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What to do about Toronto’s neglected green spaces

Helena Grdadolnik has launched an ambitious international design competition for the Green Line project.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

In the constellation of Toronto's public spaces, the string of forlorn parkettes extending along the midtown rail corridor have long had a decidedly back-of-beyond feel – a few desultory playgrounds, community gardens and dusty parking lots situated in the shadow of a major hydro corridor.

Residents know that the strip, which abuts a partially gentrified west-end neighbourhood, is so far off the radar that contractors use it to dump construction debris. "It just appears at night where our kids are going to play the next morning," mused Evan Castel, co-chair of the Davenport Neighbourhood Association, as he strolled one morning through a park located close to several auto body shops and a bike store famous for its espresso machine. "Neglect breeds neglect."

Most residents' groups would respond to such incidents with neighbourhood watch programs or a push for new playground equipment.

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But Mr. Castel and urban designer Helena Grdadolnik have set their sights higher, launching an ambitious international design competition meant to generate visions of an extended linear park that swoops south from Earlscourt Park and runs east to the Bridgman Transformer Station, located where Davenport Avenue ducks under the railway tracks.

The goal – a contiguous cycling and pedestrian corridor – is an especially challenging assignment because the route is frequently interrupted by difficult-to-cross arterials, retaining walls, and the TTC's sprawling Hillcrest yard. It also abuts a busy rail corridor used both by freight trains and urban adventurers.

Their project, dubbed "The Green Line," is a deliberate attempt to replicate the success of other post-industrial linear parks such as the West Toronto Railpath, an award-winning space that runs along the Georgetown South corridor, and New York's High Line, a once crumbling elevated rail spur that was converted into an electrifying park that weaves through Manhattan's red-hot west-side warehouse district. Both projects trace back to local ideas competitions.

The Green Line traverses a dense, diverse urban landscape of row houses, aging warehouses, hidden artists' studios, condos, theatres and a community college. The area is also in the throes of a substantial transition. South of the tracks, the city is trying to figure out how to respond to development pressure on Dupont.

Ms. Grdadolnik, a Workshop Architecture associate director who once managed an international design contest for the alleyways in Vancouver's Gastown, hopes that this "ideas competition" will attract entries from all over the world. "Some will be unbuildable and some will be really realistic," she predicted.

"Give us an Amsterdam perspective, give us a Cairo perspective," added Mr. Castel. "You don't have to be here to help with this vision."

(Submissions are due by early February, with the winners announced in May. The plans of all the finalists will be posted publicly in one of the parkettes along the route and published in the spring issue of Spacing Magazine.)

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The genesis of the competition plan was a small city landscaping project, completed earlier this year, to remove a fence and shrubs from the corner of a parkette near Shaw Street that had become a well-concealed hang-out for drug dealers. "Suddenly people realized there was a tree here, and benches," said Mr. Castel.

As residents worked on this little upgrade, they realized the city had no overarching plan for connecting these spaces, even though many cyclists and pedestrians now use them as an alternative east-west route. While the city has been financing similar small projects elsewhere along the Green Line, there's no sense of coherence, nor any attempt to build a continuous route, said Mr. Castel.

While such exercises often get bogged down in plodding public consultation processes, Ms. Grdadolnik sees the Green Line contest as a way to spark the public's imagination and persuade the city to develop a master plan to guide future open-space investments. "If you have a plan," she said, "at least you can be strategic."

John Lorinc is a senior editor at Spacing Magazine.

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