How the city plans to re-imagine Toronto Island Park and make it 'spectacular'

Toronto parks staff have embarked on a multi-year project that will redefine how the city uses one of its most popular destinations: Toronto Island Park. 

The Toronto Island Park Master Plan will look at everything from wayfinding through the park's 330 hectares to introducing new trails, picnic areas and recreation programs.

But proponents are careful to point out the new vision will be a renewal, rather than a tear-down.

"This is about how do you make the island spectacular," Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents the islands, told CBC Toronto.

"There is a real opportunity here because you have 800 people who live on the islands, 30 businesses, two schools, but 1.5 million annual visitors."

Lauren Pelley/CBC

Ann-Marie Nasr, director of park development for the city's Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division, said the rethink has become necessary as the downtown population grows and the islands become a more popular recreation site.

She said planners will have to find a balance between traditional uses and the needs of new generations. 

"The charm of the island is in everybody's heart," she said during an interview near the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal Tuesday. "They remember it from the childhood era, and I think that's what people want.

"It's a city asset, and it means so much to so many different people. And I think I think having a collective conversation about something so positive, and thinking about it now and thinking about its future is just a wonderful opportunity."

Martin Trainor/CBCmartintrainor@gmail.com

City staff began this week to sift through proposals from urban planners, landscape architects and communications experts who are vying to win the contract to draft the new plan.

Nasr said communication with the public will be a key element of the re-design process. 

"The first first piece that we want to start with is public engagement because the island attracts people across the city," she said. "So we have to look at the city scale, at the downtown scale and then of course on the local scale, and look at ... how the island is being used and what needs to be improved."

Island residents who spoke with CBC Toronto said a balance between the islands'  natural environment and new attractions is crucial.

Mike Smee/CBC

Lindsay Stephens, a spokesperson for the Toronto Islands Community Association, said she hopes to see the city settle on a balance between the needs of island residents, visitors and the natural environment.

"I think it's exciting because this is a well-loved and well-used place that could be even better," she said.

Among the association's priorities, she pointed to protection of the islands' existing wild places, better ferry service, more playgrounds and new activities, particularly in the winter.

"Tourists ... trudge over here in their winter coats and yet there's sometimes no washrooms in the winter, sometimes not a place to get a coffee."

Both Stephens and Nasr also emphasized the importance of including Indigenous people in any reimagining of the Island parks.

'A great resource'

Nasr estimated it will take almost two years to complete the initial planning and consultation phase, which she estimated could cost about $500,000. Public consultations are expected to start within the next few months.

Once the plan is complete, she expects it to be another 10 years before the changes are in place.

"The island is a great resource and I think what we're looking at doing is figuring out how it can be better, how it can be improved," Nasr said.

"What kind of facilities and services are needed? What kind of programs and events people are looking for, and then how to make a plan work that way."