Two weeks ago I took my son to Canada’s Sugar Beach. He’s a toddler, and I wasn’t sure whether he’d enjoy the visit. The newest park on the waterfront is a playful two acres of landscape design by Claude Cormier, with candy-striped hunks of granite and small, sugar-pile hills of grass – but that conceptual play is a bit over the head of a 19-month-old. I liked it a lot, and surprisingly, so did he: those rocks and hills are great to climb and tumble on, and the large artificial beach, with its wispy white sand imported from Ohio, is one serious sandbox. Throw in the sights of the lake (boat! seagull!) and you have a winning park experience for almost anybody.
The sad thing was, we had the place to ourselves. It was about eight on a Saturday morning – an hour when the only people using parks are parents, dog owners, and elders practicing tai chi – and there was almost nobody else there. The adjacent Redpath Sugar plant and the new Corus Quay office building (handsome but underwhelming) were quiet.
Sugar Beach’s time hasn’t come yet, I thought. The park is still half-enclosed in chain link fence. There are construction trailers nearby. But eventually it’s going to anchor a new district – Waterfront Toronto has just released plans for the East Bayfront neighbourhood which will end a block away, so give it a few years.
Then I went back this past weekend with my son and my wife. And this time other people had the same idea. The park was crawling with children; at least five families had trekked there with toys, picnic blankets and bathing suits. The park’s new water feature was open: a series of fountains set into a granite maple leaf, spraying unpredictable geysers of water. My son joined a crowd of kids dancing and dodging for hours. Meanwhile I got to examine the details more closely: the high pink steel umbrellas, paving with its edges crumbled like a sugar cube, the artfully scattered maple trees, the red and white candy stripes across the granite outcropping. Then we had a nice picnic and shared sand toys with the family in the next set of Muskoka chairs.
This tells me a few things. One, Torontonians are eager to get a new perspective on the lakefront. It’s not only design obsessives like me who are interested in seeing a new park in a desolate stretch of downtown. It’s a tough walk to get there, even from the nearby St. Lawrence neighbourhood, but that didn’t stop us all from showing up.
Two: good parks are kid-friendly. As any parent learns, having a child takes you out constantly into public space, especially parks, and kids can play almost anywhere, but some places work better. Cormier’s design in this case (with The Planning Partnership) provides enough variety of topography and texture to serve adults’ and kids’ sensibilities. To me it feels a bit spare for the context, but once many new buildings go up and the streets become more crowded, it should be a perfect fit. (Part of what’s now the park – the biggest hills to the north – is actually a future development site.)
Three, parks that have an artificial character are winning over the city. Until recently our most popular park destinations have been quasi-wild places – High Park, where the landscape design follows the English naturalist tradition. But that may well change. Sugar Beach uses some of the same design language as HtO Park on the western waterfront – where Cormier was one of the design firms – and in the past couple of years HtO has become wildly popular.
This means Toronto, thanks to the waterfront agency and the city, is keeping up with both cultural changes and the latest currents in park design. Today most urban parks, including Sugar Beach, are on former industrial sites; the most interesting landscape designs capture and work with that gritty, un-natural heritage. The poster child for these ideas is the High Line in New York, which is an artful update of an overgrown, abandoned rail line. (Here’s a piece I wrote for The Globe and Mail about the park and these ideas.) Some of the world’s best designers are now working in Toronto, including James Corner Field Operations and Michael van Valkenburgh Associates, and when they’re done the results should make everybody happy. Even antsy toddlers.