Traditional urban parks, from Vancouver's Botanical Gardens to Montreal's Parc du Mont-Royal, were conceived as leafy refuges from the noisy, grimy industrial age. These days, as we're sequestered in quiet cubicle jobs rarely leaving our desks, we're more likely to need a different kind of refuge - one teeming with life and sport. Isn't urban energy, rather than the false illusion of nature, exactly what a visitor wants to experience?
Though that idea reached Canada in the 1990s, in the past two years, new variations have been sprouting up across the country: places to hang out, explore edgy design - and even try some skateboarding moves, all for free.
HTO Urban Beach, Toronto Embedded in its name is the whole concept: the conflation of nature (H2O) and the city (T.O. - get it?) The lakeside park includes mounds of green surrounded by circular paths, and an umbrella-dotted "beach" stretching along the waterfront. "Recreation, comfort, shade - you just sit there and watch the world go by," says Montreal landscape architect Claude Cormier, who worked with landscape architect Janet Rosenberg and architects Hariri Pontarini.
An attraction for visitors at Harbourfront, it's also intended, Cormier says, "for people who have been thinking: 'When I live in a city on a lake, why can't I go to the beach?'"
Where South of Queens Quay, east of Spadina. Take the LRT from Union or Spadina Station. The details www.toronto.ca/harbourfront/
Richmond Oval Park, Richmond, B.C. The Richmond waterfront has long been a no man's land, but it is attracting visitors thanks to the 2010 Winter Olympics Richmond Oval speed skating venue and its surrounding park. The Oval is architecturally underwhelming outside. But the surrounding park by landscape architects Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg injects new sophistication into this grey stretch of suburban Vancouver.
Although the original scheme was scaled down, the park still boasts an elegant plaza and a diminutive oxbow moat that curves around the stadium. An ambitious public-art program infuses the area with colour and form, and strategic lighting illuminates the whole area at nightfall.
Where 6111 River Rd. Take the 401 or 407 bus routes. The details richmondoval.ca
Promenade Samuel-De- Champlain, Quebec City A birthday present from the province to the capital to mark its 400th last year - borne out of a bleak expanse of highway along the St. Lawrence River - this 2.5-kilometre linear park is now a magnet for walkers, cyclists and impromptu sports enthusiasts. The Promenade interweaves a sinuous wooden pedestrian path with a fast-track cycle path. (In winter, the bike tracks morph into snowshoe trails.)
Architects Daoust Lestage and Williams Asselin Ackaoui designed the park to reconnect the city to the river in dramatic fashion, with an observation tower at one end and a series of four sculptural "quays." At one quay, an atomizer churns out evocative clouds of mist. Along the path, oversize furniture stands out as a bold reinterpretation of the classic lawn chair. Compact soccer fields, contemporary gardens, public art and a gorgeous view of the St. Lawrence round out the experience.
Where Boulevard Champlain, running along the waterfront beneath the Pierre-Laporte and Pont de Québec bridges. A shuttle bus runs throughout the summer from the Beauport station. The details www.promenade2008.qc.ca/Fr/Index.asp
Skate Plaza, Montreal A hybrid of urban infill and modernist piazza, this park is dedicated to the signature sport of hipster youth. Designed by the edgy architecture firm Atelier Big City, Skate Plaza is curvilinear concrete terrain that reads like a bas-relief sculpture. Tucked in the underarm of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, adjacent to Montreal's gay village, it's a terrific spot to take in the summer's biweekly fireworks displays, as well as park oneself on a bench and observe the hot-doggers working on their ollies and air rides.
Where Beneath the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, at the southeast end of Rue Papineau. Take the Métro to Papineau and head east. The details www.info-skate.com/fr/skateparkplaza.htm
WaveDeck, Toronto What's a beach without a boardwalk? A complementary project to HTO Urban Beach is WaveDeck, a series of undulating wooden boardwalks that open up the Lake Ontario shoreline to the city. Spadina WaveDeck, the first, was finished last summer; Simcoe WaveDeck opened Thursday.
Rotterdam design firm West 8 worked with locals du Toit Allsopp Hillier (DTAH) to design the seven boardwalks. The narrative of undulating wood evokes the rock of the Canadian Shield as well as the roiling lake. And the gaps between its cedar beams bring in all the sensory perceptions of water. "When you reach the boardwalk, you really feel like you've arrived at the lake," notes architect Adam Nicklin, a principal of DTAH. "You can see it and smell it." Nearby is the cut and thrust of downtown's west side.
Where At the foot of Spadina Avenue. Take the Spadina streetcar to Queens Quay. The details www.toronto.ca/harbourfront/
Special to The Globe and Mail