Field Visit of Urban Parks in the West Don Lands

Published On: 30 November 2013


On a sunny autumn morning the POPOVICH Team gathered their enthusiasm to embark on a trip down to the West Don Valley lands of Toronto and explore the evolving sense of place of some exemplary urban parks and plazas recently completed.

Together in Georgina’s vehicle, we took off on our journey, arriving at the iconic Evergreen Brickworks as our first destination.

One of the highlights that captured us most at the Brickworks was the great Toronto Lake Ontario Watershed sculpture,‘Watershed Consciousness’, mounted against the brick siding of the old factory building in the Tiffany Commons outside the Welcome Centre. As we approached this bold piece of wood craft, we grew cognisant of its exemplary notion of art combining function in the landscape – it served as an aesthetic detail of scale displaying Ontarian natural heritage and artisanal presence, yet in the same vein, functioned as a rainwater slow discharge network and living wall.

Also featured in the Tiffany Commons which was of particular interest to us were the circular gardens, featuring native meadow plantings of large shrubs and wildflowers, as well as the tall metal trellis structure providing focal interest and canopy.

Weaving our way through the remainder of the Evergreen Brickworks campus, we explored a variety of creative efforts that were artfully crafted into the landscape at the Chimney Court. We walked to the Weston Family Quarry Garden, where we observed the precedent measures of erosion control and shoreline restoration for the greater protection of the Don River bank, and using the palette of the eco-region in constructed design elements such as the saw-cut limestone seating blocks.

Moving from the exterior to the interior, we concluded our visit in the Koerner Gardens pavilion, which proved to have successful qualities and attributes of flexible programming vital for public usability. With its spatial flexibility, the space transforms from a native garden pavilion for gardening and food market event planning to an ice rink in the winter season.

As we leave the Brickworks, we consider the functional combination of pavement drainage and vegetated parking islands for maximized storm water infiltration facilitated by curb cuts and intermittent curb stops throughout the parking lot, proving to be part of a greater system of integrated site sustainable initiatives.

Our next short stop on our way to Corktown Common was the Underpass Park almost four kilometers south of theEvergreen Brickworks site in the West Don Lands at Bayview Avenue and St. Lawrence Street, the first phase of which was completed earlier in 2013.

Corktown Common Park is iconic for its circular pathways intercepting open green spaces, dry and wet native meadow gardens, and native woody plant patches. The Park exemplifies, in our eyes, a marriage of successful naturalized planting design, landscape maintenance, construction, and landscape programming. As a 7.3 hectare park in the heart of the west Don Lands, it is a unique scale of green expanse for the entire City and neighbourhood, providing relief as well as enjoyable community tangible in the changing face of a rapidly developing landscape.

Evidence of surrounding condominium construction enveloped the fading topography of the park, as we entered strolling by a constructed wetland/wet meadow stormwater facility along an elevated arching boardwalk. As you look closer, patterns of micro-communities emerge, leveled with diverse groupings of aquatic species suitable for varying water depths.

Fascinated by the extensive palette of native Carolinian forest species utilized in the space across the meandering topography, our tour was spent traversing the circular asphalt paths interconnected a multi-use bike and pathway trail system. Cascading colours and textures of foliage were visually compelling, exemplifying the potential impact of using a native planting palette contrary to prominent opinions of their limitations to achieving richness in landscape.

The mounding areas of woody plants followed the natural existing contours of the site, elevating trees and shrubs to conceal the backdrop of rigid geometries of urban form and present a soft transition.

The park balanced well among naturalized regions, informal, formal seating and various avenues of walkability, as the asphalt pathway wraps around a pavilion in the south side of the park. For avid on-lookers, the pavilion offers key viewpoints into Lake Ontario and the Don River Valley in the clear distance. As have most urban parks, it serves as a focal point situated on a higher grade to entertain an equally far-reaching view of the Corktown Common Park.

The gust of sweet autumn air swept notions of food, community and fun, visualizing possibilities that can embody the space. A canopied slanted steel roof, kitchenette, fireplace, surrounding splash pads and child play elements mounted on safety pads, and a movable screen on a metal track, are some of the facilities inviting all age and community groups of all sizes to flex their own use of the space.

Play facilities such as the slide were shaped organically and integrated into the landscape, instilling a splash of bright soft colours contrasting the earth tones of the grass and rocky mounds.

Promoting naturalistic play, while keeping safety measures in line with CSA safety standards can sometimes hinder design of its ability to transcend and inspire imaginative, explorative activity, especially that which keeps nature alive and present in the process of discovery at a blooming age. Kendall embraced her inner child as she rolled down the play pad as it is inspired by the legacy of the existing topography.

As we gathered around bringing together highlights and windows of insight, we concluded our observations for the day, bridging some comparisons and contrasts between the urban parks visited. While the courtyards and community gardens at the Evergreen Brickworks characterized a primarily educational purpose, supporting the hands-on community appeal of the repurposed buildings and community centre, they also supported a great calibre of repurposed materials and best practices of stormwater infiltration.

Underpass Park demonstrated a highly urbanized interplay and co-inhabitancy among installation art, gardens, and play structures blurring the boundaries of strictly bound programming conventions in determining the use of space in city parks. This is largely determined by the spatial limitations and disjointed configuration of the underpass spaces, (un)designed in principal on the purpose of overpass transportation as leftover space.

Corktown Common stands unique in character as it successfully re-established a strong native ecosystem following the existing topography of the pre-”site”, while following the traditional hierarchical divisions of space from informal play areas, to tranquil green space or mass event space, to structural formality of the pavilion to the highly naturalized heavily planted mounds characterizing motifs of the original ecosystem of the Carolinian forest.