Leading with Landscape (Part 2)

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ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. HtO Park by Claud Cormier and Associates, Janet Rosenberg and Studio and Hariri Pontarini Architects / Niel Fox

With the cultural and ecological context of Toronto established in part one, the second half of The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s (TCLF) Leading with Landscape symposium asked landscape architects to offer perspectives on their efforts to create a more resilient city. Conference co-organizer Jane Amidon, ASLA, professor, Northeastern University, pointed to the ingredients that could be used to make Toronto a model for the rest of the continent: the city’s ravine network, the vibrant waterfront, the breadth of public space, the high-profile place-making, and the committed design community that believes investing in landscape architecture can transform Toronto for the better.

A number of landscape architects working in Toronto described landscape architecture projects shaping the city:

Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal, Claude Cormier + Associes Inc., presented the HtO waterfront, which his firm produced in partnership with Janet Rosenberg and Studio (see image above). The designs draw inspiration from Toronto’s industrial past, but also refer to the work of painter Georges Seurat as they incorporate contemporary ideas of form and use. The undeniable pop sensibility of Cormier’s designs creates iconic landscape moments. The development that followed these waterfront parks has been tremendous and is a testament to the power of landscape architecture.

Marc Ryan, principal of Toronto-based Public Work, presented the evolution of development from the Lake Ontario waterfront to the Don River and, now, the active port lands to the west. Ryan’s analysis showed how a collaborative spirit can be created through an extensive public process. The resulting exercise produced new landscapes that allow for the city and port to connect.

Elizabeth Silver, a landscape architect with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), spoke of the firm’s recent work at Corktown Common, a park in the West Dons Land neighborhood, that shows how landscape architecture can boost resilience and attract people at the same time: the Common provides 16 acres of flood absorption at the mouth of the Don while the recreational portion of the site offers adventure playgrounds amid a constructed stormwater-fed wetland. The park is in part a response to the city hosting the upcoming Pan Am Games; but as the area around the park develops, it will become a community anchor in itself.

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Corktown Common / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Bruce Kuwabara, a leading Canadian architect and partner at KPMB Architects, noted how the past decade has led to many high-quality public spaces. He provoked the audience to imagine what “leading with landscapes” actually means and think about Toronto as an evolving city that can serve as a model of this landscape-forward development.

Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, principal, West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture, provided a deeply personal presentation outlining his process of distilling a Canadian or Torontonian culture into the physical design. Geuze spoke of the urban renaissance currently underway in Toronto and noted that it’s primarily landscape architecture that is improving livability and spurring investment. He emphasized that the profession should not divorce itself from the social needs and responsibilities of city-building.

Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen Brick Works, a community environmental center, showed examples of landscape-forward projects and spoke of the often difficult process of letting landscape architects lead projects. Most importantly, Cape focused on the unique opportunities the ravine system offers, connecting with the 1.8 million-acre greenbelt surrounding the greater Toronto area and expressing Toronto’s evolving identity. Cape challenged attendees to construct sophisticated partnerships that can bring ideas to fruition and look at governance and partnerships through a creative lens.

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Evergreen Brick Works / Tom Arban Photography

As the last panelist of the day, Thomas Woltz, FASLA, principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW), reinforced the conference’s overarching goals by presenting examples of funding models and public-private partnerships drawn from two projects by NBW and two precedent-setting ones by other landscape architects and organizations. Throughout his presentation, Woltz highlighted the vitality and richness that emerges when engaging in a process that considers landscape and the city within larger contexts – ecological, historical, cultural, and agricultural. And he challenged the profession to “get smarter about speaking about numbers and convincing a city council that they will, in the long-term, see the benefits of these systems.”

In closing, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and president of TCLF, reinforced the idea that urban park design and construction should aspire to offer a holistic urban design and management solution, create new cultural narratives, and embed positive values within the fabric of cities. Referring to the current debate on the future of the Gardiner Expressway, Birnbaum urged landscape architects to engage, speak out, aspire to make a difference, and act as leaders at this critical moment in the renaissance of the city.

Leading with Landscape brought together a community around the common mission of improving Toronto through landscape. And, more broadly, it brought landscape architecture to the forefront of the conversation in city building. The appearance of Mayor Tory and chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat elevated the importance of a strategic, systems-based design approach to the city.

This guest post is by Tim Popa, Communications Director, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture.

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