Toronto was surprised by another pandemic summer.
That was how it looked on the weekend as thousands of people lined up for water taxis to Toronto Island. City ferries were full. Across the harbour, the green haven of the islands stood coolly waiting. On the shore, families with coolers and blankets baked in the sun. Why didn’t Toronto give them somewhere to go?
This was an extreme example of scenes that repeated across the city. The hot weather and COVID-19 sent Torontonians outside, but public facilities were not quite ready and not quite adequate.
Toronto hasn’t put enough into its public realm, and now we are paying the price.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a pandemic phenomenon. During a lockdown, there’s nowhere to go but the park.
But we knew that in 2020. And despite Premier Doug Ford government’s flaky public-health guidance this spring, city parks staff should have been ready to open water fountains, washrooms and splash pads – at least – before the hot weather hit. They weren’t. This week, Mayor John Tory and several city councillors were busy trying to get this done.
It’s unclear whether the problem with fountains and washrooms is just a lack of political will. Most city councillors are homeowners and many have second homes. Many of them simply don’t understand the essential role of parks in the lives of most Torontonians. (About half the city lives in apartments.)
A number of city councillors, including deputy mayors Denzil Minnan-Wong and Stephen Holyday, are so eager to clear the encampments out of the parks that they voted against the prospect of providing more portable toilets and washing facilities for their inhabitants.
But back to the Toronto Island Park: It’s a destination for people across the city and the region. Even before COVID-19 reduced ferry capacity, long lineups were routine.
Council has talked for years about replacing the antiquated ferries, which are older than most Torontonians (the Sam McBride dates to 1939). And the ferry terminal is a concrete cattle pen. The city conducted a design competition back in 2015 for a new Jack Layton Ferry Terminal and park, selecting an excellent design by West 8, KPMB and Greenberg Consultants.
So where is it?
Years of austerity budgeting have left it stillborn. Toronto aims to pay for it from development fees and charges; those funds (and others) are still accumulating.
It’s a similar story with the ferries. The city is now working on a 15-year plan to replace them with newer, larger ferries; a spokesperson says the goal is to tender for two of these in 2022. They’ll be a while.
There may be one solution coming soon: “sea buses,” smaller vessels running as public transit along routes from the islands to the mainland, including the newly rebuilt Port Lands. The agency Waterfront Toronto is examining the idea now.
Another is to use the tunnel that already exists – linking the city to Billy Bishop Airport on the island. The airport is publicly owned. Councillor Joe Cressy, who represents the area, said that students on the island’s public school travelled through this route to school during the pandemic.
Would it be possible to run public buses across the airport from the tunnel to the park? “We have broached that with Ports Toronto,” he said, “and where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
And then there’s the airport itself. Its land lease expires in 2033; the planes could go away. They should. This would open up 200 acres of land for other uses and knit the Toronto Island Park into daily life with a reliable fixed link. “That is clearly the big piece of the puzzle, and it’s time to ask the question,” Mr. Cressy said.
A bigger Island Park would take real effort. To build a city that’s more equitable, with a rich communal life, is hard work. But it needs to be done, this and every summer.
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