The Space Squeeze
Smith and Richards Park Rendering. Credit: City of Vancouver

Much of the low hanging fruit is gone, but cities are finding the fruit higher up tastes a bit more interesting. Or, as Ann-Marie Nasr, Toronto’s Parks Development and Capital Projects Director put it: “Part of not having a lot of land around to turn into parks means you become more inventive, right?”

Nasr is overseeing a burst in innovative park building, including rooftop recreation facilities, parks over rail corridors, and linear parks in hydro corridors. Vancouver’s experience is similar, with designs for a new downtown park including an elevated walkway. “We need to think in three dimensions,” Dave Hutch, the Vancouver Park Board’s Planning Director said, and “use every square inch, especially on small sites.”

While the majority of the projects in this article were in development before COVID-19, physical distancing requirements have put additional pressure on cities to creatively and quickly expand public space, potentially bolstering arguments for and accelerating planning for new public spaces.

However, as these constraints push public space creation into so-called “leftover” spaces in a city, such as under a highway or along rail lines, it can have unintended effects. This includes displacing people occupying those spaces for shelter and potentially spurring gentrification.

Despite its popularity, many have criticized New York’s elevated High Line park as contributing to unaffordable housing and catering to overwhelmingly white visitors despite the racial diversity of the neighbourhood. In response, the Friends of the High Line spun out a new entity called the High Line Network to advise infrastructure reuse parks on more inclusive practices. Toronto’s Bentway and The Meadoway are the group's only Canadian members.

The Network has published toolkits with strategies for community-based planning and equitable development principles, which can be a helpful guide as Canadian cities embark on a new era of park building.

Put a park on it

One trend likely to grow is building parks on top of other infrastructure, like a parking garage. These are called strata parks because of their stratified ownership: the city doesn’t own the land underneath, just the layer on top.

On its face, it seems like a win-win situation. A property owner gets to build something and the city gets a park on top. But in reality, strata parks present a number of logistical, design, and legal challenges with which cities are grappling.

The structural integrity of what is below dictates the amount of soil you can place on top, which impacts landscaping. Additionally, when the waterproof membrane separating the park from the structure below needs replacing or maintenance, the park must often be scraped off and rebuilt. These parks can end up less green because of these factors, Nasr said—an issue when cities facing climate change want to add more greenery for stormwater management and urban heat mitigation.

One city that has seen rising pressure to accept strata parks is Richmond Hill. “Land value has appreciated quite substantially in the last 10 years,” said Michelle Dobbie, the city’s Park Planning Manager, leading developers to maximize land by pushing parking underground.

Aside from the design challenges of strata parks, there’s a host of legal and logistical implications, like long-term financial liability for future upgrades. Recognizing that this pressure is not abating, Richmond Hill has commissioned a study to look at strata parks and help guide its decisions on accepting this type of parkland.

Rendering of Oakridge Mall park green space. Credit: Vancouver Park Board
Rendering of Oakridge Mall park green space. Credit: Vancouver Park Board

Vancouver’s plans for a new park partially on top of the redeveloped Oakridge Mall shows both the promise and complexity of strata parks. The 3.6 hectare park will rise from ground level onto the mall’s roof with areas for social gathering, gardening, and sports. Using the roof allowed the city to create a much larger park, Hutch said.

The Park Board worked hard to negotiate an ownership structure with the mall, Hutch said, including a provision that park maintenance and future capital renewal are paid for and done by the landowner, not the Park Board. A first for the Park Board, this was negotiated due to the complexity of having multiple maintenance crews on site and liability if a Park Board staff person damaged the protective membrane. An operating committee including Park Board and mall staff will be created to troubleshoot issues.

Connecting the network

As we reported in last year’s Canadian City Parks Report, parks planning is increasingly concerned with connectivity. Linear parks, trails, and other green spaces that thread their way through tight spots—repurposing rail corridors and hydro corridors to do so—are becoming more common.

One such project is the Edmonton High Level Line, a vision by a group of community members that has caught city officials’ attention. The plan proposes connecting neighbourhoods along a 4km route using an existing rail corridor across the North Saskatchewan River. It’s an idea that follows the principles of connectivity put forward in the city’s 2019 Downtown Public Places Plan.

