Toronto Park People: 2nd Annual Summit

Park People is a Toronto organization which advocates for better parks in all communities. Jill Cuthbertson and Shani Parsons attended their 2nd annual Park Summit to represent the Friends of Roxton Road Parks. Also in attendance were five city councillors (including Mike Layton) plus many City staff. Below are notes from the inspiring presentations by David Harvey, Executive Director of Park People, Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line in New York City, and representatives from other Toronto parks which have had success in revitalization and community engagement.

Summit Theme: Connecting People to their Parks

Part I: David Harvey, Park People

The Park People website has information on the Park Summit and a downloadable Park Friends Group Guidebook which gives great context to the work we are currently doing.

City will be releasing a strategic plan for Parks due out this fall. Some of you may have filled out a questionnaire that formed part of the city’s community consultation.

Fertile Ground for New Thinking: Improving Toronto’s Parks is downloadable from the Metcalf Foundation website and is also worth reading:

  • Interestingly, recommendation #4 (out of 5) in the above paper is “Use Food as a Tool to Engage People in Parks”
  • Harvey says the best parks are the ones with the most volunteers, not necessarily the ones with the most money.

Part Two: Keynote speaker, Robert Hammond, Co-founder of “Friends of the High Line” in NYC

Engaging the community

  • Raised a flag and allowed other people to help shape the vision and get it done
  • Amazing ability to promote and fire the public imagination (what is our angle?).  Following are some of their strategies:
  • Stunning photos by Joel Sternfeld of the High Line in its raw state
  • Calls to the public for participation, ie, posing in front of Sternfeld photos and talking about dreams
  • Ideas competition (pie in the sky as well as practical proposals) followed by an exhibition in Grand Central (reaching a wider public than just neighbors)
  • Postcard campaign (what do you want?)
  • 2 dozen community meetings to present.
  • Going after press, calling writers and giving them a story
  • We are not bound by what the community says, just listen and explain why yes or no.

Design Commitment

  • Early commitment to design made all the difference (yes, a park can be great without design, but having great design is always a benefit to the park)
  • In 2005 did formal design competition.
  • Diller+Scofidio: “For everything to stay the same, everything must change”. Peel-up typology = consistent, distinctive design language which creates a unique visual identity for park spaces

Key design features

  • Plantings of an idealized nature, taking into account their appearance in all four seasons, change throughout the year, horticulture for butterflies, features for birds
  • Lighting position and levels uniformly low (no bright, overhead lighting), allowing eyes to adjust to darkness is safer than blinding people every few feet, more pleasant, integrated appearance.
  • Water features, Amphitheatre, Grass seating, Views which change one’s perspective of the city, Dedicated kids’ space (rubberized surfaces), Boardwalk, Concessions
  • Signage and Funder acknowledgments are deliberately low-key and integrated to minimize junking up the space with stuff no one reads.
  • Recently added food concessions because this was overlooked during planning and they soon realized more people come to eat at the park than to exercise.
  • There is no graffiti and park is very clean because of high usage/eyes on the park. Park ultimately did end up reflecting and serving the neighbourhoods that it passes through.
  • Local emphasis: attention to history, programming and events, ie, music, dance, art (curated, revolving), kids, draws locals (did not want it to become filled with tourists)

The Economic Argument

  • Hiring a company to do a feasibility study showed that property values increase near similar parks
  • Positive economic impact for the city at large was projected.
  • Actual economic benefits to the City far surpassed anyone’s expectations.

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Part Three: hearing success stories and ideas from various Toronto parks

East Lynne Park

  • farmers market as catalyst
  • unique to them is that they feed the farmers
  • also do movie nights, arts fair
  • creating a sense of community and central meeting place
  • integrating children’s activities in the above: “It takes a child to raise a village“

Mabelle Arts, Etobicoke (actually TCH property) 

  • Mabelle Arts started after 4-year residency creating a community play, received support of theatre company
  • making art in the park with kids over the summer, doing projects that draw people in and bring artists to the neighborhood
  • art as essential part of everyday life
  • creating artists’ benches, gardens, projects
  • late night camps, sleepovers (eventually?)
  • residents as hosts to the larger community–involve people in the making of the space

Jeff Healy Park

  • Jeff Healy upgrading started by 3 couples asking corporations for large donations
  • not a charity, so for tax receipts, donations are made to the city then funneled to the park
  • Sr/Jr sections of the playground, accessibility important

Wabash Building Society/Sorauren Park

  • has not-for-profit structure (but not charity)
  • willing to share their by-laws
  • councillor set up a Park Reserve Fund for upgrades
  • use Parks & Trees Foundation to get on-line donations and suggested all park groups can use this
  • incorporated in order to get things moving

Trinity Bellwoods

  • Michelle McLean responsible for successful Adopt a Tree Program
  • drumming up interest through biannual Park Days, website, billboard
  • guerilla weeding (attempt to hire staff coordinator was nixed by city/union–better to have a volunteer coordinator)