Robert Hammond will be a fitting keynote speaker at Toronto's second annual Parks Summit at the Evergreen Brickworks on Saturday. The New Yorker started the grassroots effort to have an old elevated freight railway in Manhattan turned into a linear park. The High Line is now a 2.3-kilometre long public greenspace above a dense street grid.
In a less literal way, elevating Toronto's parks is the goal of the summit, and the mission behind the host organization Parks People.
Organizer Dave Harvey started Parks People last year because he saw both a need and desire for Torontonians to become more engaged with their local parks.
He says as Toronto's population grows – and increasingly calls condos and apartments home – the need for local green spaces instead of backyards grows with it.
Toronto's parks director Richard Ubbens confirms that parks surrounding the "city-centre" areas where growth has been directed to in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke are seeing increased use and greater pressure.
Beyond housing patterns, Mr. Harvey also thinks there is a cultural shift under way. "We used to be Toronto the Good, where there were all these rules about what you couldn't do in a park," he says. He thinks immigration and a national realization that Canada is no longer a rural country is changing that. "We are waking up to the fact that 'Cities are where we live.' We are embracing an urban culture and realizing that parks can be for soccer, yes, but also places for communities to enjoy and create food and art, things we never did before."
Central to this new use of parks, says Mr. Harvey, is the proliferation of park user groups who he says are picking up some of the slack in park maintenance and operation that dates back to amalgamation.
Mr. Harvey says there are currently 50 local parks groups like the pioneering Friends of Dufferin Grove Park. He says almost half of those have sprouted in the past two years.
To keep that momentum going, last week Parks People released their Parks Friends Group Guidebook, a 22-page booklet about how people can start their own group to oversee upkeep and encourage events and activities in their local parks.
Doug Bennet will be on a summit panel about local engagement. The 52-year-old publisher lives near Sorauren Park, east of Roncesvalles Avenue, and helped found the Wabash Building Society. He says the group was lobbying to have an old linseed oil factory adjacent to the park turned into a community centre. They incorporated as a non-profit in 2006.
"Eventually we got angry with the slow pace and we said, we'll do it ourselves," says Mr. Bennet.
He admits that was naive (the community centre has hovered steadily in the five- to 10-year capital budget projections), but points proudly to successes like opening the Field House, a two-storey, vacant office building beside the park. Once open, the Field House's washrooms meant the park no longer needed oft-tipped Porta-Potties. The meeting rooms inside are now rented out for community events of all kinds.
The group next set sights on an empty city-owned lot (the former site of the factory's flax seed silos). The goal is to turn it into a Town Square that connects to the park and becomes home to a baker's oven and farmer's market and serves as a meeting place and venue for the park's many festivals.
He says his group is currently raising half of the $600,000 cost of the project and has been assured it will be included in Toronto's capital plan for 2013-2014.
He thinks a congregation of like-minded park people at a parks summit can only help other groups get up and running and start making differences at their own parks.
"We were making it up as we went along," he says. "To be able to co-ordinate and network with other people doing the same thing, essentially trying to figure out how city hall works, will be helpful. Each group won't have to reinvent the wheel."
Special to The Globe and Mail