An older, white-stubbled, shambly man casts a sideways glance at the gnarly rustic benches, carved ‘toadstool’ logs and bits of serpentine grass and comments to his equally shambly female partner.
“A waste of taxpayer money is what it is,” he says loud enough so that the happy diners at Salt & Tobacco pizzeria can hear.
A half-second later, a retort rises up in disapproval: “No taxpayer money was used creating this!” a diner says.
That man should know. His company, Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds – carvers and builders of exactly what you might think – has turned 200 metres of Parliament Street between Winchester and Carlton streets into a lush, leafy, sheltering playground for adults, kids and Hobbits alike … even Shambly Man and his mate if they’d just stop and smell the Saskatoon Serviceberry flowers. And the $300,000-plus it cost to install and maintain the 230 tonnes of material (until Sept. 11) all came from developers CentreCourt and Fitzrovia.
“It’s a very odd thing to find a developer who actually was interested in reclaiming public space,” says Adam Bienenstock after a quick sip of Peroni.
“I think this is the kind of stuff that makes cities great,” counters CentreCourt’s Mitch Gascoyne. “It’s little moments in cities where [one] is surprised that something’s there.”
And while what’s here isn’t all that different than what one might find in a Carolinian forest, it is surprising to find it while rushing to the drycleaners. And, if Mr. Bienenstock and his team have done their jobs correctly, that person will slow down and perhaps even forget about starched shirts.
“How do you reacquaint everybody with each other and with their retail unless you give them a chance to slow down?” Mr. Bienenstock asks rhetorically.
He mentions the owner of the popular Jet Fuel Coffee, who, during COVID, was forced to conduct his business from a slot in his façade (and removed the wooden boards only as the green installation was being trucked in a few weeks ago) and, two doors over, the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre. Both were apprehensive due to parking and loading concerns, but both have come around because of how different the neighbourhood feels. “Everybody had their head down … it was just frenetic on the sidewalks,” he was told, “and now I’ve had more conversations in the last week than I’ve had in the last three years.”
The conversations, I would guess, have been more genteel as well, since decibel levels are considerably lower; just like drapes and soft upholstery, the mounds of grass and wood chips, the leafy-green screens and lying logs all contribute to incredible sound-deadening. As an added bonus, says Mr. Bienenstock, the lane narrowing has caused most of the transport truck drivers to choose a different north-south artery for the summer.
But how does something this transformative come to fruition?
It’s a long process that involves many city approvals, says Mr. Gascoyne. Thinking back to what was done on Yonge Street back in 2012 (also by Bienenstock), then-councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam had a conversation with Mr. Gascoyne about funding an installation in the Gay Village. When that proved to be too large an area and had “two [major] impediments,” the Cabbagetown BIA stepped in. And Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, he says, offered a lot of extras that would’ve cost tens of thousands more.
“I’ve always been interested in doing these sorts of ‘take the streets back for pedestrians’ [projects] because the people that live in these areas and live in my buildings are living in smaller spaces, and when you live in an urban location your playfield is the city.”
And this little stretch of Cabbagetown does seem to put folks in a more playful mood. On the evening I toured with the two men, perfectly normal adults were laughing as they sat in burled, too-big carved thrones or on wooden toadstools, or as they went ‘inside’ the twisting, 150-year-old Silver Maple, or removed their shoes to squeeze some grass between their toes.
And that grass, says Mr. Bienenstock, is watered twice-per-day by volunteers from Canadian Wildlife Federation when it’s steamy out, and, due to inevitable burnout, will be replaced halfway through the installation. Regular rainwater drainage is unaffected, too: “We built this like a rooftop,” he explains.
“It’s got J-Drain with a very thick layer to bring you up to curb-height. … It’s got geotextile that goes on top of that, and then sand goes on top of that, and then everything’s built up with compacting sand. The water runs straight underneath all of this.”
To get even more technical, the team is going to collect as much data as they possibly can, from the (almost guaranteed) uptick in retailer profits to the reduction in the heat island effect.
That data, interesting as it will be, will probably be redundant. It’s cooler here (in both senses of the word), and retailers are smiling much more broadly this first week … the only sad thing is it’ll all be over before we know it.
“It’s funny that everybody yells ‘Hey this is a waste of taxpayer’s money,’” Mr. Gascoyne says. “You need to have private investment to get this going, but there’s no way that private investment can continue this; it has to be ‘here’s what we like about it, here’s how we can incorporate it, and here’s how we can repeat it for less.’”
“I think the biggest problem that we’ve got right now is that everyone thinks it’s going to cost a million dollars to green a street,” Mr. Bienenstock finishes.
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