Toronto's Allan Gardens could get a refresh that highlights its Indigenous roots

Indigenous culture could be front and centre in the revitalization of Allan Gardens, one of the largest parks in downtown Toronto.

Some concerned a revitalization may push those who rely on park out

Plants inside the Palm House are in full bloom despite the winter weather. A new plan would improve the aging conservatory, if approved by city council. (John Rieti/CBC)

Indigenous culture could be front and centre in the revitalization of Allan Gardens, one of the largest parks in downtown Toronto.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam will ask city council to formally endorse a report calling for a refresh of the park, which sits between Jarvis, Sherbourne, Gerrard and College streets, at this week's meeting. The goal, she says, is to make Allan Gardens a "premier" destination in Toronto, but also one that recognizes its history.

"We're trying to elevate the indigenous voices, which I think is absolutely critical and we don't do enough of it in Toronto," she told CBC Toronto.

There are no definitive plans for what that will look like, but the city is working with the Indigenous Place Making Council. Wong-Tam says she believes paths devoted to truth and reconciliation or educational materials about the area's indigenous history could add tremendous value to the revamped greenspace.

"It's a gem for everybody, not just the neighbourhood," she told CBC Toronto.

The vision for the park envisioned by the Friends of Allan Gardens group includes:

  • Refreshing the Palm House, the park's prized conservatory that dates back to 1910
  • An improved water feature, which may nod to the area's indigenous past
  • An outdoor café and improved meeting spaces
  • Light installations and other outdoor art — similar to those animating the Distillery District and Woodbine Beach.

The work is years away, but those involved are already aware it will need to strike the right balance. The park is near a number of shelters and social services, including several that serve the Indigenous community.

Claudia Medina works with Pasan, a community group that helps run the Neechi Sharing Circle every Thursday in the park. The weekly event provides a chance to drum and share songs, Medina says, but also the opportunity for frank talk about serious issues like drug abuse and homelessness.

'We make plans in other people's homes'

The park is near several large homeless shelters and many street-involved people spend their time in the greenspace. (John Rieti/CBC)

While excited by the prospect of sprucing up the park, Medina says she's "super concerned" the changes might force people out.

"Allan Gardens is a home for many. Sometimes we tend to forget that … we make plans in other people's homes," she said.

Wong-Tam says she wants the park's eventual transformation to be an inclusive one, noting it could include things like programming for street-involved people as well as nicer spaces for visitors.

"This park should be open for everyone," she said.

The proposed changes would include some improvements to the Palm House, the park's iconic conservatory. (John Rieti/CBC)

There is growing demand on the park space. A number of condos have shot up along Church Street in recent years, with more in the works. Wong-Tam says many residents tell her they feel like the city is closing in around them.

If city council OKs the basic concept of improving Allan Gardens, park staff will begin putting a plan in place. Wong-Tam says the work will take time and likely tens of millions of dollars, but it's an important project.

"This is actually really exciting to see this work advance," she said.

About the Author

John Rieti

John Rieti covers city hall and city issues for CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country in search of great stories. Outside of work, catch him running or cycling around, often armed with a camera, always in search of excellent coffee.