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Revisiting Downsview Park Toronto

posted Sep 7, 2010, 2:25 AM by Patricia Martin
I recently read a book by the landscape architect Julia Czerniak called Case: Downsview Park Toronto published in 2002. Czerniak analyzed the five proposals that were finalists in the competition held in 1999 to select an urban park design for a former military base in Toronto. The five teams were required to develop a new landscape in a historically and socially charged 320-acre park located in a suburban and emerging area of Toronto known as the Greater Toronto Area. In her book, Czerniak states the three common themes of the five selected designs: the configuration of frameworks that structure the site but also allow for growth over time; the creation of new ecologies for the deteriorated federal park; and the formation of multidisciplinary teams of architects, landscape architects, ecologists, urban designers, and graphic designers. These characteristics, promoted by the competition, generated innovative proposals and provided a turning point in the design of public urban parks. 

This competition came together with other large park proposals, like Fresh Kills in New York, where the deep complexity inherent in the landscape was manifested. Such complexity is derived from the duality of culture and nature, static and dynamic, natural and artificial that lies in the identity of the large parks. The systems theory addresses the fact that in order to create a design for these parks, the teams pursued different approaches to the landscape architecture and synthesized huge amounts of information derived from different sciences, interests, and constituencies that were combined in a single project. In the proposals for Downsview Park Toronto, Anita Berrizbeitia states that the proposed designs contributed with a “…redefinition of park/environment relationship. By park I mean both the organization of its programs and material processes, such as recreation and drainage, and its structure, that is, its internal spatial language. By environment I mean the physical/biological context of the site, including the city, as well as those social, economic and political processes that together form the many contexts for its development” (Berrizbeitia 2001 119). 


In her book, Czerniak first addressed the issue of the frameworks design. This strategy offers guidelines as an approach to designing the park during the fifteen-year implementation process rather than offering to control it. Thus, the designers recommend flexibility to accommodate the different programs, and participatory processes can be included in the design processes. Berrizbeitia stated, “The particulars of this program are unknown; they will emerge over time” (Berrizbeitia 2001 119). The schemes were not only flexible in the programmatic sense, but they allowed different political and economic conditions and even the paths to change depending on the vegetation growth that would evolve, establishing diverse patterns over the surface. In all the proposals, the design of the park was based on the definition of the variables with the potential for something different to emerge. In other words, the designs established minimum control in order to allow new decisions and flexibility but, at the same time, maintaining their own identity and logic. For example, Tree City, the winning proposal for Downsview Park, is more a formula than a design: “grow the park + manufacture nature + curate culture + 1,000 pathways + destination and dispersal + sacrifice and safe = low-density metropolitan life” (Czerniak 2001 75). To assure the longevity of the park, it was necessary to guarantee a certain degree of flexibility and openness. A strategy that lacks this characteristic will minimize a design’s adaptability to new circumstances. On the other hand, a too loose strategy would fail to provide identity, organization, and legibility. 

The competition jury viewed these frameworks as project strengths because their flexibility allows accommodations for budgetary constraints, remediating soils, or adapting the parks to current necessities. Anita Berrizbeitia explains in her essay “Re-placing Process” that “not every element of a park is left open to process, however, and it is often in deciding what is to remain open-ended in a large site that aspects of place are revealed” (Berrizbeitia 2007 185). For example, in the case of the Bos Park in Amsterdam, the vegetation is totally open to succession while water is clearly constricted to a series of canals and artificial lakes. The planting of the forest was randomly settled over a grid with two different kinds of trees: fast-growing but provisional and slower growing but permanent. The fast-growing forest will determine the best areas for plantation of the permanent trees and, therefore, the open lawns. The expression of place through processes such as succession or erosion is one of the main strategies developed for large park designs in recent years. The long-term development of those parks—fifteen years for Downsview Park—makes this flexibility a key element for their success. 

However, in the Tree City proposal for Downsview Park, the differentiation between flexible and rigid elements in terms of succession is not so clear. Thus, the winning proposal by OMA and Bruce Mau is described as using “graphic devices to indicate that the new park would include groves of trees, meadows, and water features” but without saying specifically where these features would be located (Hill 2001 100). As in OMA’s previous project for La Villette, the concept is to create a framework that allows changes over time: 

“Tree City is a diagram designed to maximize the park’s options for survival. Each landscape cluster will be left unassigned of program. Over the course life, functions will be assigned to insure its own existence” (Czerniak 2001 80). 

The project presents two different scales of emergence. The first covers the park, its vegetation, circulations, uses and water flows; the second scale reaches the city scale, anticipating the growth of the park and its connection with other metropolitan systems, creating a new urban structure. But there is not a clear articulating element or any rigid component in the whole plan. Czerniak describes in her book the risks that this lack of rigidness entails, such as the definition of policies of ownership, the ecological potentials, and the effectiveness of the proposals. So Czerniak asks, “How much design is enough?” (Czerniak 2001 15). Nowadays, eight years after Tree City won the competition, the plans for the park are still up in the air, and politicians and planners have been unable to sell and implement the project. In 2004, Mau’s team redeveloped the project, using the name Six Hundred Acres of Ecologic, Economic, and Social Sustainability, transforming the original plan into a comprehensive park plan. Some critics stated that the open-endedness of the initial proposal was one of the main reasons for the current state of the park. 

New Ecologies and Processes 

The brief encouraged intervention in the ecosystems and the creation of new ecologies derived from the interaction between human agency and the environment. Thus, the proposals refer to “mutation,” “flow,” “adaptation,” and “interaction.” In the design projects, ecology is used as a metaphor for the complex urban processes that will take part in the park with the interaction of people and landscape. However, this use of ecology as an urban tool can blur the boundaries between the dichotomy of urban space and biodiversity, artificial and nature, leading to “a misinterpretation of landscape architecture as natural formations” (Czerniak 2001 17). The park constitutes an image of nature rather than nature itself. As in the case of Central Park in New York, the first large park in North America, parks are at the same time both an artificial space and an image of nature. 

The competition’s organizers asked for a design “capable of sustaining new ecologies and an evolving array of public uses and events, including ones of national and international distinction” (Park Downsview 2008). This dichotomy between nature and culture is addressed by the landscape architect Elizabeth K. Meyer in her essay “The Expanded Field of Landscape Architecture” as an “essential attribute of the activities of the landscape architect who is involved in shaping and forming the land—nature—to accommodate human use and to embody cultural values” (Meyer 1997 45). Nevertheless, Meyer argues that there is not such a dichotomy between man and nature. On the contrary, a partnership and interrelationship between people and ecosystems exist that make each indispensable to the other. Two years later, Alex Wall argued that “the term landscape no longer refers to prospects of pastoral innocence but rather invokes the functioning matrix of connective tissues that organize not only objects but also the dynamic processes and events that move through them” (Wall 1999 223). In Downsview Park Toronto, nature is not conceived in opposition to the city. Moreover, the proposals, such as the Tree City of Koolhaas and Mau, suggest complex relationships between people, landscape, and animals,. 

Large parks represent an essential part of the city in which they are located, and their functions and identities will depend on the necessities and image of that city. For example, while Olmsted and Vaux’s intentions for Central Park were to create a respite from the city, in the case of Downsview Park Toronto, the main intention is to use the park in order to generate density around it. As Julia Czerniak states in her essay “Legibility and Resilence,” “[I]magining the context of the contemporary metropolis is crucial for park designers” (Czerniak 2007 219). In Downsview Park, the context reached the Greater Toronto Area that constitutes a suburban space with dispersed population, where the private open space is predominant, and with a high potential for population growth. Therefore, the design proposals envisioned structures for future expansion and incorporated green corridors, flows of water, habitat, and wildlife, as well as infrastructures with recreational, institutional, and commercial functions. The project titles of the finalist teams also reflect these issues: Emergent Landscapes; Emergent Ecologies; A New Synthetic Landscape; and Tree City. There is a common idea in all the proposals that the natural and the artificial are associated within the landscape in order to create a major structure on a metropolitan scale. 

The relationship between landscape, architecture, and city also produced the composition of the multidisciplinary teams that shared their knowledge of ecology, graphic design, engineering, and architecture. This collaboration was explicit in all of the final proposals, as seen in sentences such as “the digital and the wild” (Tschumi) and “culture as nature” (Corner and Allen), or references to bioengineered food, animal cloning blur, and organic prosthesis in FOA’s design. The proposals identify the progress in the understanding of ecological systems as seen in the models proposed by Ian McHarg. While McHarg’s proposals represent a belief in top-down strategy based on accurate geological and biological data, the designs for Downsview Park Toronto embrace indeterminate and flexible systems that constitute one of the main characteristics of landscape urbanism. McHarg’s closed or balanced systems and his detailed and comprehensive plans had evolved into complex relationships between proccesses and patterns. 

OMA, Petra Blaisse, Bruce Mau, Downsview Park, Toronto, 2000.

