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E-BLAST: Our Parks and Public Spaces can be so much more

I’d bet that our city parks have never seen as much use as they have over this past year. Last summer, when case counts were dipping down and we all started to feel safe seeing one another outdoors again, the park was one of the first places we went. What better place to safely meet up with friends and family? They’ve been the perfect spot for a socially distanced picnic or an impromptu basketball game. They’ve also provided us with much needed fresh air and a chance to get some exercise as many of us have been staying home. This summer, our parks are again packed with Torontonians itching to get outside, even as patios and retail stores open their doors.

I had a blast chatting with local residents at our Park Pop-Up at Alamosa Park this past Tuesday.

Collectively, this pandemic has really shown us the value of our parks and public spaces. They aren’t just places that are nice to look at or walk through every once in a while. They are essential to our mental and physical health and wellbeing. With this lesson has come the realization that despite being so essential, our parks aren’t receiving the attention and care they deserve. Quite simply, we need to do better when it comes to our public spaces. We need to design them in a way that works for everyone, and we need to commit the funding they need to serve Toronto residents in the best ways possible.

As our parks got busier and busier over the course of the pandemic, I heard more and more valid frustrations from residents. Many noticed that parks weren’t receiving enough maintenance, and it made them hard to use. Some paths weren’t cleared or de-iced in our snowy winter months, and through spring and summer many have noticed the grass hasn’t been cut as often as usual. Even more importantly, many residents complained about the lack of public washroom facilities and water fountains in parks. Certain groups, particularly seniors, people with health conditions, and children, need to be able to access these facilities in order to enjoy these spaces. Knowing how important these outdoor spaces have been throughout the pandemic, opening bathrooms shouldn’t have been such a tall order.

The reality is, there’s a cost to all of this. The City needs to hire enough staff and dedicate enough time and money to keep our parks in good condition. Parks was one of the departments that saw budget cuts as the City tried to balance COVID expenses, and it shows. Just like with any other service, maintenance isn’t flashy or exciting. When budget time rolls around, we need to demand that our parks and public spaces receive the funding they deserve. Not everyone has access to a backyard oasis, but everyone deserves to enjoy a well-maintained public space.

I also heard from residents who were frustrated by the challenge of sharing these spaces in a way that works for everyone. This has been a particular challenge on our trails, where cyclists and pedestrians struggle to share space while maintaining safe distances from one another. This brings us to our second big issue with public spaces here in the city: they haven’t all been designed in a way that meets our current needs. Collectively, we need to think about what public space means to us and think of creative ways to incorporate new, better spaces here in Toronto. So what would it look like if our parks and public spaces could be something more?

In other places around the world and even here in Canada, public space is given a much greater value than it is here in Toronto. We need to look to some of these places for ideas on how we can better incorporate innovative new spaces in our city.

For example, many cities across North America have started incorporating woonerfs in and around new high-rise developments. What even is a woonerf, you might ask? It’s a Dutch term that refers to a “living street”, where shared space, traffic calming, and low speed limits are used to create vibrant public spaces right outside your front door.

Woonerfs, like the ones pictured above, create a new type of public space to be enjoyed by residents. They ease the journey out of a tower and towards the main road. The first steps outside the building are free of accessibility issues. Woonerfs prioritize the pedestrian, allowing a pleasant walk out to busier streets, while still leaving flexible space for vehicle drop offs and deliveries. Some even include bollards that can be raised from the ground to make the space pedestrian-only for community events. These spaces are truly designed to work for all users while prioritizing those who need the space most.

This isn’t a concept we’re very familiar with here in Toronto, but it’s an example of the new and innovative public realm, park and street designs that are starting to emerge all over North America. By thinking outside the box, we can make densely populated cities more liveable for everyone. In a city like Toronto, we need to find ways to integrate innovative public spaces wherever we can.

We are also starting to see different approaches to parks here in the city. Ethennonnhawahstihnen’ Park right here in Don Valley North shows how innovative park design and landscaping can create an inviting public space with dozens of uses. This is just the beginning of what our public spaces can be. We need to continue to look at public spaces around the world to see how we can make our parks more inviting and accessible.

The reflecting pond and new playground at Ethennonnhawahstihnen' Park.

My team and I are starting conversations on public space improvements in many parks and areas around Don Valley North. I sincerely hope you’ll join me in envisioning these new and exciting spaces to ensure they’re designed in the best possible way to serve our communities.

Now, more than ever, we need to stand up for our parks and public spaces. We need to demand excellence in park design, street design, and even the odd woonerf here or here. We need to keep pushing to create new and exciting public spaces, and we need to value and maintain the ones that we already have. My job will be to make sure that all of City Council embraces this and does the work to create policies and funding strategies to maintain this mixture of old and new public realm for years to come.


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