Planning for the future by making connections

New park system master plans are focusing on building out a network of green spaces by looking for opportunities to strengthen connectivity—for both people and animals.

High Park, Toronto

High Park, Toronto

When you create a park system master plan for a city with a variety of natural environments that is bigger than Prince Edward Island, you’re bound to get something unique.

Sunnybrook Park, Toronto

Sunnybrook Park, Toronto

Halifax’s Green Network Plan, approved in 2018, is a “combination of a regional planning document and also a municipal open space document,” said Richard Harvey, Manager of Policy and Planning for Parks in Halifax. While his department deals with master plans for city parks, Harvey said, “we are also involved with the acquisition of large areas of open space that in many ways shape the city.”

Indeed, an entire section of the plan involves city shaping, where the green space system is seen as a tool for directing development to appropriate locations and ensuring there are clear neighbourhood boundaries.

As the name suggests, the Green Network Plan brings a systems-level approach to thinking about the network of parks and open spaces within the city and their ecological and cultural integrity. As part of the plan, the City created a multi-layered Green Network Database that will allow staff and the public to understand how a site-specific proposal impacts the city’s larger ecological context.

The plan promotes this focus on network connectivity by breaking down the city into edges, wedges, patches, and corridors:

  • Edges form boundaries around communities (like a shoreline)
  • Wedges are green spaces that insert into communities from edges, connecting them into the larger green space system.
  • Patches are the distinct open spaces found within a community, such as parks and plazas.
  • Corridors are linear green spaces that also serve as active transportation routes, like trails and greenways.

Harvey said that “ecological connectivity” drives much of the City’s thinking, but by making sure lands are connected to facilitate wildlife movement and create habitat corridors, “you’re also creating opportunities for human interaction” with that natural landscape.

This focus on connectivity extends to the neighbourhood-scale.

When thinking of planning neighbourhood parks, Harvey argued it’s important to think about offering a diversity of experiences within a system of nearby parks. Even if your local park may not offer the amenity or activity you’re looking for, another within walking distance will. This includes prioritizing “the ability even along streets to place an emphasis on green connections,” Harvey said, using bike lanes, larger sidewalks, and improving street trees.

Toronto finds inspiration in connectivity in its new downtown park master plan

Toronto took a similar network approach in developing its TOcore Parks and Public Realm Plan, approved in 2018 as part of its overall downtown plan.

The plan grapples with the challenge of an increasingly dense and rapidly growing population within a relatively small area that contains few opportunities for acquiring land for new parks. In areas where there is land, it’s often prohibitively expensive—just an acre of land can cost around $60 million.

TOcore approaches this challenge through working at a variety of scales—from site-specific to larger natural systems—all fitting together into a connected network. The plan also looked beyond parks to open spaces such as privately-owned public spaces, streets, and laneways to maximize public space opportunities.

Reminiscent of Halifax’s edges and wedges, TOcore includes a “core circle” that knits together existing and proposed parks and public spaces in a ring around downtown. At the neighbourhood scale, the plan highlights “park districts” as well as “portal parks” which act as linkages between neighbourhood park districts and the wider city park system.

The plan also proposed several big ideas, such as decking over a downtown rail corridor to create a new 21-acre park, dubbed Rail Deck Park. Another is realigning the median of park space down the centre of University Avenue to one side, tripling the amount of open space available by stitching it with the street edge.

New measurement tools for park use, access, and quality

Spurred by urban development, changing demographics, and tight budgets, cities are developing innovative methods for measuring park access, use, and quality.

Vancouver measured actual walking distance to parks

Regent Park, Toronto

Regent Park, Toronto

Walking distance to a park is a common measure of park provision, but it’s not as simple as drawing a direct 10-minute radius around a park—unless you’re a bird.

Vancouver’s VanPlay Park Provision Study—part of its ongoing VanPlay Master Plan—developed a clever method to account for topography, off-street routes, and traffic conditions (like crossing times) to determine walking distance. This information was combined with data around current and future residential and employment populations to provide an in-depth snapshot of park access and provision across the entire city.

Prince George evaluated park quality through scorecards and an interactive app

Understanding where new parks are needed is one thing, but understanding the quality of existing parks is another.

As part of its parks master plan in 2017, Prince George undertook the process of creating individual park scorecards to rate the quality of parks under a number of criteria including neighbourhood context, infrastructure, safety, and environment. Overall, 109 parks were evaluated and posted publicly on the City’s website.

The City also released an interactive app that allowed residents to access different layers of information, such as playgrounds slated as revitalization priorities.

Toronto undertook a massive downtown public life study

In 2016, Toronto completed the City’s first public life study to inform the City’s downtown master plan, to understand the who, what and how of downtown park use.

Based on methodology from Gehl Studio and managed by Park People, the study included over 100 volunteers using behavioural observation techniques to collect information about park users such as age, gender, and activity.

The study was coupled with an intercept survey, where volunteers randomly approached park users to complete a questionnaire including demographic information. The results provide a snapshot in time of park use and can help inform decision-making about design or planning changes.

Cities using sensors to track park use

With no turnstiles at the entrances and exits, it’s notoriously hard to measure how many people use a park or trail—which is why some cities are experimenting with sensors.

Following a pilot project in 2016, Montreal began using new technology to measure use of its seven nature parks by installing 59 infrared sensors. Data collected helps the City get a more accurate measure of the use of these parks and informs where investments can be directed in the future. Mississauga, Calgary, Guelph, Saskatoon, Victoria, and Lethbridge also use sensors to monitor users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, in parks and along trails.