Canoe Landing Park may not be one of Toronto’s most cherished green spaces, but it’s the one Ausma Malik chooses as her favourite in Spadina—Fort York, where she is seen as the front-runner among 12 candidates vying for election on Monday.
The park with the big red canoe, perched on soil excavated to build the CityPlace condo towers, overlooks the Gardiner Expressway near Spadina Avenue, and typifies the teamwork and creative thinking the city needs to use to get more green space into tightly packed neighbourhoods across Toronto, Malik says.
It’s part of a campus that includes a community centre, two schools, a child-care centre, basketball court, running track, community gardens and studio space. The campus was put together with contributions from the public, private and charitable sectors and two different school boards.
“We don’t have enough green space in our downtown. You just have to be in the downtown to know that,” said Malik, a former Toronto District School Board trustee.
“Green space and public space can be part of the growth and development that we’re seeing. We can do more than one thing in our downtown communities.”
Access to green spaces has emerged as an issue in this municipal election, especially in neighbourhoods like fast-growing Ward 10, as developers gobble up what’s left of available land to build residential towers, packing more people into shrinking living quarters, which in turn creates more demand for public spaces.
Ward 10 became a flashpoint after candidate April Engelberg proposed a pedestrian and cycling bridge to the Toronto Islands, to make it easier and cheaper for residents from across the city to get there.
The problem of shrinking green space in the ward isn’t just local — it’s a battle affecting residents across the city.
The cancellation of the ambitious Rail Deck Park project was a huge loss. The $1.7-billion, 20-acre attraction was to have been built over downtown rail yards just east of Bathurst Street — one of the last places a park of that magnitude could be built — and was touted as a Central Park for Toronto.
Turns out the city didn’t own the air rights. More condos are being proposed instead.
Now residents are hanging their hopes on Ontario Place, as the province tries to sort out the future of the mothballed attraction. A plan to let an Austrian company build a tropical spa on part of it has been met with withering criticism in some quarters.
The problem of finding and maintaining enough green space for residents is only expected to get worse. Downtown Toronto’s population is projected to continue growing rapidly, from nearly 238,000 people in 2016 to 475,000 in 2041.
According to the city’s own research, based on the development pipeline, the amount of park space per person citywide is expected to decrease by 14 per cent by 2033 if no new parkland is acquired.
“Toronto’s missing a huge downtown, 500- to 800-acre park, but that ain’t gonna happen,” said Dave Harvey, co-executive director and founder of Park People, an organization dedicated to supporting parks in urban areas across Canada.
Harvey said Toronto is trying to find new ways to add green space — including creating a linear park running down University Avenue. The problem is the sky-high cost of any property in the city, and the cost of maintaining parks once they’re built.
“The city’s operating budget for parks is absolutely not keeping up,” says Harvey, adding that the maintenance budget has “essentially been flatlined for many years.”
The city’s parks, forestry and recreation department, meanwhile, is facing many of the same issues facing businesses today, such as inflation, supply chain and labour shortages, according to Howie Dayton, director of community recreation for the department.
“They’re getting more and more challenged to find the resources to do some of the basic things, like cut grass and pick up the garbage. And also on the capital side, just keeping up good state-of-repair,” said Harvey.
The news isn’t all bad, Harvey said. Just beyond the borders of Ward 10, construction is ongoing on one of the most ambitious projects Toronto has ever undertaken — redirecting how the Don River flows into Lake Ontario — in part to prevent the kind of flooding that was caused by Hurricane Hazel, at a time when such storms are becoming more likely due to climate change.
Eighty acres of new parkland will be added at the Lower Don River. Plans include a canoe launch and beaches.
“People moving into all those communities that they’re building along Queens Quay, they will be benefiting from those new parks,” said Harvey.
There are a dozen candidates vying to replace former councillor Joe Cressy, who stepped down this spring after two terms in office.
A poll conducted for the Toronto Star put Malik in the lead in September.
Engelberg, a litigation lawyer at the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada, ran in the 2018 municipal election in Ward 10, placing second to Cressy, with 3,346 votes.
Using 2021 census data, she calculated that 94 per cent of residents in Spadina—Fort York don’t have a backyard. One of her proposals is to establish a pedestrian and cycling bridge to the Toronto Islands.
She also thinks it’s time Toronto legalized responsible drinking in parks, starting with a pilot project permitting canned alcoholic beverages in all parks in Spadina—Fort York.
“Residents deserve to fully enjoy our parks and treat them like their own backyards,” said Engelberg.
Candidate Laura-Maria Nikolareizi says she would engage the private sector to help sponsor and invest in green space, in return for a tax credit or other incentives. She does not support the idea of a pedestrian bridge to the Toronto Islands, which she views as a sacred parkland and a refuge for wildlife.
She says the city should focus on getting the planned electric ferries into service as quickly as possible.
“It’s embarrassing our city is still using boats that are literally falling apart,” said Nikolareizi, who lives in the ward and is chair of the Island Natural Science Public School.
She is also a member of the Toronto Police Service’s 52 Division community policing committee, and an advisory member for the urban revitalization plan for the Toronto Islands.
Candidate Karlene Nation says she supports a proposal to build a park on the waterfront on an old parking lot off Queens Quay, west of the Toronto Music Garden, and would ensure the project gets funding.
She says she would improve access to green spaces by making it a key requirement for condo construction.
“Our city has been sold out to condo developers with no thought about affordable housing and no thought about green spaces that we so desperately need,” said Nation, a tenant advocate, marketing specialist and former broadcast journalist with CTV News Toronto.
Candidate Rocco Achampong, a lawyer, is also calling for more green space in all new developments in the ward, saying it is essential to well-being and mental health.
A full list of candidates running in the ward is available at the city of Toronto’s election website.
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF