Book Review: Innate Terrain—Canadian Landscape Architecture

Innate Terrain

By Alissa North (University of Toronto Press, 2022)

REVIEW Jason Brijraj


Landscape architect and scholar Alissa North is no stranger to giving her field a platform to shine. Her symposium at the University of Toronto, Innate Terrain, first set out to assess the state of contemporary landscape across Canada in 2010. It began to put a spotlight on the voices of both established and emerging talent.

More than a decade later, a book has emerged that builds from the foundation of that symposium, and it’s essential reading for designers with an interest in landscape. While many existing resources have typically taken on either regional or cultural approaches to covering the field, North touches on both through a carefully selected compilation of essays written by 22 authors. Together, these texts demonstrate how Canada’s landscape architects are collectively practicing an approach that is focused on the innate qualities of the terrains that their practices are tied to.

A frame-like structure recalls the former whaling station in Kekerten Island Territorial Park, Nunavut. The structure was part of a set of interventions in the park led by Ehrler Limousin and Associates. Photo courtesy Nunavut Parks and Special Places Division, Department of Environment, Government of Nunavut


Following a foreword by Ron Williams (whose own Canadian Landscape Architecture (2010) is a milestone in the discipline), the first chapters of Innate Terrain are concerned with land use, claims and management. Several essays delve into the crucial role that Indigenous knowledge has played alongside the work of landscape architects in changing policies, acquiring stolen lands from unjust treaties, and implementing successful resource management strategies. Particularly inspiring are projects that show how the combination of scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge can lead to successful outcomes, including saving threatened ecosystems along rivers and documenting ancient histories of the land.  

As part of their Culture of Outports project, ERA and the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal built a bright red viewing deck to revitalize a forgotten lighthouse trail in Brigus, Newfoundland. Photo by ERA Architects


A second group of chapters examines the field’s impact on shaping ideas of regionalism. After an essay by North that theorizes the contemporary meaning of ‘nature’, sections on projects from the Maritimes, Quebec, and the Prairies allow for an appreciation of the distinct character of work in each of these regions. On the East Coast, maritime deindustrialization has served as a basis for a burgeoning approach to landscape architecture that displays resiliency through playfulness. Quebec, on the other hand, draws on French Canada’s tumultuous history to develop thriving public spaces that speak directly to the marriage of social sustainability and nature. And Prairie projects show how the region is shedding outdated notions of being a vast, monotonous landscape, through approaches centred on the lived experience of the land.

CCxA’s Esplanade du Palais des Congrès de Montréal revitalizes a bare concrete deck with 30 landscaped mounds. The plantings, including flowering crabapples, reference the adjacent Chinatown district. Photo by Jean-François Vézina


The last part of the book highlights how landscape architects are transforming Canadian cities. New and emerging technologies used in Canadian institutions are lauded for their success in introducing the dynamic factor of ‘time’ into the design process. Further texts examine how Toronto’s landscape architects draw on silviculture to create healthy, long-lasting urban forests, and highlight the transformed waterfronts of both Toronto and Vancouver. A concluding chapter analyzes how landscape architects are learning from the failures of established urban parks to influence the sustainable development of contemporary parks. 

Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre marries architecture by Perkins & Will with a landscape design by Sharp & Diamond with Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Photo by Brett Hitchins / Brett Ryan Studios


The book comes at a critical time, when reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the impacts of climate change will have important roles in shaping the future of Canadian landscapes—and Canadian identity. Addressing these issues is the responsibility of everyone who partakes in the design of our built environment, making Innate Terrain an important text for all of the country’s wide array of designers, not just landscape architects.  

The book’s content is, in fact, so far reaching that it acts as a crash course for understanding the past, present and future of the field’s most pertinent issues. Innate Terrain is a welcome addition to the growing canon of texts on Canadian landscape architecture, and is a welcome reading for a range of audiences as diverse as the authors and subject matter that span its pages.

Jason Brijraj is an intern architect working in Toronto with Diamond Schmitt Architects.