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Kids playing cricket at Valley Park Middle School

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On any given day, stand at the corner of Overlea Boulevard and Don Mills Road at 3 p.m. and watch the flood .

Twelve hundred kids will come streaming out of Valley Park Middle School, which sits on the intersection's northwest corner, just south of the Ontario Science Centre. Across the street, another 2,000 kids emerge from Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute and another 2,000 from Thorncliffe Park Public School. About 700 walk out of Gateway Public School, and between 600 and 700 pass through the doors of Grenoble Public School .

"You've got a good-sized town of kids leaving school at 3 o'clock, just kids, not their parents, " says Jason Hayter, vice principal at Valley Park Middle School. He asks, "Where do they all go?," although he already knows the answer .

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Odds are, they go home to one of the many large apartment towers that populate Thorncliffe Park, one of 13 "priority areas" identified by the city of Toronto, neighbourhoods marked by high levels of low-income residents and low levels of public investment. Along with neighbouring Flemingdon Park, they are two of the densest neighbourhoods in Toronto: 68 per cent of the residences are high-rise apartment buildings, with more than 60,000 residents, many of whom hail from South Asia, living in 11 square kilometres.

But a group of community activists and staff at Valley Park Middle School are working on a $1.7-million plan to give the children of this neighbourhood somewhere else to go .

Led by principal Nickolas Stefanoff, they plan to transform the school's playground into a community hub that will include a regulation-size cricket field, an attraction sure to draw residents out from the towers .

Cricket isn't just a sport for many of the neighbourhood's residents, Mr. Stefanoff says. "It's a religion. "

"If we need drivers for a field trip, you might get one or two. But a cricket tournament? Everyone has their own driver, " says Mr. Hayter, who is also coach of the school's cricket team .

The pitch may be its centrepiece, but the plan for the Valley Park Go Green Cricket Field project also includes an amphitheatre, butterfly garden, public gardens, a system that will divert rainwater from the school's roof to be used for irrigation, a bioswale (a landscape feature that traps pollutants) and much more green space covered by a generous tree canopy, all occupying three hectares (7.5 acres) of land .

"It's going beyond a schoolyard, " says Arifa Hai, the landscape architect who is working on the project .

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Right now, the playground behind Valley Park Middle School is hardly an enticement to get in an elevator and make the trip outside .

Eight metal poles with backboards attached rise from the asphalt, all of them facing the same direction. Not one has a hoop, so basketball isn't an option. Much of the grass field beyond is taken up by 11 portables, one of them so close to the small baseball diamond that whoever is playing third base never has to worry about getting tired - they could just lean against the portable .

But by moving the portables and leasing a hectare of adjacent brownfields from Hydro One, those involved in the project say there will be room to forge a community hub .

"The whole point is that we want to bring people outside of these apartments, " says Jehad Aliweiwi, executive director of the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, an organization that provides a range of social services and that has partnered with the school to help with the project. "This is going to be a showcase place that brings together the many worlds that make up the residents of Thorncliffe and Flemingdon and surrounding areas. "

Thorncliffe Park in particular is a case study in the failings of a previous generation's idea of urban planning, said the ward's city councillor, John Parker .

"The buildings are designed to provide a haven for people to retreat into. They're not designed in a way to bring people out into the neighbourhood where they would mix with one another, " he says. "[The Valley Park project]is all about doing the opposite. It's about getting people out into the fresh air, bringing people together, giving them a chance to mix with one another and giving them a chance to connect directly with the ground. "

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There are several parks in the community, but, as Mr. Aliweiwi says, "It's ample green space, but very little of it is useful and useable. "

Much of Flemingdon Park, for instance, is a vast expanse of grass with nothing more than four soccer goalposts underneath buzzing hydro towers - no swings or slides for children to play on, no benches for people to sit on and no trees to provide shade to anyone who might venture in to the park on a blazing summer day .

"You would bake, " says landscape architect Ms. Hai .

There is plenty of shade in the green space down in the Don Valley, "but the community tend not to use it, " Mr. Stefanoff says. There is very little, if any, wide-open space there where people might throw a ball around, he adds .

Julie Dasoo, co-chair of the Valley Park Middle School parents' council says the planned space behind the school would be a natural home for things like the Friday-night bazaar that takes place in nearby R.V. Burgess Park in the summers .

"It's going to be a gathering place for everyone as a family, " she says. "This is going to be a dream come true. Every single family in the community is going to benefit from it. "

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Mr. Stefanoff says they hope to break ground on the cricket-field project in July, with the bulk of the construction getting under way this fall, and complete the project by fall 2012. It's "ambitious, " but still possible, he says .

Funding for the project will not be coming from the Toronto District School Board .

"We have a $3-billion backlog in school renewal … so this kind of very significant capital investment in a school field that will serve the school but also serve the community, we don't have board funds to be able to do that, " says Sheila Penny, director of strategic building and renewal at the TDSB .

Still, those behind the project say they are confident they will be able to raise the $1.7-million needed .

Funding is beginning to pour in, says Lisa Green, co-chair of the Valley Park Go Green committee. The group expects to receive about $1-million in various grants in the next three months, and has received donations from several organizations, including $50,000 from the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation and $25,000 from the Live Green Toronto's stormwater management program .

The Kiwanis Club of East York has approached the group and has told Mr. Stefanoff it should be able to raise between $75,000 and $150,000 for the project. As well, companies ranging from Canadian Tire to Tremco, a roofing company in the neighbourhood, have promised supplies and equipment .

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After the March break, a group of students will be making the rounds to several companies in the hope of finding more corporate sponsorship, Ms. Green says .

To raise awareness about the project, the school is planning a "Crazy for Cricket Sleepover " on April 1 that will feature Bollywood dancing, indoor cricket and games rooms in the school. Organizers expect up to 1,500 people to attend, although they say many of them won't sleep over, opting instead to come back in the morning to watch the Cricket World Cup .

"It's not a fundraiser. We're calling it a 'Friendraiser,' " Ms. Green says .

And in the coming weeks, the school is also planning to pit kids against their parents in cricket games in the gymnasium in order to help boost excitement for the project .

Of course, the school doesn't have to go very far out of its way to excite students about the plans to transform the playground, especially members of the cricket team .

A full-size cricket pitch will be a revelation for them .

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Most of the fields they're used to playing on are small, and these are very, very good teams, both of which won their conferences last year .

Mr. Hayter recalls a tournament last year in which 10-year-olds from the school were playing on the "tiny " field made of Astroturf at Thorncliffe Public School .

If it wasn't clear to him that day that the neighbourhood needed a full-size pitch, it certainly was midway through the tournament. "You hit a four or six, which is almost like hitting a home run in baseball, and they were doing it every second hit."

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