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How-to Turn Your Backyard Pool into a Backyard Farm
I hate swimming, especially in pools. I just don’t get what’s so fun about paddling around in a chemical bath while bugs and boogers bob past your half-submerged face. But I do, however, like food. 
Luckily there is Garden Pool, a non-profit in the United States based out of Phoenix that can help you turn that concrete swimming pit into a working farm.
From Grist:

What was once a yawning cement hole was transformed into an incredibly prolific closed-loop ecosystem, growing everything from broccoli and sweet potatoes to sorghum and wheat, with chickens, tilapia, algae, and duckweed all interacting symbiotically to provide enough food to feed a family of five.

I love seeing ideas like this because they are simple, workable solutions to creating more spaces for local food and urban farming—or rather, in the case of Garden Pools, more likely suburban farming. I’ve grown pretty tired of seeing fancy renderings of vertical farms and skyscraper orchards and all these other high-tech, high-cost ways of urban agriculture. 
The simplest, most practical solutions aren’t those that require tons of new infrastructure to be built, but those that repurpose old infrastructure in creative ways. 
image from Garden Pool

How-to Turn Your Backyard Pool into a Backyard Farm

I hate swimming, especially in pools. I just don’t get what’s so fun about paddling around in a chemical bath while bugs and boogers bob past your half-submerged face. But I do, however, like food. 

Luckily there is Garden Pool, a non-profit in the United States based out of Phoenix that can help you turn that concrete swimming pit into a working farm.

From Grist:

What was once a yawning cement hole was transformed into an incredibly prolific closed-loop ecosystem, growing everything from broccoli and sweet potatoes to sorghum and wheat, with chickens, tilapia, algae, and duckweed all interacting symbiotically to provide enough food to feed a family of five.

I love seeing ideas like this because they are simple, workable solutions to creating more spaces for local food and urban farming—or rather, in the case of Garden Pools, more likely suburban farming. I’ve grown pretty tired of seeing fancy renderings of vertical farms and skyscraper orchards and all these other high-tech, high-cost ways of urban agriculture. 

The simplest, most practical solutions aren’t those that require tons of new infrastructure to be built, but those that repurpose old infrastructure in creative ways. 

image from Garden Pool

The Many Personalities of Vancouver’s Traffic Circles

One of the things I miss dearly about Vancouver from my perch in Toronto are the traffic circles. It feels weird to even type that—like someone saying they miss an on ramp—but honestly, these traffic circles are wonderful. Yes, some look a bit mangy, but they are all unique in their own tiny, wonderful, circular way.

Many are tended by volunteers from the neighbourhood who work with the City through the Green Streets program to water and take care of the plants. This provides spaces for those that may not have their own yard to do a bit of gardening. But the really great thing is that these residents get to add their own flare, so each traffic circle has a different personality.

Sometimes that personality even extends beyond the usual flowers and plants into other more spontaneous uses like when a resident near the 10th Avenue bikeway transformed a nearby traffic circle into a tiny meeting spot called, awesomely, Gather Round. I’m not sure if this is still happening, but if you’re in Vancouver be sure to stop in for tea if you can. 

Makes me wonder what else you can do in a traffic circle? Maybe a little reading group with circular benches and a mini library? A small bike repair station with an air pump? A bar to cozy up in at night for a beer or two? A boy can dream.

The traffic circles also help visually break up long street views, making neighbourhoods feel cozier and greener—no more big grey intersections. And they’re great for cyclists because you don’t have any of those pesky stop signs to ignor—er, stop fully at.

More mini-traffic circles, I say! And more residents getting the chance to put their own unique (green) thumb print on their city. 

An Urban Canoe Ride on Toronto’s Humber River

Over labour day weekend I’m off to Ontario’s huge Algonquin Park for a five day canoe trip, but I wanted to get out before that to warm up all my canoe muscles. 

So last night my partner and two friends and I rented canoes and took a lazy paddle down Toronto’s Humber River from about Bloor Street to the lake.

It’s pretty amazing to be able to take the subway to a river and then walk underneath the station’s bridge to find a canoe rental place all set up. We paid our money and walked our canoes down to the river’s edge—easy as that. The river is very tame, so coming back up is just the same as going down. 

I was surprised at how quickly and completely the city disappeared once we got out onto the water. It was hard to believe that only 15 minutes before I had been crammed armpit-to-face with rush hour travellers on the subway. 

Toronto is lucky to have an incredible system of ravines and rivers that thread their way through the city down to the lake, but I don’t think we take advantage of them as often as we should. I know I don’t. It’s easy to forget how close all these spaces actual are to us when we speed over them or through them in cars, busses or on subway trains. 

