Situated in one of the wealthiest retail districts in Toronto is Village of Yorkville Park, an urban open space just over an acre in size. This small neighbourhood park lends itself as the front door plaza to high-end retail, capping the Bloor Subway line, and directly abutting a parking garage. Because of its location, Yorkville Park experiences a high volume of traffic. This park brings up questions about the role of landscape architects in making nature more accessible for urban environments, the impact of post-modernism and contemporary design ideals in landscape design, and the need of a designer ecology.
“Designer ecology, while valid and desirable in urban contexts for many reasons, is not operational ecology; it does not program, facilitate, or ultimately permit the emergence and evolution of self-organizing, resilient ecological systems—a basic requirement for long-term sustainability.” – Nina-Marie Lister
The design we see today is the result of a 1994 Design Competition won by a team of Landscape Architecture Stars. Conceptually, the park is a Victorian keepsake box of Canada’s pristine nature. This nature reserve is realized with a highly designed selection of some of Canada’s natural features: a birch grove, a pine forest, a wild meadow, and of course, a massive rock plucked from the Canadian shield.
To find some answers I turned to Nina-Marie Lister – graduate program director and associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning. Lister’s academic piece, “Sustainable Large Parks : Ecological Design or Designer Ecology?” examines designing natural systems and landscape around existing ecologies in large park design. Lister also explains how a highly designed “clean” version of natural ecology – “designer ecology” – may be more appropriate for smaller and more fragmented landscapes.
Lister’s wrote that piece back in 2006, the height of the landscape urbanism movement. Landscape architects were searching for ways to validate designs extending ecologies into cities. Assisted by very sexy and evocative images, ranging from the infamous minimal lone coyote collage, to illegible “complexity” diagrams, the landscape architect took more time explaining and researching ecology than actually designing them.
Small spaces do not have the capacity to host 180 species of migratory birds, 3 wolf species, and 18 threatened plant species, so maybe Yorkville Park makes sense. I don’t have the answers, and I’m sure Kanye would reiterate that point if I ever got the chance to interview him. (I hope you all got that reference).
My personal critique of Yorkville Park and this era of early contemporary landscape design is how clean and selective it is. I really would have loved if the birch grove had a supporting understory, and if the wildflower meadow actually appeared more than a collection of urban weeds (maybe some small woody species interspersed?).
I was charged as a student to create a critique video formulating a critical look of designer ecology intended as a melange of components intended to form something larger, but a solution missing a few key ingredients – and a proper reparation in response. The video uses jump cuts and free associative symbolism, reinforcing the discontinuous and referential nature of this type of design within the urban landscape.Warning the video is slightly gross and mildy graphic.
I hope no one is offended. Yorkville Park is a great space, a great example of this notion of designer ecology.