Install Theme
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

Seattle’s new park tax district would raise $54 million per year
Toronto’s parks face a maintenance backlog of $295 million in 2014. That number is expected to grow to some $360 million by 2018. That’s a lot of broken benches, crumbling pathways, and cracked tennis courts. While money for buying and building new parks can come from levies on development, maintenance funding cannot.
Seattle is also facing a big maintenance backlog—in the ballpark of $270 million. So what’s their solution? 
The mayor, Ed Murray, is supporting a proposal for a new metropolitan park district that will levy a—hold onto your hats—property tax. This proposal is different than a “park improvement district,” which some cities have created to fund specific parks by levying a tax on businesses and sometimes residential properties in the immediate vicinity of the park.
Seattle’s park district would mirror the boundaries of the City of Seattle and would start with a levy of 42 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value. So a house assessed at $400,000 would pay $14 more a month, or about 50 cents a day. This would raise $54 million per year.
$54 million! Per year!
The bulk of this money would go for maintenance and upkeep, but some would be set aside for programming for disadvantaged populations, funding for park partnerships to activate the city’s downtown parks, creating new parks on city-owned land, and increasing hours for and improving community centres. But who wants any of those things, right?
The creation of the park district creates an on-going, stable, and dedicated revenue source for the city’s parks. Many politicians stammer when asked about property taxes, but the reality is, especially for Canadian cities, it’s the major revenue tool they’ve been given.
Could Toronto use something like this? To put into context: $54 million represents a full third of the $168 million in the 2014 capital budget for Parks, Forestry and Recreation and $7.5 million more than the city is spending on the state of good repair backlog for parks and recreation in 2014.
I think Seattle mayor Ed Murray sums up the need for increased parks funding best here:

 “We understand that a safe, active, and accessible parks system is an essential part of a healthy, vibrant, thriving city. By providing sustainable funding for much-needed repairs and improvements at our parks, we have an opportunity to be more than grateful beneficiaries of a previous legacy – we can create our own legacy for future generations. ”

Seattle’s new park tax district would raise $54 million per year

Toronto’s parks face a maintenance backlog of $295 million in 2014. That number is expected to grow to some $360 million by 2018. That’s a lot of broken benches, crumbling pathways, and cracked tennis courts. While money for buying and building new parks can come from levies on development, maintenance funding cannot.

Seattle is also facing a big maintenance backlog—in the ballpark of $270 million. So what’s their solution?

The mayor, Ed Murray, is supporting a proposal for a new metropolitan park district that will levy a—hold onto your hats—property tax. This proposal is different than a “park improvement district,” which some cities have created to fund specific parks by levying a tax on businesses and sometimes residential properties in the immediate vicinity of the park.

Seattle’s park district would mirror the boundaries of the City of Seattle and would start with a levy of 42 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value. So a house assessed at $400,000 would pay $14 more a month, or about 50 cents a day. This would raise $54 million per year.

$54 million! Per year!

The bulk of this money would go for maintenance and upkeep, but some would be set aside for programming for disadvantaged populations, funding for park partnerships to activate the city’s downtown parks, creating new parks on city-owned land, and increasing hours for and improving community centres. But who wants any of those things, right?

The creation of the park district creates an on-going, stable, and dedicated revenue source for the city’s parks. Many politicians stammer when asked about property taxes, but the reality is, especially for Canadian cities, it’s the major revenue tool they’ve been given.

Could Toronto use something like this? To put into context: $54 million represents a full third of the $168 million in the 2014 capital budget for Parks, Forestry and Recreation and $7.5 million more than the city is spending on the state of good repair backlog for parks and recreation in 2014.

I think Seattle mayor Ed Murray sums up the need for increased parks funding best here:

 “We understand that a safe, active, and accessible parks system is an essential part of a healthy, vibrant, thriving city. By providing sustainable funding for much-needed repairs and improvements at our parks, we have an opportunity to be more than grateful beneficiaries of a previous legacy – we can create our own legacy for future generations. ”

