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On a late afternoon in fall, my visit to Barcelona’s Parc de l’Estació del Nord unfolds in a symphony of sights and sounds. Kids zip around on bikes and scooters and clamber over play equipment. While the din of car traffic doesn’t quite fade away, it gently blends in with the murmur of one-sided cell phone conversations, coffee cups clinking against saucers and table tennis paddles slicing through the air. Tree branches bob in a gentle breeze, and sculptures tower overhead. A solitary old man supported by a cane gingerly makes his way to a favourite bench, while a football club warms up for practice on a regulation pitch in another corner of the park. Dogs get tangled in each other’s leashes, inviting impromptu banter among owners. Elderly ladies pause from pushing their grocery trolleys to chat, as students lounging on picnic blankets study — more or less — and joggers get a few laps in before dinner.  

It’s a scene that may sound too good to be true in Toronto, but the policy framework to build similar parks is now in place. A little over a year ago and without much fanfare, City of Toronto Council approved two important documents related to the provision of parks and recreational amenities: the Parkland Strategy and the Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan Implementation Strategy (FMP Strategy). The Parkland Strategy aims to “address inequities across the city to ensure access to high-quality parks and natural areas for all Torontonians” by guiding the twenty-year planning of new parks across the city. The FMP Strategy guides state of good repair, revitalization and construction of new recreational facilities over a similar time frame. 

Dog owners of all ages congregate on the way to the off-leash area in Parc de l’Estació del Nord.

Using progressive and practical metrics to assess per person park need, the Parkland Strategy maps the vast swaths of the city where residents don’t have access to large parks and the space, amenities and healthful respite they provide. To remedy this inequity, the Parkland Strategy provides an Acquisition Priority Map as one of the implementation tools in its framework for expanding Toronto’s parks system. The Parkland and FMP Strategies are meant to work together, and a common thread between the two documents is partnership development with other facility and service providers, institutions, agencies and funders. The FMP Strategy promotes innovative partnerships as one of its guiding principles and encourages the co-location of municipal services and amenities. 

The “Magic Mountain” at Parc de Diagonal Mar.

The large multi-purpose urban parks that were built in an already-dense Barcelona in recent decades illustrate what implementing the Parkland and FMP Strategies to their full potential could look like. Parc de l’Estació del Nord is a case in point, seamlessly incorporating a mix of uses and functions into an ambitiously designed public space.

The municipality of Barcelona defines urban parks as man-made natural spaces that have services and amenities for all members of the public, from children to seniors, and which offer a range of recreational opportunities and passive enjoyment. Three quarters of Barcelona’s urban parks are 3.0 to 5.0 hectares in size, with a handful that are between 12.0 and 17.0 hectares. This type of park is deemed essential to the quality of life of Barcelona residents and is found in neighbourhoods across the Catalan capital. City parks are understood to be spaces where people can enjoy a nature that, despite being mediated by the urban form, is integral to the urban experience. Woven into the daily life of its residents, Barcelona’s large urban parks comfortably accommodate a variety of programming, small-scale commercial activity and municipal services, all the while exemplifying bold, whimsical design.  

The creation of several of these sizable urban parks in Barcelona was made possible by allocating formerly industrial lands specifically for this purpose. One of the first of these redevelopments was Parc de Joan Miró, also known as Abattoir Park due to its former function and famously home to Miró’s Dona i Ocell statue. Within the limits of this 4.7-hectare park is a community library, handsomely situated within a moat-like water feature on the eastern portion of the park. The Biblioteca Joan Miró has a park-facing entrance on its western facade, while the entrance on the eastern side of the library interfaces with the neighbouring street by way of a playful sculptural gate. The park also includes a subterranean stormwater detention facility with a capacity of 55,000 cubic metres, an underground parking garage and municipal impound lot, ball courts, playgrounds for various age groups and an off-leash dog area. What’s more, a fire station is temporarily located on the north end of the park while a new station is under construction in its permanent location.

An impromptu football game inside the ball courts at Parc de Joan Miró. A canopy and lighting allow for comfortable use throughout the day and seasons, and fencing ensures safety and separation from less active park uses.

This bundled approach of embedding multiple types of services and infrastructure in urban parks makes the most out of city property and delivers services directly to the communities that use them. Library patrons animate the park and vice versa, and it’s easy to imagine how convenient and pleasant it might be to stop by the library with the kids on the stroll home from school, then at the playground while the family pooch runs around the dog park. Various user groups still need parking, while the municipality of Barcelona touts vehicle towing as a service that improves quality of life through decreased traffic congestion. Locating both services underground prioritizes valuable urban land for human-centric uses without signalling the dreaded “war on cars,” and both services can be used for revenue generation. Meanwhile, the stormwater infrastructure under the park shows that the urban fabric can be retrofitted for climate change resilience while creating vital green space to serve thousands of residents.