I even got to canoe under a highway—how often do you get to do that?

Putting Spare Patio Space to Good Use
Empty storefronts can really make a street an unpleasant experience to walk along, which is why some cities have started encouraging art installations in storefront windows to liven them up. What about those spare patios, though?
As tired as I am of “pop-up” this and “pop-up” that, I do like Vancouver’s pop-up picnic in what used to be an old Starbucks on the corner of Thurlow and Burrard. It’s a great way to activate what would have been just an empty space and give people a perch from which to watch a busy street corner. For example, you can watch the people at the Starbucks on the opposite corner (yes, Vancouver had two Starbucks’ across the street from each other.)
The whole “pop-up picnic” concept is more than just this one space though. According to the Robson Street website, several restaurants on the street will offer quick take out-style meals that people can pick up and enjoy outside somewhere, either on a nearby parklet, in Robson Square, or, yes, that on empty patio being put to good use.

Putting Spare Patio Space to Good Use

Empty storefronts can really make a street an unpleasant experience to walk along, which is why some cities have started encouraging art installations in storefront windows to liven them up. What about those spare patios, though?

As tired as I am of “pop-up” this and “pop-up” that, I do like Vancouver’s pop-up picnic in what used to be an old Starbucks on the corner of Thurlow and Burrard. It’s a great way to activate what would have been just an empty space and give people a perch from which to watch a busy street corner. For example, you can watch the people at the Starbucks on the opposite corner (yes, Vancouver had two Starbucks’ across the street from each other.)

The whole “pop-up picnic” concept is more than just this one space though. According to the Robson Street website, several restaurants on the street will offer quick take out-style meals that people can pick up and enjoy outside somewhere, either on a nearby parklet, in Robson Square, or, yes, that on empty patio being put to good use.

Vancouver Brings the Park into the Street

It’s exciting to see cities taking the idea of the ‘park’ and extending that into the street. As cities get more and more built up and land for new parks is difficult to find, we are going to have to leverage the public space of our streets and redesign them to do more than just move cars.

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway, which connects the West End and English Bay to the Hornby separated bike lanes, is a great example of turning a street into a place to linger, rather than just move through. The next phase extends it into Yaletown.

The idea is to take a relatively low traffic volume street and enhance it for cycling and walking, bringing a park-like experience to a street while also connecting many green spaces together.

To do that, the City has not only put in some separated bike lanes where needed, but they have installed street furniture like tables and chairs at different spots along the way and created small rain gardens and other street gardens to bring more greenery into the street and help with storm water management.

From the signs I saw on some of the new little gardens, they are maintained by nearby neighbours. (The white picket fence garden has a message from “Michael” asking people not to pick the flowers.) New bulb outs on the street slow down cars further and help pedestrians cross the street by narrowing the width they have to walk.

During my week long stay in Vancouver, I found myself drawn back again and again to the street. It is an incredibly pleasant experience to ride your bike or stroll along it. Despite the fact that it is still a street, it does have the feeling of a linear park.

The park picnic goes pop-up
Check out the winner of the City of Surrey’s PARKit design competition, which asked for pop-up park submissions that could be installed temporarily near the SkyTrain station in the city’s centre.
The winning design is called—wait for it—Gingham Style, and uses the traditional picnic checkerboard pattern in a cool, new way. The design, dreamed up by Liz Nguyen and Mike Wartman, creates an inviting communal picnic spot under what would normally be the dreary elevated tracks of the SkyTrain system. And of course anything looks magical with lights strung across it. 
Grass-printed vinyl wrapped seating is provided in the absence of actual grass and a tree in a built-in planter at the table’s end provides a touch of real green to the scene. 
It reminds me of a similar project in Vancouver done over the summer of 2012 called “Lunch Meet" where a big, communal lunch space was created downtown by plopping long picnic-style tables in the middle of a street closed to traffic.
Both Gingham Style and Lunch Meet are/were temporary installations, unfortunately. We need more places for communal eating in our downtown areas where park space is at a premium and workers over the noon hour look for ledges to sit on and balance take-out containers on their laps. Why not install big long tables in some of the business or entertainment districts and encourage people to sit and eat together? Anyway, food for thought. 

The park picnic goes pop-up

Check out the winner of the City of Surrey’s PARKit design competition, which asked for pop-up park submissions that could be installed temporarily near the SkyTrain station in the city’s centre.

The winning design is called—wait for it—Gingham Style, and uses the traditional picnic checkerboard pattern in a cool, new way. The design, dreamed up by Liz Nguyen and Mike Wartman, creates an inviting communal picnic spot under what would normally be the dreary elevated tracks of the SkyTrain system. And of course anything looks magical with lights strung across it. 

