The Inevitable Duel between Progress and Sentimentality

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Perhaps one of the most predictable sources of anxiety in the city building process, is when a beloved building is dropped to the ground in favour of some other use.  A so-called higher and better use.    This was never more true than for me and my family and the house I grew up in.

There were four houses.  All identical mirror images of each other.  They were homes for generations of professors at Pine Hill University.  Known today as The Atlantic School of Theology.  They were built in the mid 1800’s and were stellar examples of  early Maritime architecture.  A step up from the predictable salt-box.  They were located on a quiet street in the south end and sat on a hill over-looking the northwest arm. It was the most magical playground you can imagine.  They were known locally as ‘The Gray Ladies” and in addition to their academic heritage, it was also widely known that they served as make-shift hospitals following the Halifax Explosion in 1918.


We lived there until 1976 and then in the early 2000’s, learned that Pine Hill had sold the land behind the houses to a developer.   The city was considering a redevelopment plan at the time that would have seen all four houses razed in order to accomodate a new road that would bisect them.

My brother and I got wind of this and started a campaign….from Toronto….to try to save them.  Low and behold we were successful.  Sort of.

The city agreed to redesign the road in more of a laneway  configuration (which is not uncommon in that neighbourhood)  and this allowed the houses to remain intact.   The developer owned two of them and Pine Hill owned the other two.  Kudos are due to the developer who converted their two houses into duplexes and did a terrific job on their restoration.  The other two houses (ours and the Kriegers) went into a kind of limbo.

We later learned that a non-governmental agency had approached AST with a proposal to convert the two remaining houses into a single building designed to serve as a Hospice.  Something the city was in dire need of.

Ultimately it was learned that they had no choice really but to raze the buildings due to structural inadequacy’. A term I know something about.

While over 150 years old, these buildings could never be repurposed for any use more demanding than family life.  And even then, their continued existence was a problem as they were coated in layer upon layer of lead paint and by todays standards represented a most certain fire hazard.

When a friend sent the photo of our home being demolished I was greatly saddened.  And yet in spite of this sadness, today I donated money to the organization responsible for the demolition of my beloved childhood home. Hospice Halifax.

I can’t think of a more poetic outcome.

These beautiful homes served the United Church of Canada as part of the Atlantic School of Theology and Pine Hill for generations. Many families, including ours, enjoyed the houses and their grounds. They weren’t just houses. They were houses that meant something culturally, aesthetically, spiritually and sentimentally. Yet I have no choice but to conclude that a hospice is not only the ‘highest and best use’ for this property, it is the only one that expresses the same kind of generosity and spirit of care that justified the existence of the original houses including the one I called home.  It is a PERFECT re-imagining of this place.

To my friends and colleagues. Especially my Halifax based friends and colleagues, I would ask that you consider making a donation to this organization. I would ask that you help make this happen.

The link to their website is here:

Why The French are Better Than Us

While this subject matter doesn’t directly or exclusively relate to ‘the public realm’, it is, I think, close enough to warrant posting on this blog.   I lived in Paris for three years early in my career and had the good fortune to go back for two weeks in August of this year.   I am more struck than ever by how life there differs from life here in North America.  Here are a few of the things that stand out:
    • Cheese…unpasteurized, varied and delicious
    • Coffee. French roast is NOT a fake. Every cup ambrosia. Even the instant coffees from the gas station machine are excellent.
    • Breads. Crunchy on the outside and creamy smooth on the inside.
    • Wine. Of any colour. No further defense required
    • Food. Always delicious. Always fresh and ALWAYS satisfying.
    • Restaurants. Who know the value of a linen table cloth and
    •  service
    • Markets. On everyone’s calendar and great fun
    • Fruits. Fresh, local, non-corporate and bursting with flavour
    • Roundabouts. The answer to every intersection.
    • Heritage conservation. No. Preservation.
    • Streetscapes that celebrate the pedestrian over the car
    • That language. French is such a beautiful language. It enriches life.
    • Light. For some reason the twilight and dawn light there is unlike anywhere else
    • 12 foot ceilings. With floor to ceiling french doors
    • Balconies that are a place. Not just ancillary additions to the architecture
    • Views and vistas. We can thank Hausman for that…
    • No lane markings. If you can fit 4 cars wide, then it’s a 4 lane road
    • Place-making. ‘Places’ like squares and piazza’s are celebrated, maintained and reveered.
    • August off. Everyone’s on holiday. For a month.
    • Family is everything. The stores and restaurants close on the dotted hour because….family.
    • Boule. Basically lawn-bowling or bocce but where nature (aka…dirt fields), play a role in the outcome.
    • Hotel room key cards. Here they just open the door. There…they open the door AND turn the lights on. Leave the room? You have to take the card and so you can’t leave any lights on. SMART!
    • Giverney. The home and estate of French impressionist Claude Monet. It’s like walking into one of his beautiful paintings.

The Unintended Public Realm

I was the luckiest of kids.   I had three playgrounds and none of them were intended to be playgrounds. The north shoreline of the NorthWest Arm in Halifax, the cliffs of the railway tracks, and Point Pleasant Park just down the street.  A huge largely natural park that anchors the south end of the peninsula.

When I first interviewed to gain entry to the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph, I was asked the question, “what is your favourite park?”.   I answered that “I had three”.   All listed above.   Not being from Halifax of course, the interviewer was at a loss…. maybe preferring ‘Central Park’,  or ‘The Emerald Necklace of Boston’,  or one of the many national, or well known Provincial parks in Canada.   All parks that Landscape Architects had something to do with.

