul

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Author: paul nodwell

Paul Nodwell draws on almost 33 years of experience in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture. He is a passionate student of the public realm and believes that great 'place-making' cannot happen without listening to stakeholders, shaping the project around a big (not necessarily complex) idea, and wherever possible, introducing metaphorical and even poetic elements that engage the public in their own experience of the built environment. Early in his career Paul's work took him to Southern California with Peridian Group Landscape Architecture and to Paris, France with Walt Disney Imagineering, but he has enjoyed most, his participation in helping to shape the Greater Toronto Area. As part of the senior management team for the Town of Markham, Paul played a key role in bringing The New Urbanism to southern Ontario. In private practice, Paul has designed a myriad of public parks, streetscapes and condominiums. He has played a key role in the design of a number of new mixed use communities including Angus Glen, Cornell, The Galleria, Concord Floral, Vaughan Metro Centre and Markham Centre. Paul is the recipient of more than a dozen awards for urban design and landscape architecture. He has served on the City of Vaughan Design Review Panel for three years and continues to enjoy serving as adjudicator at the University of Guelph. Even more, he enjoys the dip of his canoe paddle in a northern Ontario wilderness and the challenge of paints and a blank canvas.

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