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For people cooped up at home because of COVID-19, green places to get fresh air are essential – and cities that don’t have enough are finding more ways to fit them in

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In recent years, Amsterdam's Frans Hals neighbourhood has freed up space for greenery, public space and other amenities by removing most curbside parking.Sanne Derks/The Globe and Mail

Set into the sidewalk at an intersection not far from the museum district of the Dutch capital is a small trampoline where passersby tend to bounce a few times before walking on with a smile.

This is the Frans Hals neighbourhood of Amsterdam, a 19th-century area that has been transformed in the past few years and could serve as inspiration for adding livability to urban centres.

A sort of accidental pilot project now being eyed for replication by the municipal government, Frans Hals had most of its curbside parking removed. Instead of rows of cars, there are now benches and picnic tables, a wading pool put out by some residents and masses of greenery that in the warmer months turn the streets into a kind of linear park.

“To create a densified city with more housing opportunities and to create a healthy environment, we need the space in the streets for greening and for other uses,” says Zeeger Ernsting, an Amsterdam municipal councillor whose Green Party holds the most seats at city hall. “In a densified city, there’s no place for cars in the same amount that we were used to, because people – they need space on the streets.”

Living in the shadow of the pandemic has highlighted the value of urban green spaces – those refuges that biographer Robert Caro eloquently called “a restful retreat from the abrasions of city life.”

“We’re already aware that there’s a big role for urban parks to support the well-being of our municipalities,” says Kyle Ripley, director of Calgary Parks. “I think the COVID crisis and the increased use of our parks really brought that to the forefront of people’s minds.”

A survey this summer for the Canadian advocacy group Park People found that, during the pandemic, 70 per cent of respondents had a greater appreciation for green space. And mobility tracking data collected by Google showed visits to Canadian parks surging this year.

“In denser communities, you definitely saw folks who had been inside with their kids or with their partners or on their own using parks as sort of an extension of a lack of backyard or patio,” says Janie Romoff, general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation in Toronto.

Canada’s city dwellers were not only using their local green spaces more; they were also using them differently. Pandemic-mandated shutdowns of designated-use areas, such as tennis courts or lawn-bowling pitches, led to a jump in less formal activities. Open spaces – those expanses without specific function – became destinations for family picnics, a game of catch or to do yoga in the sun. One lesson of the pandemic, parks leaders say, is this reminder of the value of free-form spaces, the blank canvases of parks.

“We need to preserve large, multipurpose open spaces in parks and resist the urge to fill them" with amenities or non-park infrastructure, says Dave Hutch, Vancouver’s director of planning and park development.

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Montrealers enjoy a sunny day in a city park on May 24, the month that many COVID-19 restrictions began to relax in Quebec.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Even in some parks with large expanses, though, crowding this summer raised concerns, suggesting these neighbourhoods are short already of green space.

Park access is also inequitably distributed in many cities. Although Statistics Canada reports that 90 per cent of urban dwellers have a park within a 10-minute journey from their home, some neighbourhoods have to share their parks with many more nearby residents. Often it’s these same neighbourhoods – typically poorer and more racially diverse than the broader city – that have been hardest hit by COVID-19.

The demand for green space will also grow in the coming decades as millions of people move to Canada. Most will come to cities, and many will live in multiresidential buildings without private outdoor access. “The pandemic just shone such a direct light on parks as essential urban infrastructure,” says Dave Harvey, executive director of Park People. “It’s right up there with the need for roads and water and sewers and schools. This is absolutely essential urban infrastructure.”

One challenge is that mature cities often have little room in which to build new parks, and acquiring land can be prohibitively expensive.

There are specific circumstances in which space for a major new outdoor destination can be found. Toronto is considering capping a downtown rail corridor and building a park on top. Winnipeg has been very successful at turning a former industrial area on its riverfront into a popular destination known as The Forks.

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Sending parking spaces underground has freed up space for bike lanes, community gardens and other amenities in Frans Hals.Sanne Derks/The Globe and Mail

What’s more likely in the years to come, though, are more modest, Fran Hals-type interventions. Amsterdam and other cities have shown the space is there for the taking.

Mr. Ernsting’s party won election in the Dutch capital on a platform that included a pledge to remove 10,000 curb parking spaces. To prevent political blowback, no one’s parking permit is being revoked. But the cap on the number of permits is being lowered, and when permits are turned in – by people who sell their car, move or die – they won’t be reissued if doing so exceeds the new limit.

These freed-up spaces – a single parking spot is typically in the range of 12 square metres, so 10,000 of them amounts to 12 hectares – might end up being repurposed into anything from bike lanes to community gardens.

No Canadian city has announced such major shifts in the use of road space, but many are working to find creative ways to slip some green into the urban fabric.

Toronto’s Wellington Memorial Square, a downtown park, will be expanded into the curb lane of the adjacent road. Vancouver is looking at making more welcoming the part of Coopers' Park that lies under Cambie Bridge. And Calgary, which converted a parking lot near its light-rail line into green space, is planning to go mobile with its latest idea.

“We’re looking at taking a trailer that’ll fit in a parking space or two, and repurposing it with some benches and plants,” Mr. Ripley says. “We can tow it around in higher-density areas and leave it for a few days, and just allow folks to enjoy some greenery where there otherwise isn’t any.”

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