But these three places  were my playground.  They were my parks. They were what I knew.

We built forts along the shores of the Arm. Covert hidden places , made out of driftwood and knotweed,  where my friends and I could imagine being lost on a desert island or smoke the cigarette we had stolen from his mothers cache.    We converted my friend Scott’s small boathouse into a clubhouse, complete with black light posters and a stereo.   It was a quarter mile from my house but entirely accessible on foot along the granite breakwater of the Arm.

My brother and I fished for Mackerel in his wooden dingy and we would get totally grossed out by the inevitable horned Sculpin that would attach itself to our lines.  Best of all, I could grab the leaden canoe and drag it down to the water for an early morning paddle in still calm waters .  Revelling in the fact that I was the only moving boat on the water, and I was just a kid.

In the early morning on other days I would take my bike and run down the lanes and pathways in Point Pleasant Park.  One hill in particular gave a particular thrill at high speed.  The remnant WW2 battlements in the park served, in the early years, as a place to imagine all manner of adventure. I could be a soldier watching in wait for the enemy, or an archeologist, imagining the discovery of hidden underground passageways or bunkers full of ammunition.  In later years, these bunkers became a late weekend meeting place for friends.  A bonfire and the consumption of ‘moose-piss’.  Bottles of mixed alcohol stolen from at least one persons fathers liquor cabinet.

The tracks were a wonderland unique unto themselves.   Fifty foot high granite cliffs that stood as sentry against your will to cut a path to Robie Street.  A shortcut to school.   On weekends, my friend and I would bag a lunch and water canteens and spend the day trying to scale the cliffs with no ropes.  How either one of us lived remains a mystery.

The tracks were also a dependable shortcut to just about anywhere you wanted to go in the city, and a lot of people must have known it because the foot paths were well worn on both sides from one end of the city to the other.

Now.  After all these years of designing and creating parks as a Landscape Architect, it is increasingly clear to me that while places like Point Pleasant Park will remain protected probably in perpetuity, we need to do more to protect and enhance the ‘unintended’ public realm.  The shoreline of the northwest arm has been almost entirely privatized making it impassible on foot, and given our risk averse society, I can see the day when the tracks will be fenced to mitigate any potential liability.

These places are,  not because we intended them to be ‘places’, but simply because they are.

Woodlots, ravines, shorelines, rail corridors and hydro easements are all vital to youthful imagination.

These spaces can animate life  and anchor in stone, memories that will lead to all manner of achievement  Plus. Protecting them is good city building.

Parks That Matter

A few months ago I was asked by my friend and colleague Antonio Gomez – Palacio  to contribute to a feature series he was preparing for the Ontario Planning Journal on the subject of ‘Designing the Public Realm’.  I was compelled by the editorial approach he was taking and was well aware of the intelligence he would bring to the conversation not to mention the other contributors he would bring to the project.   The following is an exerpt of my piece, but I would encourage you all to read the entire series.   It is first rate and brings a number of stellar so-called peripheral voices to the discussion.

Here is the link to the series. and the unedited content of my piece is below:

Parks That Matter

I am both a planner and designer of the public realm.  This means of course, that I am also an advocate for it.  It is something I fight for every day.

When I started my work as the Manager of Parks and Open Space Planning for the then Town of Markham in 1991, the term ‘public realm’ did not factor into the planning lexicon of most cities.   Markham was no different.   It was essentially a bedroom community of Toronto that was under enormous development pressure.  Its physical environment was largely comprised of quaint heritage village main streets surrounded by subdivisions, strip malls, shopping plazas and business parks.

In those days, new parks acquired through the development approvals process were most often considered little more than lands required to meet the park dedication requirements of the Planning Act, or to deliver a particular recreation program.  Most often, they came into being as residual land.  Spaces left over after the roads, blocks and lots had been drawn.  Valley lands, woodlots and those same parks were all potentially valuable city public realm assets but were most often hidden from public view.  It was common practice to essentially privatize public assets by turning the city’s back to them.  This was the most efficient use of land, and it was the most profitable way to develop.

At least for Markham, one decision changed all this for the better.

In the mid-nineties, Markham invited The New Urbanism into their world.  This was partly in response to rapid growth and partly in response to development proposals that harkened to ‘more of the same’ – un-navigable cul-de-sacs and crescents, and neighborhoods that really didn’t feel much like neighborhoods.    It was also in response to higher density developments clinging to the post-modern principle of ‘buildings in a park’ or in the case of retail development, buildings in a parking lot.

City leaders in Markham understood that with the enactment of Official Plan Amendment 5, they had one chance to expand their urban boundary but to do it through the planning and design of more sustainable and dynamic neighborhoods. Through the leadership of Planning Commissioner Lorne McCool, Planning Committee chair David Tsubouchi and a smart Mayor and Council, they came to see the New Urbanism as the way to do it.

This decision took a leap of faith on the part of Council and ultimately drove the city to re-think everything.  Civil and transportation engineering standards, zoning and land-use standards, park planning and design standards as well as landscape and streetscape design standards.  It placed urban design at the centre of the planning process, rather than at the edges of it.   And to our great good fortune, at the centre of the New Urbanism one finds the public realm.

