To commemorate DoUC’s 10 year anniversary, we have organized an interview series highlighting past DoUC projects.
We wanted to take this milestone opportunity to revisit projects in a fun and reflective way, calling on the perspectives of both past and present DoUC team members. Shifting from objective and brief project descriptions, we revisited our work with a renewed intimacy. With more personality. We hope this series provides deeper insight and understanding to past projects. Or, is simply a fun read!
To help you navigate this series, we recommend first reading the project summary for context. Then, you can explore the interview dialogue. Enjoy! 🙃
ℹ️ The Toronto Parkettes interview was conducted with Brendan Cormier (BC) and Chris Pandolfi (CP).
So, honestly, what do you think of parkettes? Do you use them? What do you appreciate about them? What frustrates you about them?
BC ⤳ The project was started out of the absurdity of parkettes. Nobody uses them, especially the smaller ones, where the sign for the parkette practically takes up the entire space of the parkette. Toronto Parkettes was a critique of the way the City manages and apportions public space in the city, while pointing to these spaces as having latent potential for intervention.
CP ⤳ The funny thing is, I don’t really use parkettess. Which is super funny because you think I would be super interested. I like the idea of other people enjoying parks. I actually enjoyed walking through parks so for me what I really like about parkettes is this idea that there are these moments. They’re not like any other parks in the city in the sense that you can walk through trinity bellwoods and you can see a lot going on. These like snapshot moments in the city where they’re being used by a specific group of people that are always using them because they’re very, very community focused. Lots of people will say “I’m going to go to Trinity Bellwoods” but, no one says “I’m going to go to this small parkette”. Parkettes you happen upon. Or, you know about them because they are very deeply part of your community. For me, I like the parkettes along the subway lines. When I’m riding my bike, what I’ll do is I’ll use the parkettes as a cut-through. I’m not traveling through one big park. I’m traveling through many little parks and I get to see little situations that are happening. What I like about them is that I find that they’re useful in the city because they create these like micro scenarios that can happen. But the problem is that many of them are designed still to be a classic park. What do you do in a small park? Well, you put a swing set in a small park right? There is little to no exploration of different options and ideas.
From the exhaustive catalogue you created, did you discover a potential favourite parkette typology? Least favourite? Tell us more about why you feel that way.
BC ⤳ The Lakefront Slips are my favourite typology. Who knows why these narrow patches of land right by the lake were left over and not exploited by the voracious Toronto real estate market, but now they offer these beautiful narrow-framed views out onto the lake.
CP ⤳ My personal favorites are the islands. You are literally in the middle of the street and the street is like the sea and you could see everything running around. The vantage points that you get of the city in the island parkettes are so lovely and wonderful. Another is the lakefront slip. It’s a small thing that allows you to see a vastness of something. It’s this very particularity that I have. I don’t like solace. People live in cities for a lot of different reasons. The reason why I’ve always gravitated to wanting to live my life in a metropolitan environment is the idea that there is a mass amount of things that can happen all in one moment. So what the island allows you to do is see all of these things happening. Now, what the lakefront slip allows you to do is the exact opposite — you got the vastness of the lake and you get to see the things in the background. It’s these two of the same thing that are polar opposites of each other. So it’s different kinds of tranquility or different kinds of acts of reflection that you can engage on in two very different scenarios. These were my two favorites.
Toronto Parkettes installation at the Harbourfront Centre in 2011.
From your favourite typology, was there a design strategy that you were most drawn to? Tell us about this strategy, and why it attracted you as such.
BC ⤳ I love the design strategy in Considered Space of renaming parkettes to the by-law amendment which led to their creation, a naming system that exposes the mechanics of city-building.
CP ⤳ The key here with the parkettes was there never is a design strategy. That’s why they are so wonderful. Parkettes are essentially leftover spaces in most cases. Transportation didn’t want to deal with it so they gave it to the parks department, the parks department was like “okay let’s make it a park, but, it can’t be a real park”, so it becomes a parkette. There was no unified strategy for parkettes. So the idea that public space doesn’t have a design strategy for it is actually a little bit amazing in the sense that then who can make up the strategy? Well, it’s a wonderful opportunity to engage people to understand what the strategy needs to be. The space has been given. So part of this understanding is that these parkettes become part of the network of public space and transportation routes. Fundamentally, there are three components of the urban fabric of the city; you have private plots and buildings, and you have public space and transportation routes. So, in the end, there’s this idea that not a lot of people look at our transportation routes as public space because they’ve been chosen to be more like a way to move people and in more cases, move cars. The thing about the parkettes — especially the ones like the traffic islands that are actually in the middle of public spaces — people don’t look at them as if you have been given space. When you’re given space (which is difficult in a city like Toronto) it creates new opportunities for things emerging from these spaces that don’t really have any strategy besides maintenance.
