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If you want to see the future of Canadian cities, you need to visit a place that's not on the map.

Head east from Toronto's downtown core and deke south under two overpasses of bellowing traffic. Pass the construction fences and you reach a lush, thriving marshland. Walk up the hill and look: From under a pavilion, you can see a dense neighbourhood taking shape. New buildings line the lawns on the edge of the park. The city's skyline rises beyond the kids on the splash pad. Every few minutes, a commuter train hums past on the tracks nearby.

This park, Corktown Common, is a scene full of contradictions: a retreat that acknowledges the infrastructure of the city and rich green space in what used to be an industrial zone. Such complex landscapes are being formed across North America. From Vancouver's False Creek neighbourhood to Ottawa's riverfront to disused port lands in New York, landscape architects are remaking marginal areas of major cities into parks with a combination of ecological, social and aesthetic purposes.

"One of the mistakes of the late 20th century was to think of parks as an escape from the city," says Michael Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect whose office is designing Corktown Common. "I think it's very different to think of a park as an essential piece of the city, as opposed to 'not urban.'"

This park's landscape of juxtapositions, boldly artificial, is designed to celebrate its urban surroundings. Created by the government agency Waterfront Toronto, it is a catalyst for a 32-hectare development that will house the athletes of the Pan American Games in 2015. It also has a crucial ecological purpose: Corktown Common sits atop a giant berm, made with 400,000 cubic metres of clean soil, that is designed to protect downtown Toronto should the Don River flood in a major storm. That refuge, in turn, will allow adjacent areas of the city's port lands to be safely redeveloped, and also add new protection to the city's core, which until now has been vulnerable. The recent floods in Toronto and Calgary have made the importance of such infrastructure extremely clear.

If all this sounds like a big agenda for one open space, it is. But it's the recipe for a new breed of civic project, dubbed landscape urbanism, that combines landscape architecture, urban planning and infrastructure building with an open-ended, flexible approach to the future.

Usually such efforts are directed toward defunct industrial sites, such as, for example, Toronto's industrial waterfront, or to military lands or transportation facilities: scars on the civic body, the infertile ground that needs to be (often literally) turned over and reseeded. "That's the nature of life in the 21st century: that cities are getting so built out and so dense that the places to make parkland are diverse," Van Valkenburgh says.

Toronto has been a global centre for this way of thinking, through the program in landscape architecture at the University of Toronto; and through a 2000 competition to redesign Downsview Park, a former military airfield and manufacturing plant (although the actual Downsview Park, now managed by the federal Canada Lands Company, has essentially abandoned the competition-winning design).

Now, Toronto's lakefront is a site for ambitious landscape work that is actually being realized by Waterfront Toronto, the governmental agency overseeing a 25-year plan – the biggest waterfront redevelopment on the continent. It has brought together an all-star group of landscape architects to remake 800 hectares of industrial land. Among them are Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates; West 8, from the Netherlands; and the Americans, James Corner Field Operations, which designed New York's High Line – a postcard example of landscape urbanism, and a wildly popular attraction for both locals and tourists.

Van Valkenburgh's projects in Toronto, aside from Corktown Common, include a massive piece of work: planning a rebuild of Toronto's badly contaminated port lands. This shrewd proposal – recently rejigged by an "acceleration initiative" spurred by Toronto city councillor Doug Ford – would alter the mouth of the Don River, building a dense new district while adding parkland and mitigating the threat of floods.

In the interim, Van Valkenburgh's firm has completed Corktown Common and two smaller parks in Toronto. These respond to a cultural shift in the city and elsewhere: Parks are more loved than they have been in a generation. "The way people use parks has changed tremendously," says Van Valkenburgh. "I think it's radical."

Now a Harvard professor with an office in New York, Van Valkenburgh contrasts that to the early 1970s, when he made his first pilgrimage to Central Park. "There was no grass; there was only mud," he says. "Every rock was covered with graffiti. Basically, people were doing shit you shouldn't do in public! Drugs, sex – there were people living there. You couldn't imagine, now, what it was like."

But newer (and more modest) parks across North America are also benefiting from the broad cultural change. As people move into central cities, we have come to relish a more public life: choosing to hang out together in public spaces, socializing and relaxing, and playing actively.

Accordingly, Corktown Common is designed to accommodate a broad variety of uses, in this case organized around two hills. One has those play spaces and a (not yet open) café; the other is "a conceit of nature," as Van Valkenburgh puts it: "There's a pond, and a hill, and little meandering paths. It's meant to be a place that's good for sitting and walking and passive uses." The park is detailed with great care – from the ipe wood boardwalks and benches to the native grasses on the hillside – in a design language that's contemporary but, to an average visitor, still welcoming.

The park's first portion opened only in midsummer, for a two-month preview before construction resumes, and it's far from finished. It's still isolated from established neighbourhoods – yet it is busy on weekends. On three visits with family and friends, I've met locals out with their dogs, cyclists stopping for lunch and parents doing a circuit of the city's new waterfront parks. A local blogger wrote that her children have dubbed it "the train park," for the pleasures of watching the GO commuter railcars.

And it fits neatly into a broader context of Waterfront Toronto projects. PFS Studio, a Vancouver landscape and urban-planning office, has designed a couple of very smart parks nearby: Underpass Park (2012) is a block away, under those highway ramps; Sherbourne Common (2011) is a short walk to the west. Jennifer Nagai, a partner at PFS, says those parks have had to work hard in transforming people's sense of the place: "That area of Toronto – you never knew which neighbourhood it was a part of," she says. "It's a brownfield. It's empty. It's nowhere."

These new spaces create a sense of being somewhere – in the case of Sherbourne Common, through a two-part park that includes a large public green and more intimate, tightly detailed spaces for quiet contemplation and for play. The park even makes some poetry out of a water-purification system: Water is cleaned in the basement of a blobby, lovely pavilion building by Teeple Architects, and it flows out from a series of sculptures into a meandering channel. "When you integrate a number of disciplines in a creative way, you get a space that is layered," Nagai says. "It's not just a one-liner."

But what will the end product look like? A good clue comes from New York's Brooklyn Bridge Park, which Van Valkenburgh's firm designed. The massive, 34-hectare zone, in the works since 1998, repurposes a series of shipping piers on New York's harbour. They look out at Manhattan's skyline, but are cut off by an expressway and have been, effectively, private for a century. Until now. Old piers are filled with life as locals use them for a variety of purposes: launching kayaks into the river, strolling beside a rich water garden, or sitting on the sleek bleachers to look out at the skyline. There – and already in Toronto, too – it's easy to get a sense of a rich new blend of the natural and the urbane.

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