It was not until I left Markham in 1998 however, that I fully came to appreciate what a well-planned public realm offered me as a landscape architect.   It offered a chance to design places that would truly matter to future residents.  Places that not only delivered on program and functionality, but also celebrated the unique qualities, values and aspirations of the people who would ultimately make these communities their home.   It offered a chance at public places that would meet their full potential as ‘the armature’ of a community.

The following principles are for me, fundamental to guiding the programming and design of parks, and open spaces in these new communities:


Conventional suburban communities are inherently disorienting.  Looping crescents bisected by cul-de-sacs leading nowhere.   A well organized public realm solves that problem through the deliberate anchoring of views.   Streets will most often terminate at a roundabout, park, natural feature or at an iconic building such as a church or school.  This structural dynamic makes a neighborhood inherently unique and navigable.  You know where you are because of what you see.  For the designer, this opens the opportunity to anchor those views with park architecture, entrance gates and signage, trailheads, public art or recreational features such as playground apparatus.

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The Grand Cornell Clock Tower anchors the view of the main street and serves as a gathering or meeting place for residents.


Great public spaces are most usually a product of built form that is in proportion to the spaces they frame.  They are also a product of ground floor land uses that reinforce the activity within that space.  Built form and land use are critical to ensuring animated public spaces.  It is the role of the designer to ensure that the landscape takes full advantage of that symbiotic relationship.  Residential uses will call for a very different solution than retail or commercial uses.

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The Civic Mall in Markham Centre is a linear open space that will ultimately serve as a primary pedestrian east/west spine through Markham Centre.  Four plaza spaces animate the entrances to adjacent buildings – both residential and commercial/retail uses.


Perhaps more than any other design profession, Landscape Architecture offers the opportunity to incorporate metaphor as the under-pinning of a project.   Narratives can be reinforced simply through the geometry of a public space, or by more substantive moves that can be made through the expression of natural or cultural history or both.   It can be expressed through the design of single installations like public art, or through a more integrated approach where public art, park architecture, play, landform and materiality all work together in telling one story.   In each of these cases, it is important that the narrative be discernible or easily understood. It must mean something to stakeholders.


The Metroplace Orchard Park in North York is a one acre public/private open space that celebrates the natural history of the site through the use of both public art and landscape. 


Parks and open spaces that enjoy a high visual profile offer an opportunity to re-imagine play and its role in defining recreation.  The design of new parks must not only be about play but also about ‘playfulness’.   The days of the conventional playground defined by off-the-shelf play equipment are ending.  Play does not stop there.  For many new communities, play can also mean exploration, imagination and whimsy.

In 2012 we designed a new five acre park in Thornhill City Centre that included a two-acre degraded woodlot.  After many management improvements the woodlot and park were opened to the public. Within a week, children from the neighborhood had constructed half a dozen from fallen dead tree limbs.   Kids have a funny way of deciding for themselves what ‘play’ is.


Pattern Park in Richmond Hill asks visitors to find twelve patterns found in nature, in the materials and finishes within the park.   


Whereas natural features such as woodlots, ravines and valley lands used to be peripheral to community design, they are now formative and structural.  By making these features the centre of new communities, the demand for public access becomes inevitable.  That said, cities must intervene and design these features in a manner that balances demand for public access with ecological function and habitat conservation.

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The focal point of Markham Centre is the Rouge River – a large valleyland feature that bisects the city centre.  Its high profile location demanded a management plan that would balance human use and enjoyment with ecological and habitat function.  


A well-planned public realm is more democratic.   Its design therefore demands a rigorous public participation design process.  It demands a process that unleashes the hopes and aspirations of stakeholders.   A process that can result in a public realm that reflects the people it serves.  The challenge is to inspire – to represent  the notion of beauty and meaning as a reflection of who we are.


 Leitchcroft Square is a 1 acre urban park in Thornhills Galleria community.  The design evolved through an extensive community consultation process that resulted in a tai chi park complete with a Reiki pebble path. 


It is fortuitous that the increased interest in the public realm has coincided with the growing interest in sustainability. Low Impact Development (LID) techniques are increasingly being incorporated into the public realm.   Curb-side rain gardens, infiltration galleries in parks, permeable pavements and the use of photo-voltaic systems are changing how we view the public realm.  It also has the potential to significantly reduce demands on municipal storm water systems as well as maintenance and operating costs.  These techniques also serve to express a City’s commitment to sustainability and their willingness to avoid the temptation to  ‘bury’ money.


Raindrop Plaza Park in Toronto is a small urban open space designed to meet Toronto Water’s West Weather flow Management Plan and Toronto Green Standard objectives to “manage rain where it falls”.   The project incorporates rain gardens, permeable pavements and storm water capture for the irrigation of trees. 



Ten Things Designers can Learn from Disneyland

From early 1987 until late 1991 I was an  Area Development Coordinator for Walt Disney Imagineering.  Originally we were a small team of 5 people whose job it was to design EuroDisneyland (as Disneyland Paris was known back then).  Our role was to design everything except the rides and buildings.  We focused on design of the landscapes and site amenities as well as ensuring that the civil works, buildings and rides were coordinated with each other and with that landscape.

Disney’s goal for the park was to ensure that it resembled the original park in Anaheim California, rather than Disney World in Florida.    The park in California was site planned and designed by landscape architects (including my late friend Bill Evans who was Walt’s right hand), whereas the park in Florida, we were told, was designed primarily by civil engineers and operations staff.    Disney felt the California park was successful in part, due to its more human and intimate scale.

