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Toronto has ambitious plans for a 21-acre park cutting straight through its downtown core. The Rail Deck Park, as it’s called, would span a rail corridor from Blue Jays Way to Bathurst Street, tracing its way alongside Front Street.

This proposed park was the main focus of an expert panel at ULI Toronto’s latest symposium, which ran from April 24-25 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

From High Line To Millennium Park: How Major Parks Transform the Urban Experience, which Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat moderated, provided takeaways from major projects in the US and Europe that city builders in Toronto can learn from. Here are three.

How philanthropy could help fund the park

Keesmaat has suggested in the past that donations from philanthropists could be one way to raise money for the massive park. But how, exactly, can Toronto court the wealthy? Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the nonprofit that oversees a mile and a half of green space perched atop a highway tunnel in Boston, says part of it has to do with what the money itself will go towards. “Philanthropists don’t really want to cut the grass,” he notes. “What they want to pay for is public art and programming.” That way, they perceive it as more than just a park, which they may think their tax dollars should simply cover.

Jamie Torres Springer, senior principal at HR&A Advisors Inc., which advised on New York City’s elevated High Line park, notes who asks for the money can influence prospective donors’ decisions, too. “Government can’t be the one asking for it because people don’t want to donate money to the government,” says Springer. “If you’re able to demonstrate that you have this very unique asset that’s in some ways not part of the park system… people are willing to pay,” he adds.

Transit connections are key

“[Rail Deck Park] will in fact be providing connections between east and west, between north and south, in an area where there’s a really big gap and if we think about the movement systems through the park. It will, in fact, expose the park to a lot more people who might not otherwise use it,” says Keesmaat.

Her statement followed comments from Daniel Jongtien, an architect at Benthem Crouwel Architects, which has been working on the master plan for Amsterdam Central Station. Like Toronto, Amsterdam is seeing real estate prices in its relatively small downtown climb, but public transit ensures the population can enjoy the prime riverside space even if they don’t live right there. “We have the very powerful connection between the Amstel River open space and the transit system to counter [challenges to inclusion].”

“The transit system is very important because people don’t use it out of idealism, but it’s simply [the] best way to get across town. Because of that, it means that all people can get to that area,” he adds.

A major park really can unite a city

“Are these really just playgrounds for the rich?” Keesmaat asks the panel, reference the line of thinking that can interfere with large public projects like the Rail Deck Park. Matt Nielson, deputy commissioner, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events: Chicago Millennium Park, shows another way to promote inclusivity in public spaces and bring a city together. “Most everything we do is free, free, free. That’s what we say, all the time,” says Nielson of the park’s programming.

To engage visitors from all around the city, not just the downtown, Chicago’s Millennium Park holds events organized by communities from all corners of the city. The City has shifted from being a presenter to a host, Nielson explains. “There are people in Chicago who have never seen the lakefront,” he says. “We can use this park as a mechanism to open up that access for diversity and for inclusion.”

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