BY MONIQUE BEAUDIN, MONTREAL GAZETTE ENVIRONMENT REPORTER JULY 19, 2013

 The city park ain’t what it used to be. While most parks in Montreal still have playgrounds, grass and sports fields, green spaces all over Montreal are being overhauled to offer residents a host of new types of recreational activities in more natural settings.

You’ll still see soccer players, children in swings and people walking their dogs at neighbourhood parks, but you might also see people working out on outdoor exercise equipment, gathering around a campfire or strolling through a stand of mature trees that has been protected to encourage biodiversity.

Cities around the world are changing the way we see parks. Paris built an artificial beach along the Seine River, drawing thousands of people every year. In New York, the High Line linear park built on an abandoned elevated railway line is credited with spurring at least $2 billion in new developments in the surrounding neighbourhood. Chicago’s Millenium Park, built on a former downtown railway yard and parking lots, features a 4,000-seat outdoor music pavilion, a water fountain that projects pictures of Chicago residents and a two-hectare garden.

They’re the latest incarnations of the urban park, which first appeared in North America during the 1850s as a healthful escape for people living in crowded and polluted industrialized cities. Over the years, they changed as facilities such as swimming pools, baseball fields and playgrounds became fixtures in most urban parks.

While today’s parks are evolving, they still have a lot in common with those original public parks, said Raphaël Fischler, director of McGill University’s School of Urban Planning.

“The park is a place for children and adults to play, a place of greenery that offers emotional or sensorial respites from the city,” Fischler said. “It is a place of social gathering.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, municipal governments saw the parks as a place to bring together new immigrants in order to teach them a common language and prepare them to participate in civic life.

Today, Fischler said, there’s a recognition that people use parks for a variety of reasons.

Children of different ages play differently, while teenagers and seniors use parks in distinct ways, too, he said. You can find skateboarding facilities in some parks and people with their tablets using free Wi-Fi in others, he pointed out.

“We have much more understanding of people’s needs, we’re much more open to that diversity,” Fischler said. “I think it’s nice to see that this municipality or that borough is trying to do something else and cater to the diversity of needs.”

Janette Sadik-Khan, the head of New York City’s transportation department, recently described the importance of parks and public spaces this way: “The mark of a world-class city,” she told the New York Times, “is having iconic, safe, beautiful public spaces for people to enjoy, to congregate, to rest, to take in the beauty of the city.”

Today, The Gazette takes a look at some of the innovative changes taking place in Montreal’s parks.

Plateau Mont-Royal

The Plateau Mont-Royal borough has been making dramatic changes to its parks. Since the Projet Montréal-dominated council was elected in 2009, the borough has spent an average of $1.8 million per year on local parks.

Parc Jeanne-Mance

Parc Jeanne-Mance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of the changes have been significant — removing part of Marie-Anne St. that ran through Baldwin Park, and getting rid of parking spots in Laurier Park. Others have been more whimsical — installing new park benches shaped like reclining chairs and outdoor Ping-Pong tables in Laurier Park that attract table-tennis aficionados.

A surprise hit was a set of covered gliding chairs that are used year round, day and night, said borough Mayor Luc Ferrandez.

“We said let’s try it — a regular park bench costs $2,000 and a gliding chair cost $3,000,” said Ferrandez, who has taken heat for some of the changes taking place in the parks. “It was a huge success.”

There are two trends that have shaped the Plateau’s park planning, he said. The first is that more and more residents of this downtown borough of 100,000 are using city parks, and for longer periods of time. The second is that fewer people were leaving the city during weekends to seek out nature in the country — they were turning to the city parks instead.

Piste cyclable, parc Lafontaine, Montréal 2005...

Piste cyclable, parc Lafontaine, Montréal 2005-08-29 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You need to escape the stress of the city once in a while to forget about it,” he said. “(Landscape artist Frederick Law) Olmsted said that therapy begins when you don’t see or hear anything and you have forgotten you are in the city.”

