For a city with 10.2 million trees, Toronto has a surprising lack of green space in its core. High Park and Rouge Park, the city’s largest, are located well outside downtown, and other major parks closer to the core are still removed from the center of the city.
Toronto Mayor John Tory wants to change that with a 21-acre (8.5 ha) signature park, constructed above a major piece of railway infrastructure that runs from Blue Jays Way (near the Rogers Centre, home of baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays) west to Bathurst Street, a major north–south thoroughfare.
The mayor has the enthusiastic support of Jennifer Keesmaat, chief city planner, as well as politicians at several levels of government who appeared with Tory when he announced plans for the park last August.
In response to the proposed Rail Deck Park, a reference to the need to “deck over” the rail corridor to create the park space, ULI Toronto convened a panel of urban-park and public-realm experts from the United States and Europe to discuss successes and challenges related to legacy parks in their own cities and the achievements the city could build on while incorporating a number of best practices into its approach. The event took place during ULI Toronto’s Electric Cities Symposium, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Moderated by Keesmaat, the panel included Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy; Daniel Jongtien, architect with the Amsterdam-based Benthem Crouwel Architects; Matt Nielson, deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events; and Jamie Torres Springer, senior principal with HR&A Advisors, a firm instrumental in the development of Manhattan’s High Line.
Before the panel discussion, Tory stated his case for creating a transformative project for residents, businesses, and tourists alike.
To those he referred to as “hand-wringers” who would oppose the project on the grounds of its cost and complexity, Tory’s message was simple: “I look at [Rail Deck Park] as a commonsense, future-focused, visionary thing to do, and we should just get on with it.
A prominent early skeptic of the proposal is Doug Ford, a former city councillor and brother of late former mayor Rob Ford. While in office, the Fords were rigidly opposed to spending on expensive projects and sought to avoid what they viewed as wasteful spending on urban-focused initiatives while priorities that concerned residents of their suburban constituencies were sidelined.
But for those who believe the lack of park space in Toronto’s core is a major problem, Tory’s characterization of the Rail Deck Park as the last opportunity of its size in Toronto’s core to create a marquee public space certainly resonated.
During the panel, four points arose for Toronto to consider as it mulls this ambitious public realm project.
1. A major public realm project like Rail Deck Park presents opportunities to build a city’s brand internationally and enhance civic pride locally.
When Toronto was host of the summer 2015 Pan American Games, it unveiled a sign in front of City Hall spelling out the city’s name in three-dimensional illuminated letters. The attraction proved so popular with residents and tourists that the city continued to operate it after the Games concluded. With a new public space, similar opportunities could arise to create icons representing the city on the international stage.
This was the experience in Chicago, where Nielson said the iconic elements of Millennium Park, like Cloud Gate—known colloquially as “The Bean”—have already come to dominate the city’s image on the international stage.
At the local level, legacy projects can galvanize a city and quickly become part of its identity, exemplified by the fact that Millennium Park is often the first place city residents take visitors. And, in the 13 years since the park opened, Cloud Gate has only been vandalized five times, Nielson said, a feat when one considers the number of visitors it receives and its location in one of the largest residential downtowns in North America.
2. In the planning of a park of this scale in the heart of the city, connectivity must be a primary focus.
Jongtien noted the significant role transit access has played in activating Amsterdam’s urban public space while also easing the impact of factors that can exclude city residents from the downtown core, such as high real estate prices.
Though it may seem like a novel concept for Torontonians, whose public transit system generates no shortage of controversy in the press and on social media, Amsterdam residents use the transit system not out of idealism, but simply because it is the best way to get around town, Jongtien said. And with so many people traveling through the heart of the city during their daily commutes, powerful connections between the transit and public spaces, such as the Amstel River, are established.
With this in mind, Jongtien, whose firm has designed several transit stations in Amsterdam and across the Netherlands, argues that not only is connectivity a vital consideration during planning for a space like Rail Deck Park, but also fostering a sense of comfort within the transit nodes that service the public space is paramount.
3. To further foster an environment of social inclusion in the park, it is important to get programming right.
Are downtown parks just playgrounds for the wealthy elite? A risk exists that Rail Deck Park will be viewed this way by some, Keesmaat said. The best way to combat this perception is to program the space to maximize inclusion and bring in residents from around the city and region, not just the core, the panelists agreed.
Free events in Millennium Park are a key factor in accomplishing this, Nielson said, because they automatically bring a high level of access and cultivate the feeling that the park is a democratic space.
The High Line has also grappled with problems related to social inclusion, Torres Springer said, pointing to the fact that Robert Hammond and Joshua David, the High Line’s originators, readily admit they did not think enough about demographic diversity during planning. Programming that includes youth-oriented activities, summer camps, and partnerships with community groups in other boroughs has since helped bring a more diverse set of people to the High Line.
4. The park can also act as an idea incubator for other public spaces across the city.
Although Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway operates with a lease from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the city has embraced the idea that the Greenway can pilot novel public space ideas that it would not be ready to permit in its entire parks system, Brackenbury said.
He used the purchase and consumption of beer in a public park as an example. “That hasn’t happened in other parks around Boston, but this summer when we open our beer garden, the sky will not fall, and then it will become possible to contemplate those kind of ideas in parks elsewhere,” he said.
The Greenway’s approach to food trucks and public art are other examples of ideas incubated there before rippling into other Boston parks and public spaces.