Toronto set to decide on fate of High Park: Will cars be kicked to the curb?
When Danielle Gibson moved to Toronto in August 2020 after living in New York City for several years, she thought High Park had always been car-free.
For Gibson and her husband, the freedom of strolling through the park with their dog, without looking over their shoulders for a car, was a reminder of their routine in New York. In 2018, that city banned cars in Prospect Park as well as Central Park, she recalled.
"When I think park, I don't think parking lot," she said.
But as lockdowns waned, cars were permitted to return to High Park on weekdays. Gibson, who is originally from Kitchener and a member of the advocacy group Car Free High Park Coalition, is hoping for a permanent ban on cars in the park, which spans about 160 hectares and contains not just green space, but also a zoo, cherry trees, a sports facility and eatery.
That could soon be a possibility in one form or another.
In a city where pedestrians, drivers and cyclists don't often to see eye to eye, the High Park debate might appear to be the latest example of tensions coming to a head. But some advocates say it isn't as simple as cars or no car. Some say vehicles could be vital for people with disabilities trying to access the park, while others say it's important for the city to find car-free ways to support transport for those with disabilities.
Now, after a series of reports, public meetings and surveying thousands of residents — the city is set to discuss the "preferred strategy" for High Park at an in-person open house on April 3.
These are the strategies the city is considering:
Strategy 1: Full road closures with no vehicles allowed.
Strategy 2: Time-based road closures with no vehicles at specific times.
Strategy 3: Area-based road closures with no vehicles on specific roads.
Strategy 4: Full road re-opening with vehicles allowed at all times on all roads.
There are concerns from some who want to see cars gone that the city is leaning toward Strategy 3. The city told CBC Toronto that the "preferred strategy" will "draw attributes from each of the four draft strategies," but did not say what the final plan will look like.
Debate on which option the city should go with has brought up questions beyond cars too.
It's also led to discussions about the environment, how those with disabilities access the park and whether cars are integral to that, as well as how to support those running events at the park's facilities.
High Park 'incredible' without cars: advocate
Faraz Gholizadeh, also a member of the Car Free High Park Coalition, said it's clear the vehicle bans on weekends have made a positive impact on park-goers, who can enjoy nature without seeing cars honking or seeing vehicles idling.
"It's been incredible," he said.
"It's such a great space. There are only two spaces in all of Toronto where you can go and enjoy a park…car free. And that is High Park and Toronto Island," he said.
A 2022 city survey of 10,384 residents as part of the High Park consultation process found that 58 per cent of respondents said reducing the amount of motor vehicle traffic in the park is a "high priority."
According to the survey, the strategy with the most support is for High Park to be completely car-free, while allowing vehicles at all times on all roads had the least support.
If the city instead goes with the strategy around area-based allowances of vehicles, Gholizadeh says that would be upsetting as he believes they would have "ignored the people of Toronto."
Access issues for those with disabilities
Sarah Doucette, co-chair of Friends of High Park Zoo, said Strategy 3 is crucial for those with disabilities or seniors who want to access the park.
Accessing the zoo on foot can be difficult especially for those with mobility challenges, she said. A new shuttle service would be ideal — but some cars are crucial, she said. Many have expressed to her they can't access the zoo or restaurant on weekends due to the car ban, she explained.
"There needs to be free access, and free for all the citizens of Toronto…no matter their form of transportation or mobility to enjoy this public park," she said.
The city report also showed the 59 per cent of those they surveyed with disabilities rank making the park more accessible a high priority.
According to the City's 2022 engagement report on the movement strategy, most people they surveyed were in favour of no visitor vehicles allowed in the park. However, many participants noted that if those cars are prohibited, other options need to be implemented including shuttle busses, or electric busses specifically.
Some respondents who expressed they were in favour of cars returning to High Park at all times raised concerns around accessibility issues, the need for parking for those who live far from High Park but want to visit, and access concerns the Grenadier Café, sports facilities and the allotment gardens.
Luke Anderson, co-founder of the StopGap Foundation, a charity that aims to make environments more accessible, said he rarely goes to High Park because its being difficult to access in his wheelchair. The High Park subway station doesn't have an elevator, and Keele Station only became accessible in 2021, he added.
"It would mean booking a wheel-trip or taking a taxi. That would often prevent me from making the time," he said.
But Anderson doesn't think cars are the answer.
Coun. Gord Perks, who represents Parkdale—High Park agrees, saying the city needs to provide a "safe, naturalized High Park where visitors are not dependent on automobiles to get around."
Perks says his focus is on how to make the park less oriented toward cars overall while ensuring businesses can receive necessary deliveries. Any planning needs to be done with tact, so the "pro-car lobby" doesn't win out, he said.
"We have to be smart and make sure the plan we devise is robust and solves the problems," he said.