But the parks weren’t providing the experience of nature in the city, Ferrandez said.

After Projet Montréal was elected in the Plateau in 2009, the borough deliberately set about to make its parks more “natural” by getting rid of asphalt, and modifying street directions around spaces like Laurier Park to reduce traffic and give people a sense of escaping the city, Ferrandez said.

“You see people putting out their towels to sunbathe in Laurier Park five metres from the street and you would never see this if there was traffic,” said Ferrandez, who noted that the number of people using the parks has increased since the borough began overhauling them four years ago.

Ferrandez still has other work on his parks to-do list. Introducing karaoke and puppet shows, for example, and something sure to provoke more controversy among Plateau residents: getting rid of streets in other parks — Duluth Ave. at the foot of Jeanne Mance Park, and Calixa Lavallée Ave. in Lafontaine Park.

Côte-St-Luc

Côte-St-Luc city manager Tanya Abramovitch was at a library conference seven years ago when she happened to catch a workshop put on by the Project for Public Spaces, a New York City-based organization.

Intrigued by its idea of placemaking — consulting the people who will use public spaces to understand their needs before work is done — Abramovitch and two city councillors trained with the organization, a move that has completely changed how the West End city of 32,000 residents looks at developing public places.

Imagination Park

Imagination Park

The focus is on what people who are likely to use the space would like it to be, she said.

“Whenever we do anything, we’re going to apply placemaking,” Abramovitch said. “Once you have this lens, you can never unsee.”

About a one-third of the city’s 300 employees are trained in placemaking and its principles are used in planning city projects, including the overhaul of several city parks to replace old equipment and introduce new elements, such as community gardens.

Here’s how it

works in Côte-St-Luc: Before any work is done, city employees and neighbourhood residents meet in the space to talk about how it can be used.

To plan a park that was to be built near the city’s new aquatic centre, employees and residents met in the muddy, slushy park space during the winter, Abramovitch said. They split up into groups, and looked hard at the space to come up with a plan that became Imagination Park, which features a firepit circled by benches and a playground with computer-activated equipment designed to encourage cooperative play for a generation of kids used to video games.

“This was the first park we did, and it’s a really cool park,” Abramovitch said.

A recent “placemaking session” in another local park resulted in a nature-themed plan to open up an underused wet, wooded section by building a discovery pathway with bridges. The city plans to install new playground equipment with an obstacle course and a tree house, and replace a basketball court with seating.

“Whenever we do placemaking, the priority is to add seating everywhere,” Abramovitch said. “That’s what people want to do, they want to sit. People have to actually be able to sit down if you want them to stay.”

Other parks

The Sud-Ouest borough has created Montreal’s first Woonerf — which means “living street” in Dutch. The borough undertook a project near St-Rémi and St-Ambroise Sts., in St-Henri, to green a 600-metre-long alley that marks the path of the former Little St-Pierre River, now a collector pipe in part of the city’s sewer network. The $2.6-million project included removing asphalt, planting trees and shrubs, putting down grass pavers — concrete paving stones with spaces to let grass grow and water run down — to tackle the problem of urban heat islands. Benches and community gardens are also planned.

Making new parks

At a time when cities struggle to be able to acquire land for new parks, the Rosemont-La Petite Patrie and Plateau Mont-Royal boroughs have recently announced the creation of new parks on land that had been left to grow wild for years. The Champ des Possibles in the Plateau is to be managed by the citizens’ group that had lobbied for the park’s creation.

Take your workout outside

If you live in Notre Dame de Grâce and like exercise and fresh air, you might want to check out the city’s parks. Beyond the running tracks and swimming pools, the borough is offering free outdoor yoga and boot camp classes in one park, and plans to install outdoor exercise equipment in three parks.

mbeaudin@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: moniquebeaudin

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Original source article: Urban parks reinvented
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