High Level Line Grandin Junction in Edmonton. Credit: High Level Line
High Level Line Grandin Junction in Edmonton. Credit: High Level Line

The project envisions tying existing parks together, but also plays off opportunities on private lands. For example, property owners could develop their sites to open up onto the Line or provide amenities.

“Edmonton has this great asset in the North Saskatchewan River and the River Valley...but it also acts as a real barrier,” said Kevin Dieterman, spokesperson for the group. But the project isn’t just about moving from A to B, he said, it’s “the experience that you have along the way.”

From street to park

Land in the public right-of-way, such as streets, is increasingly being viewed as a resource for temporary and permanent public space creation.

New designs that employ low curbs and special paving allow streets to be used more flexibly. Toronto calls this design approach “parks plus.” As Nasr explained: “If you think of it as an equation, parks plus streets equals an amazing public realm.”

However, it’s Montreal that has been a pioneer with 15 shared/pedestrian streets developed in the last five years adding to the 50 already in existence. The city’s Shared and Pedestrian Streets Program, which has developed an inspirational catalogue, supports the implementation of projects that reflect the culture of a neighbourhood, including a participatory design process.

While street reallocations have been happening for years, the practice accelerated during COVID-19. Starting in April, cities across Canada including Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, began turning over car lanes to pedestrians to create temporary public space to help with physical distancing.

Advocates and urbanists have since deepened that conversation. For example, placemaker Jay Pitter highlighted the “spatial inequities” that underscore the limits of such reallocations and which populations they serve. She has called for the need to centre discussions around racial and socioeconomic inequities, and specifically anti-Black racism, as cities expand public space—a call that other writers have echoed. Rising incidents of anti-Asian racism in public spaces, for example, have also been reported in Canada during the pandemic.

Private space, public amenity

Over a third of cities we surveyed reporting increasing demand for privately-owned public space development (POPS). POPS are built and maintained by private property owners, with city agreements to ensure public access. Cities like Toronto and Vancouver already have many POPS, while Mississauga, Richmond Hill, and Waterloo said they were contemplating their use.

“I think being clear about [POPS’] role and function is really important,” said Nasr. In Toronto, POPS have been used to create a more connected public realm, like a landscaped walkway or small gathering space in the front of a building, but not to replace requirements for parks. They can also help take some pressure off parks in dense areas, Nasr said.

However, the “publicness” of POPS have been called into question with disputes over access and encroachment from businesses. And since they’re privately owned, these spaces could be redeveloped over time, as has happened in Vancouver.

In a bid to raise awareness and promote better design and visibility, Toronto mapped POPS and produced design guidelines and a signage strategy to clarify that POPS were public spaces.

To expand or improve?

Weighing the cost and benefits of expanding parkland versus improving the parkland you have should be part of the discussion, said Chris Hardwick, Principal at 02 Planning + Design, who has worked on park plans in Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto, and Winnipeg.

In cases where land is expensive and scarce, the best strategy may be to deploy resources to improve parkland to ensure it’s performing its best, Hardwick argued. However, it’s critical for cities to get ahead of development by targeting land acquisition in areas that are slated for growth, as opposed to playing catch up later.

Different challenges exist in different urban contexts, depending on growth and demographic change, he said. Some cities are dealing with a lack of park space, while others are dealing with too much or the wrong kind of spaces. For example, Prince George reported turning underused baseball diamonds into dog parks.

Other cities are in between. They’re shifting from a more suburban style of development to higher density development, necessitating shifts in policies, financial tools, and planning to ensure new neighbourhoods have the parks they need as they grow. For example, Surrey reported land banking in growth areas to prepare for future development.

Square One redevelopment public space rendering in Mississauga. Credit: Oxford Properties Group and Alberta Investment Management Corporation
Square One redevelopment public space rendering in Mississauga. Credit: Oxford Properties Group and Alberta Investment Management Corporation

Toronto’s Nasr said that suburban malls are becoming another focus of new park development, with some malls slated to be transformed into the centres of new, dense neighbourhoods. “They’re big blocks of land in which parks become an organizing element to inform those transformations.” said Nasr.

Toronto has three major mall redevelopments underway that contain new anchor parks, including Cloverdale, Yorkdale, and Agincourt. In neighbouring Mississauga, the redevelopment of Square One Mall will include 37 towers and new parks.