Grass-printed vinyl wrapped seating is provided in the absence of actual grass and a tree in a built-in planter at the table’s end provides a touch of real green to the scene. 

It reminds me of a similar project in Vancouver done over the summer of 2012 called “Lunch Meet" where a big, communal lunch space was created downtown by plopping long picnic-style tables in the middle of a street closed to traffic.

Both Gingham Style and Lunch Meet are/were temporary installations, unfortunately. We need more places for communal eating in our downtown areas where park space is at a premium and workers over the noon hour look for ledges to sit on and balance take-out containers on their laps. Why not install big long tables in some of the business or entertainment districts and encourage people to sit and eat together? Anyway, food for thought. 

Three cool ways NYC Parks uses data publicly
Lately I’ve been looking around at what other parks departments do with park data. What do they collect, what is it used for, and how do they share it, if at all, with the public? Here are a few cool things I came across from the New York City Parks Department.
1. Whether you use foursquare or (more likely) not, check out the real-time check-in map for New York’s parks. Each green dot represents someone checked in to a part of a park, with a big green blob flashing up when someone new checks in. I’m not sure how useful this data is considering the highly selective group of people who use foursquare, but it sure is fun to watch.

2. NYC Parks also has a very detailed, public map of not only all its parks, but also all the things you will find in that park. You can zoom in and locate your favourite park monument, or the handball court closest to you, or the accessible entrances. It even has the plaza spaces created along Broadway and other streets. It’s a great planning tool, but also great for the public to just understand the amenities in their park system. 
3. The third cool thing is maybe a bit nerdier, if that is even possible. The City’s Parks Inspection Program, which inspects parks for cleanliness and maintenance issues, publishes the results online. Before your eyes glaze over, let me tell you why this is great. It’s great because it allows residents to understand generally how their parks are doing and whether they are improving over time, which is hard to do just on your own walking through the park every so often. What would be really great is if more detailed data was also published on the different elements in the park: pathways, benches, garbage, etc. But this is a good start.
Parks are public spaces and so it’s only fitting that the data that goes along with them is opened up to the public as well. 

Three cool ways NYC Parks uses data publicly

Lately I’ve been looking around at what other parks departments do with park data. What do they collect, what is it used for, and how do they share it, if at all, with the public? Here are a few cool things I came across from the New York City Parks Department.

1. Whether you use foursquare or (more likely) not, check out the real-time check-in map for New York’s parks. Each green dot represents someone checked in to a part of a park, with a big green blob flashing up when someone new checks in. I’m not sure how useful this data is considering the highly selective group of people who use foursquare, but it sure is fun to watch.

image

2. NYC Parks also has a very detailed, public map of not only all its parks, but also all the things you will find in that park. You can zoom in and locate your favourite park monument, or the handball court closest to you, or the accessible entrances. It even has the plaza spaces created along Broadway and other streets. It’s a great planning tool, but also great for the public to just understand the amenities in their park system. 

3. The third cool thing is maybe a bit nerdier, if that is even possible. The City’s Parks Inspection Program, which inspects parks for cleanliness and maintenance issues, publishes the results online. Before your eyes glaze over, let me tell you why this is great. It’s great because it allows residents to understand generally how their parks are doing and whether they are improving over time, which is hard to do just on your own walking through the park every so often. What would be really great is if more detailed data was also published on the different elements in the park: pathways, benches, garbage, etc. But this is a good start.

Parks are public spaces and so it’s only fitting that the data that goes along with them is opened up to the public as well. 

Yes in my backyard park
How do you create a park that entices people to come out in a place where everyone has their own private backyard “park” to hang out in? You turn the park into the most awesomest backyard of all.
With designs for a new waterfront park in Tulsa, Oklahoma landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates are doing just that. The park will feature tons of space for children to play in, but also BBQ and picnic spaces, and a “Lodge” with an indoor fireplace and an “informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees,” says the Architects Newspaper. 
This made me think of something I’ve heard from a lot of people in Toronto lately who live in the more suburban areas of the city, which is that their parks need to offer them more of a reason to go there. 
Designing parks can’t just be about putting in a few benches, some trees, a lawn, and then sitting back and waiting for everyone to come running. Especially when you’re in a part of the city where a bench, a tree, and a lawn is what they have fenced in behind their own houses.
Sure, maybe we can’t all hire MVVA to come and build us an “informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees,” but top-notch design isn’t the only way to entice people to parks. Program the park with farmer’s markets or kid’s art classes or outdoor yoga or mimes trapped inside invisible boxes—whatever, every community’s different. But give that park a centre of gravity and people will be pulled in from the neighbourhood around it. 
image from MVVA

Yes in my backyard park

How do you create a park that entices people to come out in a place where everyone has their own private backyard “park” to hang out in? You turn the park into the most awesomest backyard of all.

