Design to the Rescue

Because one in six Canadians will develop skin cancer during his or her lifetime, the provision of awareness and preventative measures to protect people from harmful UV rays is essential. In response to this health crisis, more than fifty architects, landscape architects, faculty, alumni, and current students from Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design, the City of Toronto, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA), the Toronto District School Board, Evergreen, and medical professionals convened at Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science for a weekend-long charrette in June 2003 as part of the Designing for Shade conference. Dr. Lynn From, a dermatologist and pathologist, and George Kapelos, Chair of the Department of Architectural Science at Ryerson University, initiated the idea for Designing for Shade by consolidating years of discussions regarding the possible applications of architecture as preventative medicine for skin cancer and how to influence public policy makers to adopt these medical and design solutions.

John Greenwood, an Australian architect and co-author of Undercover: Guidelines for Shade Planning and Design (1998), assisted participants at the charrette by teaching the process of shade auditing and sharing successful shade-making strategies implemented in Australia. Using this knowledge, groups of participants developed their own design vocabularies for efficient and effective shade-creating structures, vegetation, and UV-blocking materials, such as ultraviolet-resistant polycarbonate panels and UV-protective fabrics. Each group focused on one of six Toronto sites: King Street West’s urban plaza between Roy Thomson Hall and Metro Hall; Toronto’s Ferry Terminal’s city side and Centre Island side; the Don Valley Bike Trail; the West End YMCA’s rooftop playground; Cassandra Public School; and Dovercourt Park. The resultant concepts responded and adapted to patterns and needs of prospective users based on specific seasonal shade requirements for passive and active activities at each site. These design studies are also applicable to other urban public spaces across Canada.

Office workers, theatre patrons, and a growing residential population use the urban plaza along King Street West twenty-four hours a day. The site proposal incorporated bold architectural moves to attract users into UV-protected areas and simple gestures to retrofit existing structures with awnings to increase on-site shade. Dramatic proposals included a graceful metal arcade along King Street West with UV-resistant polycarbonate panels; mechanical “trees” that adjust with the hourly succession of sun angles via photovoltaic cells connected to motorized polycarbonate foliage; a curvilinear line of vertical louvers automatically opening and closing to provide consistent UV protection for the adjoining seating; and a tilted ground plain along the east side of the site to accommodate plantings of large shade trees. In shaded niches throughout the site, panels educate the public by displaying changing UV levels and the maximum minutes until direct sun exposure causes burning.

At the existing Toronto Islands Ferry Terminals, passengers must gather and queue in areas with little protection from the elements. The proposal for this site included demolishing the existing southern elevation (mainly concrete) of the city-side terminal and strengthening the pedestrian connections between Yonge Street and Bay Street. Large sails of UV-protective fabric stretching along elegant metal supports created an identifiable new landmark for the city of Toronto and spaces for outdoor cafs and souvenir carts. Smaller versions of the tensile structures, repeated at each island ferry terminal, formed a recognizable motif for tourists.

The Don Valley bike trail runs along the banks of a much-modified river confined by roadways, railway tracks, and valley edges. In addition to enhancing the vegetative canopy, permanent and temporary structures with adjustable UV-resistant polycarbonate panels were proposed to accommodate shading requirements along the trail.

The proposal for the rooftop playground at the West End YMCA involved a two-phase strategy. In phase one, temporary shading devices installed over play areas were proposed to amend the existing lack of shade during peak UV hours. Phase two draped UV-protective tensile fabric over constructed columns of various heights to create a singular, undulating organic form adding shade and contrast to the historic building’s formal facade. Both Cassandra Public School and Dovercourt Park are ongoing community-initiated collaborations with Evergreen, the Toronto District School Board, and the City of Toronto Parks and Recreation Department respectively.

Groups presented shade concepts in an array of digital photomontages, models, and drawings. Baruch Zone, Heidi Campbell, and Alex Shevchuk presented these results to members of Toronto City Council, the Toronto Public Health Department, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition, and Cancer Care Ontario at the Designing for Shade forum. The Toronto Society of Architects generously donated funding for the charrette, and Ballenford books on architecture provided prizes.

Emily Andreae holds a B.L.A. from the Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design, University of Toronto. She has coordinated the Designing for Shade charrette for Ryerson University and has worked on many international and Toronto public urban spaces, streetscapes, and residential projects. For more information about skin cancer, shade design, and the Designing for Shade sponsors, see