A game of football underway in one of Parc de Diagonal Mar’s sunken sports courts.

Similar examples of dynamic, layered programming can be found throughout the city. Sit-down cafés seem requisite in parks of all sizes and are another source of potential income. The park cafés operate in compact, fully functional kiosks and include dedicated, high-quality flexible seating. They mix the typically urban program of the bistro or café with open space programming and exemplify a type of social park activity that goes beyond the usual active–passive divide. Located in lushly treed parks alive with a concert of birdsong, outdoor cafés turn meeting up with friends, taking a lunch meeting or simply enjoying a coffee while people watching into a surreal, almost magical experience. In the Toronto context, such kiosks could be placemaking initiatives. What better way to provide a truly special outdoor dining experience than to showcase the cuisines of Toronto’s neighbourhoods while providing local food vendors with affordable restaurant space.  

Land art marks the entrance to Parc de l’Estació del Nord, and outdoor seating is dedicated to the park’s café.

Barcelona’s parks are also the site of municipal “green points” that accept household items, complex recyclables and toxic materials for re-use or safe disposal. Twenty-five permanent green points exist, plus roughly 100 mobile locations that consist of specialized recycling trucks on a rotating weekly schedule. Offering convenient, year-round delivery of services to citizens where they live, the green points make an implicit didactic connection between urban ecologies and city infrastructure. Mobile delivery of city services could be extended to other sectors. Deploying certain types of seasonal or as-needed medical care in park settings could render the procedures less stressful, expanding on the notion that green spaces provide physical and mental health benefits.

Basketball court in Parc de Poblenou.

Although not a park, a literal example of layered programming is found at — or rather, under — the Mercat de Sant Antoni. After an extensive renovation funded by the city, the 135-year-old market reopened in 2018 and now boasts four new underground levels. The level directly below the market (L-1) houses an affordable grocery store, and the rent paid by the store offsets the city’s costs. This model of locating private grocery stores in publicly restored markets has been adopted throughout the city and allows discount chains to operate in an expensive real estate market.  

Tree planting and ample seating create a green, park-like setting around the Mercat de Sant Antoni.

Community, office and museum space are also located on L-1; additional services and retail space are found on L-1 and L-3. Levels L-2 to L-4 are dedicated to a parking garage, the construction of which unearthed a part of the medieval city fortifications and a stretch of the Roman Via Augusta, necessitating revisions to the design mid-construction. The stalls of the market proper are on the ground floor, along with special weekly markets and community events. The public open space surrounding the market has also been renovated with tree planting, new paving, seating and a canopy structure for temporary outdoor stalls, and the whole is now part of the superblock of pedestrianized adjacent streets. From the beginning, Barcelona’s markets were established to provide residents of the wider neighbourhoods with access to food. Recent renovations continue with a similar understanding that the provision of food, social services and public open space are essential to the successful functioning of a city. Barcelona’s markets are hubs of both economic activity and community programming in a type of public–private partnership where retail activity and municipal services support each other. If residential real estate developers operating in the favourable conditions of a densely populated city like Toronto are required to contribute to community benefits, why not expect the same of retail developments? Large parking areas around many commercial centres could be reduced or buried to provide vital community programming and green space.

Beverley Pepper’s Cel Caigut (Fallen Sky) sculpture in Parc de l’Estació del Nord.

Yet Barcelona’s open spaces demonstrate more than pragmatic real estate management and clever investment of taxpayer money. Parks are where civic creativity and imagination are expressed, with bold, richly designed green spaces conceived of experimentation and whimsy. 

The 3.6-hectare Parc de l’Estació del Nord is nothing less than land art. Comprising land around a decommissioned railway station — a building that now houses Barcelona’s central bus station, the city’s largest municipal sports centre, a state employment services office and a police station — the park is a vital amenity in its own right. Despite being crossed by two local vehicular streets, the park dives over and under city infrastructure to connect the surrounding city blocks while accommodating sports fields, a playground, a café and washrooms, table tennis courts, an off-leash dog area, state archives and meandering pedestrian paths. At the centre of it all is a vast grassy field delineated horizontally and vertically by Beverly Pepper’s land sculpture titled Cel Caigut or Fallen Sky. Lines of oversized, irregular shards of vibrant blue tiles snake and spiral through the field before undulating upward to form massive peaks. Visitors can rest on grassy knolls in the shade of the shimmering poplars strewn across the field or playfully trace the tiled spirals in the ground — the park becomes an alternate world where time and space unwind and anyone can dream away an afternoon staring at the sky.  