We divided the park up into areas of responsibility based on ‘the lands’.  I was responsible for Fantasyland and Discovery land.  My colleague Shari Van Dorn was responsible for Frontier land and Main Street USA, and our colleague Mark Schirmer was responsible for Adventure land. All three of us collaborated on the design of the ‘hub’.  The central roundabout at the end of Main Street USA that delivers visitors to the gateways for each land including the renowned Castle.

The Original Landscape Master Plan.   Hand Drawn and 8 feet square.
We spent most of the first few months arriving at the park in Anaheim at 7am, to measure things and take a photographic record of elements we would be incorporating into the design for the new park.   It is a surreal experience to enter into the park from the ‘back door’ and then have it to yourself for a couple of hours with nobody else there except painters and maintenance staff.   We would then return to the studio in Glendale Ca. to further the design development drawings and sketch ideas for our lands.

After a year and a half, we were asked to move to Paris to work directly with the local design firms who had been retained to deliver final working drawings.   We were there for almost three years and worked with hundreds of architects, civil engineers, landscape architects, show producers and operations staff.


Much of what I learned during that time has been of use in my work that followed.   Here are a few ideas that particularly struck a chord and have been of value to me professionally for the 25 years of work to follow.  Every single one of these ideas can be translated into traditional master planning, urban design, park design and landscape architecture projects:

  1. Every design decision should be measured by its impact on the quality of the guest experience.This is to say that everything we designed had to reinforce the narrative of each fantasy.   The landscape is highly themed and tells the visitor part of the story.  It is not just about the architecture and rides.   The visitor is to be immersed  in the story.  That includes paving patterns, fencing, furnishings, walls, steps, plantings, fountains, bridges, lighting  and signage.  Even sound speakers are hidden from view. 
The Castle Wishing Well


Preliminary Sketches  – The Castle Wishing Well
The Sword in the Stone
Preliminary Concept – The Sword in the Stone
  1. The greatest threat to a quality guest experience is the dreaded ‘visual intrusion’. Anyone who has been to a Disney Theme Park will know that everything you see is part of the experience.  What you DON’T see is a labyrinth of service buildings, maintenance yards and parking lots.   You will see no buildings that aren’t part of the narrative.  You will be completely unaware (even on the tram that encircles the park) that the dark rides are in fact, great big plain boring old boxes. 
No visual intrusions here.  Not even from an elevated vantage point
  1. The Guest Entry Sequence One of the major moves that defines Disney’s success is the care they place on the guest entry sequence.   This principle relates to the notion that from the moment a guest leaves their car, or the train, their experience of the park should be sequential and immediate.   But not static.   It should morph from one themed context to the next.   It is designed to draw you into the park and make you feel it’s magic from the very first moment to the last.  It is entirely about what people see and what they can do.
  1. Collaborate   A Disney theme park is an extremely complex design undertaking.  Those responsible come from a wide range of disciplines and professions.   Ignore them at your peril, but don’t  hesitate to defend your ‘better idea’. .    Here’s a short list of the key disciplines involved:
  • Show Producer. (top design boss for each land)
  • Show Set Designers.(all highly themed elements)
  • Area Development Coordinators
  • Operations Managers (vital as they are the ultimate owners)
  • Architects
  • Landscape Architects
  • Engineers (civil, electrical, structural etc)
  • Horticulturalists
  • Ride Engineers
  • Project Managers (post design and contracts)
  1. Avoid the time-wasting trap of ‘the meeting’.  While this rule wasn’t followed particularly well in Paris, it was in Glendale.  Almost every meeting was held standing up.   When you sit down in a board room for a meeting, people get comfortable and chatty.    If the meeting is held over a stack of flat files without chairs, it goes remarkably quickly!     
  1. Build Models  The drawings that we were producing in Glendale were first used as the base for the construction of a 1:50 scale model of the entire park.  Including back-stage elements.   It was built on tables so that you could go underneath with a periscope and view the park from the visitors point of view.   A number of design changes resulted from the construction of that model.


  1. Think ahead  One of the more complex projects within the project, was the design of the Wonderland Labyrinth.  Essentially a huge hedge maze themed on the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ story.  Combined with show-set pieces and leap-frog fountains, it was sure to be a welcome addition to the Disney portfolio of experiences.   It occurred to us early one of the key infrastructure elements of that piece would be the Yew hedges and that their effect would be greatly enhanced if they were grown in advance.  In the same pattern as the ultimate maze.  They would then  be ready to go on day one.    And so Imagineering contracted a firm to grow the hedges, off-site,  in advance.   Laid out in the final pattern so there would be no seams or blank spots.


  1. Look for Problems. Especially those that aren’t apparent.  We were designing the park at the advent of AutoCAD.   We had a colleague who joined us in France  who was adept at CAD.  He was mapping the final locations of the buildings as well as the geometry of the monorail which encircles the park.  

Rides like Pirates of the Caribbean are what known as dark rides.   They take place entirely within buildings.   The monorail actually enters some of those rides in order to enhance the monorail experience.   Our colleague Dave discovered that the layout of the monorail would miss the opening into Pirates, by almost two metres.   He found the mistake just because he was diligent.   Would have been an expensive fix.

