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. 




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.

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.

Toronto parks in crisis?


The acquisition and improvement of parkland is one of the first things municipal politicians will gravitate toward as a means of demonstrating that they are making a contribution to the enhancement of the lives of their constituents.

The ‘green stuff’ is a total vote getter.  It is also my livelihood.  And so I am extremely pleased that  the on-line magazine ‘Spacing’  has started a very important conversation with its two part series on the provision of parks in Toronto. (see link above to part II)  They have acquired very important information on the provision and distribution of parkland in the City of Toronto.  Information, that the City probably didn’t even know it had, or if it did know, hadn’t yet aggregated into some semblance of usefulness.

Spacing  points to a number of things that I know to be fact.  Namely that:

  • The City Centre generates the vast majority of revenue for new parks. Primarily through the Cash-in-lieu provisions of the Planning Act, as well as through it’s development charges (capital costs, not acquisitions). and the Section 37 provisions of the Planning Act.
  • The vast majority of those funds continue to be held in reserve (to the tune of about 300 million according to ‘Spacing’) and those reserves that are spent, are not proportionately spent in the City Centre.
  • Funds spent in the City Centre, tend to be spent along the waterfront in partnership with Waterfront Toronto.
  • The amount of land being acquired for new parks is not keeping pace with the rate of growth. Particularly in the City Centre, but also generally across the City.
  • The rapid intensification of certain neighbourhoods is putting a strain on the use, functionality and sustainability of existing parks.  (Trinity Bellwoods cited).
  • The acquisition of new parkland is subject to market trends. Few landowners are willing to part with land that has a potentially higher and better use than parkland and expropriation is generally accepted as an unlikely road to success.

The two part series also points to administrative short-comings that may have bearing on how and where parks cash-in-lieu money is spent.

  • The department responsible for parkland acquisition at the City is staffed by 3 people, one of whom is an administrative assistant.
  • The remaining Parks Planning and Design staff at the City are maxed out in their capacity to responsibly manage the development of new parks and/or the improvement of existing parks. Any significant increase in new inventory, could not likely proceed to design anyway as there are insufficient staff left to steer the process.

The Spacing Series brings a number of key issues to light, but it also begs some important questions.

  • What constitutes a park?
  • Should all neighbourhoods be served equally by parks?
  • Should those same neighbourhoods provide access to the same mix of park amenities? If so, should they be provided an a geographic basis, or a density basis?
  • How should the city decide priorities for the acquisition and provision of new parks?

The answers to these questions are only to be found through the physical parks planning process.   A process which is currently not only under-served by the City, but one that does not currently exist at the City in any defined capacity.

In 2012/13, the City published it’s Parks Plan 2013/2017.  As a ‘Master Plan’ it laid out goals and objectives for the parks system in the City of Toronto.  On its own, the plan is an excellent first step in re-aligning the planning, design and management of parks with the realities of a rapidly growing and diversifying population.

The report is derived from an assessment of current challenges and contextual forces, and speaks to the noble goals of ensuring:

  • Stronger communication with stakeholders
  • Improved recreational permitting
  • The preservation and promotion of nature and natural features
  • Park quality and enhancement
  • Integration of prevailing trends and technology with park infrastructure
  • Inspired expansion of horticulture and urban agriculture through education.

It is not until the last chapter, that we see anything really that can help to address the concerns raised by ‘Spacing’.  A Chapter called ‘Improve System Planning’.   In this chapter, the City acknowledges every short-coming raised by Spacing and points to a priority to deal with the problems of parkland planning and acquisition.  MOST importantly, it recommends the development of a 20-year Parks, Forestry and Recreation facilities plan to guide future investments in facility provision and land acquisition.

Implementation of this objective should, in my opinion be the first priority of the City of Toronto.  And when they say ’20 year plan’, what I HOPE they are describing is a 20 year STRATEGIC PLAN.  I hope they are describing:

  • A plan that inventories existing parkland and open space and the amenities already provided and service levels already achieved
  • A plan that grows out of a full understanding of recreational, cultural, ethnic and other social context and demographic trends and realities.
  • A plan that takes into account ‘city building’ and urban design imperatives
  • A plan that is actually a physical plan, and not just another shelf doomed report.
  • A physical plan that identifies strategic parkland acquisition targets and then assesses the full financial and timing implications for the acquisition of those targets.

To go to my earlier questions, my sense is that if we were to undertake this project  we would find that not all neighbourhoods need to be served equally by either park size or park program offered.  That not all neighbourhoods are created equally.  That density does not always mean that more parkland ‘next door’ is the appropriate product of that density.   My sense is that many of the concerns raised by Spacing would no longer be concerns.

At the very least, we would have a vision for our City.  A plan of attack and a set of goals and objectives that diffuse political whimsy and set the City on the path to a stable, responsive and  truly world class park and open space system.

I’m certain that the City also wants this.  But they don’t have the tools.  They don’t have the resources…and they don’t have the commitment from their political masters.   This too has to change and change in a hurry…before the tail is left completely wagging the dog.