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.