The Role of Graphic Designers 

In a discussion held by the Harvard Design Magazine in 2006, Czerniak referred to the Downsview Park Toronto as a “success of the urban design practice prior to building,” in reference to the success of the work of graphic designers in order to communicate the project to people (Saunders 2006 4). At first glance, it might appear unusual to see the graphic designer Bruce Mau leading together with the architect Rem Koolhaas one of the teams, in a competition for the design of an urban park. Controversy has arisen regarding the importance of images in the final proposals. The question has been raised, “Can an image represent the complex ecological processes formed in the park?” Taking this further, are the ideas behind a project or just a beautiful image of value? Without any doubt, graphic design plays a very important role in communicating the project to the future users. In that sense, graphic design works as a political tool, allowing the public to understand the project prior to its construction and also making room for criticism and feedback. Furthermore, as Julia Czerniak explains in her essay “Legibility and Resilence” “to be realized, parks have to be legible to the people who pay for and use them” (Czerniak 2007 215). But the imagery is only a part of the communication. It has to be complemented with other tools such as plans, words, or data. Moreover, the strenght of the graphic design lies in the ideas and intentions that it is communicating and not in its beauty. 

A clear example of the importance and impact of the graphic design is the Plan of Chicago of 1909. Jules Guerin’s renderings and Fernand Janin’s ilustrations were decisive in winning Chicagoans’ approval of their proposal. Guerin’s twelve bird-eye views give the plan its distintive visual character and transform the reader into a viewer. However, these ilustrations and the plan “do not seek to impose any particular form on structures” (The Commercial Club of Chicago 1909 8). The intention behind the plan’s images was to transmit the general idea and convince the citizens of the the cause rather than describe the proposal. As we can see in Downsview Park Toronto, the purpouse is not only the creation of frameworks and guidelines for the future development but also to “render its readers receptive to the notion that Chicago might in fact be made a place more beautiful and fine than anyone previously thought possible if they would only embrace the vision the plan advances” (Smith 2006 94). The planners were aware of the importance of the Chicagoans’ support for the implementation of the plan. Nevertheless, the most important figure for the implementation success was Walter L. Moody, who lead the publicity campaign. With Moody, the images and views of the Chicago Plan reached every citizen, from students in the schools to parishioners in the churches. The renderings were the main tool to explain the project to the public, and they were shown in newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and films. However, the views of the plan had to be complemented with other communication tools such as newspaper articles and speeches. For Moody, “[T]he key to success was to get the average citizen to pay serious attention to the issues and then stir him to action when convinced” (Smith 2006 122). The reception of the plan was tremendously flattering, and Chicagoans approved almost every issue presented. The implementation of the plan can be considered a success, and I would say that it would not have been possible without the work of Jules Guerin and Fernand Janin as graphic designers. 

On the other hand, the excessive use of images and renderings can distract from the real purpose and idea behind the project. Nowadays, architects and landscape architects tend to use very seductive and visually atractive renderings that act more as art objects than as communicators of the project’s intentions. Here is the main danger of the use of graphic design in projects. While in the example of the Plan of Chicago the renderings communicate the intentions of the project, in other cases the project is no more than a collection of beautiful and atractive images but meaningless. As designers, we should be aware of the real significance of the images that we are producing and understand that they are tools to communicate our design. 


The Downsview Park Toronto competition offered a good opportunity to study new ways of approaching urban parks design: the design of frameworks rather than forms that allow growth over time, the construction of ecological processes, and the unquestionable necessity of multidisciplinary teams to deal with the complexity of our current society. These characteristics define a new discipline entitled Landscape Urbanism: 

“Landscape Urbanism describes a disciplinary realigment currently under way in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporay urbanism. For many, across a range of disciplines, landscape has become both the lens through which the contemporary city is represented and the medium through which it is constructed” (Waldheim 2006 11). 

This new discipline, not yet fully developed, is promoted as a necessary strategy to understand and analyze the comtemporary city. Landscape becomes the main tool to model the city; the objects lose importance in favor of the fields; and the representational wins against the pictorial. 

“Increasingly, landscape is emerging as a model for urbanism. Landscape has traditionally been defined as the art of organizing horizontal surfaces. It bears an obvious relationship to the extended field of the contemporary city, and also to the newly emerging interest in topological surface. By paying careful attention to these surface conditions—not only configuration but also materiality and performance—designers can activate space and produce urban effects without the weighty apparatus of traditional space making” (Allen 2002 124). 

However, the competition held to choose a design for Downsview Park Toronto also gives rise to a debate regarding “the appearance and performance of urban public parks” (Czerniak 2001 18) and the interconnection between those two terms. The first one refers to the image of the design proposal, as well as the role of the graphic designer as communicator. The second suggests function, play, and fulfillment. In Downsview Park Toronto, landscape is transformed into a mechanism through which the city can be projected and envisioned.