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the new radicals

Principals Marc Ryan, left, and Adam Nicklin, right, of Public Work, an urban design and landscape architecture studio.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

The New Radicals is a five-part series on innovators in arts and culture.

The Gertrude Stein put-down, "there is no there there," is often used to denigrate any place that doesn't have the embodied energy and magnetism of Paris or New York. Although Stein uttered the words to describe her hometown of Oakland, she might as well have been talking about any number of perfunctory, soulless cities, industrial parks or suburban areas.

But to Toronto-based landscape architects Marc Ryan and Adam Nicklin, that mode of thinking is unacceptable. At their 21/2-year-old studio, Public Work, they are becoming experts at finding the "there" in the least obvious locales. They imbue their designs with a level of cultural history, natural beauty and architectural delight that creates a sense of significance, even when the site is somewhere that people tend to be cynical about or overlook entirely. Along Toronto's rail yards, for example. Or in the middle of oil-sands boomtown Fort McMurray, Alta., where they are completing a town square to help bring together an otherwise transient community.

What seems to bind Ryan and Nicklin is a shared sense of optimism and the belief that their work can effect lasting improvements to the towns and cities where we live. The two started working together in 2006, after their respective firms – Ryan at Netherlands-based West 8, and Nicklin for Toronto's DTAH – co-won a major international competition to master-plan Toronto's Central Waterfront.

Over the following six years, they helped create a coherent identity in a place that was otherwise rather desolate. Their popular Wavedecks, undulating platforms at the feet of Spadina, Rees and Simcoe, helped. The 10-metre-wide ramps make people giddy with delight as they stand, walk and run over the playful mounds – giving them beautiful vistas of the lake, and helping them see beyond the old, industrial infrastructure. That success inspired Ryan and Nicklin to launch Public Work. "Toronto is a thriving young city," says Nicklin, who was born in England and worked in Boston before relocating to Toronto in 2002. "We thought a firm devoted to public realm could be based here. That we could lead from here."

"Toronto is a laboratory for how North American cities can grow," adds Ryan, a Toronto native. "For us, the belief is that landscape and public space can be a huge part of leading the development."

Part of their challenge is to create meaningful, attractive and functional public spaces to help the city become more dense in a livable way, even as any and every unused patch is paved over to erect giant towers. To do so, their proposals have shown a high degree of creativity.

Their Mouth of the Creek Park, for example, is a 1.3-acre pocket in a tricky location. It's just north of the Gardiner Expressway, and nestled between a rail line and an old industrial bridge on Bathurst Street. But Ryan and Nicklin's plan, which will hopefully be implemented by 2017, exploits every opportunity to make something special. For example, the seating will be repurposed from stone foundations that were dug up during the construction of a nearby condo. And the landscaping will pay homage to the plant life and geology that would have been found before the city was industrialized – marshy grasses and stone bluffs.

"Looking closely at the context is something we're really interested in," Ryan says. "We evolve our designs by looking closely at the place. We dig into and celebrate the unique characteristics."

Of course, Ryan and Nicklin's respect for context doesn't just make for good designs within the City of Toronto. One of their studio's major projects under construction right now is Jubilee Plaza, a central square in Fort McMurray. The town is booming because of the oil sands, yet because the population is largely transient, there is a pervasive feeling of impermanence.

Part of Ryan and Nicklin's job with their plaza, which is currently a parking lot surrounded by other lots, is to create a place where residents will feel rooted. To do so, the basic elements of the plaza nod to the northern Alberta locale. The ground is tiled in a local, sedimentary stone (which can be frozen over in winter to make a skating rink). One corner of the square will feature the types of trees – aspens and spruces – found in the surrounding boreal forests.

"Many people imagine a fouled landscape," Nicklin says of the oil sands. But the oil extraction happens well outside the town, and "the actual context is amazing," he says, referring to the spectacular nature that surrounds Fort McMurray, which includes a series of shale bluffs that drop off into the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers.

One of the signature features of Jubilee will be a moveable cedar deck with an undulating, sculptural surface. The folds will act as a play space for kids, a seating space for concerts or a terrace for picnics. The whole thing is on a track, so it can be moved around the square depending on the need or time of day (the path roughly tracks the sun's path).

The platform isn't mechanized, though. "You push it by hand," Nicklin says. "It takes three-plus people to push it," adds Ryan. "It takes teamwork, and that was important to us." Because what will bring a community together more than having to work together?