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The future of urban parks

In the sky, beneath overpasses and along rail lines

With cost of land and density rising in major North American urban centres, developers and urban planners are increasingly turning to the "remnant lands" of cities to build new parks and public spaces.

With cost of land and density rising in major North American urban centres, developers and urban planners are increasingly turning to the "remnant lands" of cities to build new parks and public spaces.

From New York City's beloved High Line to the still under construction West Toronto Railpath, the urban parks of the future will increasingly be found on bridges, beneath overpasses and along former rail lines, says Prof. Alissa North, director of the University of Toronto's Master of Landscape Architecture program.

"It's definitely the way forward," North told in a phone interview. "Really for developing parks within our urban centres, the only spaces that are still available are the remnant lands."

For cities and urban planners, this means understanding where they can now "re-insert new park spaces into the city," she said. "It really is this challenge of what's left and what can we connect."

NYC's High Line: 'If you build it, developers will come'

A large part of the push to develop parks in these remaining urban spaces can be credited to the success of New York City's High Line, according to North.

In September, the final phase of the elevated park opened to the public, completing the transformation of the former train tracks into an urban oasis, with trees, grass, seating areas and retail space.

The 22-block High Line, which snakes through nearly 2.4 kilometres of Manhattan's West Side, has proved the theory that "if you build the park, developers will come," North said, noting that the adjacent retail and residential development spurred by the park has been "unparalleled."

"It's a great idea to be re-investing in this historic piece of infrastructure… but really, it's the fact that it spurred this private development and re-invigorated the entire Meatpacking district," she said.

Since sections of the High Line started to open to the public in 2009, it has attracted hordes of visitors and pedestrian traffic.

Friends of the High Line, a non-profit group that helps to maintain the park, estimates that more than 5 million visitors will visit the High Line in 2014.

Toronto developers propose 'King High Line’

In Toronto, there is a proposal to see a similar elevated pedestrian park built in the west end, connecting the condo-dominated Liberty Village neighbourhood with the trendy West Queen West retail district.

The project, dubbed the ”King High Line,” is being put forth by developers Urbancorp and First Capital Realty, and would cross over the Georgetown rail corridor.

Artists' renderings of the proposed King High Line show green spaces, seating areas, bike paths and retail space built along the park.

While there is no word on the King High Line website about funding or official approval for the project, a growing number of area businesses and residents have signed up on the website to voice their support.

Meanwhile, further north, another project in the city is already seeing the development of public space along former rail lines.

The West Toronto Railpath is a pedestrian trail that seeks to connect the Junction neighbourhood with the downtown core. Phase One of the path was opened in 2009, and stretches about two kilometres. Phase Two of the project would extend the pathway another two kilometres south.

Underpass Park

Another example of a once derelict, unused urban space being transformed into a park can be found just east of downtown Toronto, in Underpass Park.

The park is the largest park in Canada to be built beneath an overpass, and the first in Toronto. It includes a skateboarding park, public art, basketball courts and playground equipment for children. Residential condo developments have been built next to the park.

North said the park is an example of a city maximizing its spaces, as it reaches a certain age and point in development.

"The fact that you can put a really interesting kids' playground and have interesting art work above… is really about a city maturing, and being able to make these places creative and fun within a city," she said.

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— Published December 5th, 2014 —