By Dimitrije Martinovic
– August 2021 –
Blending form with function in design and application is always at the heart of architectural projects. Adding social and inspirational factors to the equation can sometimes become less of a priority. But with a project like a public park in a neighbourhood as diverse as St. James Town, it becomes quite a bit more crucial to get it right.
St. James Town is in the early stages of being revitalized. The overall goal is to bring significant improvements to public and open spaces. One of these public places scheduled for redevelopment is the St. James Town West Park, located on the east side of Sherbourne Street, just south of Howard Street. It is a key thoroughfare and gateway to the SJT neighbourhood. The St. James Town West Park, which measures 4200 square metres, (by comparison Dundas Square is 3800 sq. m, and a soccer field is 4050 sq. m) is used by residents as a place to relax, enjoy nature, sit and eat a meal, walk their pets, or play sports.
The design for the St. James Town West Park is led by the City of Toronto in partnership with several design and consulting firms including DTAH Design Team, LURA Public Engagement, and Nbisiing Consulting. To better assess what the community needs in the park, this team implemented a series of community outreach initiatives that include working with community ambassadors, setting up public meetings, conducting online surveys, Indigenous engagement, and school workshops. Because of the high percentage of young people in the area, a youth access group was created that comprised of individuals aged 15 to 24 from the Wellesley Youth Council, Jarvis Collegiate, youth from the St. James Town Community Ambassadors program, and some second year students from the University of Toronto, Faculty of Architecture and Landscape Design.
Bob Goulais from Nbisiing Consulting, a firm focused on Indigenous engagement, coordinated an Indigenous Community Sharing Meeting on February 18, 2021. It had representation from First Nations, Métis, Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe communities. They came together to reflect upon what the importance of Indigenous Place Keeping would look like in the park. Their recommendations included:
*Retaining the natural elements
*Ensuring the creative elements from the Indigenous perspective
*Indigenous planting and the teachings that go with that
*Elders’ needs and access
*Referencing the traditional pathways that were there long before settlers came
*Ensuring animals and birds are a part of the picture
Landscape design firm DTAH, outlined a number of factors that eventually shaped their decision making in developing designs for the park. Observations of the area identified it as having a lot of seating, which would be carried forward with any new designs. They also noted the existing circulation patterns and entry points that can be incorporated with new and enhanced future pathways. Another factor in planning was reviewing the different edges of the park and observing how activities beyond the boundaries of the park influence how the space is used. For example, Sherbourne Street has commercial influence. Bleeker Street has a neighbourhood friendly edge, and Howard Street has both a commercial and nature edge.
The outcome of the consultations identified new areas of interest for the park including open grass and lawn space, seating and improvements to the garden, drinking fountains, picnic areas, and bicycle parking. After a consideration of all these consultations and factors, two general types of designs were proposed, each with a unique focus. One design envisioned the park as more of a Green Refuge, while the other design focused on the park as a place of Interconnecting Paths.
The concept design for the park as a Green Refuge prioritises a mix of lawns, trees, and planters, as well as play areas and a multi-use platform for concerts and presentations. The concept design for the Interconnecting Paths model focuses more on how people use the park as both a gateway and a meeting place. Fewer lawns give way to a central plaza that becomes the activity hub from which all the other elements fan out. One of the key aspects of the park is a gateway – crossroads for people moving from one area to another, residential to commercial and recreational.
More discussions are underway to determine the final plan for the park.
In the words of the late urban writer and activist, Jane Jacobs, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
To see a video about the St. James Town West Park Redesign, visit: https://youtu.be/7bH7QMeYvpI
Dimitrije is a journalist with the Focus Media Arts Centre ~a partner of The Corner