What Vancouver’s Mid Main Park Can Teach Us About Small Parks
I love tiny parks—the more itty-bitty the better—and when I was back in Vancouver recently, I made sure I went to visit the relatively new Mid Main Park at Main and 18th Street done by Hapa Collaborative. I had been watching the design process from my perch in Toronto and was excited to see what it looked like in person. In short, the park is awesome, and it can teach us a lot about how to create great small parks.
There are a few reasons why this park is great. One is that it uses its space incredibly well, creating different rooms in a pretty tiny park by changing the elevations, using curved pathways, and incorporating distinct design elements in different places. It’s also located at an interesting bend in Main Street and creates a nice place to stop and people watch.
The other reason though is found in the whimsy of its design. As this recent post in the excellent blog The Dirt points out, the design of the park was meant to evoke the feel of a nearby ice cream shop that had closed in the 1980s. The park includes candy-red stools, a sculpture that resembles bendy straws, long concrete benches, and a small grassy knoll. Too many times, small parks are left as a patch of grass with a bench or two when they can be so much more. Dare to dream big, tiny parks!
The final reason is that the park is also an excellent example of what can happen when a city reclaims under-utilized roadway for park space. The design called for the closing of a slip lane on the western portion. Closing this lane and turning it into part of the park allowed this piece of public space to be stitched back into the city.
image from Hapa Collaborative

What Vancouver’s Mid Main Park Can Teach Us About Small Parks

I love tiny parks—the more itty-bitty the better—and when I was back in Vancouver recently, I made sure I went to visit the relatively new Mid Main Park at Main and 18th Street done by Hapa Collaborative. I had been watching the design process from my perch in Toronto and was excited to see what it looked like in person. In short, the park is awesome, and it can teach us a lot about how to create great small parks.

There are a few reasons why this park is great. One is that it uses its space incredibly well, creating different rooms in a pretty tiny park by changing the elevations, using curved pathways, and incorporating distinct design elements in different places. It’s also located at an interesting bend in Main Street and creates a nice place to stop and people watch.

The other reason though is found in the whimsy of its design. As this recent post in the excellent blog The Dirt points out, the design of the park was meant to evoke the feel of a nearby ice cream shop that had closed in the 1980s. The park includes candy-red stools, a sculpture that resembles bendy straws, long concrete benches, and a small grassy knoll. Too many times, small parks are left as a patch of grass with a bench or two when they can be so much more. Dare to dream big, tiny parks!

The final reason is that the park is also an excellent example of what can happen when a city reclaims under-utilized roadway for park space. The design called for the closing of a slip lane on the western portion. Closing this lane and turning it into part of the park allowed this piece of public space to be stitched back into the city.

image from Hapa Collaborative

Here’s Toronto pop-up dancer Phil Villeneuve dancing away his winter blues at Allan Gardens. I often feel the same way visiting this warm, humid oasis when it’s -10 outside and I need a dose of green, but I usually repress my urge to break out into dance, which, I’m sure, everyone else is thankful for.

You can check out more of his videos, including him dancing in Toronto’s Sugar Beach, here

SF proposes non-profit plaza management

The city that popularized the parklet is now poised to hand over some city plazas to non-profit groups who would manage and program them. The proposed San Francisco program, which has yet to be approved, would apply to plazas more than 2,000 square feet. The city will select plazas on a case-by-case basis and non-profits would submit proposals. Any revenue generated from events programmed by the non-profit would be recycled back into the plaza’s operation.

The idea of a community non-profit programming a public plaza is appealing to me, especially when you walk around downtown Toronto and see many public plazas that are often lifeless. 

Sure some of these spaces could use a design spruce-up with features that encourage people to hang around—like better lighting and seating—but they’re also missing another key element: stuff to do. This is the element that the San Francisco program proposes to insert. 

Not every plaza in the city needs to have lunch time concerts and outdoor reading rooms and chess and movable chairs and cafes and vendors and jugglers and dolphins jumping through fiery hoops, to be sure. But many spaces could benefit from some sort of activation. 

As long as there was community accountability and engagement built into the governance of the space, a non-profit partner could do great things to bring programming that fits the local neighbourhood. These types of programs, when done well, offer a chance for residents to become more actively engaged in their public spaces.

Just look at the success of Wychwood Barns in Toronto, where a non-profit is operating a city-owned building in a public park to great effect. Or the many “friends of the park” groups across Toronto holding events in their parks. 

Vancouver’s Dude Chilling Park

image

That’s Vancouver Park Board commissioner Sarah Blyth unveiling, with what appears to be a nice flourish, the permanent Dude Chilling Park sign today in Vancouver’s Guelph Park.

Today’s unveiling happens two years after an artist erected the mock-sign in the park, perfectly aping the city’s own design and logo. The sign was removed when staff noticed, but many people loved it so much that the Park Board voted to keep it as a piece of public art. 

It’s great to see the city take a playful stance toward public art and embrace something that was originally done surreptitiously. 

Apparently some residents expressed concern that the sign “sends the wrong signal.” To that I say, “Dude, chill.”

image from the Vancouver Park Board