Similarly, let’s see what you think about your least favourite typology, and proposed design strategy. What about it just doesn’t appeal to you?
CP ⤳ Well, I don’t because all of them were unique and also unique to the urban fabric of Toronto. It’s not about having a least favorite let’s say, it was about this understanding that each of them themselves created their own charm and their own uniqueness. I think one of the biggest things about the project was that these also have other names in other cities like parklets or other names that urban planners like to give them. When we were doing this project there was a really big thing about orphan spaces — like spaces that weren’t taken care of. I think that what each individual typology understands is that there is a uniqueness to the leftovers of an urban fabric and in this case, it’s the leftovers of urban fabric to the city of Toronto. To me, after all this thinking about that, was to understand that these weren’t necessarily leftovers, but they’re consequences of decisions and these decisions are very rational decisions that are made by the planning department, or the parks department, or the fire department. They all come from different ways of making decisions and they’re a visual representation of the disconnect of how cities make decisions. Because of that, they are beautiful as they are an actual visual representation of this. So, how can you not love them all when they’re all doing this? All together they express this with each other.
We would also like to pose to you the questions you raised as a part of your objective (please consider them as reflections on what you learned from the project, your experience since then, and where all of this has come to now)…
BC ⤳ Don’t have one.
“I think the problem is that when we think about public space, we think about them as being this very old-fashioned idea of parks and I wish even after all this time that viewpoint has changed but it hasn’t.”
How do you think all of these small and sometimes leftover park spaces can have more meaning?
CP ⤳ To reiterate, meaning for me comes from people who want to give something meaning. It’s fundamentally what I believe about city design. Public space is there for the public to decide what it needs to do and it’s also understanding what public, right? What public, who’s public? Communities are the ones that everybody wants to say should decide everything but sometimes the community doesn’t need a park. This was always one of the big things to talk about. When you actually gave communities decision making over their public spaces, or spaces that were more personal in nature, maybe they might decide that they don’t need a park, but what they need is a daycare center, or they need a new service, or they need “this or that”. Then, all of a sudden you’re starting to deal no longer with the parks as part of the public space and transportation routes, but you’re mixing and blending between a hybrid of a private plots of land but, it’s not private but a community plot of land that doesn’t necessarily have to turn into a park. I think the problem is that when we think about public space, we think about them as being this very old-fashioned idea of parks and I wish even after all this time that viewpoint has changed but it hasn’t. It’s understanding that sometimes people don’t need a park but what they need is this community service. This makes us understand differently what a public space could be and I think that parkettes are the perfect size to prototype a lot of these different ideas.
BC ⤳ One of the things we tried to emphasise with the project is the power of thinking in aggregate form. So, not treating each individual parkette as a design problem, but looking at 525 parkettes as one design problem. Thinking in aggregate all of sudden turns one small seemingly insignificant space into a public amenity the size of one of our biggest parks.
“I think that public space or parks in Toronto are not equally distributed — not just the access that people have to them but the access that they have when they’re in them.”
What do you think park space means to Toronto?
BC ⤳ Having not lived in Toronto for the last eight years, I have lost all sense of what anything means to the city anymore.
CP ⤳ I’m gonna say it means different things to different people but that’s a banal answer to a big question. The reality is, parks are very political and I don’t think that in Toronto people deal with that enough. I think that the planning community especially has dealt with public space like it’s a wonderful thing and what it doesn’t talk about is how people are perceived in that space. I think that public space or parks in Toronto are not equally distributed — not just the access that people have to them but the access that they have when they’re in them. Who you are matters, how you are looked upon, how you’re policed, how you’re perceived by other park goers, etc. We need to really understand that the social dynamics that happen in parks are still very old-fashioned. So, for me, I think the way people think about parks in Toronto is classic “they’re great”, or “they’re wonderful things” because they’re viewing it through a lens of privilege. I think that if we could start to understand that parks are viewed through different lenses, we could then really understand why we’re designing, the way we design them, and who we engage in their design — it has to be completely different. If we look at Dufferin Grove Park, there’s a lot of different activities there that were led by the community and that are pushed by the community. But, it’s really about wondering who’s invited because the second that you allow someone to take a lead on something is the second that you isolate somebody else from possibly using it. So, it’s a very conundrum kind of question like how you make that decision. Because parkettes are not viewed at a city scale but more at a community or neighborhood scale, it’s an opportunity for people to help maybe define it the way they want.
How can this public land be used for the public good?
BC ⤳ Public land can be used for public good when it is used by public people for public activities.
