Downsview Park (Metropolis)

The Prediction Issue: Downsview Park
Toronto reinvents the park as a flexible landscape for a changing community.

Ask Bruce Mau if his design for Toronto’s Downsview Park is going to be beautiful, and he sighs. “Actually, we began somewhere different on that issue,” he says. Specifically Mau’s studio began with a humbling insight: the park of the future is a moving target. Rather than shaping a fixed program into a formal landscape, Downsview imagines a flexible program and an evolving landscape. Not that there’s no site plan–there is, and the first bulldozers are expected to begin work on the 300-acre public park this summer–but Downsview Park’s backbone is unapologetically ideological. Design decisions follow conceptual rather than formal guidelines, effectively jumping the track of the landscape architecture’s history.

As Mau explains, “In order to produce a place or a cultural entity in the past, it was about fixing it and making it solid and defining it for all time. Our project is really the opposite: it’s about designing it to be changed, designing it to be evolving, but to make the design so robust that it sustains itself through that evolution–like any other living thing.”

This means a program that appears, today, utterly comprehensive (a climbing wall! a community garden! a sustainable meadow!), arranged in a happy-go-lucky plan whose swirling pathways and jolly “big moves” give the feeling more of an urban rec room than any didactic exercise or Romantic vision. Downsview subtly quotes the greatest hits of urban parks, past and present–Prospect Park’s sequencing of space, Parc de la Villette’s taste for folly, Chelsea Pier’s volume of basketball hoops–in a spirit of inclusiveness, an admission that some people go in for choreographed views, others for after-work sports leagues.

Downsview’s real innovation is in what’s not presently accounted for. The park’s underlying structure–both philosophical and physical–is meant to provide a platform on which particular activities can come and go “as actors on a stage,” as Mau puts it. The skateboard ramps can be removed easily, and the community gardens (arranged as circular points on a rectangular grid) can enlarge or contract while the park’s underpinnings remain the same.

What’s iconic here is not a shape or program but an ideal. Or rather, five of them, expressed in the park’s core values: sustainability, stewardship, play, legacy, and beauty. Mau and his collaborators (who currently include PMA Landscape Architects, Oleson Worland Architects, and SNC-Lavalin–but not Rem Koolhaas, who won the original competition with Mau in 2000 but has since dropped out of the project) insist that those values inform all decision-making. But this idealism hopes to be fiscal too. The park is part of a 600-acre redevelopment–the so-called Downsview Lands, carved from a former military airport–and pieces of the larger site will be commercially developed to help fund the park. Given that any commercial development must adhere to the same core values, it has the potential to be relatively enlightened–an important consideration for a part of Toronto dealt a particularly lousy hand in postwar planning. “If the park can make a statement on a better way to develop the city, then we’ve done a huge service to the country,” says David Anselmi, vice president for park development at Parc Downsview Park Inc., the quasi-governmental organization responsible for the Downsview Lands.

At the moment, it’s hard to see this windswept former airbase caught in a semi-suburban swirl of highways, light industry, and shopping malls as “a new kind of national park,” which is what Mau likes to call it. But that, surprisingly, is Downsview’s greatest mandate: to be a reflection of what Canada wants to be–a heterogeneous, environmentally responsible, culturally forward-thinking society. Instead of a Yellowstone or Yosemite reflecting an ideal of wilderness, Downsview seeks a different relationship with nature.

“One of the dangers of the park concept is the idea that you preserve something because you’re going to trash everything else,” Mau says. “We want to change that, so that the ideals of the park are exported out beyond the park itself.” If Downsview goes according to plan, in the future the park won’t be a walled garden in the city–the city will become the park.