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February 01, 2017

Creating Thriving Public Spaces As We Grow

As municipalities across the Greater Golden Horseshoe continue to grow in population and density, new strategies for creating parks and public spaces in more urban environments are needed. How do we engage communities and program parks when there are so many different users? How do we plan a public space system that is connected and accessible? How do we design public spaces in a flexible way to respond to their urban context?
With the challenges of intensification also come fresh opportunities to plan, design, and program parks in creative ways. These are the opportunities that Park People, a charity that builds stronger communities by animating and improving parks, explored in our two recent reports: Making Connections (2015) and Thriving Places (2016).
While the reports highlight a number of strategies that municipalities across North America and within the Greater Golden Horseshoe are using to create dynamic parks, I want to focus on just two of them in this post—flexible designs and community partnerships—that I think are too often overlooked.
With limited space in urban areas for new parks, it’s important to re-evaluate whether we are getting the most bang for our buck with current designs. Sometimes it’s not about buying new land, but redesigning an existing space to be more flexible.
Take Berczy Park, a small triangular park that acts as the hinge between the financial district and St. Lawrence neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. This park recently went through a redesign, funded from nearby development that included transforming adjacent Scott Street to become a curbless, flex space that could become part of the public space of the park.

The redesign was spurred from the transformation of the area from primarily worker-oriented to one that now contains many residents, children, and—of course—dogs. Accommodating all these users in such a small space was not easy and the flexible nature of the design helps use the space around the park in a much better way.
But creating a thoughtful, flexible design is only one part of what makes a public space successful—it’s attention to ongoing programming and community involvement that takes a nice space and makes it a beloved place in the community.
mccormick-park-shipping-container-cafe_heather-jarvis-1.jpgProgramming needs to be locally-responsive and ideally created and led by local community members in order to ensure it really meets neighbourhood needs. In order to achieve this, municipalities are engaging with community groups, BIAs, non-profits, and other organizations to partner on interesting park programming. Municipalities can’t—and shouldn’t—do it alone. Get creative.
For example, Newmarket’s Riverwalk Commons contains a foldable book exchange hut, Story Pod that acts as a focal point in the warmer months for this new downtown park. Toronto’s McCormick Park contains the city’s first shipping container café, staffed through a local social service agency and spearheaded by the volunteer-run Friends of McCormick Park. Hamilton’s Pipeline Trail is buoyed by a local community group that leads walks, tends gardens along the trail, and helped to initiate a new master plan that will see upgrades and an extension of the trail.
Urban parks, especially those in rapidly intensifying areas, require a different set of tools than we have been using for parks in lower density, suburban areas where people have their own backyards and space is more plentiful. If we want to ensure that our new and changing urban neighbourhoods are liveable, inclusive, and socially cohesive for decades into the future, it’s how we plan and engage people in public spaces that should be at the top of our minds.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Jake Tobin Garrett

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