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On the waterfront, Toronto’s next great park takes shape

architecture

On the waterfront, Toronto's next great park takes shape

At a public meeting on Thursday, Waterfront Toronto will present its current vision for a project that will reshape the tail of the Don River

The park project is part of the $1.185-billion Port Lands Flood Protection program announced last June.

As central Toronto booms, many people have come to see the need for new open space in the core. But not far away, a great collection of park space is in the works: It will cover 80 hectares at the mouth of the Don River, and you'll be able to splash in the river within less than a decade.

"The experience of having your feet in the Don River will be something entirely new," landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh says. "That'll be a great gift for the city."

At a public meeting on Thursday, Waterfront Toronto will present the current vision for that park; it is part of the $1.185-billion Port Lands Flood Protection program announced last June.

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That project, just east of the downtown core, will reshape the tail end of the Don River; rather than emptying into the lake only through a hard-sided channel, the river will have a second mouth and a spillway for flood events. By making room for the river, it will allow 290 hectares of land to be developed. This includes the Unilever site being pitched to Amazon.

The project will include approximately 80 hectares of land, which is being rapidly designed and constructed through a process landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh likens to ‘driving a race car at 145 miles an hour.’

The involvement of that tech giant — and the details of Google's nearby Sidewalk Toronto partnership – remain up in the air, but growth is coming to this zone over the next 20 to 30 years in any case. Plans call for the port lands and surrounding area to welcome tens of thousands of residents and thousands of jobs. The new system of river parks – designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), arguably the world's leading landscape architects – is coming first.

It will include approximately 80 hectares of land, which is being rapidly designed and constructed through a process Mr. Van Valkenburgh likens to "driving a race car at 145 miles an hour." The excavation of the rebuilt river valley will begin this summer; the riverside parks are planned for completion between 2021 and 2024.

The park is intended to serve the new neighbourhoods and also be a destination for the rest of the city. The designers are exploring a mix of uses. As the river runs south and then west, its banks will be lined largely with wetland and lawn – which can flood harmlessly if the river overflows its banks. Beyond that will be playgrounds, a handful of sports fields, dog runs and high points to take in the view.

Just east of the downtown core, the project will reshape the Don River.

Then, as the river empties westward into Toronto harbour, it will culminate in what's called Promontory Park. This will include highly sculpted landforms; playgrounds; an "urban promenade" along the water's edge, and an old warehouse building, the old Marine Terminal 35, which partially burned last year. This could be retained as a sort of picturesque ruin, or renovated into a cultural venue.

Much is still up in the air, but you can trust that these parks will serve their purposes of flood control, repairing the wounded ecology of the area, and providing a beautiful variety of experiences. All this is true of Corktown Common, the park that MVVA completed a few years ago next to the port lands, which provides flood protection to much of the downtown core. Built upon a giant berm, it mixes lawns, playground, woods and marshlands that are totally artificial but feel like they've always been there. It is a magical place.

Mr. Van Valkenbergh puts it this way: If a 20th-century park "was all about observing nature," then a 21st-century park is about ecology and resilience "and a totally different, visceral, bodily experience."

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The new river parks also will "complete the set of naturalized spaces along the waterfront," MVVA partner Herb Sweeney says. "The Don Valley coming through and becoming a naturalized space – and having that big a park space – is going to be significant," Mr. Sweeney argues. "It's going to be game-changing."

The park is intended to serve the new neighbourhoods and also be a destination for the rest of the city.

Mr. Van Valkenburgh compares the project to Brooklyn Bridge Park, a two-kilometre-long revamp of an industrial waterfront near that famous bridge that was completed over the past 15 years. "As we were presenting it to people, the feeling was, 'Nobody will go there,'" he recalls. "'Nobody will go to an abandoned waterfront and take their kids.' That's the frame of reference for [Toronto's] Port Lands now."

In Brooklyn, they were wrong: The park's mix of playgrounds, public barbecues, meadows and kayaking has made it, in the words of New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, "spectacularly successful." When I visited on a hot July day a few years ago, the 35-hectare space felt like a vital grafting of the urban and the natural: families dancing to reggaeton on their boom boxes, toddlers raving it up on the splash pads, and couples snoozing on the grass a few steps away.

It's going to be a while before Toronto's port lands have that sort of vitality or that density of neighbours. But the river park network will, even in its first years, do something great: It'll bring downtown Toronto back to the lake and to the Don River. And soon, it will feel as though it's always been there. "It will look natural," Mr. Van Valkenburgh promises, "because nature has a way of taking what we make and running with it." If the city's growth has been outrunning our expectations, now it may be time for nature to take its turn.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Port Lands Flood Protection program will allow for land to be developed for Google’s Sidewalk Labs. The development of the Google area is already allowed by previous floodproofing.
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