What’s Up, Downsview?

For many design professionals in North America, landscape has become a model for the contemporary city. As most North Americans now live in decentralized suburban settlements, traditional accounts of the city based upon dense concentrations of population and architectural fabric have proven less reliable in describing the conditions for contemporary practice. The decentralization of the industrial city continues today with increasingly global capital and labour markets extending what had been an American model, internationally. In the Great Lakes region, most metropolitan centres are rapidly expanding in land area at a much faster rate than their population is growing.

Paralleling these tendencies is the emergent interest in landscape urbanism: landscape conceived and designed as the primary ordering element for decentralized urbanism. In this work, horizontal surfaces of landscape and systems of transportation infrastructure replace architecture as the spatial and organizational media through which urban order is constructed. Unburdened of the “weighty apparatus” of traditional urban form, many contemporary landscape practices have focused on the orchestration of programs of public activity and processes of environmental remediation. Often this work is primarily concerned with the organization of horizontal surfaces and infrastructures for future development, from both environmental and economic points of view.

Practices of landscape urbanism have been found most relevant for those sites left in the wake of post-industrial economic transformations, especially those too large and contaminated to be reconceived by market-based development. In this regard, the competition for the Parc de la Villette in Paris provided an early model two decades ago. Recent design competitions for the radical reconception of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in New York and the Downsview military airbase in Toronto, best exemplify emerging practices of landscape urbanism. In both instances, the idea of the urban park emerged as the most appropriate way to reconceive of post-industrial sites left in the shift from an industrial economy to one based on recreation, leisure, education, and entertainment.

Unlike their nineteenth century precedents such as Central Park in New York, Downsview and Fresh Kills have not been conceived as fixed and static design solutions to be built as set pieces. Rather, they have each been orchestrated to be implemented over time, transforming in response to future environmental, social, political and economic conditions. This idea has been significant in recent landscape discourse as a move away from the pictorial and scenographic images of the pastoral park in favour of the strategic, operational and dynamic conditions of the city itself. This coincides with an increasing desire for these parks to become economically self-sufficient, with public funds being used sparingly, if at all, in support of public-private partnerships and market-based mechanisms for future development. This echoes nineteenth century examples of private funding for public landscapes understood as an aid to real estate development such as the Chicago boulevard system. Unlike those historical projects developed by the market in concert with public agencies, these 21st century urban parks have been designed in the context of community involvement and public consultation processes. All of this of course takes time.

For political leaders and electorates with shorter and shorter attention spans, the pace of implementation on projects of this kind can seem glacial. With the expectation of market-based financing and full community participation in planning decisions, design on these sites has become more responsive to contemporary social and economic conditions than their modernist precedents, and rightly so. In many ways, we have gotten what we have asked for: a public works process that is more accountable, both economically and socially, to the populations it represents.

Ironically, this presents a double bind. As a financially self-sufficient crown corporation, Parc Downsview Park has the mandate to take land used for a military airbase in Toronto and convert it for use as the first urban federal park in Canada. For some, this can be misread as simple neo-liberal privatization of public lands or, worse yet, an abandonment of the commitment to remediate the environment of these sites. Examined closely, neither of these claims holds up for long. In order to finance the construction of the park, Parc Downsview Park must sell or lease rights to this land for private development in order to finance construction, operation, and maintenance of the remainder of its lands that will be available for public use and environmental remediation. This is precisely in response to the corporation’s mandate to operate without public subsidy, and allows for the development of the park in the context of market and social forces, both goals of contemporary planning practice are in response to the perceived failures of modernist planning and design.

It is instructive to remember that the canonical nineteenth century urban parks themselves took a very long time to design and build, not to mention the length of time required for those landscapes to mature, diversify, and succeed. It is useful to look again at the Parc de la Villette in Paris as a gauge to the length of time that contemporary urban parks demand for design and construction. Principally designed by the office of Bernard Tschumi with a diverse team of consultants and collaborators, la Villette was conceived in a two stage design competition between 1982-83 while its construction was completed only in 1997. Another useful benchmark is Central Park in New York by Olmsted and Vaux, which took nearly a quarter of a century from its beginnings in 1857 to be fully realized. The Olmsted firm and its successors continued to manage work at Central Park as late as 1935, over three quarters of a century later. The Olmsted firm’s work at Mont Royal in Montreal itself took two decades to complete between 1873 and 1893, while its work on the South Parks in Chicago occupied a full quarter century between 1870 and 1895.

It is certainly tempting to look to Downsview for immediate gratification, especially given the enormous promise of the project’s beginnings in the competition winning scheme for Tree City principally authored by Bruce Mau Design and Rem Koolhaas / OMA three years ago. Given the promise that the high quality of contemporary public space that it foretold, it would be easy to mistake the pace of subsequent progress at Downsview for a retreat. Rather, the last few years are best understood as a significant gestational period in which the eventual identity is slowly being formed. There are several recent indications of why Downsview will be worth the wait including the recent appointment of landscape architect David Anselmi, as Vice-President for Park Development and the public presentation of more detailed design concepts for Parc Downsview Park (now principally authored by Bruce Mau Design, in collaboration with PMA Landscape Architects and Oleson Worland Architects and SNC Lavalin Engineers). The most recent and compelling design work of the Downsview team is envisioned in the form of multiple potential views of the future park as executed by a number of prominent visual artists. Equally compelling are the programmatic scenarios played out through plan diagrams, montages, and narrative texts. Taken together, this work promises that what’s coming up at Downsview may very well be worth the wait.

Charles Waldheim is Director of the Master of Landscape Architecture Program and Associate Professor on the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. He is also an Editorial Advisor for Canadian Architect.