Harbord Village Street Planters: Timeline to March 2017

In 2018, the City began to replace street planters in Harbord Village with more substantial and attractive in-ground planters. Here is the background story of how the initiative grew from a local effort into a city project. It took lots of volunteers, effective coordination, and a timely opportunity. Now it is recognized as a model for city-resident collaboration on greening projects.

Early Efforts, Then New Interest

Concrete boxes with small trees were placed at internal intersections in Harbord Village as part of the two-phase traffic maze created in the late 1990s. Though the city installed the boxes, it did not provide maintenance, and many of the trees died. Others stayed alive because neighbours cared for them, and in a few cases placed and cared for other plants around them.

As a followup to the Tree Inventory of 2007-8, resident Dinny Biggs made a list of all the in-street planter boxes and the conditions of their trees. In spite of the poor soil and harsh conditions, a few boxes had healthy plants and living trees.

In the HVRA Newsletter of Fall 2013 (page 4), Wendy Smith described the boxes and asked who the caregivers were. By the next summer she had posted photos on the HVRA website that inspired others to look after boxes near them.

A group of neighbours at Robert and Russell went further, and created the handsome installation shown at left. They replaced a concrete box at their T-intersection by loading soil, rocks, and plants on top of the asphalt—all at their own expense, but with the agreement of the city. After several years of buying more material and giving it good care, their in-street planting has became a lasting inspiration to the rest of us. The photo at left comes from Summer 2013.


2015, First Steps in Coordination

By early 2015, messages on the new Harbord Village Gardeners’ listserv had gathered more volunteers and put box-caregivers in touch with each other. In April 2015, a few dozen residents gathered for a cleanup day. They pulled trash out of planters, then dug in wheelbarrow-loads of city compost from the Councillor’s Environment Day.

Through the 2015 growing season, caregivers traded advice on how to keep their plants alive and shared photos of encouraging results— and also some cautionary tales. Kerry Clare, for instance, wrote a blog on June 16 detailing the joys of sharing planting, watering, and admiration with her young daughters. Her July 1 blog, however, fumed about the vandalism that had uprooted their work—but also gave them the chance to save the day by replanting. Kerry’s photos dramatize that event.

2016, Our Own Signs

HVRA Gardeners' planter signSharing the concern about these incidents, Leslie Thompson offered to design a sign reminding passers-by that the concrete boxes are miniature public gardens. Using a drawing by 6-year-old Finn (a resident of Major Street), and with a small subsidy from HVRA for the cost of printing, Leslie produced and inserted these signs into all of the concrete planters. They have been renewed when necessary, and have had a noticeable deterrent effect on mistreatment of the planter boxes. The only problem is a tendency of the signs themselves to disappear.

2016, Becoming Part of the Harbord Village Green Plan

Harbord Village pinchpoint, 2015
Resident-created pinchpoint at Robert/Russell; local group of caregivers. Photo from p.11 of Green Plan

A Green Plan for Harbord Village was created in the summer of 2016 as a joint project between the city and HVRA. Its very readable report (online here) describes opportunities to increase green space in Harbord Village by “greening” currently underused public spaces. The document was accepted in 2015 by Toronto East York Community Council as an official plan. Page 11 mentions the concrete street planters as potential places for more greening, and points out that the large ground-level pinchpoint at Robert and Russell is much more effective as well as aesthetically pleasing than the concrete boxes. An attractive photo (left) displays its healthy birch tree and shrubs.

City Offer of Plants: In a Spring 2016 meeting at City Hall to discuss implementation of the Green Plan, staff from the Transportation Department noted their willingness to replace our concrete boxes with in-ground planting spaces when budgets and construction schedules allowed. As an initial gesture of support, they offered to provide perennials for the concrete boxes from the list of plants they were ordering that year for use in public spaces. This offer explicitly recognized the Gardeners’ initiative as a possible model for future city-resident collaboration in caring for public green spaces.

Choosing Plants: To make the most of this significant opportunity, Kate Hamilton, a local professional gardener, took the database of plants available and (with help from other amateur gardeners) created two annotated lists of over 100 of the most relevant items to guide the caregivers in their choice of plants. The lists supply images, descriptions, and tips on use. The following files are now available on the HVRA website for the interest and enjoyment of all gardeners:

  • Perennials and Shrubs (two separate files) used by the city on public property, with alluring descriptions and helpful annotations by members of the Harbord Village Gardeners (Ann Eyerman, Kate Hamilton, Margaret Procter, Nicole Schulman, and Leslie Thompson).

Enjoying the Results: The new perennials and shrubs, well-tended by local caregivers, took root and drew lots of admiration. Here are some scenes from Summer 2016.

Outcomes for City Planning: These images are more than pretty pictures. Jennette Boehmer, coordinator of this collaborative initiative for HVRA, provided them to the City, along with descriptive notes, as evidence that Harbord Village is a suitable location for further investment in public green spaces.

In October 2016, Robert Mays of the Public Realm section in the City’s Transportation Department generated even more enthusiasm. His talk at the HVRA Fall AGM outlined potential designs for in-ground planting spaces to replace the concrete boxes in selected locations. Funding for this initiative comes from Astral Media, using shared revenue from the ads on Toronto’s street furniture.

2017, Planning for In-Street Planters

In March 2017, several dozen residents gathered to discuss next steps with Robert Mays. Jennette Boehmer, who chaired the meeting, sent this note later to HVRA participants, outlining implementation steps for in-street planters, and indicating that residents would continue to be involved in the design process.

Thanks to the more than twenty neighbours who attended our March 9 planning meeting. Robert Mays, our City contact, gave an informative presentation about the proposed in-street planter design and took our questions, thoughts, and ideas. Thanks too to Jeannie Hastie and Alistair Brown for describing how the Pinch Point at Robert @ Russell came into being and for offering insights and tips to the rest of us as we move forward.

Robert outlined a two-phased implementation:

  • Phase I will take place in 2017/2018 and include replacing up to half the existing planter boxes with in-street planters.
  • Phase II will take place in the following year(s).

The selection of Phase I planters was up to us, although Robert requested that we select potential intersections for replacement (rather than choosing only one planter at any given intersection) and that chosen locations be supported by strong neighbourhood commitment to maintaining the new plantings. By happy serendipity, those of you who expressed interest in participating in 2017/2018 met these criteria . . . and after some collegial discussion, we agreed on the following four Phase I intersections:

  • Borden @ Lennox (NE & SW planters)
  • Borden @ Ulster (NE & SW planters)
  • Major @ Sussex (NE & SW planters)
  • Major @ Ulster (NE & SW planters)

Congratulations to all those who are ready and excited to move forward on this and also to those who are willing to continue to maintain their planter boxes for a while longer.

Robert will now draw up the specifications, taking our comments and ideas into consideration, and get them back to us. I’ll pass the specifications on, along with a detailed description, as soon as they arrive.

Hard work, but worthwhile! Go back to the Gardeners’ page to catch up with current news.