  1. Merchandising  Most people don’t know this, but Disney generates the vast majority of their park revenue not from the gate, but from merchandising.   The genius of it however, is that it is not in your face.   It’s subtle.   The stores that line main street USA.   The themed cart vendors that you can find at every turn.   The restaurants when you want to take a break.  People spend far more money inside the park than they do to get into it. 
  1. Play  Design is fun.  We do it because we love it.   If you bring a playful heart, good things will happen.   Like Mickey Mouse showing up one day in our offices and then having him sit down in the chair opposite my desk for a chat.    Or going to a special event at the studios in Burbank only to meet Pluto.  In the flesh (as it were).   Imagineering makes their work environment FUN.


Markham Uptown: A Complete Community in the Making

I have been involved in the planning and design of Markham Centre for over 25 years.   First, as the Manager of Parks Planning and Urban Design for the then Town of Markham (now the City of Markham), where I helped to shape the secondary plan and many of the public policies that would drive the project.

After leaving public service, I was fortunate enough to have been retained by Times Group Corporation who had acquired a large chunk of the Markham Centre lands from Hullmark Developments.  My work since has been as part of a diverse team bringing the original vision for Markham Centre to life.

The plan for Markham Centre was developed in part, in response to the Province of Ontario’s ‘Places to Grow’ initiative, which envisioned a transformation of the suburbs of Toronto from bedroom communities, to thriving high density nodal developments supported by transit and compact infrastructure.  This could be Markham’s new ‘downtown’.  But only if we got it right.

The first 3 phases of the development have been constructed and feature a number of innovations as well as set the stage for future phases.  It is safe, I think, to say that Markham Uptown can be distinguished by one leading characteristic.   It is a Complete Community. 


Much has been said in recent years about ‘complete streets’ but it occurs to me that complete streets aren’t even possible in the context of suburban intensification, without first delivering ‘complete communities’.

Markham Uptown is such a community.

The first 3 phases have delivered all of the ingredients that I suggest are vital to the creation of a complete community.

They are:

  • Land uses are mixed to include employment, office, retail and residential.  An elementary school will be provided in future phases as will an office precinct at the west end of the site opposite City Hall Other land uses such as community centers and high schools are provided on other lands within Markham Centre as a whole.


  • City blocks are a very pedestrian friendly 90 – 120m long.
  • Building loading and servicing areas are screened from view and are assembled along a private laneway which also helps to break up the blocks into smaller architectural units.
  • The first main street (Birchmount Road) is animated on both sides with at grade retail
  • The retail is supported by on-street parking as well as interior parking lots that are mostly screened from public streets by built-form and landscaping.
  • Bicycle lanes are a dedicated form of transportation on the major roads
  • The entire site is serviced by regular regional transportation and it is a 15 minute walk through the Rouge Valley to the Markham GO Train station to the south.
  • All buildings are LEED Gold and bird friendly
  • At grade residential uses animate the street with principle unit entrances, decorative fencing and gates.


  • Extensive Green roof technology is fully employed in each phase


  • Residential towers offer outdoor rooftop amenity spaces that overlook the Rouge Valley.


  • Rain water harvesting on each block meets water balance targets and allows for storm water re-use in irrigation and building plumbing
  • LID initiatives include the use of permeable pavements, infiltration galleries and whole system cisterns that delay the reintroduction of storm water run-off into the Rouge River and allow for the settlement of particulates and the cooling of run-off.   These operate in place of the traditional storm ponds that are a maintenance headache and consume valuable land.
  • Street tree soil volume targets of 30m3/tree are met with either increased boulevard soil depths, or in the case of trees in pavement through the use of structural soil cells
  • The precinct is punctuated with 4 public open spaces.   Two 1 acre parkettes in the east and west neighbourhoods, a central plaza space which will serve as a focal gathering space for residents and a large east/west linear park that straddles the Rouge Valley.

There is little doubt that these features make Markham Uptown a unique development in the GTA, if not unique to the Province of Ontario and the country as a whole.  Markham Uptown will absolutely be made unique however, by its physical relationship to the Rouge Valley which bisects the Markham Centre lands.


The Rouge River is a large floodplain.   It is a wildlife corridor and important cold water fishery and it features a number of unique and rare plant species as well as geomorpholigical features.  It is also one of the key linkages in connecting the future downtown of Markham with Milne Dam Conservation Area and The Rouge Park to the east.

The plan for Markham Centre and Markham Uptown is to integrate the best of urban design with the very best in natural features protection and management.   This is accomplished through Markham Centre Greenlands Plan, prepared by our office.  After an exhaustive inventory and assessment of flora, fauna and hydrologic features, the greenlands plan recommended a number of interventions and improvements that would balance conservation and protection goals with  the inevitable demand for public access that would come with new development

These initiatives will be complimented by an interpretive program that heightens awareness around each unique feature of the corridor as well as preferred public protocols for interaction with the river.

The first phase of this work is now fully funded by the municipality and developer and will be undertaken in the not too distant future.

It is my view that Markham Uptown will be a uniquely complete community.  This is borne out by the success of the first three phases and the commitment of both the City and Developer to continue to ‘do it right’.   There is of course, more to do.


 Landscape Architecture and Urban Design:                    Schollen & Company Inc.

Architecture and Urban Design:                                Kirkor Architects and Planners

Planning and Urban Design:                                              Malone Given Parsons Inc.

Civil Engineering:                                                    SCS Development Consultants Inc.

City Building and The Legacy of Church Architecture in Toronto

I found it curious that both of the churches in Toronto where my father was minister were no longer active United Churches.   Mount Dennis United Church had recently been converted into an evangelical Filipino Church and Deer Park United Church was proposed to be partly demolished to make way for a new condominium.

