Context 167 - March 2021

24 C O N T E X T 1 6 7 : M A R C H 2 0 2 1 Park aligned with egalitarian principles popu- larised in America during the mid-19th century. In this way, the spaces themselves provide a framework for intellectual discourse. Toronto’s new and reimagined parks reflect two tradi- tions particularly: the model for vibrant cities popularised in the 1960s and 70s by urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, who lived much of her life in Toronto; and a more contemporary focus on universal accessibility that is rooted, like Olmsted’s Central Park, in egalitarianism. Cormier’s primary objective for Berczy Park (2013–2017), a small plaza in the his- toric St Lawrence neighbourhood, was to make a place where people would gather. His office is influenced by studies of urban life from the 1970s and 80s, which focused on the value of the public realm to social dynamics in cities. The thinking of William H Whyte, who was an early mentor of Jane Jacobs and observer of New York City’s parks, plazas and infor- mal recreation areas, is evident in Cormier’s landscapes. Whyte saw successful public spaces as places where sunlight, running water and human activity coalesced. Like the best parks of NewYork, Cormier’s projects are designed to invite—entice, even—users to deviate from their everyday patterns and rhythms. The intended outcome is more spontaneous human interac- tion, which in turn yields greater understand- ing and compassion among individuals and a stronger social compact. The redesign of Berczy Park follows Whyte’s principles of successful public spaces with a sense of play that is typical of Cormier. For its centre- piece, Cormier paired late-19th-century design language with Royal Doulton kitsch, adorning a tiered cast-iron fountain with 27 dogs, a cat and a golden bone. Now drawing thousands of visitors each week, the park functions as a tourist attraction as well as a local amenity. Although it may not be a critical node for protest or demonstration, it is a place where people enjoy unmediated human interaction. Queen’s Park (2017–2019) picks up where Berczy Park leaves off, exemplifying the more traditional link between the public realm and the public sphere. As the home of the Ontario Legislature Buildings, Queen’s Park is where Torontonians most often exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. Just prior to its restoration, it served as the meeting point for theTorontoWomen’s March, which drew upward of 60,000 people. During the summer of 2020, after the park had reopened, it became a critical node for the Black Lives Matter movement. Queen’s Park’s original design—a rough oval bordered by two creeks and cut through by sweeping drives planted with native trees—used landscape to transition between the formality of neoclassical architecture and the surrounding wilderness, in effect ‘naturalising’ power.The style reflects the picturesque landscapes popularised in 19th-century Britain by designers like Brown, which became emblematic of liberalism and the Enlightenment. Queen’s Park, like many urban landscapes of its vintage, applied the principles of the picturesque style to demonstrate dominion over the natural world, while simultaneously showing enlightened respect for its beauty. The restoration has re-established formality in the park’s northern grounds, removing desire lines, and adding radial pathways around a central plaza and 15-foot bronze equestrian statue of King EdwardVII.The main arterial path has been widened for universal accessibility and now better connects the city’s ‘cultural corridor’, which lies to the north, with the Legislature Buildings to the south. New benches encourage people to linger in the space between the historic institutions of culture and government. And while the power of both can be felt from its centre, the park itself remains independent and liminal. Like Berczy Park, it is a near-perfect venue for public discourse: open to all, rooted in his- tory, designed to incite the kind of spontaneous encounters that the digital world can not. What Foer observes, in ‘The Death of the Public Square’, is the inherent limitation of a search for knowledge on the internet: it is self-directed, mediated by search engines that prioritise algo- rithms over reason. Out in public, we are exposed to people we would not otherwise meet and ideas we would never know to seek out. While a public park may not be quite the same thing as a literary society, this way of being together lies at the root of the public sphere. And as venues where we have historically enjoyed that experience—cafes, bookstores—are being shuttered by lockdowns, we should be grateful for the enduring vitality of the public realm. Queen’s Park, where Torontonians exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and expression (Photo: The Planning Partnership) Samantha Irvine is a heritage consultant with Toronto-based ERA Architects.