With designs for a new waterfront park in Tulsa, Oklahoma landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates are doing just that. The park will feature tons of space for children to play in, but also BBQ and picnic spaces, and a “Lodge” with an indoor fireplace and an “informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees,” says the Architects Newspaper

This made me think of something I’ve heard from a lot of people in Toronto lately who live in the more suburban areas of the city, which is that their parks need to offer them more of a reason to go there. 

Designing parks can’t just be about putting in a few benches, some trees, a lawn, and then sitting back and waiting for everyone to come running. Especially when you’re in a part of the city where a bench, a tree, and a lawn is what they have fenced in behind their own houses.

Sure, maybe we can’t all hire MVVA to come and build us an “informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees,” but top-notch design isn’t the only way to entice people to parks. Program the park with farmer’s markets or kid’s art classes or outdoor yoga or mimes trapped inside invisible boxes—whatever, every community’s different. But give that park a centre of gravity and people will be pulled in from the neighbourhood around it. 

image from MVVA

When is a street not a street? When it’s a park, of course.
I’m so excited to see that Open Streets Toronto, which proposes opening up a stretch of Bloor Street for four Sundays this summer to people rather than cars between High Park and Withrow Park, is gaining momentum.
We don’t often think of them this way, what with all the vehicles rumbling along them 24/7, but the streets of our cities are our largest public spaces.
In Toronto, for example, there are 5,617 kilometres of roadways comprising 27.4 percent of the city’s area. To put that in perspective, parks and open spaces cover just about 13 percent of Toronto. 
So it’s not surprising that in dense cities where new land for parks is difficult to come by, people are looking at streets that can be permanently or temporarily opened up to people to create new open spaces and pop-up parks. These not only get people outside, they allow people to experience their city in new ways and help connect neighbourhoods.
There is probably a health argument here somewhere, but forget about that eat-your-greens stuff for a moment. What about a fun argument? Shouldn’t we be allowed to play in the street for four Sundays in the summer? 
No, say some people. Streets are for cars, trucks and busses. It will cause gridlock, chaos, anarchy. 
There are 2,232 hours in summer where Bloor Street is open for cars (okay, okay there are some other smaller street closures for festivals, I’m spit-balling here). Open Streets Toronto is proposing to use 20 of those hours (five hours on four different Sundays) for people only. That’s a pretty small percentage of hours that cars won’t be able to travel east-west this summer. 
0.0089 percent to be exact. 
If this was a pie chart, this slice of time would be so thin as to be almost invisible. Here, look: 

North American cities from Austin to New York City to Vancouver have already experimented with opening up stretches of roadway in the summer in similar programs to Open Streets Toronto. So far their economies are doing okay, fingers-crossed.
I was in New York City a few summers ago and stumbled upon Summer Streets, which opened up portions of roadway in Manhattan to people. I borrowed a free bike and zoomed up towards Central Park with thousands of others. I passed people doing yoga, taking dance lessons, or just walking around.
Everyone was giddy about the fact that they were in the middle of Park Avenue. For a few hours on a sunny summer day, the street lived up to its name. 
[If you’re in Toronto, be sure to write to the City’s economic development committee with your support of Open Streets Toronto before Tuesday, April 15th. The Open Streets Toronto proposal is on the agenda for the committee’s April 16th meeting. Check it out here.]
photo from Viva Streets Austin, Flickr (cc)

When is a street not a street? When it’s a park, of course.

I’m so excited to see that Open Streets Toronto, which proposes opening up a stretch of Bloor Street for four Sundays this summer to people rather than cars between High Park and Withrow Park, is gaining momentum.

We don’t often think of them this way, what with all the vehicles rumbling along them 24/7, but the streets of our cities are our largest public spaces.

In Toronto, for example, there are 5,617 kilometres of roadways comprising 27.4 percent of the city’s area. To put that in perspective, parks and open spaces cover just about 13 percent of Toronto. 

So it’s not surprising that in dense cities where new land for parks is difficult to come by, people are looking at streets that can be permanently or temporarily opened up to people to create new open spaces and pop-up parks. These not only get people outside, they allow people to experience their city in new ways and help connect neighbourhoods.