Deer Park United Church Before
Deer Park United w. Condo
Deer Park United w. Condo

I was certainly aware that United Church congregations had been dwindling in numbers over the last number of decades, but wondered just how deep the rabbit hole went.  If the trend is true for the United Church, is it also true for other places of worship?  What might this mean for Toronto, whose public realm is defined in large measure, by its vast number of churches – many of which are iconic structures that beautify and give life to streets and neighbourhoods?  What might this shift mean for other Canadian Cities who are no doubt, faced with the same statistical inevitability?

In its heyday, the United Church was second only to the Catholic Church in the number of churches it had constructed and operated in Toronto.    The United Church had 131 churches and the Catholic Church (of varying sub-denominations) had 133.  It appears that the vast majority of Catholic Churches remain intact and continue to operate as Catholic Churches.   This is not the case for the United Church of Canada.

In 1980, the UCC had a national membership of 389,492.   By 1990 that number had dwindled to 338,040 and by 2000 their numbers dropped to 270,361.    As of 2011 the membership sat at 166,936.  Roughly 42% of its 1980 numbers.

Eglinton United Church as a Condo

If one assumes that this decline has been distributed evenly across its ministry, then clearly the maintenance of 131 churches in Toronto would become an unsustainable challenge.

And so what has actually happened?   What are the numbers?*


Of the original 131 churches, 82 remain as originally constructed or as merged congregations that combined forces to save at least one of two buildings.  Another 10 churches have been redeveloped as both churches and other uses such as community centres, seniors residences and health centres.  Approximately 92 churches total remain intact as churches.  (70%).

It is also interesting that only 15 church sites have been demolished and replaced outright by some other land use. (11%)

Other changes include:

No. of churches taken over by other faiths:                                               6

No. of churches converted to condos or other residential uses:           9

No. of churches converted into schools:                                                      0

No. of churches converted into community theatres:                              1

No.  of churches converted into community centres:                               1

No. of churches expanded as a result of amalgamation:                          5

Based on these numbers it appears that the decline of the church has been managed with a great deal of creativity and innovation.   There seems to have been a concerted effort by the City and Church to maintain the buildings as physical structures within our public realm and this, I think, should be applauded.

The Former St. James Bond United Church

One concern of note however is the fact that so few have been converted into schools or community centres.   It seems to me that those public uses would serve a greater good than converting to condos or other ‘singular’ uses.   Those public uses would not only allow for the maintenance of iconic architecture, but also ensure that they remained focal points for community use and enjoyment.

The Bathurst Street Theatre

If this trend is likely to continue (and it is), then perhaps the City Planners should try to get out in front of it in order to ensure that every opportunity is taken to preserve the public nature of these beautiful buildings.

*Note:  The statistics cited are approximate.

The Perfect City Street


About a month ago, I posted a question on my Facebook page which asked,  “What in your view, makes a perfect city street?”  Clearly an unscientific sampling, but I was amazed by the dozens of answers that I received.   They all spoke to characteristics that we can all easily visualize.

Here’s a sampling:

  • a residential street in Brooklyn Heights. Four story brownstones running down either side of the street and a row of old trees in front of each of them.”
  •  “Trees, wide sidewalks, bike lanes, short blocks, lots of pedestrians”
  •  “.an unintimidating scale, a few places where people can sit, houses, good sidewalks, street corners that are designed with all different ages and physical capabilities, bikes and motorists accommodated, definitely lots of trees,…”
  •  “Wide sidewalks, large tree canopy, outdoor cafes, cleanliness, good people watching!”
  •  “No above head wires ,or any wires whatsoever, good evening lighting….treed meridian…..cobble stones….Edinburgh new town crossed with Berlin”
  •  “Seating and a boulevard for kiosks and fountains. Go to Lisbon”
  •  “….trees, wide sidewalks, seating areas, elegant lighting, no overhead wires, bike lanes…”
  •   Trees!”
  •  “Quality shops . Outdoor cafe seating . Lighting and of course trees”

 There were a few themes common to the posts.   Not one of them mentioned ‘move traffic’ or ‘room for cars’,  though many talked about accommodating both cars and bikes.    Many of them talked about sympathetic architecture and land uses and almost ALL of them spoke to the importance of street trees!  This last point actually surprised me. It is also interesting to note that not one of these comments was from a practitioner.

This little survey got me to thinking.   What IS the perfect city street?   Is there any way to confirm that the design of a new street will meet the goal of a perfect city street?  Is  there any way to confirm that the design of a new street will meet the expectations held by the general public?

S:ProjectsConcord Floral 11060PRenderingPsd11084 - Masterpl

Streetscape planning and design is the most complex undertaking in urban design and landscape architecture.  It is so because it requires the successful reconciliation of the widest number of competing interests.   It is the only discipline in design that must successfully marry the following interests:

  • Land Use fit (particularly at street level)
  • Architectural fit (height, character, animation)
  • Right-of-way width, particularly in relation to architectural height
  • Day-lighting triangle dimensions and form (triangle vs. rounding)
  • Boulevard widths
  • Building Set-backs
  • Cross-walk design and placement
  • Accommodation of dedicated left and right turn lanes
  • Median design (where desired)
  • Roundabout design (where desired)
  • The design of abutting private landscapes
  • Transit infrastructure
  • Above-ground utilities
  • Below-ground utilities
  • Vehicular traffic and turning movements
  • On-street and adjacent parking
  • Bike traffic, comfort and safety
  • Pedestrian traffic, movements, comfort and safety
  • Street lighting and pedestrian way lighting
  • Street tree selection, spacing and sustainability
  • Low impact development infrastructure
  • Woonerf Design (where desired)
  • Street furnishings
  • Materials and finishes

It is also the only discipline within urban design where one wrong move by the designer, or domination of the process by one or more interests can compromise the goal of creating a ‘perfect street’.

