A revolutionary city park
Apr. 21, 2006. 07:42 AM
A river doesn't run through it, but one will run by it.
When Don River Park is finished in 2008, it will be the focal point of a new neighbourhood to be built at the bottom of the city, on land long since abandoned by its original users.
Designed by New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose credits include the acclaimed Teardrop Park in Manhattan, the seven-hectare, $17 million green space is a work in progress. But already it seems certain to become more than just a neighbourhood hangout. Presenting his plans to the Toronto Waterfront Design Review Panel this week, he made it clear he has high hopes for the project.
Though Van Valkenburgh admitted it's a struggle to keep up with engineers, who have begun putting the substructure in place, he spoke with obvious enthusiasm about the scheme.
As envisioned, it will represent a new generation of park, one not seen in Toronto, where historically they have been carved from leftover space. To begin with, the idea is to make something that will be used in winter as well as summer. That could mean an "ice feature" and a large outdoor fireplace, in addition to the more traditional skating rink, though that's grown expensive now that Toronto winters aren't cold enough for ice to stay frozen naturally.
"We don't need to improve on summer," Van Valkenburgh says, "so winter is a huge focus .... We want to do something with ice, and there will be a pavilion with washrooms and a café."
But perhaps the main gesture will be topographical; in other words, it will be done through a series of contours that reach from ground level to a height of 10 metres, high enough to see the Don. This is important because the park must also accommodate a berm to protect the neighbourhood against flooding. This area is, after all, in the flood plain of the Don River, and in an age when climate change has made natural disasters an almost daily occurrence, such measures are essential.
Indeed, nearly half the park must be given over to "meadow planting" because engineers insist there can be no trees or shrubs along the east edge of the park, which borders on railway tracks and the Don. Woody vegetation, you see, can act as a conduit for water.
"We're not fighting against the engineers' restrictions," Van Valkenburgh says, somewhat sadly. But, he adds, "the public loves the idea of meadowlands."
Another limitation, one he admits he doesn't like, is that the park forms the climax of a series of roads — Front St., Mill St. and Eastern Ave. — in a manner reminiscent of a monumentally axial beaux-arts approach. Of course, Van Valkenburgh is very much a 21st-century guy and such a 19th-century esthetic isn't his thing. Relax, Michael, you needn't worry that the west Don Lands will end up looking like Paris.
Much more to the point is the fact that the park will be inaccessible from the east. Cut off by water, railway lines and the Don Valley Parkway, it will be so close and yet so far. There has been talk about a footbridge, but of course in this city pedestrians aren't considered worth the added expense.
We should be happy with what we're getting and not ask for more.
Then there's the question of Bayview Ave., which will be rerouted to cut between the park and the neighbourhood to the west. If engineers get their way, Bayview could become another obstacle, on the west side of the park, where it will be dangerous as well as irritating.
Such considerations are all beyond the scope of Van Valkenburgh's project, which is restricted to the park itself.
"We're looking for a mix of passive and active recreation," he explains. "We're also trying for an ambiguity of scale along the sides to make the park seem large. But it's very much in process. Things will change a lot."
No doubt about that.