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Islands along Toronto’s University Avenue are in sad need of some love

The Architourist

Islands along Toronto's University Avenue are in sad need of some love

The Big Green Box of Shame on Island B makes Dave LeBlanc cringe almost every time he passes the plywood-entombed fountain.

The 12 islands along Toronto's University Avenue – once a marvel of landscape architecture – have become largely neglected and overlooked

The forest green paint isn't fooling anybody. No amount of camouflage can hide this, City of Toronto, so grab a stencil and paint "We Don't Care" on it.

Almost daily for the past two years, I've walked by the Big Green Box of Shame at the corner of Richmond Street West and University Avenue, and almost every time I cringe at the sight of the plywood-entombed fountain.

The 12 landscaped islands that begin at Adelaide Street West and stretch to the foot of the provincial legislature buildings were conceived and executed by Dunington-Grubb and Stensson, arguably the most important landscape-architecture firm in Ontario from the end of the Edwardian era to the Age of Aquarius. Architect Michael McClelland and landscape architect Brendan Stewart, writing in an issue of Ground magazine, state that the design is "perhaps one of the most significant modernist works of civic landscape architecture in Toronto," yet, somehow, it "remains largely overlooked."

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Layout sketch from the 1949 proposal by Dunington-Grubb and Stensson.

It also remains untended, littered, neglected, cracking, sinking and, in the case of one island, obliterated.

As a native Torontonian, I know the islands well, but even I was surprised at the lack of care in preserving their crispness and once-striking geometry, and how quick cover-ups and infrastructure additions have diluted the DG&S vision. I phoned Karl Stensson, 66, president of Sheridan Nurseries, to see if I was alone in my disappointment; Mr. Stensson is nephew of Jesse Vilhelm Stensson (known as J.V. or Bill), who designed the islands under the watchful eye of Howard Dunington-Grubb, an octogenarian by the early 1960s. Mr. Dunington-Grubb and his wife/partner, Lorrie, came to Toronto from England in 1911; in 1913, they created Sheridan Nurseries and hired Herman Stensson (Karl's grandfather) to run it.

While Karl Stensson agrees the boxed fountain is "disappointing," he suggests that, in general, "the public is much more aware than they were" about landscape architecture. He then switches gears: "I think the public underestimates the value of proper [landscape] design, what it provides for the eyes, for health, serenity, property value [and] for tourism … I don't think they appreciate how much it costs."

Just after the lunch rush on a lovely afternoon, I spent almost two hours inspecting the islands. I'm no landscape architect, but aside from repairs to two fountains, much of what I saw didn't seem to require heaps of new spending – only person-hours.

Here's what I found:

Island A begins rather unceremoniously at Adelaide as a one-foot-wide piece of pointed concrete with a traffic sign. By the time Rising by Zhang Huan at the Shangri-La Hotel comes into view, the island has gained enough girth for a few trees. There's also a first glimpse of the smooth brick in caramels and chocolate browns that provide trim for all islands. Unfortunately, here they are being dramatically pushed up by tree roots.

The caramel and chocolate brown bricks that provide trim for all islands are being pushed up by tree roots on Island A.

Island B contains the Box of Shame. It also has the city's solution to sinking brick trim: slap shiny black asphalt on it. On this island is the first of the thick, precast slabs of exposed aggregate (pea-gravel, here in a caramel colour) that form much of the walking surface. Pedestrians can also admire the trunk of the first chopped tree.

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Island C at Queen Street West is the one most Torontonians know best for its curving marble bench and three burbling fountains (the city wouldn't dare box this one). Here, the caramel brick, in rows of three, alternates with the aggregate slabs as it approaches the stepped platform of the towering South African War Memorial, but, as much of it the brick is sinking, the geometry is obscured.

Island C at Queen Street West is the one most Torontonians know best for its curving marble bench and three fountains.

Island D is fun. It confronts pedestrians with a concrete culet – the tip of a diamond – and invites them up stairs to examine six octagons of grass. Panels of black aggregate create stripes. Raised slate-clad planter boxes create a feeling of shelter, plus protect plants from winter salt-spray.

Island E, the longest, begins at Armoury Street. It sports a complex network of rounded, raised planter boxes with groovy, inset concrete benches; underfoot are square aggregate slabs with inset red circles. Unfortunately, part of the composition has sunk so severely it is underwater. About two-thirds of the way up, another boxed fountain.

Island F has been destroyed in order to install wheelchair elevators to St. Patrick subway station; a few original bricks remain at the north end. It's unclear from TTC bulletins and online postings if the island will be recreated.

Island G, which sits to the west of the mid-century modern (former) Shell Oil headquarters at 505 University, is the "checkerboard" island. A few of the squares have eroded so much, however, rebar is visible. Just before the Sons of England War Memorial, there is another dead tree trunk.

A dead tree trunk just before the Sons of England War Memorial on Island G.

Island H begins with a regular sidewalk, but soon jazzes things up with jaunty red and black aggregate slabs and asymmetrical grass strips. While these slabs are in better condition than most, soil upheaval is causing wide gaps in many areas.

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Island I begins at Gerrard Street, and three steps up passersby can enjoy the shade. Here are loose chevron patterns traced in the caramel brick.

Island J lacks shade, but it is well used by hospital workers on smoke breaks. It features ruler-like patterns done in black and caramel on either side; wear is causing rebar to show itself on a few.

Island K, which sports an elegant row of trees in the middle, seems to be well cared for by city staff. Perhaps that's because former Toronto mayor Robert Hood Saunders keeps watch at the top.

Island L is small. There is only one raised planter in the middle that creates two narrow pedestrian paths on either side. But one is forced to walk so closely to the rushing traffic of University, so it's not inviting … or safe.

My overall impression? Ninety per cent of the original pieces remain. A few islands need only straightening, levelling and minor cleanup work. Some need major restoration. Various interventions by independent contractors have cluttered up the cleanliness of the geometry. According to period documents, the islands were intended to be "architectural, instead of horticultural," yet the city seems to have reversed this focus. And while plant materials are rich and colourful, Mr. Stensson, who worked for his uncle in the late 1960s while studying landscape architecture, suggests J.V. probably wanted "pleached lindens"– closely spaced trees that form a crisp architectural "hedge in the air" – along some of the borders, so it would be nice to implement those if money were to become available.

He acknowledges, however, that the scheme DG&S implemented in the early 1960s was a compromise from the get-go, as the city balked at the more ambitious one presented (that's to say nothing of the really, really ambitious plan the firm first presented in the late 1940s). He mentions Oakes Garden Theatre at Clifton Hill and River Road in Niagara Falls or Gage Park in Hamilton, which was recently restored to its former glory: "If you look at those you'll see what a full DG&S design would be, and in comparison I don't think University Avenue came out as they envisioned it in the first place because of the money."

And there's the rub: money.

But if buildings are the set pieces of our urban stage, what is landscape architecture? It's the lighting, the dry ice, the smoke bombs and the depth of that stage. Take those away, and what's left?

A plywood box, painted forest green.

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