This is not to suggest that there is one kind of ‘perfect street’, but rather that there are many, and the designers success will be tested by making appropriate decisions given the opportunities and constraints posed by the specific context and street type i.e. local, collector, arterial, retail, residential, mixed use etc.  It will also be determined by the degree to which all vested interests are prepared to compromise (more often than not this is the greatest single challenge).

In addition to this check-list of items to be considered, designers can find their way to a more ‘perfect street’ by reconciling competing interests and adhering to a number of guiding principles:

Ten Principles to Consider in the Design of Perfect Streets

  1. The height of buildings which frame the street must be directly proportional to the width of the right of way.   This is to say that a wide street with lower buildings will be infinitely less successful than a wide street framed by taller buildings.   The architecture frames the view of the street and provides a sense of enclosure.  It is therefore critical to its overall success of the street.   This is a law of minimums.Figure4-2 (The American Institute of Transportation Engineers “Designing Walkable Thoroughfares:  A Context Sensitive Approach” 2010)

    A generally accepted principle is that one should strive for a minimum ratio of 1:4 building height to ROW width. Preferred ratios can go as high as 1:2 building height to ROW width.  Note that in most city downtown cores the ratio of height to width is MUCH higher.  In these cases, the design of the street and boulevards becomes more important as the building wall can be perceived as overwhelming and therefore the pedestrian experience less inviting.

  2. If the street is proposed to have above ground utility poles or already has them…then do all you can to bury them.  This isn’t cheap, but they are an eyesore and upstage everything else that might be good about the street.  They will also limit the degree to which street trees can be used to help frame the street.  Utility companies have spent so much money ‘pruning for clearance’ that they have, in light of shrinking budgets, simply banned the use of large shade trees within their space.
  3. If the street is part of a larger community planning initiative, then strive for city blocks no greater than 90-120 metres in length.   This improves both vehicular and pedestrian permeability and allows for more corner land uses and building entrances that help to animate the street.  To the extent possible, make them full turning movement intersections.   This will help to slow traffic and make the intersections more pedestrian friendly
  4. The personality of a street will, to a large extent, be expressed as a function of the land uses that frame it.  A residential street will differ in both form and function from a retail/commercial street or a street dominated by office buildings. The land uses will also help to define the way a street will behave and therefore the menu of elements to be employed in its design.S:ProjectsMarkham Uptown Phase 1 (P) 29056PRendering0.09.23
  5. Ensure that residential buildings have a minimum 3.0 metre setback to allow for front yard landscaping, steps, fencing at gates etcetera.  On busier streets a wider set-back may be warranted to provide a greater sense of buffering.
  6. For higher density residential buildings strive for podiums with a number of individual residential entrances at grade.   Also strive for principle building entrances located at intersections.  This provides direct pedestrian access to transit and other street amenities.
  7. If ground floor retail/commercial uses are proposed, then absolutely try to provide on street parking.  This is vital to successful retail and serves the dual purpose of offering pedestrians a sense of protection from traffic.
  8. Pay particular attention to the introduction of dedicated right and left turn lanes at intersections.   More often than not, these ‘added lanes’ will be provided at the expense of the boulevards.  As an antidote to this problem, try to widen the right of way at the intersection so that the boulevards and associated streetscapes are not lost.
  9. Ironically, the thing that people want most (street trees) is one of the most difficult streetscape elements to provide.   Their long term success and sustainability will be based on numerous constraints including species selection, spacing, soil volume, access to water and drainage, conflicts with below ground utilities, and conflicts with sight lines and driveways.  Try to make street trees one of the first considerations rather than one of the last.30
  10. Bicycles.  Yes, the one area of continuing and on-going debate among transportation engineers, civil engineers and landscape architects.   I’m not certain the issues will ever be reconciled, but I suggest the following principles apply.   Bicycles are a mode of transportation and so they should share the roadbed with cars and transit rather than the boulevard with pedestrians.    Bike lanes should be grade separated from pedestrian walkways.  They should be a unique colour so as to heighten their profile relative to cars.

There are certainly more principles to be employed in the design of ‘perfect streets’ , but these I think,  represent the major considerations.

A Park for both the body and mind

One of the things I love most about Landscape Architecture is its potential for metaphor and narrative.   More than architecture and virtually any other design discipline, landscape can tell a story.   It can engage the public directly in their own narrative, or it can introduce them to a narrative they had not previously considered.    It can combine with public art to weave a story that citizens can directly and immediately connect to.  The most successful projects are those where the narrative is direct, immediate and discernible.

Pattern Park in Richmond Hill Ontario, is such a project.  It is one of our firms newest projects and clearly illustrates the thing I love most about Landscape Architecture.

Upon arrival, visitors are presented with a challenge.   “Can you find these patterns in nature in the park?”.   A varied program of uses and park elements are designed and developed around patterns found in nature and the guest, child and adult alike, is challenged to find them while also having fun in an accessible swing park, in a water play space, on ping pong tables and on climbing apparatus.

