If Toronto’s Rail Deck Park plan ended up dying in a dense thicket of legalistic land-use planning arguments, it would be fair to say that the idea began with a fundamental and, in this case, tragic, misapprehension — which was that the void between Front Street and City Place was somehow there for the taking, a kind of airborne expanse of urban crown land, waiting to be assigned a higher civic duty.
We all fell for it.
The two points on this continuum, of course, are linked — the fantasy begetting the tunnel vision that allowed most of us to overlook one of the critical lessons of Toronto in the 1980s, which was that nothing involving the railway lands came free or easily, and rarely turned into that thing so many people dreamt of.
Some early railway lands plans (from the left) included mid-rise social housing and townhouses. Others (from the right and Bay Street) had more office buildings and fewer apartment towers. There was all sorts of fighting and horse-trading about the stadium, both in council and then at the Ontario Municipal Board. We all know how the story ended.
Except we didn’t. “The proposed park,” a 2017 City rail deck corridor planning study noted, “will transform the unused air space above the rail corridor into Toronto’s next great gathering space for recreation, culture, and celebration [emphasis added].” In hindsight, this statement reminds me of the old joke about the economist who spots a $100 bill on the sidewalk but walks past it. “After all,” she thinks, “if that had really been a $100 bill, someone else would have picked it up already!”
Besides providing fodder for Mark Osbaldeston’s next instalment of Unbuilt Toronto, this episode should prompt some serious reflection about what we actually desire in parks in this city, because it seems all too easy to lapse into a form of wishful thinking that fails to account for both the way urban land develops and what we value in public space.
Many of the signature parks in global cities either began as the re-purposed estates of wealthy people or were carved out of barely urbanized areas on the periphery – think New York’s Central Park, which predates the development of mid-town Manhattan. High Park, Allan Gardens and Trinity Bellwoods were all parks well before they were surrounded by city.
Chicago has a picturesque waterfront because the 19th century merchant princes who had lake-front estates bullied the city into protecting their Michigan Avenue views in perpetuity. A century later, Chicago managed to put a lid on its decommissioned railyards, but Millennium Park ended up being financed by a confection of underground parking revenue and above-ground corporate graft, all of it shifted into position by an authoritarian mayor.
If I had to guess how Rail Deck Park would have turned out, I’d probably look to Boston, and the reclaimed land over the expressways buried during the $25 billion Big Dig. The project was touted as a way of reconnecting Boston with its harbour, but the resulting public spaces have a meh quality. Maybe one day they’ll have life, but not yet.
In the case of Toronto, our best loved public spaces have little to offer by way of learning. Metro in the 1950s created the Toronto Islands parks by quashing most the commercial activity. The Don Valley ravine system once included farms, cottages and some industrial activity, and only later did Metro restrict those areas for parks and expressways. In neither case were large commercial interests pushing against these re-uses.
In the early 2000s, the federal Liberals gifted the city with the decommissioned bits of the Downsview lands, touting it as Canada’s largest urban park. Expensive designers swept in with ridiculous landscaping concepts. But absent any kind of consistent revenue stream and a coherant planning strategy for city-building around the edges, Downsview Park remains a wind-swept disappointment and a reality check about over-hyped visions.
I hope the same fate won’t befall the park and naturalized spaces being carved out of the Port Lands to create the Lower Don flood protection zone. Certainly, there’s been no shortage of visual teasers, but that plan, unlike Downsview, came equipped with sufficient capital ($1.25 billion) to see it properly executed. (The same was true for Corktown Common.)
The parks planned for the Lower Don also sit on contested former industrial lands, and were once the target of Doug Ford’s scheming. But whereas the parkification of the Don flood plane enables development that would not have otherwise have occurred, Rail Deck Park’s raison d’etre – open space, connectivity – wasn’t a pre-condition to anything that private developers aren’t already doing. Two decking projects are underway, and the ORCA/Moshe Safdie plan that prevailed at the LPAT last week makes three. There will be more in the future.
I’d argue the defeat of the Rail Deck vision presents an opportunity for the City to not only re-consider how it thinks about parks and open space, but also cure us of our desire to somehow reverse engineer Central Park.
What does that re-booting of priorities look like? The answers are not a mystery: expansion of the sorts of open spaces that have proven to be hugely successful – e.g., the West Toronto Railpath or the Bentway; more investment in protecting the ravine system slopes, surfacing the buried rivers, and enabling better accessibility; and a re-imaging of existing downtown parks or other open-spaces that have been left to languish.
One more: the City should abandon the phony privately-owned public spaces (POPS) strategy and focus instead on creating more compact plazas and squares in medium and high-density areas slated for re-development. Some of this planning is now taking place — notably, part of a complicated deal announced last week involving a city-owned parking lot and an old fire hall between Adelaide and Richmond. Indeed, these kinds of parks, to my eye, are inherently more urban than green-space megaprojects, with their verdant renderings.
The Rail Deck story is not just a cautionary tale, but should also serve as a prompt about what the city can do well, in terms of open space. Better to build on those successes than attempt more moonshots.