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Toronto’s Underpass Park wins prestigious ASLA Award of Excellence

You probably wouldn’t serve last Tuesday’s leftovers at a dinner party for friends and relations, but they’d be good enough for the family. Waste not, want not, and all that. The whole idea of leftovers is often tinged with a sense of the second rate. But not in the area of urban design, not since Underpass Park was created in Toronto’s Corktown area, and certainly not since the park won this year’s prestigious Award of Excellence, General Design, from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). They thought it was “terrific,” an important example of how to transform “left over space” and knit it back into a city’s urban fabric. With urban densities increasing and conventional public spaces for parks becoming scarce, it is critical, says the ASLA, for landscape architects to look at “unwanted and overlooked” places and make them valuable components of the public realm.

Underpass Park before its transformation could hardly have appeared more unwanted and overlooked, with its grid of heavy concrete columns and beams that support the overhead expressway and ramps. Who would want to go there, except to pass through as quickly as possible on the way to somewhere else. The space was “forlorn,” “derelict,” even dangerous, contributing no value to the community.

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Transformation from brownfield, derelict wasteland to vibrant park.

But the designers and landscape architects, PFS Studio and The Planning Partnership, recognized the potential in the site, not least its weather protection feature. The ceilings of the overpasses allow year-round use for outdoor activities like basketball, roller hockey and skateboarding.

A terrific project. It’s wonderful to see a solution where you embrace the marginalized groups and design a space that doesn’t displace them, but creates an environment for them. All the right tools were used in a creative and dynamic way to create an energetic space that kids love.

In describing the project, the ASLA refers to its use of “multi-functional ribbon-like wall structures” that were added to define activity zones. The imaginative use of lighting is also praised, with columns uplit in bright colours and programmable in-ground LED lights adding another dimension of illumination.

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Public art is there too, on the underside of the overpass. One work, from the Paul Raff Studio, is singled out for adding to the play of light during the day and becoming a “piece of magic” at night. Graffiti are also “celebrated and encouraged” on the pillars, adding an element of “informal” public art to the space.

Underpass Park is an important example of how a left over space can be transformed and knit back into the urban fabric of a city in a manner that positively contributes to a city’s open space network. In addition to the wide variety of community uses already noted above, the simple sight of parents and their children enjoying the delight of this park on a daily basis is certainly one important measure of its worth.

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A reflective art installation on the underside of the overpass.

As if to reinforce the point in a previous post about the growing importance of technology disruptors, the ASLA also sees virtual reality as a technology that landscape architects need to embrace. To demonstrate its effectiveness, they chose to make available a virtual reality tour of none other than Toronto’s Underpass Park. The VR tour was unveiled at the group’s national conference in New Orleans in October. The VR tour is available on the ASLA website. A YouTube version can be viewed below.

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