November 14, 2016
by Jon Scott Blanthorn
Corktown Common borders the Canary District, a mixed-use development that initially housed athletes during the 2015 Pan Am/ParaPan Am Games. The park incorporates a raised landform that protects the eastern part of downtown (including the Canary District) from flooding.
PROJECT Corktown Common Park and Pavilion, West Don Lands, Toronto, Ontario
DESIGNERS Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. Landscape Architects (park) and Maryann Thompson Architects, Inc. (pavilion)
TEXT Jon Scott Blanthorn
PHOTOS Nicola Betts, unless otherwise noted
Toronto’s waterfront has been a place of contention for residents and politicians for many decades. In 1971, when Toronto celebrated the opening of Eb Zeidler, FRAIC’s futuristic Ontario Place, there was hope that the banks of Lake Ontario would usher in a new wave of development for public enjoyment. Yet few of the discussed plans came to fruition. And while subsequent builds around Queens Quay serviced the downtown core, other than the Waterfront Trail for cyclists there was no singular vision to unite the communities that stretched the full length of the Greater Toronto Area for almost 30 years. Private developers eventually began fragmenting the waterfront with large-scale condominiums.
A tangible promise of change came in 2000, when the federal, provincial and municipal governments each committed $500 million to renew one of Canada’s largest designated waterfront areas. Together, they established Waterfront Toronto to bring together the varied areas along the lakefront with an environmental, economic and social development plan. The now fully functional Corktown Common park in the West Don Lands not only helps realize this promise, but also sets a standard for how thoughtful design can rejuvenate seemingly unusable space, while bringing together surrounding communities.
Water used in the play area and rain captured from the pavilion roof are filtered through the wetland to feed irrigation points across the park. Photo courtesy of Waterfront Toronto.
Waterfront Toronto commissioned New York-based landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) to turn 7.3 hectares of land into the neighbourhood park. However, MVVA was also charged with a broader mandate. As associate principal Emily Mueller De Celis says, they were asked to set “a regenerative ecology in motion by establishing a new benchmark for ecological diversity in Toronto Parks” and create a green space that also served as flood control infrastructure. The site for this ambitious program was a brownfield on the north side of a GO commuter train yard. As disused industrial land, it was possibly contaminated with hazardous waste. Railroad tracks, high-voltage power lines and the Don Valley Parkway sit along its borders.
The pavilion’s folded roof provides shade while opening up towards the sky. Photo by Scott Norsworthy
MVVA has transformed the site into a multi-use communal space, re-naturalized with woodlands, meadows and aquatic plants within a variety of microclimates. Planted spaces exist harmoniously beside playgrounds, splash pads and a pavilion by Boston’s Maryann Thompson Architects (MTA)—all of which provide social and recreational zones across varied topographic levels.
For MVVA, the design was informed by both the location’s history and its current conditions. “This site has a storied environmental history,” says Mueller De Celis. “Generations of urbanization, industrialization and infrastructural projects in the Don Valley watershed exacerbated the site’s flood potential.” Deindustrialization and shifting land forms over the last century resulted in a constant threat of flooding to 209 hectares of surrounding land, thereby preventing restoration of the park and development of the whole neighbourhood.
Sliding doors can be pulled close to block wind and snow. A fireplace allows the pavilion to act as a cozy shelter in the winter months and on cool evenings in the shoulder seasons.
To protect the area, a four-metre-tall, 750-metre-long earthen land-form was constructed out of compacted clay that reshapes the river’s floodplain, preventing excess water from traversing towards the Canary District. The berm also forms the basis of the park. Land throughout the site was filled with 50,000 cubic metres of clean soil to nurture new growth. MVVA was then able to introduce both deciduous and ever-green trees, plants, flowers and mosses native to Canadian forests, providing habitat and sustenance for migratory birds and pollinators. The park also includes a marsh that increases the viability of waterfowl and other wildlife in the city. Self-seeding native perennials were selected, says Mueller De Celis, to encourage the propagation of regrowth within and beyond the park boundaries.