CP ⤳ We were at the point in the studio where we were making a lot of conceptual projects in the sense that we were doing a lot of paper architecture. We were like, “yo, let’s make some weird shit and design the whole thing and look at big concepts”. But, with Parkettes, we didn’t do that. We didn’t show people this is what the park should be designed as — that was a very deliberate action on our part. At one point the project was going to be designing 585 parkettes — we were just going to redesign them all. We were like, “what if we did this exercise and just designed all these parks?”. We were really influenced by Aldo Van Ike and his parks in Amsterdam. This idea that a park didn’t necessarily need to be a “park”. We were also thinking about an idea of destructive parks. We were tired of seeing swing sets, not because we don’t want kids to be on swings, but because this idea of limiting the imagination of a child by giving them only so many tools. The reality is those are tools that make the adult’s life easier — not necessarily breeding an imagination ground for what a playground should be. If the playground is for the child then maybe we need to rethink who’s designing the playgrounds because they’re always designed by adults so, what does that process look like? Our job and our idea was to imagine and categorize parkettes so people can give them a name and brand them. Then, what people can do is they can then take ownership over the next phases. That’s still the part of the project that we didn’t get to do because of pay, budgets, and time. I think after all this time I could present that project today and it would still be good.
“When I propose a number of projects like this, the biggest pushback is always regarding homelessness. For example, I designed a bus shelter that had amorphous trees. They were artificial trees around the city with heating booths inside them. The biggest pushback I got from the jury was ‘well, you know the homeless population use these to live in’. If homeless people are going to live in them great, they’re going to live in them and also, maybe we should be asking ourselves why the homeless population would need to be living there?”
In what ways could the community benefit if some of this space was sold and the money reinvested in new ideas?
CP ⤳ I always wanted to understand what a financial model for this could look like. For me it was never about the land being private. It was like, can we build public land trust? Could we understand how that public land trust could be invested to help build new services for people? This understanding of a cold-fusion of public space. Also, how do you build indoor spaces that are public? People are like well Chris, “that’s just the library” — but I’m talking about public spaces that are indoor where you can do whatever you want. There is no social code. When I propose a number of projects like this, the biggest pushback is always regarding homelessness. For example, I designed a bus shelter that had amorphous trees. They were artificial trees around the city with heating booths inside them. The biggest pushback I got from the jury was “well, you know the homeless population use these to live in”. If homeless people are going to live in them great, they’re going to live in them and also, maybe we should be asking ourselves why the homeless population would need to be living there? The question about what we can do with parkettes is a very great way to think about how we can experiment with the potential of what public space is and what it means for people. The investment is small and the communities can be tight-knit and you can create really focused working groups. When you look at other projects that were prototyped in the city, for example, when you look at Sidewalk Labs and what they wanted to do and how they wanted to prototype, that wasn’t a prototype…that was mass-scale development…that was block by block shit. The project will always remain something we could go back to at any time because the opportunity for it is still there.
BC ⤳ The community wouldn’t benefit.
If “the Parkette is a creature of both circumstance and chance” (as stated under “8 Typologies, Understanding Intervention” in the accompanying project publication) does it have any siblings or cousins in the realm of urban design that might be just as interesting to also think about when looking through this project?
BC ⤳ Any accidental left-over space is the sympathetic cousin to the parkette.
CP ⤳ We made a project a while ago in Chicago for their boulevard system. It was very similar to Parkettes. We created all these activity hubs in the crossways. I have always loved the idea of the mid block crossing. We designed a series of crossings for the boulevards. We thought about the streets as common spaces. We designed crosswalks that would light up at night, and crosswalks painted the ground, and we created structures. For me, if I have to think about a sibling or a cousin that I would like to explore next, it’s the crosswalk. I would love to make that project. That’s actually a fucking interesting project.
How do you think the Parkette is faring now? Is there any potential to them during a pandemic? Is it even possible to socially distance in a parkette without one of us ending up in traffic?!
CP ⤳ I think obviously the answer is yes, they could be super valuable right now. One of the typologies: the urban slit is almost like a living room. There are two false walls which provide air space and then you have two physical walls. So, it’s like these parkettes in particular are wonderful for now because they’re actually like living rooms or ballroom. You could just install a chandelier and it could really create this weird exterior/interior space. Also, imagine that you just put up two walls and the park becomes an interior space. That is really beautiful. All you needed to do is put two walls in and now you have an interior space that people could use. One could easily add glass walls so they can become greenhouses. Three walls and you’re enclosed, two walls creates a weird separation from the street. It’s funny, it’s kind of like Adolf Loos’ One Wall House. The One Wall House is a really interesting concept. Adolf Loss is famous for his essay The Ornament of Crime which leads to LeCorbusier and all his shit and modernism, etc.
BC ⤳ If anything the pandemic places more scrutiny on how we use public space, including these small patches of land. I can’t speak for Toronto, but in London, one of the strange side effects of the pandemic has been the reactivation of all sorts of public spaces for different public and social purposes, which is a positive change.
What about after this pandemic is (hopefully) over— do you think there is any opportunity here to bring people back together in small and meaningful moments? How would you design/facilitate a moment like this?
BC ⤳ It’s already happening – and without design.