An insider’s look at one of Canada’s biggest new parks and green spaces

Canada is a country rich with natural landscapes, parks and green spaces, but with an urbanizing population, the importance of nearby nature has become increasingly important.

Urban parks and open space provide access to nature for city dwellers, and is essential particularly for those who live in dense neighbourhoods and may not have a backyard of their own.

The City of Toronto, for example, has over 1,500 parks, and a rich ravine system that winds its way throughout the city, but as it continues to grow, it’s clear that existing green spaces will not be able to meet the growing demand for more public parks and open spaces.

In this interview for Municipal World, Shawn Watters, the recently elected Mayor of the Ontario Municipality of Centre Wellington and a senior landscape architect with RJ Burnside & Associates in Guelph, speaks with Shannon Baker, a landscape architect and the Project Director of Parks and Public Realm for the Port Lands Flood Protection project at Waterfront Toronto.

Given its scope, the Port Lands project will significantly expand Toronto’s green space.

A rendering shows the future planned development for the Villiers Island site. Rendering by Norm Li

The following is a discussion of how this project came about, and what municipalities can learn from this endeavour.

Shawn Watters (SW): What do you do?

Shannon Baker (SB): At Waterfront Toronto, I oversee over $300 million in scope on the Port Lands Flood Protection project. I lead the planning of specific aspects of the program including the design of the river, aquatic and terrestrial habitat creation parks, public realm, roads and site wide municipal infrastructure. My role involves directing the various consulting teams on the project responsible for the engineering design, as well as the construction manager and external project management teams.

SW: What brought you to this assignment?

SB: The combination of art and science drew me to this work. Like many landscape architects, I have a deep connection to landscape, and nature. The work that we do involves solving complex urban problems. We manage multidisciplinary teams, and this was an opportunity to work with nature-based solutions in order to create public realm and restore natural systems.

SW: Can you tell us a little bit more about Waterfront Toronto?

SB: Waterfront Toronto (WT) was created in 2001 to tackle some of the big issues along the waterfront that only collaboration across all three levels of government could solve. With the support of federal, provincial and municipal governments, WT is uniquely positioned to overcome some of the barriers to revitalization, allowing Toronto to create a world class waterfront. We can mobilize public resources to attract private investment that catalyzes job creation.

We carefully choose waterfront revitalization projects and deliver them in partnership with real estate developers, non-profit organizations and community groups to ensure those projects deliver economic, social and ecological benefits.

The designated waterfront area is 800 hectares (2,000 acres) from Dowling Avenue in the west to Coxwell Avenue in the east. The area is roughly equal in size to Toronto’s major downtown core from Bathurst Street to Sherbourne Street and Front Street to Bloor Street.

So far, we have created 43 hectares (100+ acres) of parks and public spaces, with another 32 hectares to come in the Port Lands. Revitalization has led to 576 units of affordable housing in new neighbourhoods and 26 kilometres of new waterfront access. Tri-government investment in waterfront revitalization has led to more than $13.25 billion in private-sector investment.

SW: Can you describe the Port Lands Flood Protection (PLFP) project?

SB: The project is in the heart of downtown Toronto, south of the Gardiner Expressway, extending roughly to the dock walls west of Cherry Street, east to the Don Roadway, and bounded by the Ship Channel to the south. The $1.25 billion landscape infrastructure project is based on a comprehensive plan that envisions recreating the mouth of the Don River, which acts as an organizing structure for a system of new parks and public open spaces to improve the quality of life for downtown residents.

Additional benefits include better protection for waterfront neighbourhoods from extreme weather conditions, the transformation of about 30 hectares of industrial brownfields into a naturalized, and multi-outlet river valley system.

The plan comes out of WT’s design philosophy to lead with landscape. It’s at the intersection of two major systems – urban waterfront and natural river corridor, so the project focuses on flood control, naturalization, and includes Indigenous place keeping to bring the Don Valley and Toronto’s public realm together in a very robust and meaningful way.

SW: Can you tell us a little bit more about the ‘Leading with Landscape” approach?

SB: Landscape is the organizing structure of the work. The lead consultants for the project are
landscape architects, and they take a strong integrating role in the work of all other disciplines, ensuring continuity across the project. WT has a mandate to achieve design excellence and creating amazing public realm and park spaces is very much a part of that work.

The landscape architectural approach to the design of the parks and streetscapes also acknowledges what is by now well understood; there are innumerable benefits for people who spend time in nature, and to form and strengthen connection with it.

SW: Why are you the Project Director? Why is this $1.2 billion project being led by a landscape architect? 

SB: I’m one of three directors for various scopes on a very large multi-disciplinary team. My scope includes all of the river finishes, the parks, the road and public realm, as well as all of the site wide municipal infrastructure. Again, I think this ties into the ‘Leading with Landscape’ approach that WT has taken, using landscape as a catalyst for investment and development, and recognizing the important role that high quality public realm plays in a city.

We are the profession that designs, plans, and manages our land. We are uniquely positioned as we are trained to hone sensitivity to landscape quality, to develop understanding of a human-scaled approach to design, develop the technical competence to transform design into built form, and to build skills in all aspects of professional practice, including project management and professional ethics.

SW: What can other municipalities learn and apply from this project?

SB: I think many municipalities are already aware of the catalyzing effect that high quality public realm and green space can have on city building. During the pandemic, we all experienced firsthand how critical it is to have parks and open spaces that are nearby in order to have access to nature.

The Port Lands also exemplifies how grass roots community involvement, and deep, meaningful consultation throughout a project can be transformed into a project that the public feels very connected to, and will therefore steward for many years to come. The economics for the project also bear out the return on investment for municipalities in terms of investing in flood protection, resilience and green space creation.

SW: How is the project going?

SB: The Port Lands project is a massive landscape infrastructural project that solves many complex urban problems. It is situated in a brownfield which was historically very contaminated, and has some very challenging geotechnical conditions as well, owing to the fact that the area was originally a marsh, filled over 100 years ago. Given its industrial past, there are also many utilities that need to be relocated in order for the new river mouth to be created.

Despite all these challenges, the project, which began construction in 2018, is continuing on pace for completion at the end of 2024, owing largely to an incredible team of people that are creative problem solvers.

SW: What have you learned throughout this project?

SB: For me, the Port Lands underlines the need for close and meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration in order to address complex issues and create significant change. In every circumstance, the collaboration between the disciplines involved in this project has created a result that is greater than the sum of its parts, and has been crucial to creating great public spaces for the health and well-being of our communities.

Both Mr. Watters and Ms. Baker are members of the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects and the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects.