It is a spring day in downtown Toronto, and a child is exploring the three-acre playground on the waterfront. She has rambled through the castle-themed climber and passed the giant moose. Now she skips past an array of white flowers into a water-play area, slipping out of her parent’s view.
This is not a problem. In fact if child and parent lose touch for a minute, the city’s new “destination playground” will be working as intended. The facility, now being designed for the Toronto Port Lands, would be the largest playground in Canada. And one of its main purposes will be to provide children with a sense of freedom and risk.
“There will be no fences here,” playground designer Peter Heuken said. “We don’t actually want the kids to escape. But we want that the parents set them free.”
To explain the project, Mr. Heuken was in town recently along with landscape architects from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), who are also designing the playground as well as the surrounding park. If it comes together, it is sure to be a landmark in the lives of the city’s children. All it will take is $50-million.
The public agency Waterfront Toronto, which is leading the project, is seeking private donations to fill that gap. The playground would be part of a larger $1.2-billion effort known as the Port Lands Flood Protection Project. This mammoth effort is reshaping the mouth of Don River; by 2025, this zone is scheduled to open with 25 hectares of parks.
The playground could be a marquee attraction within that zone. Waterfront Toronto suggests it will attract a million visitors a year.
It would be located in the large Promontory Park, which is on the shore of Lake Ontario with views west toward the downtown core. The designers, MVVA, are among the world’s best landscape architects, and they’ve collaborated with Mr. Heuken’s firm, Richter, on high-profile parks and playgrounds including at Maggie Daley Park in downtown Chicago.
Matthew Urbanski, a partner at MVVA, said the Toronto playground might feel a bit mysterious – while parents can remain confident that there’s no real danger.
“I remember that sense in childhood that there were places that you just didn’t know yet, and exploring them was this incredible thrill,” he said. “That’s what we are going for.” One of the playground’s three sections is devoted to climbers and a nuanced landscape of ramps, hills and passageways.
A kid can pass through small caves, duck behind small hills and around planting beds, and ascend through a ladder into a tower structure where their guardians can see them from an adjacent accessible pathway.
“Through that complexity, you’re building opportunities for kids to figure out how they use the space,” Mr. Urbanski said.
This attitude evokes the adventure playgrounds of the mid-20th century, designed explicitly to aid in children’s development by letting them go a bit wild. (The Children’s Village at Ontario Place was a spectacular example.)
Such an offering would be a valuable public asset, said Christopher Glaisek, Waterfront Toronto’s chief planning and design officer.
“This addresses health problems that have become quite severe since the COVID pandemic,” Mr. Glaisek said, pointing to deficits in children’s physical literacy and emotional development. “We’ve got to find new ways of getting kids excited about coming outside.”
Which is where the philanthropic ask comes in. The Port Lands project is largely funded by the governments of Toronto, Ontario and Canada, who together control the Waterfront Toronto agency. And the parks, including Promontory Park, will be city-run. But the extra construction cost of the destination playground will rely on private donations. The agency says $50-million will fund the whole thing; about one-third of that will fund each section of the playground plan.
Parks and public space are not the usual targets for big public gifts in Canada – which is odd, considering how much impact they have on people’s lives. But there is some precedent for such philanthropy. Waterfront Toronto has already welcomed a $25-million donation from the family foundation of mining executive Pierre Lassonde to fund a new art trail in the Don River parkland.
It will be at least a decade before the urban neighbourhood around the park, known as Villiers Island, is complete. But the Don River parks, all helmed by MVVA, will be very large and equally beautiful. Even as a work in progress, this will be a special part of the city. The question now is whether children from across the region will make memories here.
Mr. Urbanski struck a hopeful note: “What society really needs is these parks to bring people together, public space for gathering in a multigenerational way,” he said. And the playground is designed to welcome everyone.
“Landscape architecture can be serious, but here it’s straight-up fun.”