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Take a place in the middle of a city, hire some creative architects and landscape architects, and give them a big budget to play with. What do you end up with?

Beauty – and also money. Lots of money, for real-estate developers, for the tourism industry and for government. Not to mention a big boost in civic spirit. That’s the lesson of the High Line in New York.

And it’s a lesson that governments in Canada ought to learn, according to consultant John Alschuler, who helped birth the High Line. He was in Toronto this week to advocate for another place – Ontario Place – to be saved as a public park. Alschuler spoke at a fundraiser for Ontario Place for All, a new citizens’ group organized to stop the privatization of that waterfront provincial park in Toronto.

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Not because parks are good for society, but because they pay off. “Parks make you money,” Alschuler said, emphatically.

John Alschuler, who helped birth the High Line in New York, is advocating for a public park at Ontario Place.

Fred Lum

How so? One: They are economic development tools. “They help attract the talent, which attracts the companies, which drive economic growth,” he said in an interview. And two: “It dramatically increases the value of the property around it.”

This is totally obvious if you look at the value of a house or apartment that faces a park. It’s true for a neighbourhood, too. And it is emphatically true of the High Line, an obsolete rail line on Manhattan’s West Side that was seen by landowners as an eyesore. A group of activists fought to protect it, and, with Alschuler’s help, made a powerful argument to the city’s next mayor, Mike Bloomberg, after the Sept. 11 attacks: “We think this is an economic investment in the future of the city.”

It paid off enormously: The city’s US$275-million investment, into the design by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, generated a place that has become one of the most popular destinations in the city. It has spurred billions of dollars of real-estate investment and generated what Alschuler estimates as an additional US$3-billion in tax revenue.

It’s clear that New York has seen tremendous change in the past decade; it’s also clear that a hugely disproportionate share of real estate and hospitality investment has landed along this skinny new park. The High Line is a new icon of the city. It is arguably too successful; on a nice day, it’s oppressively crowded. It’s been criticized as a tool of gentrification and disruptive tourism. It costs money to run. But nobody doubts it has paid for itself many times over.

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New York pedestrians relax on an elongated lawn stretched between high-rise buildings, after the second section of the High Line, an elevated industrial era railway converted into city park, opened to the public in June, 2011.

Kathy Willens/AP

Alschuler sees this as an argument to wield against fiscal conservatives. “Economic growth is driven by the agglomeration of people.” And people of means are seeking “an authentic urban experience.” Central to that, he argues, “is a real public park.”

“That’s not a frill,” he adds. “It’s an essential part of how a city grows.”

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This theme brought him to Toronto. He supports the work of Ontario Place for All, which is urgent.

Doug Ford’s Ontario government is soliciting proposals from developers for the 155-acre site, a modern masterpiece by landscape architect Michael Hough and architect Eb Zeidler.

Any redevelopment would have to include at least seven acres of public park, under the government’s guidelines, but the rest could be privatized. Not just the old theme park but also the Cinesphere, Zeidler’s magnificent golf ball of a cinema, could be demolished.

Under public pressure, the province has ruled out a casino. Which, Alschuler points out, would have been a totally illogical thing to put on this site: “People don’t come to a waterfront to stand inside a windowless box,” he said. “They come to a waterfront to be on the water.”

So why not make it simply a park again? With some cultural programming and lots of open space next to the water? Forget the stadiums and saunas and casinos. Imagine it as part of a waterfront park network, helping to define the city just as Stanley Park does Vancouver – or as waterfront parks help shape Ford’s beloved Chicago.

Imagine it as a local amenity for the immensely fast-growing downtown Toronto, and the larger region full of people who remember and love the place. That would be the right thing to do: to maintain a beautiful public place in touch with nature and the city. It would clearly make Greater Toronto a better place for all its citizens. These are the arguments I prefer. Many people are with me.

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But if you’re not the kind of politician who cares about parks and that sort of thing, think of it another way: “It absolutely would pay off,” Alschuler says. “A well-done Ontario Place Park would only have one problem: It would be too crowded.”

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