Does Toronto have what it takes to build world-class public spaces?

"We have some good momentum with new, ground-breaking projects like the Under Gardiner or the City of Toronto's planned Rail Deck Park."

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Does Toronto have what it takes to build world-class public spaces?

Last year, the NXT City team participated in CivicAction‘s rigorous Better City Bootcamp to work out our brains on the topic of public space – 1 of 5 regional themes explored. Since then, the organization has been busily charting their course of action. We sat down with CivicAction’s Director of Communications Sarah Harris for her thoughts on Toronto’s global presence.

1) Where are we at in Toronto vis-a-vis public space?

We have some good momentum with new, ground-breaking projects like the Under Gardiner or the City of Toronto’s planned Rail Deck Park. But with 100,000 people more a year calling Toronto home and 42% of Toronto’s residents living in apartments, additional public space is needed so our residents can live active, healthy and connected lives. More attention also needs to be put on how income inequality effects access to greenspace across the City and ways this can be addressed.

2) Do we have the building blocks to be a global leader?

We absolutely do. We have a strong business community, civic-minded academic institutions, philanthropists, and a power house of a not-for-profit sector. But it’s going to take all of these players coming together WITH government to really do something great. There are some serious challenges for sure, like competing priorities, reduced public dollars, and densification. Cities that are getting it right are looking more and more to partnership models. A great partnership example is New York City’s Highline which took an unused rail line and transformed it into a dynamic urban park. It is owned by the City of New York but maintained, operated, and programmed by the Friends of the High Line which raises 98% of the High Line’s annual budget.

3) What are the key success drivers to deliver a great public realm?

Having enough public realm is part of the equation; animating it to its full potential is the other half. Where we could do a better job is engaging different perspectives in the creation and long-term use and funding of public realm. Community voices are required, but also new players like the private sector. There are some great projects like the Pan Am Path – a multi-use, 80-plus km trail connecting Toronto’s communities – that show us the art of the possible and how to better use the space we have. There’s also the union station outdoor summer market, which gives visitors and people who work in the area a chance to enjoy their lunch hour out in the open. And there’s Open Streets TO, which creates these kind of “pop-up” public spaces, closing off streets for people to get physical activity and feel free to roam around spaces that are usually full of traffic.

4) Why has CivicAction taken on public space as a focus issue?

As the GTHA densifies and backyards give way to balconies, opportunities for physical activity declines. Regular physical activity can help avoid many chronic health conditions and improve mental health outcomes. Unfortunately, just 15% of adults get enough physical activity, while only 5% of Canadian youth are getting the activity they need. At CivicAction we believe there is nothing more important to the future of our cities than preparing those who will lead them, which is why we are incubating a series of public space city-building projects by emerging leaders. CivicAction is also part of the Premier’s Community Hub group and is working to advance this model of community building.

5) Who’s responsible for creating great public spaces in a city?

We need multi-sector collaboration and action on this issue. Players from all sectors need to be at the table working together and no one party should be solely responsible or sit at the head of that table. For example, a 2010 Conference Board study of Canadian P3 projects found that they had delivered efficiency gains of up to 60%. Leveraging partnerships and taking a build together approach will be key to getting the spaces we need.

6) What does the future look like on this issue?

CivicAction will continue to support and incubate the public space projects by our emerging leaders and advocate for new projects and better uses of existing public spaces including moving forward on community hubs. We envision a GTHA where people have the spaces and places to grow, thrive and come together. But this isn’t just about what CivicAction is doing. There are a lot of great efforts happening right now including TOcore, a project by City Planning that’s looking at how Toronto’s downtown should grow. They’re crowdsourcing ideas on how to make downtown an exciting, liveable place for all. The Green Line is another great project, led by Park People, that is advocating for the transformation of the hydro corridor along Dupont Street into a connected park and trail. Projects like these work to connect communities and capitalize on the space we already have, by making it more usable.

7) What’s the role of young people in these initiatives? How do they fit in?
At CivicAction we work to develop, connect, and activate the GTHA’s future leaders. Young people are natural innovators and have a healthy impatience for change. What’s the secret sauce to harnessing the energy of the next generation? They need opportunities to make connections, to get informed of and engaged with topical city-building issues, be given the building blocks (the skills) to impact change, and access to the region’s most influential thinkers and doers. We provide emerging leaders these opportunities through our Emerging Leaders Network and DiverseCity Fellows. On the issue of public space, just take a look at how and where young people are living today. With the average size of new condos in Toronto at 739 square feet, down from 797 square feet in 2010, and the average price of a detached home in Toronto at over $1 million, young people may be the most positively or negatively impacted by what we do with our public space. Increasing their understanding of how this will impact their life and that they have opportunities to influence the outcome is key.

Read the complete Better City Bootcamp report here.

 

Courtesy Under Gardiner
Courtesy Under Gardiner
Chelsea Grasslands, Iwan Baan (c) 2009, Courtesy Friends of the Highline
Chelsea Grasslands, Iwan Baan (c) 2009, Courtesy Friends of the Highline
Courtesy Open Streets TO
Courtesy Open Streets TO
Green Line Toronto
Green Line Toronto