ULI Toronto News

What Toronto can learn from 4 public realm experts when planning for Rail Deck Park

By Eunice Wong, EY Transaction Real Estate

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This post is part of a series covering ULI Toronto’s Electric Cities Spring 2017 Symposium which took place on April 24 and 25 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. ULI Toronto’s second city building symposium saw over 1,000 industry professionals gather to learn and engage on topics revolving around placemaking, mobility and technology.

The overarching theme of the Electric Cities Symposium challenged Toronto, as one of Canada’s fastest growing regions, to contemplate hard pressing issues on how to make cities better places to live, work, learn, play and invest. Demand for open public space has been an increasing challenge in urban communities as global cities aim to meet the demands of attracting labour, economic competitiveness, tourism, urban development and renewal.

Most recently, the City of Toronto announced a plan known as Rail Deck Park, a proposed urban park set on a constructed deck over a rail corridor in downtown Toronto. The plan was initially announced in August 2016 and encompassed the active Railway Lands between Bathurst Street and Blue Jays Way, west of the Rogers Centre. While receiving supportive feedback in the public domain, it is undeniable that the project is considered an ambitious civic infrastructure project and there are many lessons learned from similar large-scale public realm projects in order to fully realize the benefits of this plan and ensure viable project success. It is anticipated that Rail Deck Park will serve as a city-wide asset that will be accessible to all Torontonians while functioning as a high-profile tourist attraction, comparable to the High Line in New York City and Millennium Park in Chicago.

The Symposium’s Day Two lunch panel brought together experts involved not only in the execution of these projects but in the ongoing management and operational viability of such large-scale precedent redevelopment projects. The panel included the following:


Toronto Mayor John Tory provided opening remarks ahead of the panel discussion. As a major proponent of the Rail Deck Park, Tory said that with Rail Deck Park, Toronto will go forward in protecting one of the last opportunities of its size in the downtown core. This potential span of open space is rare and should be protected. Mayor Tory acknowledged a crucial challenge that must be addressed as part of the transformation of Toronto — the balancing act between growth and character. With recent emphasis on urban growth, Mayor Tory believes that this growth is not sustainable unless we invest in the character to accompany the growth. While the city grows, Toronto should also invest in the city-building agenda that provides for more vibrant, livable and accessible public space that will benefit the economic and social wellbeing of all Torontonians.

“Rail Deck Park is not just the good thing to do; it is the right thing to do. We must not get ourselves bogged down by the ‘why not’ and the ‘why it can’t get done’,” said Mayor Tory. He noted that we must be prudent, be ingenious, and be determined if we want to continue to attract growth. Before Mayor Tory left the stage, he credited the panelists with bringing the transformative ideas to life.


Jennifer Keesmaat, the City of Toronto’s Chief Planner, the panel’s moderator. Keesmaat reiterated that as Toronto’s downtown core grows, we need to ensure that it is also more liveable. Infrastructure growth is critical in not only the provision of water and energy, but in the provision of public space. Keesmaat asserted that the availability of public parks in Toronto is at risk. “There is a significant park deficiency in the downtown,” said Keesmaat, pointing towards the recent popularity of “pocket parks.”

Drawing parallels from the international panelists, Keesmaat explored the planning and operational frameworks of these large-scale public projects. The panelists delved into fundamental topics such as social inclusion, city-wide benefits, governance structures, and last but not least, funding models.

Social inclusion

  • It was mutually agreed upon by the panelists that social inclusion was seen as an objective to project viability.
  • Nielson confirmed that Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events moved into the role of host rather than presenter of social and cultural programming, which created the opportunity to attract others to the downtown core and open it up for inclusion. “Some people in Chicago had never even been to the waterfront,” he said. Nielson does warn that the park was originally designed for experience, not crowds.
  • On the other hand, Springer stated that social inclusion is a challenge for Manhattan’s High Line. Five million of the approximately 7.5 million people who go to the High Line are tourists. He admits that while the park is crowded, it does not include all demographics.
  • Jongtien chimed in during the discussion on how to address community needs with design. He said that design is important to deliver on the vision.


City-wide benefits

  • There are many social, economic and cultural benefits to providing public realm space.
  • Springer highlighted that the High Line quickly transformed into an amenity of New York City, testifying to two major benefits: (1) immediate real estate benefits; and, (2) quality of life through offering a sustainable work/live/play district.
  • Nielson pointed out that Millennium Park was one of the first times that philanthropy was able to give back to the city. “In terms of civic pride, everyone starts at this park… Cloud Gate brings people together,” Nielson said. Millennium Park has positioned itself to become a legacy park in Chicago.

Governance structure

  • The panelists agreed that governance structures should be focused on being specific and identifying how to empower each party involved.


  • Keesmaat identified that cultural philanthropy in Toronto is considered low in comparison to American urban cities. “Our parks are not desperate but offer the opportunity for philanthropic role,” she said.
  • Brackenbury suggested that philanthropists generally do not want to pay for operations, but they will pay for art and programming. One of the challenges of this funding model relies on those who benefit from the park giving back too. The funding model should be structured in a way that will provide incentives and add in value capture for those who provide and receive financial support.
  • The High Line has largely been backed by philanthropic efforts. Springer notes that for the High Line, the motivation for achieving a higher standard of care was key on attracting funding. “What are the sources of value we are creating and how will we capture this value?” he asked. The High Line has implemented innovative mechanisms to foster the funding efforts.
  • To address the governance of funding structures, Nielson noted that private funds were not used for city offsets at Millennium Park but used for public art and programming. “The city pays for the cake, philanthropy pays for the icing!” – an analogy that resonated with the symposium audience.


Reflecting back on Mayor Tory’s opening remarks, the panelists affirmed that character and quality will come from all sorts of supporters, but how the City responds and balances between character and growth will ensure strategic and long-term viability.

Members of the public are encouraged to remain informed and involved in the planning process. For further information on Rail Deck Park or the Rail Deck Park Implementation Strategy, please visit http://www.toronto.ca/raildeckpark.

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