In park design it is equally important to remember that the mind is a sense just as sight, smell, touch and sound are senses.

Ten random principles to consider when starting your career in Landscape Architecture:


When you first start out in Landscape Architecture it is easy to be left feeling like a very small cog in a very large wheel.  While it is true that starting out in a small office will offer a different experience than working in a large office, there are certain general principles that if followed,  I believe will  keep you challenged, inspired and confident of your potential for future growth in the profession.    These are in no particular order:

  1. Bring your sense of humor.  Everyone needs a laugh and nothing can limit a career faster than passivity, complaining or negativity.   I make it a goal of mine to ensure that I make everyone laugh at least once during every meeting I attend.  I’m not always successful but that’s not the point.   It goes a long way to building relationships and can have the residual effect of making others enjoy the work as much as you do.  It’s a great team building strategy and can set you apart from others.
  2. Grow your own career.   If you aren’t being given new responsibilities and want new responsibilities then just take them.  If you are handed work to do then ask yourself questions like “can this design be better?” “Can this detail be more easily constructed?” “Is there a way to make this just as effective but less expensive?”    If you think it can, then you should propose the changes you think need to be made.  Sketch your ideas so that it’s clear you haven’t spent a ton of time on your own behalf.    The more you do this and the more successful you are at doing it, the more you will be trusted with new responsibilities.   If they aren’t generally accepted or you aren’t encouraged to work this way, then maybe you are in the wrong work environment.
  3. Help the Firm.  I suggest offering to take on an administrative project that will further the efficiency and effectiveness of the office.  Web site design or data entry, in-house graphic standards, organization of block and detail libraries are all examples of projects that can greatly improve office efficiency as well as give you something to do if the project work slows.   No firm likes to have people sitting on their hands and every office likes continuous improvement.
  4. Lobby for what you want.  If you want to make the jump to project management and believe you are ready to make that jump, then wait for an interesting project to come into the office (it can be big or small), and then lobby your superiors to make you responsible for it.  I did this two years into my career in California and ended up working on Euro Disneyland for five years and living in Paris!
  5. Learn EVERYTHING.  This is to say that if you really want to climb the ladder as it were, then make yourself a student again.   If you don’t know about constructing on-slab landscapes, then learn about it. If you don’t know about LID, then learn about it.  If you don’t know about green roof systems, then learn about them.    Try to get involved in projects where you can learn the most.  Rest assured you won’t learn everything even if you try, but you’ll learn more than others and will end up with a much broader skill-set.  Remember that you can also learn a great deal by listening to the other professionals you are working with.  Clients, Engineers and Architects are your collaborators and you can learn just as much from them as you can learn from other Landscape Architects.  Ask them questions.   They love to talk.
  6. Work in the Public Sector.  If you get the opportunity to work in the public sector, do it.  You don’t have to do it forever (though some do), but learning about the public sector and municipal / agency approvals from the inside, can become an extremely valuable asset if you later return to the private sector.  Clients will become reliant on you for your working knowledge of the system as well as your established relationships with staff.
  7. Measure EVERYTHING.  As designers our decision-making is in part, centred on the dimension of objects and scale.  For example, in community design the dimensions of roads and their proportion to building heights is critical to the design of successful streets.  Sidewalk and boulevard widths and building setbacks can significantly alter the appearance and character of new neighborhoods.  Small parks are very different from large parks.   On a smaller scale, the dimension of everyday objects like light poles, seat-walls, steps, landings,  gates, hand-rails, guards, parking bays and pedestrian trails are all critical to successful design.  Knowing them by heart also helps to streamline the design process.    In many cases, dimensions are a function of guidelines and building codes.   Get to know them intimately as well.
  8. Make research a daily part of your life.   If you are working in an established office then you will have a myriad of built projects to refer to as reference.   Review the drawings.  Review the details.  Learn the patterns of the drawing sets and corresponding details.   It is better than having a complete library at your finger tips.  Though if the office has a library then review that too,  as well as internet blogs, suppliers and reference web sites.
  9. Get Involved. Get involved in your profession early. Whether it is the CSLA or ASLA or your local chapter – get involved.  Volunteer on a Committee or Sub-Committee.  While I have not personally done this to any great extent I have seen first-hand the benefits of getting involved.  Getting involved early can lead to becoming a Committee Chair, or better yet a member of the governing Council.  It can offer access to a number of worthwhile events and conferences as well as give you exposure that you otherwise wouldn’t have.  In this same vain I would suggest that you also take your professional certification exams as early on in your profession as you can.   Getting that stamp offers opportunities for advancement.   If you fail the first time out, look at it as a snap-shot in time.  It is a good way to learn where you are in professional development terms.
  10. Have a Life.   It is very common for recent graduates to work long hours, nights and weekends hoping that this makes them stand out from the crowd.   It is true that most firms will not discourage this approach.  After all, it helps their bottom line.   Keep in mind however, that the amount you work is not necessarily tied to your creativity, energy and/or passion for the job.    Don’t work at the expense of having a full, varied and rewarding life.   Follow ALL of your passions and interests.  You never know where they will lead…including possibly in new directions as a Landscape Architect.

There are more, but I like the number 10.


Upon reflection…also consider No. 11 :

Know that it is not about you.  The vast majority of your greatest achievements will not come as a result of your efforts, but as a result of your work with others who have become your friends. People who respect your talents and capabilities, who enjoy your company and who bring out the best in you. So don’t be a dick.  That is all