The playful entrance gate at the library in Parc de Joan Miró.

It seems that every urban park in Barcelona is worthy of unique design, and one of the most exuberant is Parc de Diagonal Mar. A generous 14.0 hectares, it takes up almost half of the 34.0-hectare mixed-use redevelopment of which it is part. Like Parc de l’Estació del Nord and several others, Parc de Diagonal Mar spans local streets, in this case connecting the nearby working class neighbourhoods with the new development while creating a publicly accessible link to the beaches to its south. It includes the expected amenities such as sports fields and courts, shaded seating, café and dog area. The park also includes an amphitheatre, playgrounds and the “Magic Mountain” with its slides of various shapes and sizes brought to life by the lively squeals of dozens of children. Ecological performance and LID principles are embedded in the design, which manifests in the form of permeable paving, native planting and a lake that treats and stores rainwater used for irrigation.

Broken-tile planters float above the gardens and seating areas in Parc de Diagonal Mar.

What is immediately striking about Parc de Diagonal Mar, to outside observers at least, is its unapologetically conspicuous design. From the heights of the nearby residential towers, the park is meant to look like an abstracted tree branching out from the sea. Inside, a bridge zigzags over the lake, earth mounds lead visitors to lookouts and sculptural mist fountains rise from the lake. Most delirious are the oversized, broken-tile planters suspended from the winding tubular sculptures that float over the central plaza. The organic sculptures, the colourful tiles and the ironwork found elsewhere in the park reference not only local architect Antoni Gaudí, but Catalan design and identity more broadly.

Bringing high-quality design to all Toronto neighbourhoods, accompanied by sincere equity-based placemaking, could result in urban parks co-designed to be similarly unique and expressive of the communities they serve in terms of aesthetics, programming and services.  

The tubular mist sculptures that wind their way through the park are part of the irrigation system that conveys water to the park’s planting beds.

Of the 18 parks currently listed on the City of Toronto’s New Parks and Facilities web page, 16 are under 1.0 hectare in size, so it’s no wonder that the amenities they offer go little beyond seating, a playground and some lawn. Ten of the proposed 18 parks are located within the boundaries of Toronto, York and East York, areas generally defined as middle- and high-income by the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership. The only sizable urban park on the New Parks web page is the 7.0-hectare McCowan District Park, although it falls more accurately under the category of park improvement. Created in Scarborough in 2006 with a playground, sports fields and trails, the park received an outdoor ice rink, skating trails and a splash pad in 2019 and 2020. Even with these additional amenities, McCowan Park falls short of providing the number of facilities and services typically found in one of Barcelona’s urban parks. 

Fortunately, the City of Toronto is taking a turn toward increasing the types of amenities in its parks. In the spirit of the FMP Strategy, a new community recreation centre in northeast Scarborough will be located in Joyce Trimmer Park. Meanwhile, the Eglinton Park Master Plan shows the existing 8.5-hectare park retrofitted with plazas, multi-use sports courts and fields, ample seating and artwork. Among other amenities, the plan incorporates two existing community centre buildings and an arena while adding a café patio. And in the realm of bold design, the popularity of Berczy Park, Sugar Beach and the WaveDecks prove that Toronto residents embrace parks that make a statement.

The approval of the Parkland and FMP Strategies charts a new course for the future of parks and recreation facilities in Toronto. The strategies give city officials and residents a framework for creating large urban parks that offer a range of recreational opportunities and amenities, and for distributing those parks equitably throughout the city. The Acquisition Priority Map in the Parkland Strategy identifies the areas in Toronto most in need of large parks, many of which are near industrial and employment lands distributed throughout the city. Meaningful portions of these lands should be dedicated for park creation, because it’s unlikely that space will be made available from any of the other land use designations for parks large enough to accommodate the active and passive programming, small-scale commercial activity and municipal services needed by thousands of residents in underserved and dense neighbourhoods.

Local interpretations of Barcelona’s large-scale, multi-functional parks are possible in Toronto, and providing equitable access to high-quality parks and services for all Torontonians is a new way to define highest and best use.

Learning From Barcelona: A New Future for Toronto’s Public Parks

Barcelona’s multi-functional parks illustrate what putting Toronto’s Parkland and Parks and Recreation Facilities Strategies into action could look like.

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