There is probably a health argument here somewhere, but forget about that eat-your-greens stuff for a moment. What about a fun argument? Shouldn’t we be allowed to play in the street for four Sundays in the summer? 

No, say some people. Streets are for cars, trucks and busses. It will cause gridlock, chaos, anarchy. 

There are 2,232 hours in summer where Bloor Street is open for cars (okay, okay there are some other smaller street closures for festivals, I’m spit-balling here). Open Streets Toronto is proposing to use 20 of those hours (five hours on four different Sundays) for people only. That’s a pretty small percentage of hours that cars won’t be able to travel east-west this summer. 

0.0089 percent to be exact. 

If this was a pie chart, this slice of time would be so thin as to be almost invisible. Here, look: 

image

North American cities from Austin to New York City to Vancouver have already experimented with opening up stretches of roadway in the summer in similar programs to Open Streets Toronto. So far their economies are doing okay, fingers-crossed.

I was in New York City a few summers ago and stumbled upon Summer Streets, which opened up portions of roadway in Manhattan to people. I borrowed a free bike and zoomed up towards Central Park with thousands of others. I passed people doing yoga, taking dance lessons, or just walking around.

Everyone was giddy about the fact that they were in the middle of Park Avenue. For a few hours on a sunny summer day, the street lived up to its name. 

[If you’re in Toronto, be sure to write to the City’s economic development committee with your support of Open Streets Toronto before Tuesday, April 15th. The Open Streets Toronto proposal is on the agenda for the committee’s April 16th meeting. Check it out here.]

photo from Viva Streets Austin, Flickr (cc)

Building resilience through parks
After New York City was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, there was an understanding that the city had to increase its resiliency in the process of rebuilding. In other words, it wasn’t good enough to just repair the damage—systems had to be put in place that could protect the city against something like this happening again.
Like, for example, by using parks.
This idea is found in a project called The Big U, which is one proposal unveiled this past week as part of the Rebuild By Design competition that sought ideas to build this new resilience infrastructure. 
The Big U calls, in part, for a park-topped flood protection berm that would wrap around certain sections of lower Manhattan. Using salt-resistant plants and landscape features, it would protect against and manage flooding while at the same time creating a space that doesn’t cut people off, but welcomes them instead. 
Waterfront areas are great, but they are also risky, especially in a world whose weather is becoming more volatile from climate change. Using green infrastructure solutions to build resilience into waterfront areas helps protect the value and livability of these areas. And it does so without building big sea walls and other nasty things that actually sever people from the very reason they are by the waterfront at all.
Toronto already has a smaller scale, but still impressive version of this kind of infrastructure in one of its newest parks, Corktown Common (formally Don River Park). The park does double-duty as a flood protection berm that guards the areas to its west—an estimated 210 hectares, including the city’s financial district—from any swelling and bursting of the Don River to its east. 
And the park, designed by Michael van Valkenburgh (of Brookyn Bridge Park-fame), is stunningly beautiful as well. So Toronto gets a piece of important infrastructure, which unlocks the value of the adjacent lands for development, hidden inside a park that is now one of the city’s new green gems. Not a bad deal.
image from the BIG Team

Building resilience through parks

After New York City was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, there was an understanding that the city had to increase its resiliency in the process of rebuilding. In other words, it wasn’t good enough to just repair the damage—systems had to be put in place that could protect the city against something like this happening again.

Like, for example, by using parks.

This idea is found in a project called The Big U, which is one proposal unveiled this past week as part of the Rebuild By Design competition that sought ideas to build this new resilience infrastructure.

The Big U calls, in part, for a park-topped flood protection berm that would wrap around certain sections of lower Manhattan. Using salt-resistant plants and landscape features, it would protect against and manage flooding while at the same time creating a space that doesn’t cut people off, but welcomes them instead. 

Waterfront areas are great, but they are also risky, especially in a world whose weather is becoming more volatile from climate change. Using green infrastructure solutions to build resilience into waterfront areas helps protect the value and livability of these areas. And it does so without building big sea walls and other nasty things that actually sever people from the very reason they are by the waterfront at all.

Toronto already has a smaller scale, but still impressive version of this kind of infrastructure in one of its newest parks, Corktown Common (formally Don River Park). The park does double-duty as a flood protection berm that guards the areas to its west—an estimated 210 hectares, including the city’s financial district—from any swelling and bursting of the Don River to its east. 

And the park, designed by Michael van Valkenburgh (of Brookyn Bridge Park-fame), is stunningly beautiful as well. So Toronto gets a piece of important infrastructure, which unlocks the value of the adjacent lands for development, hidden inside a park that is now one of the city’s new green gems. Not a bad deal.

image from the BIG Team