The adjacent Canary District is rapidly growing to include 6,000 new condo units, so the park also needed to be a place where the community could socialize. At the height of the park, the pavilion stands as a central focal point. With this structure, Maryann Thompson Architects created an architectural feature marked by several pitched roof segments made of Canadian red cedar. “The design of the pavilion is meant to orient you to the top of the hill and sky,” says partner Maryann Thompson. “Because you approach from below, you really notice the underside of the roof—so it was important to make this beautiful and evocative.” The segments purposefully allow light to come through, heightening the sense of the sky above. To support the roof, the architects created compound columns tied together by metal rope—“like bundles of sticks that you can see the light between,” says Thompson.
The park includes a variety of areas, including a wetland that is frequented by waterfowl and migrating birds. Photo courtesy of Waterfront Toronto.
The park and pavilion are designed to function year-round. Across the site, the planting palette celebrates all four seasons. Trees such as birch, larch, cottonwood and oak flourish and change throughout the spring to fall months, while pine, holly and red cedar add colour and life in the winter. The topographical plan also transforms in the cold months: green hills and sloped pathways can be used in the snowy season for sledding.
For its part, the pavilion includes a fireplace for roasting marshmallows in the winter, and concrete tables that can be used throughout the year for communal meals. Translucent, moveable walls can be closed to provide protection from wind and pelting snow. Power for the pavilion comes from solar panels, mounted on the south face of the fireplace, where they are likely to stay free from ice.
Native flora was chosen for use throughout the park, which weaves together natural habitats and recreational zones.
Less noticeable, but perhaps most relevant to the project’s transformational aspirations, is the way it manages water. “The entire site is a gigantic water treatment plant,” says Thompson. The clay fill comprising the flood protection landform and supporting the built elements made it impossible to use site water to re-charge groundwater supplies. This presented MVVA with the opportunity to devise an innovative system unique to Corktown Common.
In summer, the splash pad consumes some 570,000 litres of water each week. Instead of being wasted, it is UV-filtered and combined with a park-wide underground drainage system that collects storm water. The treated water is discharged into the marsh, which functions as a tertiary treatment system, and used for park-wide irrigation. The folded pavilion roofs are part of the system, capturing and directing rain through a grate into a storage reservoir. “Each drop consumed in play or produced by rain is redirected [from the] landscape construction into a living natural system,” says Mueller De Celis.
Visiting Corktown Common now, it is difficult to imagine it hasn’t been part of the community for years—if not decades. The natural habitat has grown to provide areas of tranquility, cut off from the surrounding city. The playground and parks are well used, not just by the local community, but also by those who travel to the site as a destination to meet friends, walk their dogs and hang out with their families. It’s a space that has benefitted from the close collaboration between a government body with a clear vision and experienced design experts with innovative solutions. Since opening to the public, Corktown Common has been widely praised as a model for future builds. Its success suggests the potential for other unused public spaces in the city to be regenerated into environmentally and aesthetically pleasing areas. In this sense, transformation from the industrialized to the natural could occur literally anywhere in the urban sphere.
Jon Scott Blanthorn is an architecture writer and critic based in Toronto.
CLIENT WATERFRONT TORONTO | DESIGN TEAM PARK—MICHAEL VAN VALKENBURGH, LAURA SOLANO, EMILY MUELLER DE CELIS, NEIL BUDZINSKI. PAVILION—MARYANN THOMPSON, HOPE STRODE, MARTHA FOSS, EVAN MATHIESEN, BILL PEVEAR. |STRUCTURAL PARK—ARUP TORONTO; PAVILION – RICHMOND SO ENGINEERS |MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL ARUP TORONTO | CONTRACTOR EASTERN CONSTRUCTION COMPANY (CONSTRUCTION MANAGER) WITH BUTTCON CONTRACT-ORS (BUILDING CONTRACTOR) AND ALDERSHOT LANDSCAPE COMPANY (LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR) |AREA PARK—6.5 HECTARES; PAVILION—225 M2|BUDGET PARK—$14.1 M; PAVILION—$1.45 M |COMPLETION JULY 20 1 2